Can you remember what you were doing in 1991? Go on, cast your mind back nearly 20 years and have a think about what you did in the year the Soviet Union collapsed, the Gulf War started and Freddie Mercury passed away.
You would have blinked around 5.5 million times in 1991, so the chances are you might have missed a few events. Maybe you didn’t see Sweden winning the Eurovision song contest. Perhaps you missed out on Nirvana’s debut album, Nevermind. But there’s a very good chance that during one of those 5.5 million blinks, you missed the arrival and departure of the Sao Penza.
Sao what? Sao Penza! You know, the South African built version of the Mazda 323? The chances are, you’ll never have seen one. There’s also a chance that there’s none left in existence. How do I know this? Purely because I’m not convinced that anyone actually bought one.
I mean OK, it cost £2,000 less than the Mazda 323, but then it was also less well equipped, had far less charisma, (and we aren’t starting from a high threshold here), and also had a ridiculously small dealer network. Let’s also not forget that the Penza was based on the old 323, meaning Sao were effectively asking buyers to pay for the depreciation on a 1980s model. This really was more a case of Say No than Sao.
Then there’s the name. The Penza? From what I can gather, Penza is an industrial city in Russia with a population of half a million people. Now over time, the use of place names for cars has been a tried and tested formula. Who can forget the greats such as the Lancia Monte Carlo and the Ferrari Daytona? But Penza? Really? Could they have been a little more imaginative? The Sao Penzance? The Sao Peterborough? The Sao Preston?
Surely this is another case of the now legendary Mitsubishi Starion story. You know, the one where the American guy on one end of the phone allegedly misheard the Japanese guy’s pronunciation of Stallion and so the Starion was born. Maybe the orders from South Africa were to call the re-badged 323 the Sao Panzer. Now that’s a name for a car. Why has nobody picked up on this before? Surely the Vauxhall VXR8 Panzer would sell like very hot cakes from a hot oven? Or the TVR Panzer? Or the Dodge Panzer? Even the Toyota Yaris Verso Panzer? It just works. You are not going to mess with any road car with the word Panzer emblazoned down the side, especially in Renault Fuego Turbo style vinyls.
But it wasn’t sold as the Panzer and therefore it didn’t sell at all. I’ll gladly and willingly give anyone a whole pound coin for every Sao Penza they see on British roads before the end of the week. You’ve got more chance of seeing a Renault 12 Gordini on the road and believe me, the sight will be far more pleasurable. If only the French had imported them. That’s three times I’ve mentioned this now, just in case you’re counting.
As you can imagine, footage of the Penza is in short supply. They never advertised it on TV and it certainly didn’t warrant any exposure on Top Gear. However, footage from Motorshow 1991 does reveal a few seconds of the Penza in full glory. However, it is hopelessly upstaged by the Kia Pride, complete with white wall tyres. Also look and listen out for Michelle Newman, once of Top Gear fame. Remember when Clarkson spoke like this?!
So remember, next time you blink. Just think what car launch you might be missing.
Thank you to John Catlow for the Penza images. View his excellent Flickr stream here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rootes_arrow/