Until around 15-20 years ago, the term “hybrid” had an entirely different meaning than today. Back then it was a European sports or GT car powered by an American V8, a machine that gave Ferrari-like looks and performance with American reliability and tractability.
Back in the sports and GT car boom of the 1950s and ‘60s, various models from different manufacturers were entirely different experiences when you drove them. One of the main distinguishing characteristics among them was the engine.
This was good and bad, for as designer Giorgetto Giugiaro noted many years ago when discussing that era, “You didn’t always know if you would reach your final destination or not.” In addition to an engine’s reliability, GT owners had to deal with refinement and temperament issues as well. Would the car overheat in hot weather or while idling in traffic? Would the plugs foul in continued city driving?
That was a huge selling point, for in that period a gran turismo’s raison d’etre wasn’t so much about ego, and having everyone look at you, but to be a superlative means of long-distance travel. During Europe’s “economic miracle” (1953-1967) a new GT car manufacturer seemed to pop up every week in response to an ever-expanding (and continually more affluent) marketplace. For high horsepower, refinement, and reliability, and to forego the difficult and costly proposition of designing and making a new engine, a number of these marques turned to American V8s.
A great example of this “Best of Both Worlds” concept was Intermeccanica. Located in Turin, Italy, the firm’s last model was the Indra, which came in coupe, spyder and 2+2 configurations. Over the course of a week I put several hundred miles on this unique example, and despite Arizona’s near 100-degree heat at the time, never once did it overheat.
The Original Hybrid
That’s what the “original hybrids” were all about—mating a European chassis with good old U.S. cubic inches. I prefer the term “Transatlantic Marriage” to “hybrids,” particularly in this day and age when the latter is equated to a Prius, and one of the more interesting of these “marriages” was Intermeccanica. The company’s founders were Canadian residents Frank and Paula Reisner, and when they traveled to Europe for the first time in 1958 they liked the Continent so much they settled in the mecca of coachbuilding, Turin in northern Italy.
Intermecccanica’s first car was the Steyr-Puch based Imp, but it was meeting aspiring California-based GT constructor Milt Brown that truly set the firm’s path. Brown’s car was the Buick-powered Apollo GT (we will explore this in a future blog post/newsletter), and from 1963 to late 1965 Intermeccanica supplied Apollo’s bodies and interiors. Next came Intermeccanica’s most famous and successful car, the Italia. It also used an American V8, and was produced in Turin. Reisner and engineer John Crosthwaite made the chassis, former GM designer Robert Cumberford did the original renderings, and Reisner had stylist Franco Scaglione modify the design to make the car production ready.
From early 1966 into 1972 Intermeccanica produced over 500 Italias (the early versions were known as Griffiths, Omegas and Torinos). In between they also built a Mustang station wagon, the Phoenix sports car for racer John Fitch, the Corvette-based Centaur, the Veltro 1500, and eleven Murena GT’s that were powered by Ford 429s.
This Indra not boiling over was quite a surprise, given that it was the only Intermeccanica made with a Ford 428 Cobra Jet engine. Power output was quoted by Ford at 335; realistically it was closer to 400. The big V8 easily idled at 700 rpm, its mechanical lifters playing that lovely “thousand sewing machine” tune, the exhaust nicely burbling in back. Give it just a whiff of throttle at a dead stop and it would move briskly away, thanks to 440 lb. ft. of torque at 3400 rpm.
Which brings us to the Intermeccanica seen here, the Indra. The model’s genesis occurred at 1969’s Turin Auto Show, when a young Bob Lutz was GM-subsidiary Opel of Germany’s general sales manager. He was very enthused when he saw the Italias, for he was looking to put some sizzle in Opel’s showroom. As Lutz told me about that show and speaking with Reisner, “a light bulb went off. I thought, He could do this for us.”
Opel ended up supplying Intermeccanica with its 5.3-liter 230 hp (DIN) V8 and 2.8-liter 165 hp (DIN) inline 6; both engines could be mated to a 3 speed automatic or 4-speed manual transmission. When a rakish Indra spyder debuted on Intermeccanica’s stand at 1971’s Geneva Auto Show, “We had a phenomenal reaction,” Reisner remembered. “We ended up with 174 orders…At the end of each day the Swiss Porsche guy came up and asked, ‘How many did you sell today?'”
The Key to Success…
Bertone’s former chief stylist Franco Scaglione designed the Indra for Intermeccanica. I never tire of looking at this stunning 2+2 from the side angle for its proportions are intriguing, and detailing such as the chiseled fenders add strength to the form.
But an armful of orders does not guarantee success. In an effort to meet those orders and get Indras into Opel dealerships quickly, the car and its assembly process were not fully sorted. Opel’s dealers and mass-market customers weren’t accustomed to quality control issues typical of such hand-built cars, and Opel-sourced parts were hard to procure.
This led to a lot of finger-pointing, but Reisner remained optimistic so in addition to the rakish Spyder, Intermeccanica also offered a 2-seat coupe, and later a stylish and muscular 2+2. The last debuted at 1973’s New York Auto Show, Reisner hoping to have Indras sold in America, like the Italias several years earlier. The press material touted the car’s powerplant as a “Chevrolet Corvette 350” but that never happened, so Reisner considered the Ford 351 he used in the last of the Italias.
A New Star…
The interior was quite comfortable, the view out over the hood nothing short of stupendous with the way it curves up over the fenders to meet the crisp beltline that runs along the top of them. Once underway, the brake pedal feel was inconsistent—decent on initial bite, a bit wooden with real pressure.
GM balked at supplying parts to a car using someone else’s engine. Then several months after the New York Show Erich Bitter showed the Opel-powered Bitter CD at the Frankfurt Auto Show, and Opel had a new showroom star. Suddenly Reisner found himself on the outside of everything, scrambling to keep Intermeccanica alive. One month later the oil crisis hit, sending the entire GT car industry into a tailspin. As Intermeccanica reeled the Reisners did everything to keep the company alive, but those efforts came to naught and Intermeccanica closed its doors in December 1974.
This particular Indra was the last car produced by the firm, and is the only one to use a Ford 428 Cobra Jet engine. In several phone conversations with Frank and Paula Reisner, I could hear the longing in their voices for this unique Indra, the two saying it was one of their favorites. They noted it served as a test mule and estimated it covered 25,000 to 50,000 miles while fitted with a Ford 351 part of that time.
Another good angle to see those fenders, and proportions. The lights below the small bumpers aren’t as refined as on other GTs. That taut back end is what most drivers would see from a dead stop, given the 428’s prodigious torque, but the low hood prevented the V8 from breathing well. It thus started to stutter and flatten at around 4,000 rpm, some 1200 below power peak, and 2,000 rpm below redline.
Summer of ’74
In the corner of the shop lay a 428 Cobra Jet V8, so in the summer of ‘74 the engines were swapped. But because of the company’s tenuous financial situation, it was never fully sorted once the big block was shoehorned in place—which I promptly discovered when driving it.
Mash the accelerator on the floor and the noise emanating from the engine compartment is superlative, the symphony of lifters chattering away over a soothing, deep V8 bellow. But wide-open throttle also causes the engine to stumble, for that low-slung hood prevents the carburetor from getting enough air.
That’s too bad, for this Indra had loads of potential. In addition to that V8 symphony, chassis rigidity was most impressive, the ride comfy in town and even better at high speed. And it was the last of the front-engine Italian bruisers, for Ferrari’s Daytona and Iso’s Grifo 7 Liter/Can Am had finished production when it was built. (For additional road impressions, be sure to check the photo captions.)