One of the last models Fiat offered to American buyers before it left in the early â80s was a futuristic compact hatchback they called the Strada. The car looked cool and had a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an interesting interior layout. However, it was also badly constructed and rust-prone. And that didn’t help Fiat’s reputation.
So, after just two years, they pulled the Strada from the U.S. market. Interestingly, in other parts of the world, the Strada, also known as the Fiat Ritmo, proved to be successful.
The Opel Kadett was one of the bestselling European compact economy cars ever. It was inexpensive and had decent equipment. Also, it was durable and easy to maintain. For years, it enjoyed enormous popularity, so they exported it worldwide.
Since the Opel was part of GM, during the â60s General Motors decided to import the Kadett to America, selling them through the Buick dealership network. At first, Kadetts sold well but soon, the demand was gone, so American buyers turned to Japanese compacts.
DAF is a Dutch truck manufacturer who also produced cars at one point. The DAF 600 was a small, economy model with the infamous Vatiomatic transmission, which started a revolution. In Europe, those small and economical DAF 600 models with automatic transmissions proved to be perfect city cars.
In fact, they were easy to drive and park and budget-friendly to maintain. So, in the early â60s, DAF entered the U.S. market by establishing a network of 69 dealers. However, it only sold a handful of cars before the end of the decade.
Back in 1967, Fiat introduced the Dino, a coupe and convertible sports car that featured a Ferrari V6 engine from the 246 GT Dino. The coupe was designed by Bertone while the convertible was styled by Pininfarina. The two cars shared mechanics, engine, and performance, but the design was totally different. The coupe featured an elegant fastback profile.
Fiat officially sold the Dino Coupe in America. If you look at the classified ads, you could find one for as little as $15,000. That is definitely the most affordable way to own a piece of Ferrari magic at Ford Fiesta prices. If you’re a budget-minded enthusiast, look for the Dino Coupe since it’s more common and affordable than the convertible. The later 2.4-liter V6 version is better and faster than the early 2.0-liter model.
In the late ’60s, German automaker Opel was one of the most popular economy car manufacturers in Europe. Since General Motors owned the company, its design department approved and even styled all of the Opel models. That meant that most Opels looked like scaled-down versions of Chevrolets or Buicks. That was exactly the case with the GT, a sporty-yet-affordable coupe Opel presented in 1968.
Opel needed a sports car to base on the Kadett, its entry-level model. So in the mid-’60s, Opel got approval from GM to introduce such a vehicle. The design was heavily influenced by the Corvette and the GM concepts from the mid-’60s. Of course, with its 1.3 and 1.9-liter four-cylinder engines, the Opel GT lacked the power and performance of the Corvette, but it had the looks with its fastback rear end.
One of the coolest-looking, most exclusive Citroens ever produced was the gorgeous SM debuting in 1970. This elegant coupe had some interesting features. When Citroen presented it to the public, it made the competition look and feel outdated. Through various stock market transactions, the company became the owner of Maserati. Citroen thought it would be great if they could somehow use Maserati’s powerful engines and sports car know-how to produce a luxurious coupe with signature Citroen design and style.
The aesthetics were clearly French with its self-leveling suspension and front-wheel drive. But, instead of the underpowered four-cylinder engine, they added the 2.7-liter V6 that Maserati developed, which provided the power. Citroen marketed the SM in the USA, selling more examples than in Europe. In America, the SM competed against the Mercedes SLC or Cadillac Eldorado in the personal luxury segment. Soon, car buyers praised its ride quality, smooth engine, and style. Unfortunately, the oil crisis and economic recession killed the model. Citroen ceased production in 1974 after producing more than 12,000 cars.
Even though SAABs were always known for their sedans or convertibles with turbo engines, during the 1960s and early ’70s, SAAB did produce a sports coupe. As expected, it was strange, obscure, and quirky just like the rest of the range. There were three generations of SAAB Sonett sports car. The first one was a racing prototype from the ’50s but the second and third were regular production models.
Designed on a box chassis and fitted with the fiberglass body, Sonett was initially equipped with a tiny SAAB’s three-cylinder two-stroke engine with just 60 HP. As you can expect, customers were disappointed with the poor performance but soon company fitted a 1.7-liter V4 borrowed from Ford’s European division. The power grew slightly but V4 had much more torque. However, small Sonett still wasn’t a record-breaker. Production stopped in 1974 after less than 15,000 examples were made in all three generations.
