Yeah yeah, I know, it’s meant to be a site about British stuff but I’m allowed to go off piste now and again surely?
It’s fair to say, I have been crackers about cars, barmy about buses and totally nuts about trucks for more years than I can remember. Also, I have been incredibly lucky to have carved a meandering career out of the industry too. Previously working as a mechanic on cars and buses as well as selling cars, buses and commercials not to mention a stint in parts management, the knowledge gained has often been first hand experience. In the 30 plus years of driving, I have spent thousands of hours behind the wheel of a vast array of vehicles both small and large – HGV & PSV licences help.
So in a purely self indulgent way, I have cobbled together ten of my all time favourite foreign cars, trucks and buses – YEAH! What other website offers you this level of variety eh kids? I’ll try to explain what makes them great and regardless of what you might think, feel free to comment at the bottom to put me in my place or share your own thoughts. Ooh by the way, the following are in no particular order of merit.
Place your seat back into the upright position, fold away your tray and fasten your safety belts please, your flight into foreign metal is about to depart.
1: SAAB 900 (classic) Sweden – Produced from 1978 to 1993
I have my old history teacher Mr John Hill to thank for this one – he owned a few of them. Of all the weird and wonderful stuff from Scandinavia I adore which includes Pogen Krisp Rolls and cold showers, the SAAB 900 has been an all time love affair of mine for decades. SAAB was once regarded by many as ‘an engineers play pen’ insofar as for a long time they were a small car producing division of the huge SAAB Scania corporation. The trucks quickly established themselves in Europe as one of the very best you could buy, where the car division built medium sized oddness in small numbers throughout the world but to a very niche market.
After pioneering the turbo charger, SAAB’s were seen as a cerebral purchase – a thinking man’s car if you like. Almost everything wrong about them on paper worked spot on in practice. Stuff like the key in the floor or the engine mounted back to front to aid weight balance was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of eccentricity. Standard models were not particularly fast, nor did they handle with any sort of razor sharp precision. The gearchange quality was akin to a broom handle in a bucket of slowly setting putty and when driven in anger consumed petrol like it was going out of fashion.
That said, for reasons you have to experience first hand to appreciate, the whole package was, and still is, bonkers yet brilliant. Nothing looks like one nor feels like one and every cockpit knob, switch and twiddly bit works with an action the Germans weep at in terms of quality. The 16 valve turbo cars had amazing performance and refinement and for me, the subtle transmission whine from the chain driven final drive was a lovely evocative sound that smacked of REAL engineering. As their ad strapline used to say: ‘Nothing on Earth Comes Close’ – enough said!
2: Renault 30 (France) – Produced from 1975 to 1984
A tricky one for me as by rights it should really be by the Citroen CX – a car in a similar whacky form as the aforementioned SAAB 900. But so much out there has been said about the Citroen before so I thought I would celebrate a sadly forgotten French fancy – the Renault 30. The 20 & 30 were indeed very similar looking machines but the 30 gained a wailing 2.8 litre V6 and quad headlamps that gave a car that most un-French like stance – aggression. One of these in that lovely Renault copper or dark brown metallic with period yellow headlamps in your rear view mirror would be enough to strike fear into any motorist.
Not that I cared as I pawed through the brochures I once owned. It looked sleek, went like the clappers thanks to its all alloy 2.8 V6 engine and despite its typical French soft suspension, could hold its own when thrown into bends. Equipment was lavish too with top line models featuring leather trim complete with sewn in buttons for good measure.
3: Mercedes Benz SK Powerliner (Germany) Produced from 1989 to 1998
For many years, Mercedes’ reputation with cars was somewhat more upmarket than their commercial vehicles. Not that there was much wrong with their trucks, far from it, it’s just that they were seen as steady and safe plodding motors with little in terms of driver appeal. Certainly with Scania V8’s and Volvo’s F12/16 machines, the transcontinental heavy truck market was sewn up by the Swedes for many years. Then Mercedes Benz grew a pair and developed their ‘G Cab’ into something quite unexpected.
A range of improved V6 and V8 engines with twin turbocharging gave power outputs to make Scania drivers sit up and take notice – up to 535bhp. Range topping V8 models had a noise like nothing else with whooping and chattering turbo-wastegate soundtracks and in terms of build quality – they were pretty much carved out of rock. The Powerliner debuted MB’s ‘EPS’ (electronic power shift) semi-automatic gearbox that in its first form could prove to be problematic especially in the hands of an inexperienced driver. However, the facelifted ‘Powerliner 2’ ironed out the gremlins.
Despite the cab being smaller than Swedish offerings, the Powerliner went on to become a weapon of choice for the owner driver on European tramping work eventually earning the respect of long distance drivers. They were also capable of racking up extraordinary distances before major overhauls were required with Mercedes quite rightly saying in their advertising ‘Our Trucks Never Wear Out They Just Wear In’
4: Lada Riva 1300 (USSR) Produced from 1979 to 2012
Introduced in ‘79 the Riva was eventually the successor to the Fiat based 124 models we first saw in the UK in the early ‘70s. The Riva first debuted in the UK in 1983 and sold in decent numbers until the brand withdrew from Britain in 1996. At one point, they really shifted a lot of cars – the highest selling year was 1988 when over 30,000 units drove out of the UK showrooms. They were about as refined as Adele after a good night on the toot and had all the handling prowess and grace of a shot Giraffe. That said though, they were rough, tough and in the right hands – utterly dependable. I should know, I owned two of them.
My choice is solely based on the 1.3 unit that Lada fully developed themselves which featured a belt driven overhead camshaft opposed to the rather fragile chain driven units of the 1.2, 1.5 & 1.6. This unique engine was originally destined for motorsport use where its revvy short stroke nature could easily be tuned up. The cooling system was also suitable for warmer climates too and everything from the bearing surface area to the gearbox was beefed up to the extent that it would break the driver before you broke the car.
One of the vehicles I owned was fitted with a twin-choke Weber carburettor and electronic ignition. As a direct consequence of it being properly set up and having a performance exhaust system and gas dampers added for good measure, the thing went like a stabbed rat, easily achieving an uncouth 100+ mph if you were daring enough.
5: Volvo 760 (Sweden) Produced from 1982 to 1990
Crickey! Can it REALLY be forty years ago since these cars were launched? Volvo always built a strong solid car for the masses but they really lacked a car of true executive status by the early 1980s. The 240 and 260 only sold well in the affluent family sector but was not seen as a rival to ilks like the Granada, Rover 3500 or Mercedes S class. With very little bally-hoo Volvo Launched the 760 series in 1982 and their reputation for selling a car to all masses including executives quickly became solid as their products.
Volvo undertook considerable thought when it came to bringing the car to the UK as it was originally designed for the American market where Volvo were incredibly popular. Obviously designed on a drawing board using a set-square rather than a protractor, its styling was very much aimed at the United States – especially around the rear flanks. The standard engine originally just a 2.8 injected V6 but you could order a smaller four cylinder 2.3 engine – but this was turbocharged and relatively short in stroke making it rev happy and offer 180hp.
Where others thought it looked angular and vulgar, I thought it looked different (well, by usual Volvo standards) rather, erm don’t laugh, glamorous and very upmarket. You had a choice of pin striped dralon velour or pleated leather interior with almost every item of specification as standard – as for the original spoke style alloy wheels, to this day I utterly adore them. I only wish I owned one.
Tell us about your foreign faves by commenting below or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org