Not a terrible looking car, is it?
That's what I thought when I first happened upon the Caracal, a roadster I first thought was German…and was only slightly off.
Did you know—and I did not—that in the mid-1970s a deal was struck to assemble Lotus and Lamborghini models in South Africa? Intermotormakers, or IMM for short, had set up production facilities in South Africa in order to not only make some profit assembling foreign sports cars but also learn how they're put together. We'll come back to that in a minute.
The successful project means about two dozen Lotus and two dozen Lamborghinis are out there in the world with South African VINs, and as far as I've read, Lamborghini customers preferred the cars assembled outside of Italy. The arrangement ended when laws changed to remove the operation's exemption on producing non-local products. IMM had also been involved in discussions to purchase Lamborghini, with a deal struck down in the last minute—or so it's said—because the entire operation would have moved to South Africa, an unacceptable outcome for the Italians.
South African-built Lamborghinis—Countach and Espada—remain the only ones models ever produced outside of Italy. The operation also made the Lotus Elise and Eclat…if you're into rarity, try finding a South African Eclat!
Sports car assembly and boardroom bartering left IMM with a lot of newfound automotive industry expertise but no product to make, a problem for any other company, but IMM founder Gerrie Steenkamp and investors had originally set up the operation to produce a locally-made sports car.
By 1990, they were ready to show it.
The Caracal is a fitting name for a South African sports car—it's another name for the desert lynx, a wild cat that prowls across some of the world's harshest terrain. It was styled by Nic de Waal, rally driver and future touring car driver, whose day job was as an industrial design engineer. Between de Waal and Steenkamp, the refined-looking design was drawn up—short, nimble, mid-engined, and fast.
Components were quickly found from Volkswagen—thanks to de Waal's success rallying a Volkswagen Golf, which got the attention of Germany. The result is sort of like a South African version of the Treser TR1, isn't it? The entire front subframe from the Golf GTI was placed behind the front seats, with the rest of the car just as cleverly constructed. A rigid tubular steel frame is used for the rest of the Caracal, with special steering links and various Volkswagen parts used where possible in order to keep costs down. Don't those Passat tail lights look great on a convertible?
Sort of like the Land Rover Range Rover, the glass fibre bodywork is laminated to a separate subframe, which then is mounted to the chassis via rubber blocks, a setup used in order to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness from both the drivetrain and the roads a Caracal would no doubt encounter. Inside, a full suite of Volkswagen electrics means that the prototype was quite well-equipped for the time.
Power from a 1.8-litre 16 valve, 4-cylinder Volkswagen GTI engine would have given the car sufficient, Toyota MR2-like performance, but sadly after two Mk1 and two Mk2 prototypes were completed, the operation folded. One Caracal was apparently written off after a turbo was fitted, care of its first owner. As recently as 2009, two other Caracals exist in a state of neglect and time will tell if they're restored and resurrected.
The version you see here is the only running example, a Mk2. It features updated styling (at Volkswagen's request) and was unveiled in 1996—an ice age of six years past the first Caracal.
Thankfully, there's lots of information about the car's story—but not so much its weight, dimensions, and performance statistics. For that, you'll have to allow your imagination to run wild.