IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

| 3 Apr 2024
Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

Mini, Beetle and Mustang: there are certain popular cars that inspire dedicated national enthusiasm.

The IKA Torino stirs similar passions in Argentina.

Barely have we touched down in La Capital and our taxi driver’s interest sparks up when he discovers that our assignment is to drive and photograph one of these crisply styled ’60s coupés around Buenos Aires.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

Driving the IKA Torino 380W around Buenos Aires

Our driver Guillermo Marañón – better known as Billy – takes little encouragement to talk about Torinos, explaining the links with Juan Manuel Fangio and relating the legendary 1969 sortie to the Nürburgring, which still has most local motorsport fans buzzing even after all those years.

As we weave through the impatient afternoon traffic along the Avenida Ing Huergo, there’s an amazing moment of serendipity.

Billy scoffs at a couple of decrepit Ford Falcons, limping along with the moderns, just as a mint, slate-blue Torino roars by with a cool-looking youngster at the wheel.

He instantly turns all emotional, his arms raised from the wheel as he sings its praises.

Few know about the Torino outside Argentina, and fewer have ever seen one.

It’s a car that’s long fascinated me, but it wasn’t until a visit to the wonderful Autoclásica at the Hipódromo de San Isidro that I finally saw one.

After a day of exploring the event, I mentioned to organiser Alec Daly of Club de Automóviles Clásicos de la República Argentina that I was disappointed that there were no Torinos.

The next day he had a surprise for me, which again revealed the fervour for these straight-six-powered saloons and coupés.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

Stylish script on the IKA Torino 380W, the hottest model in the line-up

Heavy overnight rain had caused extra hassle for the all-volunteer team, but Daly had amazingly still found time to phone around to source not one but two Torinos, including a prized high-performance 380W.

The admiration for the Torino model is again vividly demonstrated when owner Carlos Gadda Thompson shows me the immaculate engine bay of the triple-carb, 3.7-litre overhead-cam ‘six’.

An enthusiast rushes over, gazes in wonder at the tuned motor and, after hearing it start up, drops to his knees and kisses Thompson’s hand to thank him for bringing out the rare model.

One Torino story is regularly related in club circles, involving a Maserati 3500 owner who, after acquiring his new Latin GT, dismisses the performance of the IKA and confidently takes on a night-time challenge against the Argentinian coupé.

A 1km drag race is staged nearby and, from the green light, the Torino confidently out-guns the Italian exotic and crosses the finishing marker with a 20-metre advantage.

“When the Maserati arrived back at the garage,” recalls former owner Rodolfo Iriarte, “everyone already had their heads under the bonnet of the Torino.

“The Maserati owner couldn’t believe that he’d lost and another race was staged – with the Torino giving him a head start – but the 380W still won easily.”

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

The IKA Torino is a source of great pride for Argentinian enthusiasts

Iriarte has owned a wealth of diverse machines, from Mercedes-Benz SSK to Lotus Seven, yet has fond memories of the Torino that he bought new in ’67: “There was big excitement when the Torino was announced and I remember queuing for hours to get a ride with the great Fangio around the Autódromo Juan y Oscar Gálvez.

“I was a young architect, and I went straight out and bought a silver Torino 380 with my first major work fee.

“The car was fantastic to drive, and so much better than the crude, locally built Falcons, Chevys and Dodges.

“I was used to Peugeot 403s and my Healey Silverstone, so the Torino’s performance was dramatic and it handled so well.

“I’ll never forget the sound of the exhaust, and that ZF gearbox.

“I was so happy as I drove home from the dealership in Buenos Aires that I started singing to myself.”

So why are Argentinians so proud of the Torino? Was it no more than an American import just repackaged in a sharp Italian suit?

It’s easy to make this assumption, although the car deserves better than such generalisations.

Industrias Kaiser Argentina SA had been set up in ’55, in the province of Cordoba where production of the dated Carabela, Bergantin and Rambler continued under licence through the Perón and military regimes.

