Curious Cars of the Commonwealth
Monday 13th March is Commonwealth Day and will kick off events and activities around the world celebrating the 56 countries and 2.5 billion people of the Commonwealth.
The political association of mostly former territories of the British Empire, actually dates back nearly 100 years and was previously called the British Commonwealth of Nations, emerging from the decolonisation of the Empire to become a cooperative institution of 'free and equal' Member States.
Many of these countries are car makers, some on a massive scale, such as obviously the UK itself, along with Canada, which has manufacturing facilities for the likes of American companies such as Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and Dodge. Similar Australia is a large manufacturer of Ford, and until a few years ago, General Motors models and the local partner brand, Holden.
Likewise, countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh host huge assembly operations for the marques such as Suzuki, Toyota and Honda. India also has a large legacy car manufacturing base of its own, which has thrived to such an extent that Indian company Tata now owns the Jaguar-Land Rover group.
However, for the purposes of this feature, we wanted to find the lesser-known brands and models – the ‘curious cars of the Commonwealth’.
Sticking with India, it’s one of the leaders in the Commonwealth when it comes to a home-grown indigenous car industry. It is the fourth largest car manufacturer in the world and has a well-established automobile industry with companies like Maruti Suzuki, Tata Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra and Hindustan.
Hindustan made its name with the Ambassador, a best-selling rebadged version of the Morris Oxford from the mid-1950s.
Mahindra essentially grew out of the long-running production of a rebadge Jeep CJ3 from 1954 (widely used by the police and emergency services). It has more recently produced its own homegrown and developed models such as the Bolero Neo small SUV, the very modern-looking XUV700 crossover SUV and the Thar, which is the company’s modernised version of the iconic classic Jeep.
Tata Motors, as well as owning JLR, and boasting collaborative partnerships with Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, first made a major foray into home-grown car design, development and production, most famously with the Nano. It was billed as the world’s most affordable car priced from just $1500 when it was launched in 2009. More recently the company offers contemporary SUVs like the Harrier and Safari based on a JLR platform but utilising Fiat engines. There’s also the handsome looking Punch compact SUV, sharp-suited Altroz hatchback and an electric version of its Tiago city car priced from just $10,000.
Several countries in Africa have car making operations in partnerships with mainstream manufacturers, but many also produced rebadged versions of Chinese cars. This includes companies such as Kantanka Cars of Ghana, Innoson Vehicles of Nigeria and Mobius Motors of Kenya.
Mobius however is the interesting one. While the Mobius III is just a rebadged Beijing BJ40 (itself a Chinese Jeep Wrangler copy), the Mobius I was designed, developed and built in Kenya itself. Only 50 were made, sold out by June 2016, and it was a crude car, with no power steering, side windows or even lockable doors. But as a proof of concept, it empowered the company with enough confidence to develop its successor the Mobius II, which will be introduced later this year. It will maintain the classic Land Rover Defender-style boxy design but focus purely on functionality and all-terrain ability.
In South Africa, there is a company called Birkin Cars Ltd which was founded by John Watson, a descendant of famed early-British racing driver, Tim Birkin, commonly referred to as one of the 'Bentley Boys'. Watson was a fan of the classic Lotus Seven, and in the 1980s, developed and built his own version, the S3 Roadster launched in 1983. Still built in Durban, the cars are sold around the world including US, Japan and Europe, powered by either Ford or Toyota engines.
Malaysia has two major home-grown car companies, Perodua and Proton which have been sold in world markets. Less well known however, is Bufori. The company, based in Kuala Lumpur, is actually owned by Australian-Lebanese brothers Anthony, George and Gerry Khouri. It was founded in 1986 in Oz and moved to Malaysia in 1998. Around 300 cars are hand-built a year to order, taking inspiration from 1930s America. The Bufori Geneva (revealed at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show) is a highly stylised luxury saloon featuring a 6.4-litre Chrysler V8 engine, air suspension and night vision camera. Astonishing interior features include rear massage seats, a mini-bar, cigar humidor, fridge and even a tea-maker.
Campagna Motors in Quebec produces an extraordinary little three-wheel sports car and was founded by former F1 racer Daniel Campagna. It has gone through a couple of different owners and production has stopped/started as a result. However, the T-Rex is currently in production, now available with a BMW engine, and somewhat surprisingly, the biggest export market is the Middle East.
In a similar vein to Canada’s Campagna, is Brabham Automotive based in Adelaide which was founded by David Philip Brabham, the youngest son of three-time Formula One champion, Sir Jack Brabham. He is a racing driver of note himself being one of only four Australians to have won at Le Mans, winning the American Le Mans series and having raced in F1 in the early 1990s. The company offers a 5.4-litre 700bhp V8 Supercar for the track, the BT62, although a road legal version is also available.
Elfin is one of the longest-running sports car companies that you've never heard of. It was founded in 1959, but is currently owned by the estate of former racing driver and sportscar developer, Britain's Tom Walkinshaw. The company was known for making racing cars, and later some compact road-going sportscars. Sadly, following the death of Walkinshaw in 2010, production ceased two years later and has not restarted.