Ultra-rare V8 coupe – which we test in the UK Italian Rarebit Franco Scaglione’s very last design, the little-known Intermeccanica Indra is not just beautiful but surprisingly mature to drive, too, as we discover behind the wheel of an ultra-rare UK-based example. Story by Richard Heseltine. Images by Michael Ward.
INTERMECCANICA INDRA: RARE V8 BEAUTY ON TEST
Without a filter between brain and mouth, the crash landing is met with a stream of expletives. It turns out that the Intermeccanica Indra has surprisingly supple suspension and reasonable ground clearance, all things being relative, but it cannot simply absorb sleeping policeman. It’s just an idea, but try traversing the next one at walking pace. And there will invariably be a next one as we’re in a historic dockyard in Kent which is awash with them. The wingman, the car’s affable owner Andy May, winces but is all smiles afterwards. The Indra is his baby, but it’s far from babied. This car gets used – and how.
This is not the ideal locale to be testing a 1970s super-coupe; the sort of car that in your mind’s eye is capable of leaping continents in a single bound. That’s what GTs were once all about, after all, but you can be forgiven for being unfamiliar with the Indra. In modern day journalistic parlance, Intermeccanica Automobili was a boutique manufacturer. Formed in 1959 by Hungarianborn Canadian, Ferenc ‘Frank’ Reisner, the marque has since produced a bewildering array of models spanning everything from Formula Junior single-seaters to Mustang station wagons via Checker-based ‘neoclassics’ and VW Kübelwagen clones.
Nevertheless, it remains inextricably linked with small-series exotica, the Indra being only one of many. Reisner built his first ‘special’, a VW-based Devin kit car, in 1958 before departing Montreal for Europe on a 90-day holiday. While in Rome, he and his wife Paula acquired a Siata 1400 and continued their road trip while contemplating their future. As the trip drew to a close, neither was keen to return home and toyed with establishing a motor racing magazine in Milan, before using the money accrued from the sale of the Devin to form a small tuning firm in Turin. Thus, Intermeccanica was born.
Just as night follows day, making goquicker bits prompted the creation of an open-wheel racing car. That, and a small sports car dubbed the Imp which featured Steyr-Puch running gear. This in turn led to the firm becoming embroiled in the Italo- American Apollo project which was met with much hoopla in the early 1960s, but which sadly never quite took flight. If nothing else, this scheme to build a V8-engined GT with the North American market in mind set the template for cars made under the Intermeccanica nameplate to the end of the decade and into the 1970s. It also resulted in the Turin minnow teaming up with styling great, Franco Scaglione, for the first time. Of prodigious talent and erratic discipline, Scaglione was Nuccio Bertone’s collaborator and foil for much of the 1950s, shaping such legendary show queens as the Alfa Romeo BAT cars. However, he was prone to disappearing acts which didn’t sit well with his employer and sometime business partner.
Following a spat during the 1959 Turin Motor Show, Scaglione expected a contrite Bertone to beg him to stay. Instead, the exasperated studio chief fired him and took a punt on an untried youngster – Giorgetto Giugiaro – instead. Scaglione became a freelancer; a pen for hire who, in addition to restyling the Apollo, would design all manner of Intermeccanica projects including the sublime Griffith/Torino/Italia roadster (although American Robert Cumberford has claimed it was based on his sketches), the Murena 429GT shooting brake and the sadly short-lived Titania Veltro.
While the Italia was selling reasonably well in the USA via concessionaire Joe Vos, Intermeccanica made more money from sales in continental Europe. A chance visit to the Turin works by Austrian, Johannes Ortner, who years earlier had hillclimbed an Intermeccanica Imp, set in motion a chain of events that resulted in Abarth importer Erich Bitter becoming a distributor for the marque in West Germany. Rallye Bitter took delivery of its first Italia in 1969 and thus began four-year relationship; one that was fractious at best.
Given the testy relationship between equally headstrong entrepreneurs, it is all the more remarkable that they would conspire to create a new model, with Bitter introducing Reisner to General Motors’ executive Bob Lutz. ‘Maximum Bob’ was then helming GM’s Opel subsidiary in Germany, which was having trouble selling its Diplomat range-topper. An exotic halo car based on the four-door saloon was deemed just the ticket, and Opel produced just such a machine in the shape of the Chuck Jordan-designed CD coupe, but it remained a one-off. Instead, Lutz agreed to supply Intermeccanica with all the necessary Diplomat parts – including 2.8-litre straight-six or ‘Opel-spec’ Chevrolet V8 engines – to build a prototype for possible limited production. The result of his labours would be unveiled at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show.
Scaglione was 64 years old when he penned the Indra, the prototype being well received on its big reveal in Switzerland. Road & Track reported: “Another shapely newcomer is the Intermeccanica Indra built from Opel Diplomat components, including the De Dion back end, in a hefty box-section chassis. Indra, it seems, is the bull god featuring in Turin’s city crest, and the car will be marketed by Opel agents only at a price of up to 34,000DM (US $9000+) in Germany with very full equipment.”
Unfortunately, the Indra was foiled before it got halfway out of the starting gate. Initially offered in notchback coupé or roadster configurations, with a 2+2 fastback coming on line later, demand was initially strong. General Motors even offered Reisner a factory in Germany in which to build the car in volume, but he declined. This did little to bolster the relationship; one that quickly soured. Lutz is quoted in Andrew McCredie’s book, Intermeccanica – The Story of the Prancing Bull, as saying, “Those first few Indras were absolute nightmares. There were issues with the wiring harness where you’d turn on the lights and the windshield wipers go on.” Not only that, unbeknown to Reisner, Bitter was working on a car of his own, the 1973 Baur-made CD fastback. Throw in political and economical ructions in Italy, GM backpedalling on its involvement, and a switch to Ford power amounting to little, and the Indra was doomed. Intermeccanica tanked in 1975 but was reborn in the USA and Canada, converting proprietary fodder into convertibles and making high-end Porsche 356 replicas, among other schemes. As to how many Intermeccanicas made it to the UK, that’s anyone’s guess. A dark green Indra was imported in period and equipped with a Mathwall Engineering-built F5000-spec Chevy small block V8. It appeared on the front cover of On Four Wheels magazine but later disappeared from view. As many as four Intermeccanicas of various flavours currently live in the UK, including a Formula Junior racer, but this is the only known Indra. Owner May is evangelical about small-series Italian exotica, and no stranger to the marque.