In the early 1960s, IKA president James McCloud instigated plans to build a new car to rival the fast-selling Ford Falcon and Chevrolet 400.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

The IKA Torino 380W’s long-stroke Tornado straight-six engine sits high in the nose

Consultants for the project included five-time F1 World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who had established a successful Mercedes-Benz dealership in his Balcarce home town after he retired from racing.

The initial design was based on the Rambler American, but it was extensively refined by IKA engineers resulting in several firsts for the home market.

The central body section was derived from the 1963 Rambler, while the nose and boot were adapted from the ’64 American.

Compared to the rival Ford, the coil-sprung rear suspension from the Rambler Classic featured a four-link set-up that greatly improved handling and traction.

The coil and double-wishbone front end had the bonus of disc brakes, too.

To cope with Argentina’s rougher roads, the unitary construction was strengthened with longer chassis rails that extended all the way to the back.

The Argentinian car market had consistently shown a preference for European instead of American styling, so, rather than resorting to AMC’s in-house designer Richard Teague, McCloud turned to Italy to fashion the new Torino’s appearance.

Fangio’s contacts at Pininfarina – particularly his friendship with Battista – proved useful.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

‘Legend has it that an IKA Torino easily outpaced a Maserati 3500 in a drag race’

McCloud and the GP legend flew out to Italy in ’64.

An agreement for a three-year development was drawn up for a fee of $50,000, with a royalty of 3% on each vehicle produced going to Pininfarina.

Fangio’s extensive address book of contacts also came in handy for sourcing the ZF manual transmission.

The busy Turin studio gave ‘Proyecto Vehiculo X’ a clean character that had a touch of Glas and Fiat 2300, with its glasshouse-style top and neat, uncluttered profile.

The cabin – also styled by Pininfarina – again followed European trends with sporty white-on-black gauges, a wooden fascia and a Nardi-style three-spoke wheel.

The engine was Argentina’s first overhead-cam design.

It was developed from the 3.7-litre Tornado ‘six’ that Kaiser originated for a range of Jeep Gladiator and Wagoneer 4x4s.

Its specification ranged from the base 117bhp 3-litre, with a Holley carburettor, to the hottest 3.7-litre packing triple Webers that produced 215bhp and was good for a 127mph top speed.

The original four-bearing, long-stroke Tornado unit didn’t like to rev and suffered from vibration at the top end.

So a new seven-bearing motor called the Torino, which greatly improved refinement and performance, was introduced in 1973.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

The IKA Torino 380W’s Toro motif on the dished, Nardi-style steering wheel

‘Designed and built in Argentina’ was a key tagline in the project’s marketing campaign, and the Torino was a success straight out of the box.

Production started in late 1966 and, as Iriarte remembers, the model was launched at the Buenos Aires circuit with Fangio giving rides.

Ford and Chevrolet had traditionally dominated Argentinian motor sport, but the Torino soon developed a strong following after an early success in the gruelling 3307km Gran Premio Internacional de Turismo.

Top local drivers including Eduardo Copello, Eduardo Rodríguez Canedo, Rubén Luis di Palma and Gastón Perkins were among those tempted to race Torinos in the Turismo Carretera series.

Héctor Luis Gradassi secured the first of many wins in a 380W coupé in the first contest of the ’67 season.

Even now there’s an ardent following among youngsters because the Torino shape is still campaigned in a local NASCAR-style ‘silhouette’ series, but the cars have spaceframe chassis and modern V8s.

Star drivers include popular multiple champion Norberto Fontana.

“They had a huge impact on our race scene because a factory-backed team wiped the floor,” explains CACRA president Daly.

“Their results in the Turismo Carretera confirmed that the old coupes were ending their 40-year lifespan.”

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

The IKA Torino 380W has handsome doorcards

The Torino’s best-known competition foray was a three-car team managed by Fangio that was entered in the 1969 84-hour Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring.

With homegrown hotshoes enlisted for the audacious challenge entitled ‘Misión Argentina’, the equipe created tremendous national interest and a massive convoy followed the team along the motorway to the docks.

