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I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as conspicuous as I do behind the wheel of this car.
I feel like George Clooney popping to Tesco in dark shades, a hat and false moustache.
Everyone knows I’m here, from the attendant who hasn’t broken his stare since we pulled into the petrol station to the kids in the car ahead, flashing back and forth as if Father Christmas is about to rear-end their dad’s Mondeo.
A brand-new Ferrari would attract less attention than this… whatever this is.
A sports utility vehicle? For sure.
An off-roader? Maybe, I suppose; yes. A convertible? That, too.
A Mercedes-Benz? Yes. And no.
The Heuliez Intruder is a difficult car to put in a box.
It broke new ground and created a whole new sub-section of automobile that wouldn’t truly take off for another two decades.
And it’s even more challenging to identify.
From the outside there’s the clear influence of Mercedes-Benz, with an unmistakable grille missing only a three-pointed star and a silhouette that could almost pass for an SLK or later AMG GT, if it weren’t riding quite so high.
It’s all sleek lines up top and business down below, with 12in of ground clearance and enormous tyres – a Tonka toy made real.
As hard as it is to identify, it proves equally challenging to date; you may be surprised to learn that it first broke cover at the Paris motor show way back in 1996.
Unusually, the badge on the boot offers little help to the uninitiated, because few punters on the street – if any – will have heard of Heuliez.
Despite being about as far from a household name as it’s possible to be, the French specialist coachbuilder has had a hand in everything from various manufacturer-backed conversions of popular production cars to one-off concepts such as the sublime Citroën SM Espace.
Founded in 1920 by Adolphe Heuliez, the eponymous firm started out building horse-drawn carriages before putting together its first car, a Peugeot 177B, in 1925.
From there, the company went on to specialise in the low-volume manufacture of limousines, shooting brakes and convertibles, taking a lead role in the construction of a number of well-known models.
Its closest association came with Citroën, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s station wagon and convertible versions of everything from the Visa and BX to XM and Xantia were turned out at its works in Cerizay, France.
Heuliez had proven itself to be much more than a chopper of tops.
In 1980 the company was tasked with building the Renault 5 Turbo, and later it would be responsible for converting standard three-door Peugeot 205 bodyshells into the wild, mid-engined Turbo 16, welding a transverse firewall between the B-posts and augmenting the chassis with tubular subframes front and rear.
The carrosserie had big ambitions, and in 1992 it opened a design studio in Turin headed by the well-regarded Marc Deschamps, who had experience not only in creating cutting-edge concepts, but in turning them around in short order.
While he was working at Bertone, his Citroën-based GS Camargue went from sketches to finished article in just five weeks.
Shortly after arriving at Heuliez, Deschamps produced the Raffica, a striking concept with retractable headlights and a one-piece roof that could convert from open to closed in moments.
The project took just two months to complete before being shown at the Paris Salon in 1992.
By the following year’s show the Raffica II prototype was finished, this time with an electric two-piece articulated top that marked out Heuliez as a leader in the field of folding convertible roofs.
The experience gained during the Raffica projects became invaluable a few years later when, in 1995, Deschamps began work on a car designed to fuse the worlds of the sports car and the off-roader: the Intruder.
If you’re going to start with an off-roader, you might as well choose the best: the car that gave its life so that the Intruder could live was a Mercedes-Benz G320.
Work on the car began apace in mid-1995, with styling sketches of the new machine only produced once the factory Mercedes body had been lifted from its chassis.
By February 1996 a quarter-scale plaster model had been created, followed closely by a full-size rendering. The first side was finished by April, with the second a month later.
Through this short process the Heuliez craftsmen, headed by Deschamps, shunned modern computer-aided design in favour of the old-fashioned techniques, crafting the body panels from sheet steel in their Piedmontese workshop, with the exception of the bonnet and the bumpers – the latter formed from lightweight yet strong carbonfibre.
The interior was designed and put together on the fly, with the small team building their creation straight on to the freshly denuded Mercedes chassis.
The floorpan and factory running gear of the G320 remained largely unchanged, with most of the attention focused above the waistline.
The 3199cc M104 straight-six and four-speed automatic gearbox remained in situ, along with the three fully locking differentials that endowed the G-Wagen with such formidable off-road ability.
Slight modifications were made to the suspension to cope with the car’s revised weight, while the radiator was repositioned so as not to interfere with the Intruder’s lower, sloping bonnet.
Curiously, larger 17in wheels were specified only to be made to appear smaller by the addition of an inner lip embellisher, then dwarfed by the fat 285/60 tyres.
On top, the Intruder is something to behold.
Frame the upper half of the car and, in isolation from the enormous off-road tyres and towering ride height, you’ll find a sports car body that borders on the pretty.
