LOCAL LAMBO IS LEKKER

By Stuart Grant

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With the oil/fuel crisis in full swing and the world suffering severe economic recession, the period of the mid-1970s was not the ideal time for luxury and supercar manufacture and sales. Lamborghini felt the pressure and the firm’s ownership changed three times after 1973, including a bankruptcy in 1978. It was during this period that South Africa stuck its nose into the mix as a Lamborghini assembler and even made a bid to buy the Italian brand.

Cape Town-based Intermotormakers (IMM), headed by architect Gerrie Steenkamp, was initially set up by the holding company Interplan Investments with the intention of moving into the world of industrial design. Research indicated a gap in the market for a locally built sports car, but instead of mucking about developing the skills needed for a costly new design, IMM purchased the rights to assemble Lamborghini and Lotus cars just outside Cape Town from 1976. Lamborghini models that left the line included the Espada, Urraco and Countach, and the SA quality of build was said to be so good in comparison with Italian offerings that international buyers started requesting South African-made cars.

This is not the most surprising angle to the South African story, though. These honours go to the idea of Interplan combining with another backer to buy the floundering Lamborghini operation outright and move the entire brand to our shores. For whatever reason, the deal fell through at the last minute and IMM were dealt a further blow when the South African government pulled the concession it had granted for exemption from the Local Content Programme.

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In August 1979, IMM dropped the Lambo assembly operation. Although no longer in the spotlight, Steenkamp continued with the sports car theme, designing a VW Golf GTi-based mid-engine sports car known as the Caracal. Although IMM disappeared from the public eye, it continued in the background, staying true to its design routes. And kept soldiering on with the idea of a South African sports car.

Steenkamp, an architect, paired up with civil engineer and rally champion Nic de Waal to produce award-winning designs including a floating hotel and Hobo – a trailer that transformed into a motorboat. A quality Ford XR3-powered mid-engined roadster titled Equus left the drawing board, which led to Volkswagen being impressed (perhaps also because De Waal had won the national rally title in a VW Golf) and offering VW components for the next project. Enter the Caracal.

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During 1988, only seven months into the project, a test unit was on the tarmac and prototype was put through its paces at the University of Pretoria and the SABS. Despite lacking a solid roof, torsional rigidity passed the grade thanks to a two-chassis set-up. All mechanicals were held by the first chassis and a second carried the body, which meant they were both completely isolated – a world first and testament to the Steenkamp/De Waal brain power.

A true sports car, the Caracal employed a rear-wheel-drive layout. IMM did this by taking the engine, gearbox and subframe from the front-wheel-drive Golf GTI, moving it to behind the cockpit and incorporating it with their own tubular chassis. This meant removing the original VW steering system and manufacturing purpose-built front struts to work with a combination of newly designed and Golf steering geometry.

Bodywork, which was contemporary when compared to the likes of Lotus, Saab and even VW’s Corrado of the time, was of fiberglass construction and mounted to the abovementioned ‘body’ chassis. The two chassis were coupled together with rubber blocks to reduce noise and vibration. Interior equipment was period VW Golf/Jetta so not only was fit and finish top quality, but the Caracal got electric windows, aircon, modern gauges and switchgear. Being more than just a design study, ample room for a spare wheel and large enough boot were provided for, and there was a working soft top, too.

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Caracal debuted at the 1990 Cape Town Motor Show and went down a treat with onlookers. And why wouldn’t it? It sported international styling cues of the era and a drop-top perfect for South African sunny skies and temperate climate.

Pictured here is a Mk2 version, first registered in 1996. Rumour has it that four Caracals were made – two Mk1 units and two Mk2s. Volkswagen Germany boss, Dr Hahn, arrived to see the early version for approval. He was impressed but felt the square lines were dating and ordered the edges to be rounded off within three months. It took IMM longer and by the time Mk2 was completed, VW was ready to sell the Golf Cabriolet, which could be seen as competition – this put a halt to Caracal production.

Of the supposed four Caracals, this is likely the only running car left. The first Mk1 was donated to science as the crash test unit, the second was spotted in need of lots of TLC in Beaufort West and the second Mk2 (a blue colour) was sold off to Johannesburg and apparently written off after having a turbo fitted.

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