Hybrids are nothing new. Nor are they necessarily boring – as clearly illustrated by this exotic city hybrid.
It’s Italian, chic, tiny and modern. Yet it is 35 years old – and not least: It’s a hybrid. In short: It’s brilliant. But why haven’t we heard about it in that ever-increasing blurb about hybrids?
Well, it could be that many people have forgotten the original (ViaRETRO-) definition of a hybrid: As a car with a drivetrain borrowed from another manufactorer – think Jensen Interceptor, Facel-Vega HK500, all Monteverdis and so on. True exotics, true hybrids and very expensive. And then we have Italy, the country amass with super-dream-exotics. A hybrid with an exotic name from here would surely be even more expensive, wouldn’t it – such as a De Tomaso? Well, not necessarily. As perfectly exemplified right here: The best of all worlds, the De Tomaso Turbo.
OK, its bloodline is debatable, and its full name is in fact Innocenti De Tomaso. If you know your car history, you may remember something with Innocenti and a connection to good old England – and so it is: In 1960, the scooter manufacturer Innocenti began cooperating with the British Motor Corporation – at the latter’s initiative when they wanted a share of the Italian market.
The collaboration began with Innocenti-built Austin A40’s, but the next model was further developed and had a clear Italian footprint: The 950 Spider was based on the Sprite / Midget, but wore a crisp and beautiful body from the talented Ghia.
Back to the De Tomaso here: It’s based on BMC’s greatest icon, the Mini, which the Innocenti-deal also included. The first license-built Innocenti Minis had the same bodywork as the British Mini, but then British Leyland (as it was by then known) raised the bar and in 1974 came out with a variant with much sharper Seventies lines – or lack of them, rather.
It was designed by Bertone, and as such is the update of the Mini that British Leyland never undertook themselves: Harmonic, cheeky and not least modern, complete with a big tailgate. British Leyland had even bought Innocenti in 1972, and with the new model success was surely in the cards.
Except that the operation of this sister company was ruled from England, and therefore – of course – it went all wrong anyway: British Leyland was nationalized in 1975, and Innocenti sold off to De Tomaso – which slowly brings us closer to this little silver-grey sports hatch.
The two standards version of the Innocenti Mini had 43 and 63 horsepower respectively. It goes without saying that De Tomaso immediately tuned the big block to all of 71 horsepower and updated the bodywork with the then so popular plastic panels and an air intake on the bonnet. This helped the model soldier on into the Eighties (primarily in Italy, as it was expensive elsewhere), by which time the original Mini-technology was really old hat. And then De Tomaso looked towards – Japan!
Now we are getting there, to the Turbo: I must honestly admit that I was certain the engine was a turbocharged A-series (which was tried in the Metro about the same time, not without a hitch), but it is not. Looking towards Japan a collaboration with Daihatsu resulted in the small Innocenti De Tomaso, based on Daihatsu technology, from 1983. Primarily the engine, but as part of the redesign, the Mini’s hydralastic and rubber undercarriage also disappeared and was replaced by something more conventional.
But which engine would fit the minimal space under the bonnet of a Mini? Well, De Tomaso opted for the 993cc three-cylinder Charade engine, both without and with turbo. And that’s the precise car I spotted for sale in Padova. It was a completely restored two-owner car of 1986 vintage, with Turbo, presented very clean and tidy, and for sale at 8,500 Euro. I loved it!
The whole story is pure ViaRETRO as EVERYTHING comes together: Original genius, chaos and grand Italian gestures through and through. Although the origin is but an ordinary Mini, the final result is as Italian as it could possibly be – albeit with a Japanese engine under the bonnet. Hybrid! Mind you, even with the turbo, the engine is hardly a massive powerhouse, as it manages just 68 horsepower.
But the De Tomaso became a kind of niche-success anyway and remained in production until 1993. Despite the somewhat messy way of reaching their end result, the whole collaboration is infinitely more successful than when Alfa Romeo flirted with Nissan (terrible story, which everyone – apart from historians – would prefer to forget), and I have even checked with the De Tomaso Club: A Turbo would be most welcome.