Deep slashes arc upwards from the sills that simultaneously make the body seem shallower and even further from the ground.
The tail, boot and slender light clusters are neat, perhaps the car’s best angle and again bringing to mind the AMG GT.
It would be charitable to say that the front is marginally less successful, with a light treatment that wouldn’t look out of place on a mid-1990s Daewoo.
If the outside of the Intruder is reminiscent of an SLK with a severe peanut allergy, the interior is equally challenging, its appearance lying somewhere between the bloated Violet Beauregarde after devouring Willy Wonka’s blueberry pie chewing gum and the costume of a buxom indigo alien about to succumb to the syrupy charms of Captain James T Kirk.
The styling is straight off the motor-show stand, with eye-catching blue hide seats, each with their own armrests, and acres of artificial-looking silver leather covering doors, console and dashboard.
Like a true show special it has an air of style over substance, with a steering column that protrudes far into the cabin and doesn’t adjust, and pedals offset to the right with the accelerator mounted hard up against the transmission tunnel.
Throughout, the trim is secured by domed Allen-key nuts, a post-industrial style feature that feels a bit like fitting a carpet with a nail gun.
Look beyond some of the more eyebrow-raising styling cues, however, and you’ll find that much of the practicality of the original Mercedes remains, with large, clear dials and an automatic gearlever that shares the same gate as its donor.
The low-range controls are set further back in the centre console and offer a welcome reminder that underneath the glitz lies the beating heart of one of the most capable vehicles to ever roam on – and off – Europe’s roads.
Though its sleek styling gives the illusion of speed, any allusions to sportiness evaporate after you’ve hauled yourself up into the flat-floored cabin and turned the key.
Close your eyes and you could be in a G-Wagen.
Opening them again only marginally improves your vision, with the folding roof offering a small aperture through which to see behind and the offside door mirror being completely hidden by the frame of the quarterlight.
Thankfully the view straight ahead is unimpeded and, after pulling the gearlever back into Drive, the Intruder charges ahead with a tickle of the throttle.
Given the car’s formidable weight, its 210bhp straight-six does an admirable job of hauling the Heuliez along.
It’s most comfortable on country lanes, and as the auto swaps ratios to the tallest gear, the purposeful engine note gets drowned out by the whine of differentials and the considerable rumble of the fat tyres on the road surface.
Winding the Intruder up highlights the G-Wagen’s weakness when it comes to high-speed touring, with vague steering and low gearing that requires touching 4000rpm to reach 70mph.
On bumpy back-roads, though, the Intruder feels in its element.
As the clouds gather, it’s time to try out that famous roof.
Intriguingly, despite its Germanic underpinnings and the obvious styling cues of contemporary Mercedes-Benz models, the party-piece roof has nothing to do with that of the R170 SLK, also launched in 1996.
Instead, the in-house Heuliez design was inspired by the firm’s earlier creations.
Like the Raffica II, it is a fully automated system: simply release the manual clips on each side of the windscreen and pull back on the switch.
Smooth as butter, the main section lifts backwards, slotting under the rear windscreen as the entire apparatus folds into the considerable boot.
If you happen to live somewhere such as the south of France you can take the roof off entirely, leaving a permanent convertible with a huge amount of luggage space.
It is probably enough for four people, if you were able to shoehorn a couple of passengers in the back – a task that would likely involve a pry bar and a tub of goose fat.
For rainy Blighty you’re best keeping your options open.
When you do lower the roof, it changes the character of the car entirely.
At a stroke you’re able to let the world in, and while it clearly reduces the structural rigidity, with a noticeable amount of extra wobble, the trade-off is worth it.
You’re unlikely to throw the car around anyway, and with the roof down it becomes even more tempting to settle into a relaxed cruise.
For all its quirks, the Intruder is undeniably modern, and could probably pass itself off as a current model without too much trouble – all the more remarkable when you consider that at the point it was rolling out of the Heuliez skunkworks, a hapless Gareth Southgate was bungling the penalty that sent England crashing out of the Euros.
Just as Southgate went on to become the most unlikely of style icons, the Intruder has grown into its skin.
As the years have passed it has become increasingly clear not only that the design was far ahead of its time, but that it would serve real purpose.
The groundbreaking folding roof paved the way for a commission from Peugeot as the French giant breathed life into its 20Coeur concept, with the Cerizay operation partially producing 369,000 206CCs from 2000 onwards.
What was once derided as an unholy union between a sports car and an off-roader can now, with the benefit of hindsight, be seen as something of a trailblazer, preceding the Range Rover Evoque drop-top by some two decades.
I know which one I’d rather be seen in…
Images: John Bradshaw
Thanks to: DK Engineering