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The Glove Box: IKA-Renault Torino

The Glove Box: IKA-Renault Torino

Photo from Torino Argentina on Tumblr

Where do I start with this one? Today, I get to write for you about a beautiful vehicle that a whole country is proud of, yet was sprung from entirely unexpected roots. How does one write about a hero car, let alone one created with parts from at least two other countries, under ownership from yet another, besides the one in which it was built itself? Obscure and unknown in the United States, sure, but the opposite in Argentina, where it was born.

Welcome back to The Glove Box. This week, our focus turns southward, to the IKA-Renault Torino, built from 1966 to 1982. This car really has it all: solid American powerplant, Italian design, and even a brief racing heritage, and it all comes together in the mystical land of Argentina. So please excuse the long article: trust me, it’s worth it.

From John Lloyd on Flickr

Well, we had better get right away to dissecting this name: IKA-Renault Torino. You know it’s good when there’s a hyphen. I’ll start at the beginning, with IKA, which stands for Industrias Kaiser Argentina. If you remember my Jeep Wagoneer article, Kaiser was the American company that begat the proto-luxury SUV. After acquiring Willys in 1953, Henry J. Kaiser wanted to go further. In 1955, Industrias Kaiser Argentina (IKA) opened its doors, a joint venture between Henry J., eager to take advantage of a country less developed and mobilized than the United States, and the Argentine government, willing to support this venture with a generous outlay of money.

IKA produced a few different Kaiser sedans and Jeep utility vehicles at its factory in Santa Isabel, Córdoba Province, along with, randomly, a licensed copy of the Alfa Romeo 1900 known as the Bergantín. Eager for an entry into a new market, Renault partnered with IKA to produce many of its models in Santa Isabel, beginning with the Dauphine and Frégate in 1960. American Motors (AMC) entered a joint venture in 1962 to build Rambler sedans and wagons there. You may recognize AMC as the company that bought Kaiser Jeep in 1970. Ah, but this is where it gets complicated. And fun.

Let’s move to the next part of the name: Renault. Traditionally less adventurous than its main French rival, Peugeot, Renault has had quite an interesting history nevertheless. See, once IKA started building some of its cars, Renault got really interested, and ultimately acquired IKA in 1967. That’s the hyphen: the Torino actually changed owners early into its career. Remember what I said about foreign arms of companies becoming separated? Here’s a case of that: Renault bought Kaiser in Argentina, but AMC bought Kaiser in the United States three years later. Which means that the Torino, which largely resembled an AMC product, actually bore no direct relation to AMC despite the fact that the company developing it had originally broken off from a company now under AMC ownership.

But it gets better. Some of you may remember superstars such as the Renault Alliance, Renault Le Car, and Eagle Medallion. Those were the result of Renault’s part-ownership of AMC that began in 1979 and ended in 1987. Renault never held a majority stake, but it had enough say in the dealings of AMC that it could be seen as ownership. Which means that Renault controlled the Argentine production of a strange mongrel that happened to be composed of mostly old AMC parts, while simultaneously governing the goings-about of contemporary AMC. But the relationship, just like all great ones, was incidental.

Pause and return to the A of IKA for a moment: Argentina. South America, especially Brazil and Argentina, is milk and honey for obscure-car enthusiasts; let me attempt to explain why. In both countries, companies started building plants after World War II to assemble vehicles from complete knock-down (CKD) kits, basically full-size model sets to be put together, a cheaper solution than opening a new foreign office. As multiple companies shared plants, or the distance to other countries seemed too great, local manufacturers would experiment with new body styles, permutations of pre-existing parts for one or more popular models. At the same time, these large countries with great diversity require a wide range of products. Thus, Brazil had hundreds of different vehicles based on the Volkswagen Beetle, for example, and Argentina on the Citroën 2CV. Additionally, South America is frequently where old platforms go to die, creating a mishmash of new, kind-of-new, and plain out-of-date models all sold simultaneously. So what do we car geeks get out of South America besides trivia? Perhaps very little, but it is certainly worth digging around on your own.

