I think one of the things we automotive obsessives in the Northern Hemisphere are sleeping on is that there are so many fascinating and relatively unknown (to us) cars south of the equator. I think this is especially true about South America, which has all sorts of cars that are, to my eyes, strange and wonderful. Many countries in South America had closed economies, where the governments wanted to foster growth and development by limiting imports, and as a result local carmakers ended up filling all available niches in ways unseen on the rest of the globe. That’s why I always think of Volkswagen of Brazil as being analogous to how marsupials were in Australia, and that’s also sort of why these particular Argentinian cars exist: the Zunder 1500 and Zunder 1600 Coupé. The Zunder 1500 may be the weirdest-looking car ever to be officially powered by Porsche, so I think it’s important you know about it.
The Zunder (that’s German for “tinder,” but I think like the wood used to start fires, not the phone app used to find people to bone, which, of course, didn’t exist. Also, other sources say the name means “spark” and I’m more inclined to go with that) story starts in 1952, when a pair of Italian-descended brothers, Nilson and Eligio Bongiovanni, found that running their Chevrolet dealership would be difficult, since the Argentinian government was looking to develop their native automotive industry by limiting imports like all those Chevys.
So, the brothers, not wanting to lay off their employees, became a repair shop for ambulances and private cars, but Eligio wasn’t quite satisfied. Inspired by the success of the Volkswagen Beetle, he started to sketch some ideas, which resulted in the founding of ITA, Industrias del Transporte Automotor, in 1958. Still inspired by the VW, they tried using the 1200cc 36 horsepower engine from the Beetle in their initial prototypes, but found it just didn’t have the power they wanted, so they decided on a pretty bold plan: get 1500cc Porsche 356 engines, which made nearly twice the power of their VW flat-four siblings.
Also, look at those taillights; that’s a very clever use of three basic round lamps, made interesting by those rounded-triangular bezels!
I suspect that part of the reason they found the 36 hp motor didn’t cut it when it was at least adequate for the Beetle is because the Zunder was not built from steel, but rather a plastic resin/fiberglass-like material that I suspect weighed more than a steel Beetle body did. I can’t prove this, but it’s a hunch.
Nilson Bongiovanni made the trip to Germany and sourced 100 Porsche engines, actually managing to get approval from Porsche to install their engines in the car. This didn’t happen often, so it’s quite an achievement. In fact, Porsche was either impressed or curious enough that they sent an engineer to evaluate the car, and, according to the brothers, they managed to improve on the Beetle, impressing Porsche’s engineer:
“I’ll just tell you that they sent a certain Doctor Grupillo from the German engine factory to Río Cuarto to test the Zunder and he said: “It’s approved. But I have a question, how did you manage to not hear the engine inside?” We had improved the Beetle, because with those air-cooled engines, the noise is felt, and we made a double wall of pressed fiber that insulated the sound.”
A double wall of pressed fiber! Why didn’t you think of that, Porsche?
So, the end result of all of this was a two-door sedan with a 57 horsepower, 1500cc, twin-carb Porsche engine, all contained within a plastic body that looked, well, unique, let’s say. That body was mounted on a tube-frame chassis and used VW or Porsche (I’m not exactly clear) torsion bar suspension.
The look of the car was dramatic; the quad headlamps arranged at 45° angles at either side, VW-type chrome-dome hubcaps but inscribed with Zs for Zunder, and a roofline reminiscent of a Ford Anglia or Citroen Ami with a reverse-rake C-pillar, but in this case the rear window was a wraparound one instead of being angled. The rear engine lid had three air-intake grilles that looked like they came right off a Porsche 356, and the hood/trunk lid had a long central chrome molding/handle, also similar to a 356.
The interior is interesting as well; from one picture I found, it appears there was some interesting re-use of what looks like VW Beetle trim parts:
See the heater outlets in the footwell there? I’m just about certain they’re made from VW Beetle horn grilles, that you’d see low on the fenders of Beetles until 1968.
Here’s a little video showing some Zunders and many of the same pictures used here, because there’s just not that many photos of these things out there.
Only about 200 Zunder 1500s were built, but that’s a hundred times more than the one other car Zunder built: the Zunder 1600 Coupé, which, like the Zunder 1500, used Porsche 356 mechanicals and a plastic/fiberglass body, but in this case instead of a charmingly-homely and unique body design, this one was pretty obviously a knockoff of the VW Karmann-Ghia.
I mean, look at that thing! That’s a Karmann-Ghia, just without the expected fresh air intake “nostrils” and the door handle set strangely low. Oh, and with some odd taillights that look a bit like they’re from a Corvair, and this time four engine air intake grilles from a Porsche.
Also, the way that bumper is sort-of integrated into the body is interesting, too, and kind of looks like what a Ghia would have, bumper-wise, in the 1970s.
These Zunder 1600 Coupés came near the very end of Zunder, and for a while it wasn’t even certain that two Coupés were built, until a second one re-surfaced in 2014, partially given away because it was strangely non-rusty, which confirmed it wasn’t some oddly-modified Karmann-Ghia, but a plastic-resin Zunder.
These are fascinating little cars and have some greater impact because of their Porsche associations. There’s many, many more fascinating things lurking in South America, and I can’t wait to show you more. Until then, just enjoy imagining how much fun it could be to make hardcore Porsche purists uncomfortable by parking a homely Zunder 1500 between a couple mint Porsche 356s.
Actually, I bet they’d love it.