Whatever happened to the Sao Penza

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.

Sao Penza Mazda 323 South Africa
You Sao it best, when you Sao nothing at all

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?

Penza Russia
Monte Carlo or bust?

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.

Panzer tank
Sao Panzer

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/

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Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.


  1. June 2, 2010

    What were the marketing people thinking when they came up with that name – Sao (pronounced ‘sayo’)? The company that built Fords and Mazdas in South Africa was called Samcor (South African Motor Corporation) which Ford has since bought back, so they could have called it Samcor.

    As in Asia-Pacific markets, there was a restyled version of the Mazda 323 called the Ford Laser, which would have made it look a bit more distinct, but they decided to import a model that looked exactly the same as one that had already been on the UK market.

    That model lasted in South Africa until 2003, also sold as a Ford Tonic.

  2. July 17, 2011

    My uncle bought a brand new Mazda 323 saloon in 1987. I remember him seriously considering replacing it with a Sao Penza. He bought a Montego instead.

    I seem to remember our local Kia dealer sold them. Of course that was when Kia dealerships knocked out the wonderful Pride, Mentor and Rocsta models working out of a tin shed in a backstreet miles away from the glitzy Ford and Vauxhall showrooms!

    • July 17, 2011

      Ha! Brilliant piece of history there! Owned a 323, considered a Penza, bought a Montego.

      Need to hunt down the last remaining Sao Penza on our roads. It’s out there somewhere!

  3. September 11, 2011
    Tom Steele

    One Penza left apparently!


  4. January 17, 2012
    Boom’s Dad

    As one of the employees at the time, I believe SAO was conjoured up by the then Marketing Director as ‘sounding a bit Japanese’ and SAO being Sout African Origin!
    Can’t recall what the rationale was for Penza, if indeed there was one – may even have been a play on ‘mazda’?
    Don’t know of anyone who still has one though…. so good luck with your hunt

    • January 17, 2012

      Thanks for getting in touch. Your thoughts definitely sound plausible!

      No sign of the elusive Penza yet – still keeping ’em peeled!

      What was your role at SAO by the way?


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