The Torino in the name, then. IKA created the car in 1966 by placing a Jeep engine of 3 or 3.8 liters and a German ZF transmission in the body of a Rambler American with chassis parts from the Classic and, funny enough, the IKA Bergantín. But this was not some dopey mutt of a car. Rather, IKA, savvy in developing what would turn out to be a long-lived flagship model, turned to the famous Italian designer Pininfarina—based in Turin, Italy—to meld the blocky American shapes into a sleek European-flavored whole. And by golly, did it work. Somehow, this car, which had every right to be a design failure, had just the right differentiating touches to assume its own sophisticated identity. In honor of Pininfarina, the car’s logo represents the emblem of the city of Turin.

Image from Torino Argentina

Now that we’ve finally worked through the name, I’d like to share a little about what I believe makes this car so important to Argentina, maybe even to the world. Originally, the Torino came as a sedan, a coupe, and a high-performance model called the 380 W (for Weber, the fancy carburetors’ manufacturer). The concept of a more powerful version of a normal sedan is strongly reminiscent of American muscle cars, which in fact were just starting to become popular. The Torino, then, could be a luxurious sedan, brawny muscle car, or anything in between, but no matter what, Argentinians could aspire to the Torino, and Argentina could be proud of it.

The Torino’s career as a muscle car is particularly interesting. Just as Camaros and Mustangs raced in Trans-Am in the United States, the Torino 380 W proved popular in Turismo Carretera (TC), an Argentine stock-car series similar to Trans-Am. Think Nascar, but on real racetracks with corners. When the Torino came out, TC was still a mixture of homegrown machines and factory muscle cars, with an excitable audience standing trackside. It is definitely worth checking out pictures or videos of this vibrant sport. Unlike the American series, however, TC never stopped using the older models of cars. Instead, the series gradually developed from nearly stock sedans to aerodynamic racecars, with some interesting evolutionary steps and one-off prototypes between.

A TC action shot; Torinos at right foreground and left background. Image from Torino Argentina

The Torino won TC only five times, but that was enough to affirm Argentina’s pride in its very own muscle car. That pride swelled even more in 1969, when a team of three Torinos competed in the 84 Hours of Nürburgring in Germany. A man by the name of Juan Manuel Fangio, pulled out of retirement from professional racing, oversaw this feat. Now, you may be familiar with Fangio as the Argentinian who started in TC around 1940 and won a couple times there, eventually becoming Formula 1 world champion five times in the 1950s. The ragtag squad actually managed to finish first in class in a Torino, and fifth overall. In spite of the rather arbitrary penalty exacted by the race that cost them the technical victory, Argentina was ecstatic. Their native sports car, a hodgepodge of parts and expertise from different countries, had competed on the world stage and succeeded. The Fangio name, meanwhile, became a positive marketing device for Renault, and the man himself received this silver 1970 sedan, presumably a gift.

Between stints at the Nürburgring. From (surprise) Torino Argentina

The Torino stayed in production for quite a while, undergoing various changes in design, powertrain, and eventually brand name (Renault absorbed IKA in 1979) but the basic shape and features all stayed the same. The Spanish-language Wikipedia has a thorough write-up on all of this. Just as, in the United States, Carroll Shelby got his hands on Mustangs and made them faster, Argentina’s muscle car did get attention from at least one tuner. The result was the Lutteral Comahue. The jury is out on both the design and the pronunciation of that name. Muscle-car machismo also dictates questionably legal behavior at the expense of tires, so, just as with our Camaros, there exist many grainy YouTube videos of Torino burnouts and other hijinks.

Argentine car enthusiasts love “el mítico Torino,” so there is a wealth of photos and information available online. Here, for example, is a road test review of the ZX model. Here, a comprehensive video on the car’s history. An internet user known as Facundo Castellano Dávila has a collection of photos and has even digitally rendered a modern-day tribute to the Torino. There is also a great deal of material about Turismo Carretera available out there to those willing to read Spanish.

As for me, writing this article took longer than I thought because the history of this car took hold of me, sent me down roads of research much too specific for such a short article. The car I feature next may not have as much unexpected personal impact, but it will still be interesting. Stay tuned.