IMP 700 GT

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I'm going to speak for Canada here, OK? It's Canada Day, after all, and so today I might as well talk about a Canadian car. 

Er…sort of. Sorry.

What you should know about Canada, in relation to this story, is three things. First, we make more than two million cars per year. Vehicles like the Honda Civic, Dodge Challenger & its associates, Lexus RX, Toyota RAV4, and a few more.

Second, we don't really have Canadian automakers here, apart from a few flash-in-the-pan examples. (This is because of a number of factors I won't get into now.)

Third, we're a country of immigrants. Anyone who isn't First Nations (or of Aboriginal descent) can trace a line back through generations, and onto the ship that brought their ancestors to our great country.

Maybe that's why Canada is pretty great: we expect our country to be better than where we came from. (Banovsky is Slovak, by the way.)

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And so keep the transient nature of Canadians in mind when I lay out the story of the vehicle named, depending on who you ask (or what source you read online), the Intermeccanica-Puch 500, the IMP 500, the IMP 700 GT, the Steyr-Daimler-Puch 700 GT… 

OK, so this part is easy: IMP stands for (I)nter(M)eccanica-(P)uch. 

The tale begins with Hungarian-born Canadian Frank Reisner who, after marrying Paula, a Czech-Canadian, took a long vacation in Europe that ended up lasting nearly 20 years. 

The pair were automobile fanatics, and started their holiday by purchasing a Fiat 500 to drive around the continent in—from which their luggage was stolen. Frank Reisner was a chemical and mechanical engineer by trade, and for a short time worked for Fiat tuner Giannini as Reisner became more and more infatuated with starting his own car company.

Backed by the North East Engineering Company of Canada (whose main asset was its Italian subsidiary), Intermeccanica started in Turin, 1957, by producing a small number of tune-up and performance kits, as well as a small Peugeot-engined formula car. This gave the Reisners the startup experience they needed to launch their most ambitious project yet.

But first they needed a new car.

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You should know that in Austria, Puch made a beefed-up Fiat 500 under license, with one important distinction: it was powered by a motorcycle-derived flat-twin engine. This engine gave the Puch 500 great flexibility and torque, perfect for the hilly Austrian terrain.

The Reisners' Fiat 500 had worn out, and after seeing a Puch 500 in Turin decided to purchase one…with the closest dealer in Stuttgart, Germany. After making the return trip, they were happy with their new car, but a problem with the car's oil pressure relief valve had them thinking ahead to their next service—something that couldn't be done in Italy.

Instead of returning to Stuttgart, why not take a trip to the Puch factory in Graz, Austria, to get the car serviced? 

While there, a quickly-blossoming friendship with the Puch service manager Johann 'Jansci' Puch led to their next project: a Puch-engined sports car inspired by the Zagato-bodied Fiat coupes that were starting to hit European roads.

The first IMP in Turin workshops, having the body fitted.

The first IMP in Turin workshops, having the body fitted.

Similar in size and concept to the Abarth 750 Zagato launched in 1956, the aluminum-bodied IMP 700 GT was also largely based on microcar mechanicals. To produce the first prototype, they bought and stripped apart a friend's Puch 500 that had been involved in an accident that killed an unfortunate Turin cyclist!

After some performance modification courtesy of Intermeccanica, the Turin-built IMP left their workshop with 40 DiN horsepower at 5500 rpm—pretty impressive stuff from the Puch overhead-cam engine, now with 700cc Porsche pistons and liners, no less. Top speed for the IMP is widely reported as 160 km/h (100 mph). 

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Steyr-Daimler-Puch dealers quickly got on board with the new car, and in late 1961 entered two 500cc-engined IMPs in a two-and-a-half-hour race at the Nürburgring…one winning its class against Abarth competition.

This didn't impress Carlo Abarth—himself of Austrian descent—who on the following Monday complained to Fiat about the IMP, demanding they stopped sending cars to Steyr-Daimler-Puch. The threat never materialized, but scared Puch enough to end the IMP program. Just 21 were made.

It wouldn't be the last—or most Canadian—Intermeccanica, but it's important to remember an interesting car from the small displacement era of sports car racing. There are others, of course, but that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading