The Ancient Fiat Putting Ethiopia on the Motoring Map
By Andy Bannister
Unlikely though it may sound, Ethiopia is the latest country to develop its own car industry. And once again it is a long-obsolete Fiat design which has been pulled out of retirement to kick-start the process.
The much-troubled East African nation has been faring better of late, so much so that it is now one of that continent’s largest importers of motor vehicles. Despite an obvious lack of an industrial base it makes sense for the local economy to develop manufacturing to protect the balance of trade and provide an opportunity to export to neighbouring countries.
Help in this has come from an unlikely source – the government of The Netherlands, which has backed the joint venture and made possible the production of the rather clumsily-named Holland Car Docc (Docc stands for Dutch Overseas Car Company).
The Docc is based on a much-modified version of the 1975 Fiat 131 (sometimes called the Mirafiori). This continues Fiat’s tradition of providing evergreen (or clapped out) designs to countries round the world. Russia still builds a version of the even older Fiat 124 (in the shape of the Lada 2107), and Serbia and Egypt produce versions of the Fiat 128.
The production line for Ethiopia’s pride and joy actually came from Turkey, where a company called Tofas built the 131 for many years as the closely-related Dogan, Sahin and Kartal, modifying the models gradually to make them look a little more modern, whilst retaining very basic mechanicals. As Turkey’s buyers got more sophisticated, however, this elderly design – most popular as a taxi – simply faded away.
Scroll back 30 or so years and the original Fiat 131 was a very square looking design offered as two-door and four-door saloons and an estate car. Even in its heyday it never set the European market alight. And like most Italian cars of that era it was notorious for awful reliability and a propensity to rust within months of leaving the factory.
Despite its many drawbacks the 131 was even sold in the USA for a few years in the late 1970s (latterly known as the Brava), although by that time Fiat’s once significant presence in the American market was winding down to eventual oblivion.
By the end of 1979, when a souped-up version called the 131 Racing 2000TC was offered in Europe with vivid orange paint, the 131 was for a half-second the ultra-fashionable model every executive boy racer wanted, and an undoubtedly fast car. It faded faster than a comet, however, and is now largely forgotten, even though it was also the basis of a highly successful rally car version.
Over 1.5 million 131s were built in Italy until around 1984. Seat of Spain even had its own derivative in the days before its link with Volkswagen.
The main selling point of the Ethiopian Docc, which started production in 2006, seems to be its good ground clearance, according to the company’s website, although it’s hard to believe it is a very practical proposition in most areas bearing in mind the rugged terrain and sheer size of its new homeland.
The car is offered in four door saloon model only, with a fuel injected 1600cc powerplant. Simple maintenance and an easy supply of spare parts are other key features mentioned about the car on the Holland Car website.
The former Fiat’s reign in Africa may be short-lived, however, as the company is already producing a more modern-looking model, the 1300cc Abay (the name means Blue Nile).
The Abay is nothing more than a Chinese Lifan kit assembled in Ethiopia, and its existence is further proof of the extent to which the Chinese industry is gradually infiltrating developing markets.
Holland Car also plans in the future to make 4X4s and pick-ups.
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