The Strange Tale of the Israeli Cars That Tried to Conquer America
By Andy Bannister
Some countries, it seems, are pre-destined to be car builders, others acquire an auto manufacturing industry almost by accident, while a third category simply try their best but fail.
In the latter grouping sits Israel, today the centre of a politically-troubled region which generally has more to worry about than producing automobiles.
Half a century ago, however, it was a different story. Little Israel was busy gearing up for an improbable assault on what was then by far the most advanced car market in the world, the United States of America.
Behind this audacious move was a bold outfit called Autocars Ltd, based beneath the slopes of the biblical Mount Carmel, in the port city of Haifa.
Israel then was a new and young country, born somewhat controversially in 1948 out of the horrors the Jewish people had suffered in the Second World War, and suffused with an optimism that anything was possible.
Autocars was founded in the 1950s as the country’s first true car manufacturer. Its birth came about with a good deal of help from Reliant, the British company most famous – or infamous – for generations of oddball three-wheeler cars.
Reliant was an expert in fibreglass, and it was this material which made car manufacture possible in countries with little or no traditional heavy industry. Israel, together with Turkey and Greece, all turned to Reliant to help them kick-start local auto building.
The proud guys at Autocars weren’t content with assembling someone else’s designs, however. They wanted their own recognisably Israeli automobile, and with Reliant’s technical know-how they introduced a utilitarian four-wheeler called the Sussita at the end of the 1950s.
This tall, dumpy car was available as an estate, panel van and pick-up, and featured British Ford mechanicals from the little Anglia.
Despite a largely untapped local market, Autocars early on decided to try and export its products and earn the country some foreign currency. In the days before the advent of safety and emissions regulations, it was theoretically possible to send cars like the Sussita to almost anywhere in the world which didn’t have onerous trade barriers.
The political situation which Israel faced meant sales to neighbouring countries were all-but impossible, so Autocars managers looked further afield and settled on prosperous America as the ideal outlet for the firm’s products. This was a time when small, low-priced European cars like the VW Beetle and Renault Dauphine were beginning to do extremely well Stateside.
An enthusiastic reception to a hastily-arranged company display at the 1960 New York Trade Fair led to no less than 600 advance orders, and that was before the Israelis revealed the trick they had up their sleeve.
Itzhak Shubinsky, managing director of Autocars, wanted his company to compete outside the narrow and low-profit utility sector, and reckoned he needed an eye-catching two-seater to do it.
He had seen a British sports car design called the Ashley GT at a car show in London and decided to buy the project – lock, stock and barrel. He then turned to his collaborators at Reliant to productionise the prototype in record time to feed the company’s export drive.
This resulting car, known as the Sabra Sport, was unveiled at the 1961 New York Auto Show, proudly displayed with the company’s existing range. It had a low-slung body with rather over-prominent chrome twin bumper guards, and featured a not-very-sporty 1703cc four-cylinder engine from a British Ford Consul
Sabra is the name of a type of local-growing cactus – depicted on the car’s badge – and also means a native-born Israeli Jew, so was a particularly symbolic choice, and soon became the marque name for the whole Autocars line-up.
So far it looked like a dream beginning, with Sabra sales starting up across the USA and Canada. Unfortunately, however, the Sabra Sport model was not quite the production-ready entity it had promised to be and early reviews of the new model’s capabilities were less than enthusiastic.
A plastic-bodied roadster, later also offered in coupé form, it seemed initially promising. In reality it proved extremely difficult for Reliant – which had also decided to build its own version – to turn the underdeveloped Ashley GT into a decent sporting car, and even harder to get assembly going in the Haifa factory.
This meant that the first 100 Sabra Sports delivered to the USA were actually built in Reliant’s English plant. Israeli production didn’t stutter into life until the year after, and only 11 cars were manufactured in 1963.
Unfortunately, buyers had by then discovered that the cactus emblem adorned what was actually a monumental lemon. The promising early surge of orders dried to a tiny trickle of sports car buyers who were willing to pay good money for a plastic model from an unknown make with few dealers and no back-up.
In the end, US sales stopped in 1964 after only 144 British-made and 41 Israeli-made Sports had been imported. The car wasn’t really saleable in its home market of Israel, so the company looked for other outlets to help recoup its investment.
The inherents faults of the model also caused problems for Reliant, but it persevered with its derivative, which was known by the more English name of the Sabre. A facelift made the frontal aspect look less odd, and Reliant tried hard to make the car sportier, introducing the Sabre Six, featuring the 2555cc Ford Zephyr unit.
Despite this, the English Sabre was hardly much of a hit either, but sold just enough to persuade the company to develop a far more successful replacement, the Reliant Scimitar, which would help the British company prosper for the next decade or so.
Poor Autocars had no such luck with the turkey that was its Sabra Sports, but soldiered on, selling small numbers of the car in Belgium as late as 1968.
Sadly, the company had also fared no better with its utility models in America, which were just not sophisticated enough to compete with European small cars. The ambitious transatlantic export drive completely petered out.
Back in Haifa, a new generation of Sabra family cars did see the light of day in the late 1960s, with square bodies again developed with Reliant’s help. This time, though, there was no room for a replacement for the frivolous Sabre Sports.
The new line-up included the Carmel 2-door saloon, the Gilboa 4-door, and a new generation Sussita estate. Most stayed at home in Israel with a few sold in developing markets, although a plan to start assembly in Greece was another miserable failure.
By this time Autocars was a partner of the Triumph part of British Leyland – hardly a promising development, in hindsight. It did manage to inherit and put into production a stillborn Triumph utility, the Pony, known as the Autocars Dragoon. However, a sensible plan to make a fibreglass version of Leyland’s Mini Estate never got off the ground
Whilst most of its products were low-volume plastic cars, Autocars also assembled a proper steel saloon, the rather sporting Triumph 1300 of the late 1960s, selling it as a prestige offering on the Israeli market.
As the 1970s dawned it was clear Autocars was never going to make the breakthrough to be a high volume manufacturer, with annual sales stuck at around 3,000 units, and its own cars looking increasingly dated.
The original company went into administration in 1971, but production continued under new management. Most sales, however, were to government agencies which felt duty-bound to buy the home product.
In the mid 1970s a new firm called Urdan Industries took over the design, fitting a Simca engine and later instituting a particularly ham-fisted facelift which made the saloon – now known as the Rom Carmel 1301 – look uglier than ever.
Somehow sales limped on for a while longer, but by then the grim reaper was knocking on the factory door. With production of just 540 units in 1980, Urdan called it a day and the last unloved 1301s were sold in 1981.
It was the end of a dream, and the first and last attempt at serious car manufacture in Israel, although 4X4s for predominantly military use have been produced there since.
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