You have to admire the nerve of the bosses at Daewoo. By rights, a compact car based on an ageing Vauxhall Astra platform should have been named after something slightly less evocative than the Le Mans circuit. The Daewoo LeMans? Come on, what were they smoking in Korea?
It's easy to forget about the Daewoo LeMans. I'll admit that I had until Tom Callow posted this photo on Twitter last night:
— Tom Callow (@au_tom_otive) May 11, 2015
Apparently this particular LeMans had yellow fog lights, going someway to perfecting the illusion that this artist formerly known as Astra could be seen hurtling down the Mulsanne Straight at speeds in excess of 200mph. Well it is the GTE model, meaning this thing could at least hold its own against a Golf GTi, an Escort XR3i or a 205 GTi. Then again...
You'll remember that at one point in history, the Vauxhall Belmont - a not-so distant relation of the Daewoo LeMans - was the most stolen car in Britain. It was all too easy to break into one, making it a target for joyriders up and down the land. Roxette even wrote a song about their experience in the back seat of a Belmont whilst doing handbrake turns on the notorious Blackbird Leys housing estate. Indeed, lead singer, Marie Fredriksson, was so smitten she considered taking one back to Sweden. It must have been love, but it's over now.
The LeMans had a similar problem in its native Korea, with police having to clamp down on reckless driving influenced by this ill-conceived TV advertisement from 1989. KASA (Korean Advertising Standards Authority) received three complaints, forcing Daewoo to apologise and remove a section of the ad in which Griff Rhys Jones could be seen driving in his underpants. GEE-ESS-EYE!
With a drag coefficient of 0.32, the Daewoo LeMans was one of the first aerodynamically-designed cars to be sold in South Korea and the first to be fitted with a digital dashboard. A bronze Daewoo LeMans can be found outside the National Museum of Korea in Seoul - a fitting legacy for such a fondly remembered vehicle.
Aside from being a Shatchback of the lowest order, the Daewoo LeMans was guilty of further crimes. In the United States, it was badged as a Pontiac LeMans, resurrecting a dormant badge from its slumber. Hardly, a fitting tribute to an American car born in the 1960s. As a few reports on The Truth About Cars - Daewoo LeMans suggest, it isn't remembered with much fondness across the pond. We only wish Jesse Pinkman had driven one in Breaking Bad.
Other sins? Well let's not forget the Daewoo LeMans was also badged as the Daewoo Fantasy and - wait for it - the Daewoo Heaven. It's a well-known fact that Belinda Carlisle wrote Heaven Is A Place On Earth whilst driving a Daewoo. PetrolBlog - always first with the musical-related trivia.
There was also the Daewoo LeMans Racer (I kid you not), as this press photo shows. This hatchback variant of the LeMans saw the debut of DAPS, otherwise known as the DSME anti-piracy system. It used a radar to determine whether a surrounding object is likely to be a pirate ship threatening to launch an attack. Cutting edge safety technology, eh? Volvo has got nothing on the Daewoo LeMans. And to think that most LeMans owners thought DAPS was a humble Digital Audio Player. Tsk.
We didn't get the pleasure of the Daewoo LeMans in the UK, instead having to make do with the second generation model, badged as the Daewoo Nexia. It was still based on the MK2 Vauxhall Astra platform, but by then we were well on the way to experiencing the pleasures of the MK3 Astra.
Nearly 30 years have passed since Daewoo launched the LeMans. It signalled the company's intent to take on the world's biggest carmakers and it saw it as a global car. Indeed, it would be sold in North America, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By the time it was discontinued in 1997, a million had been sold. Not bad for a rebadged Astra.
But no amount of GEE-ESS-EYE nonsense, handbrake turns on Studland beach and racing along Bournemouth prom can disguise the fact that the LeMans saloon is still a Shatchback. And for that, it should hang its head in shame. But the LeMans is kind of cool, right?
Photos © Daewoo