Karmann Cheetah by Italdesign

While young enthusiasts may enjoy the attention of Toyota/Scion/Subaru and the reborn '86' rear-drive sport coupes, Mazda has a new Miata out soon, and the domestics will sell you a rear-drive muscle car (or truck), the number of sporting choices on the car market has slowed to a trickle.

A few decades ago, however, just before the 1973 Arab oil crisis would shake up the world's economy—among other things—a car enthusiast with money to spend could get something sporty from just about anyone. Moreover, automakers were making sporty concept vehicles that hinted at their future product plans, plans that would be uprooted by the economic turmoil, safety regulations, and rapid consolidation that soon followed.

Now, I can say that event brought us to a ban on pop-up headlights, Volkswagen owning Lamborghini and Bentley, and the MPV. In 1971, however, sports cars still ruled the road.

Introduced at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show, I was first thrown off by this car's wheels, which are 4-bold Mahle wheels straight off of the Porsche 914. Then, I was thrown off by the strange publicity photo that I used at the top of this article. Is she a prisoner? Did she just escape and is now waiting to peel off into the sunset, freeing her from a lifetime of imprisonment? 

I don't know. But I do know that the wheels are a strong indicator of something I've learned over the years: if you can spot one Volkswagen Group part on a car, it's rarely the only Volkswagen Group part on the car.

With a wheelbase too short to be a Porsche 914, I hate to tell you this, but the Cheetah is little more than a Volkswagen Beetle in a seriously sharp suit.

Its big brother is the earlier Porsche Tapiro by Italdesign, a creased 914-based car that has women draped over it in nearly every publicity photo. Giorgetto Giugiaro's follow-up to that car is this, an even lower-cost sports car that could be a downmarket companion for its larger and faster sibling.

Despite its looks, the Cheetah is more of a fat house cat. With a Beetle's bones and heart, its 1.6-litre flat 4-cylinder engine is quoted at just 50 horsepower. If reviewers were often left bored at the performance of the 914 and Fiat X1/9, a production Cheetah would have been smack-dab at the bottom of performance car lap times for years to come.

The most innovative part of the Cheetah, as you may have guessed, was in its top. Karmann was the master of folding tops before going bankrupt in 2010, and the Cheetah has one of my favourites. Its soft top included a transparent (sunroof) panel that slid down and stowed neatly behind the seats. In the first photo below, it appears as tho there are two additional seats hidden underneath a hard cover, but modern photos of the car make me think there are only two seats.

Whatever the case, the car shows a real desire to delight drivers who may not be able to afford the lowest-priced Porsche. Now, more than ever, I wish more automakers could make a business case for attracting those of us who love to drive…but who may not have Justin Bieber's bank account balance.

Sources