“When I sold my De Tomaso Pantera GT5S in 2014, I was looking for something interesting to fill the gap,” he recalls. “I came across an impossibly beautiful car that I’d never heard of in a New York dealership. That car was the Intermeccanica Torino Italia that I’d eventually spend almost two years restoring. Of course, I then had to research the story of Intermeccanica. It was then that I fell in love with the Indra and most especially the fastback version. However, with only 27 produced [along with 40 notchback coupés and 60 convertibles], that was always going to be an impossible dream. “While researching some hard-to-find parts for the Torino Italia restoration, I came across a ‘free ad’ for the Indra on a well-known website. I dismissed it as a scam and tried to forget about it. However, it kept nagging away at me and, after a couple of weeks, I called the number and chatted to the owner who turned out to be a Brit living in France. If I’d like to come over, he would show me the car. The following weekend we were there. I said to my partner Dawn that if we saw it and it made our jaws drop, then we’d just buy it. It did, and we were soon making a return trip to France to take it home with us.”
And thus began a rolling rebuild. “The car was in running condition, but it had a number of issues. Chief among them was a horrible grinding noise from the rear end. It turned out to be just a badly worn wheel bearing.
However, the bearings are extremely hard to source and made by only one supplier in Germany, hence they’re mightily expensive. On the expectation that I would be keeping the car for the foreseeable future, I bought two sets to ensure future availability. This is an issue with this kind of car: identifying the origins of original parts to keep them well maintained. Intermeccanica, in common with other low-volume Italian marques, used whatever parts were available. Trying to identify and source them 40-plus years on is not always an easy task.”
May has since racked up around 4000 miles in the Indra, many of them in France. “On our first big trip to Bordeaux, the car persistently ran hot; both engine and passenger compartment,” he says. “The floors actually got so hot that they roasted our feet! I’ve recored the radiator which seems to have solved the issue for the engine, redone the carpet underlay and got the air conditioning working, which makes for a more pleasant driving experience.” Which brings us to today and congested Kent. Up close, the Indra is a thing of beauty.
While riding on more recent BBS lattice wheels rather than the original Cromodoras, it could only be a product of the early 1970s. It boasts a dramatic-looking outline, the pointy snout and blistered arches . This was Scaglione’s final car design and one of the best from his bulging back catalogue, even if it isn’t among the most celebrated.
You could call it cynicism, but past experience of small-volume exotica leads you to expect comedy ergonomics and the giddying aroma of Bostik. That simply isn’t the case here. The car’s cabin is much more comfortable than preconceptions would have you believe. Nothing is hard to reach, while the steering wheel doesn’t rest on your lap as with some other Latin GTs we can think of. The instruments are easily legible, the speedo reading to 300km/h, and all-round visibility is excellent thanks to the expansive glass house and spindly pillars. As for it being a 2+2, it’s nothing of the sort.
The Indra’s V8 doesn’t fire with surround-sound thunder. It’s all very civilised, in keeping with the GT idiom. Sadly, the mean streets of Chatham are not conducive to driving the car with gusto. What we did learn from the briefest of sorties is that it feels remarkably rigid. This car has never been restored, just fettled, but there are no percussive creaks or shudders through the structure. It’s also a giggle under kickdown, the General Motors TH400 auto transmission cushioning changes well. The revelatory part is the steering. With most exotics of this period, low-speed manoeuvring is a chore. Not here. The power-assisted set-up is superbly weighted. It’s light at pottering speeds and suitably meaty when up and running. There are no dead spots, either. And while you do feel occasionally feel bumps, the ride quality is better than most modern-day performance saloons.
Even after only a few minutes behind the wheel, it’s easy to understand why May has few qualms about driving the Indra on pan- European jaunts. It isn’t the least bit intimidating. The Intermeccanica is usable in the real world. While purists will rail against the use of a pushrod ‘eight’ rather than a peaky multi-cam V12, you can fix a smallblock Chevy unit with a hammer. The Indra isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it does cast a poetic spell. The real tragedy is that it never got to charm a wider audience.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS 1971 INTERMECCANICA INDRA
ENGINE: 5343cc GM V8
MAX POWER: 250hp at 5000rpm / DIN nett
MAX TORQUE: 322lb ft at 3400rpm / DIN nett
TRANSMISSION: Three-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
SUSPENSION: Wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar (F), de Dion rigid axle, trailing arms, transverse linkage, coil springs, anti-roll bar (R)
BRAKES: Discs all round
TYRES: 185/65 HR14
DIMENSIONS: 4480mm (L), 1790mm (W), 1160mm (H)
WEIGHT: 1300kg (dry)
MAX SPEED: 140mph
“I fell in love with the Indra fastback. But with only 27 built, finding one was always going to be an impossible dream ”
The Indra came with either 2.8-litre Opel straight-six or 5.4-litre Chevy V8 power, but all fastbacks were all V8s. This car is currently riding on 15-inch BBS wheels rather than the original Cromodora 14s. For a low-volume specialist GT car from the 1970s, the Indra feels surprisingly taut and mature to drive.