Around the World : Autocars of Israel
Like Sipani in India, Autocars Co Ltd was set up with the help of Reliant, built a range of fibreglass-bodied cars of dubious quality, and would later become involved with the BMC>Rover empire.
However, that involvement would produce some rather more interesting machinery than a CKD Montego…
A potted history
Founded in the mid-1950s with assistance from Reliant, Autocars Co. Ltd started out assembling Reliant three-wheelers at its Haifa workshops, and later introduced a four-wheeled version of the Reliant Regent van. The company’s first model of its own, the Sussita, was also designed by Reliant.
Available in estate, van and pick-up versions, the Sussita was powered by the Ford Anglia 105E’s 1000cc engine and was initially exported from the UK in CKD form for assembly at the Autocars plant, although production was later undertaken entirely in Israel. The Sussita quickly became Israel’s best-selling model, earning itself a reputation as a basic but dependable workhorse (indeed, ‘Sussita’ is the Aramaic word for mare).
In the early 1960s, Autocars briefly sold the Sussita range in the US and Canada as the Sabra (meaning a native of Israel, but also the name of a genus of cactus). This venture had been prompted by the car’s enthusiastic reception at the 1960 New York Trade Fair, where firm orders for 600 examples had been placed, largely on the strength of its low purchase price.
Exports began with a shipment of 35 cars in June of that year, and it was also reported in the Israeli press at the time that Autocars were gearing up to produce 2400 cars per year, having only recently expanded their operation from workshop to factory scale. In the event, the Sabra flopped in the North American markets due to its relatively poor build quality, but the name would come to have lasting significance for Reliant.
Not daunted, that same year Autocars’ ambitious managing director, Itzhak Shubinsky, spotted a coupé called the Ashley GT at the London Sports and Racing Car Show, and decided that it was just what he needed to gain a proper foothold in the potentially lucrative US car market. He promptly bought the design – and the moulds required to produce its bodywork – and gave Reliant the task of re-engineering it for sale in the US.
What emerged was the Sabra Sport, which debuted at the 1961 New York Motor Show in roadster form, but was later also available with hardtop coupé and fastback bodywork. Such was Mr Shubinsky’s impatience to see the car launched that the first 100 or so models were built entirely by Reliant in the UK, and exported directly to the US, while the finishing touches were put to Autocars’ own production facilities.
History relates that fewer than 150 of these cars ever reached America, but Reliant decided to capitalise on its investment by launching the car in the UK, anglicising its name to Sabre. Incidentally, in the mid-1960s the Sabre gave way to the Ogle-designed Scimitar, maintaining the almost-accidental ‘lethal blade’ naming scheme, while the Sabre name itself made a comeback in 1991 on a madeover version of the Michelotti-designed Scimitar SS1.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, Autocars set about broadening its range of bread-and-butter models. The Carmel (named after Mount Carmel, which stood close to the Autocars’ factory) appeared in 1961, boasting a 1200cc MkI Ford Cortina engine clothed in Reliant-designed bodywork that owed much to the style of the contemporary Reliant Regal (which was made famous in the BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses).
A restyled Sussita range followed sometime around 1963/64, but there is some confusion surrounding events at this time; it is reported in Don Pither’s book ‘Reliant Sports Cars’ that Autocars Co Ltd went bankrupt shortly after beginning to build the Sabra sports car, although no further information is given as to what happened to the company after that. Yet in October 1963, the inaugural edition of Reliant’s in-house newspaper, ‘Reliant Review’, carried a very optimistic report stating that Autocars had embarked on building a new factory at Terah, just outside Haifa, which would see their production capacity treble. Whether the cost of building the factory led to the bankruptcy (and just how Autocars managed to keep operating after that) remains to be discovered…
What is known is that Autocars somehow survived until the end of 1965, for it was then that they entered into a partnership with Leyland-Triumph which saw their entire range revised and fitted with the Herald 12/50’s 1146cc engine and various other Triumph-sourced minor components. Autocars Co. Ltd was now effectively a subsidiary of Triumph [Leyland’s company literature of the time refers to the company as an ‘overseas associate’, listing it as “Leyland-Triumph (Israel) Ltd”].
In 1966, a four-door version of the new Carmel was introduced, known as the Gilboa, and by 1968 the 1146cc engines had been supplanted by the Herald 13/60’s 1296cc unit. [NB: some sources claim that certain models retained the 1200cc Ford engine as late as 1969.] The 1296cc models usually carry the Triumphesque “13/60” designation, although a 1968 Triumph-branded Autocars brochure uses a “1300” designation instead.
Between 1967 and 1973, Autocars also assembled the Triumph 1300 from CKD kits, offering it as an upmarket alternative to its own plastic-bodied cars.
During this period of Autocars’ history some interesting projects emerged. First off, in 1967, Autocars began to produce the Dragoon, a Triumph 1300-based off-road utility vehicle that had started life as the Triumph Pony project. Triumph had been steadily developing the Pony since 1963, and even used one to move parts around its Coventry factory well into the late 1970s, but by the mid-1960s they had decided against building the car themselves.