Back in the late ’80s, Yugoslav car manufacturer Crvena Zastava attempted to enter the American market with their compact model, the Yugo. The Yugo was a nice-looking three-door hatchback they built on a Fiat 127 chassis. However, that added improvements in design and technology. So under the hood was a 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection. But for the U.S. market, buyers got updated equipment, a radio, and even AC as an option. From today’s standpoint, the Yugo was a basic and even primitive car. But for the middle of the 1980s, it was a decent proposition as well as a solution to the economy car dilemma. The Fiat mechanics were relatively common in the U.S. since Fiat had just left the American market in the early ’80s.
So why did the Yugo receive such bad reviews from consumers back in the day? And why do most people consider it to be one of the worst cars Fiat ever sold on the American market? The reason was simple. Both the driving dynamics and quality were horrible even by the standards of the day. The engine had 65 HP going to the front wheels over a badly-assembled five-speed manual gearbox. The performance was painfully slow, but that is not the worst thing. The fit and finish were bad, too. But to make things worse, Yugo importer Malcolm Bricklin didn’t import enough spare parts. So if your Yugo broke down, and eventually they all did, spare parts had to travel for months from Yugoslavia to America.
Most people don’t know this, but it is easy to become the proud owner of an almost classic Maserati for as little as $10,000. For that money, you can buy a decent Maserati BiTurbo, which got introduced in 1981 and produced until 1994. The BiTurbo lineup of cars started with the 222 model, which was a handsome two-door coupe. It continued with 420 and 430 sedans they built on the same basis. There was even the beautiful convertible by Zagato design house, but it is more expensive and quite rare. They intended the BiTurbos to be entry-level Maseratis at more affordable prices.
Under the hood was a new generation of turbocharged 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter V6 engines with high power output from 180 HP to 270 HP in later years. The interiors were luxurious and they fitted them with all kinds of creature comforts. So, you are probably asking why these fantastic-looking cars from an exotic brand like Maserati can be so affordable. The reason is simple. The BiTurbo generation of cars was not reliable and prone to mechanical issues. Maserati made over 40,000 of BiTurbos in a 13-year period but just a small fraction are still on the road. However, the modern technology and aftermarket components improved the quality of the gorgeous but flawed BiTurbos. Some brave owners reported these cars finally can be reliable. So if you want an Italian exotic, but are on a budget, the Maserati BiTurbo could be the solution for you.
Behind this strange name lies one of the most interesting affordable sports cars of the ’70s. Fiat introduced the X1/9 in 1972. It was a small two-seater with a T-Top, mid-mounted engine, and two trunks, in the front and in the back. Think of it as Porsche Boxster, only 20 years older.
Despite fantastic looks and technical layout, the X 1/9 was underpowered with just around 60 HP from its small 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine. The performance was not impressive, so most owners decided to fit bigger engines. However, you can find them at bargain prices since they exported them to the U.S. but never really got popular there.
If you are looking for an Italian performance sedan on a budget, now’s the time to pick up an Alfa Romeo Milano 3.0 V6. Romeo imported them to the American market in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The Milano was an elegant four-door model with some interesting technical features. It had a De Dion rear suspension and transaxle gearbox, making it handle like a racing car. Along with a three-liter, 200 HP V6 engine, the Milano delivered a decent performance. In fact, people compared them to the BMW 5 Series.
The 404 was a popular French mid-sized family sedan Peugeot produced from 1960 to 1975. It came with a 1.5 or 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine or a 1.9-liter four-cylinder diesel unit. It was one of Peugeot’s bestsellers and was popular all over the world. The Peugeot 404 was a masterpiece of contemporary car design. It had straight, elegant lines and sported a chrome grille and rear fins.
Since chrome fins were an American design feature, it’s obvious where the Peugeot designers got the inspiration for their 404. In fact, if you saw the 404 from the back, it would remind you of several American models from the period. If you saw it in traffic, you could easily mistake it for a domestic model. The only sign that would give the 404 away is its compact size. This Peugeot is about a third smaller than a regular U.S. sedan from the early ’60s.
The beginning of mass production of the hatchback body style can be traced to the late â50s and early â60s with the Austin A40 Farina being one of the more popular models. This British economy car had a three-door layout with a two-piece opening tailgate. Its diminutive dimensions, clever engineering, and trunk space made this little car quite practical.
These are the coolest and most interesting European cars that flopped in America. For various reasons, they didn’t sell well in the U.S. Did you choose your favorite? Perhaps some of these cars would sell better if they re-introduced them today.