It is sometimes reported that this decision was taken as a result of Leyland’s purchase of Rover, whereby they gained access to the all-conquering Land Rover, but the fact that the Pony was offloaded to Autocars a year before the Rover purchase gives the lie to this theory. In an interesting twist, the Pony lent its 4wd system to a one-off Triumph 1300 which was campaigned in several rallycross events during 1969, before being written-off in action later that year.
In fact, the front-wheel-drive 1300 had been designed to accept four-wheel-drive transmission from the outset (a feature which facilitated that model’s transition from front- to rear-wheel-drive in the early 1970s), but this was never to be a production reality.
In 1969, following the BMH-Leyland merger which saw Autocars become a BLMC outpost, Wiltshire-based Marcos Cars were commissioned to develop a series of prototypes for a plastic-bodied version of the Mini estate, which was intended to become a new model for the Autocars range.
Marcos produced four examples of the car with boxy estate bodywork similar to that of the base car, plus a single example of a more rakish fastback design, and got as far as conducting crash tests before the project was cancelled as a result of internal reorganisation within BLMC. Indeed, by 1971, British Leyland had decided it could ill-afford to maintain its Israeli operation, and the links with Autocars were severed. The fastback design was sold on to a producer of electric-powered cars in America, where it entered limited production.
Autocars was bought by Rom Carmel Industries in 1974, and the marque name was changed to reflect this. The range was replaced with the Gilboa-based Rom 1300 in both saloon and estate form, gaining new bodywork and a new engine in the form of the 1295cc Simca-Chysler unit.
Then, in 1978, the Israeli conglomerate Urdan Industries bought Rom Carmel. The Rom 1300 was restyled again to become the Rom 1301, and soldiered on until around 1981, when declining sales finally spelt the end for the company – from a peak of building over 3000 cars per annum in the 1960s, the last full year of production (1980) saw just 540 cars delivered.
Autocars’ first model, it was available as an estate car, van or pickup, and borrowed its engine from the Ford Anglia 105E. Sold briefly in the US as the Sabra.
New saloon counterpart to the Sussita range, the Carmel also represented a move upmarket, using the 1200cc engine from the MkI Cortina in its newly designed body (courtesy once more of Reliant). While it looked rather like a four-wheeled Regal from the front, the rear styling prophetically had a hint of Triumph Herald about it…
The original Sussita range is rebodied to bring it into line with the Carmel, and gains the same 1200cc Cortina engine. Also comes in van and pick-up versions, as before. Rear view highlights this car’s similarity to the Carmel.
|Carmel 12/50, Carmel Ducas 13/60 (or 1300)
The Carmel gets a new body, new engines and even a new (supplementary) name. Curiously, the car now looked decidedly less Triumph-like than before… except under the bonnet, where the 1146cc (later upgraded to the 1296cc) Herald engine was to be found.
|Gilboa 12/50, Gilboa 13/60 (or 1300)
Four-door version of the Carmel, again introduced with 1146cc engine in 1967, and upgraded to 1296cc the following year. Why it has a different name is anyone’s guess! Autocars’ blurb describes it as “a modern, spacious, elegant and comfortable passenger car”.
|Sussita 12/50, Sussita 13/60 (or 1300)
Sussita has to make do with a slightly modified version of previous model’s bodywork, but still gains the Triumph engines, hence the new designations. Basic delivery van version is just the standard car with the rear side windows blanked out, but retaining the estate car’s rear seat.
|Sussita 1300 High-roofed Delivery Van
This high-capacity version of the Sussita van looks surprisingly modern, considering that it dates from around 1968. Cube vans of this type did not become prevalent in Europe until the late 1980s. The Autocars brochure helpfully describes it as “a handy car for transport of loads requiring special height, in all branches of industry”.
|Sussita 1300 Pick-up
Completing the Sussita range, the pick-up is shown here with optional rear canopy. Seating capacity for six passengers in the back, thanks to a pair of folding bench seats, making it an 8-seater in total.
The erstwhile Triumph Pony was put into production by Autocars as the Dragoon in 1967. It had a selectable 4wd system, with only the front wheels being driven when the system was disengaged. The pick-up body style shown here was produced in by far the largest numbers, although a canvas-topped four-door version was also available. Autocars found export markets for the Dragoon in Greece and Switzerland, and it was also assembled in Persia (now Iran).
|Post-BLMC models (Rom Carmel)|
Replacing the Carmel, Gilboa and Sussita ranges in the mid-1970s, the Rom Carmel Rom 1300 finally brought a single model name to the entire range.
|Rom 1300 Estate
Usefully larger – and better built – than the Sussita 13/60 (pictured) on which it was based, the Rom 1300 estate also had a more modern 1295cc Simca engine (as did all the Rom Carmel models) in place of the ex-Herald engine which been used previously.
Restyled version of the Rom 1300, introduced in the late 1970s. It remained in production until 1981, when the company finally closed.
Spare a thought for the poor soul who logged the following (solitary) entry for a Sussita at carsurvey.org:
|1966 Autocars Sussita|
|What things have gone wrong with the car?||Almost everything! It was a very cheap car made of a fibreglass body attached to a very simple welded pipes chassis, with a Triumph engine.|
|General comments?||The car was very unstable. Seriously dangerous, unreliable, and very badly built.|