Painted white with contrasting blue stripes, the 1350kg cars ran to Group 6 spec with wide wheels and 290bhp engines prepared by top Argentinian tuner Oreste Berta.

The trio dramatically set the pace but noise complaints to the Adenau police forced a lengthy pitstop to change the leader’s exhaust system, resulting in a frustrating time penalty.

The surviving Torino – driven by Copello, Oscar Mauricio ‘Cacho’ Franco and Alberto ‘Larry’ Rodríguez-Larreta – finished fourth, but had covered two more laps than the victorious Lancia Fulvia 1.6HF.

Stories of the Nürburgring adventure are legendary in Argentina.

When one team car broke down while out on the circuit, Fangio himself attended the stranded vehicle and sang instructions to the driver in the style of a tango to avoid disqualification for outside assistance.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

Early IKA Torino 380Ws have the cleanest styling, with neat rear light clusters – later cars had twin round lamps

Prior to the race, Fangio’s involvement proved critical when trying to get help from a nearby garage one night.

Initially, the mechanic refused to open his workshop, and wouldn’t believe that the ’57 German Grand Prix winner was involved with the Torino team.

“Bring the great man to my garage, and then I’ll open up,” insisted the owner, who had to eat his words when Fangio appeared.

“The Nürburgring cars are a very important part of our racing heritage, because a local car did so well in Europe,” adds Daly.

The Torino remained in production until ’82, after Renault took control of IKA in ’77, but the French firm was never happy building a by-then outdated American-based car.

Just 1241 380Ws were made from a total of 99,000-plus Torinos – today it’s easily the most collectible.

The featured Torino is owned by Manuel Elicade, a historic racer and president of the Club de Automóviles Sport.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

The IKA Torino 380W has a wood-topped gearlever

“As a kid I thought they were the coolest thing,” he says.

“My father owned seven Torinos in the 1970s.

“I remember him picking up his last, a lovely bottle-green four-door Grand Routier, from a Renault dealership in 1980.

“I was about four and rode on the front seat along Lugones Avenue in Buenos Aires, which is a four-lane highway.

“My father was really excited with the Torino and asked me to ‘mark a car and I will pass it’.

“So I said: ‘Go for that one, Dad!’ then he would floor the gas pedal and, of course, pass the chosen car. We did this six or seven times.

“It was the most exciting thing I could have imagined and the roaring engine is still with me.

“It’s a special feeling, 33 years later, when I take him out for drives in my Torino.”

The 380W keeps company with many exotics in Elicade’s garage including a Bugatti T37 and Maserati A6GCS, but still gets used regularly: “My first was a ’79 TSX coupé that I sold to buy this one.

“It gets driven a lot. You could commute in it every day if you could stand the summer heat here.

“I take it to work several times a month, and it often gets the thumbs-up. It’s a national icon, and you can feel that on the streets.”

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

Stock steel wheels on the IKA Torino 380W

My long-held ambition to drive a Torino around La Capital begins with a rendezvous in La Boca, the old port and home of the famous Puente Transbordador – a 1908 transporter bridge that straddles the Rio Riachuelo and was last used to carry cars in ’39.

Once the photography is done, we head across town in this prized machine.

The roomy interior features Jaeger dials, a wood-rimmed wheel, an elegant veneered dash and broad, comfy seats.

Understated and spacious – with deep footwells and panoramic views – the Torino has a classy character with discreet badging in keeping with this sophisticated and energetic city.

The rough streets and disused rail tracks are a tough test for the big coupé, which hops around over the bumps, while the heavy steering is hard work at slow speeds, but the car starts to come alive once on to the clearer main roads.

The gearchange has a long throw, with a strong spring-loaded central bias, though the action becomes slicker as you stretch the smooth power of the torquey straight-six.

Once the pace quickens, the steering gets more precise, which is just as well as we duck and dive on the 14-lane Avenido 9 de Julio (the world’s widest avenue).

But the high brake and clutch pedals make it awkward to heel-and-toe.

Classic & Sports Car – IKA Torino 380W: Argentina’s street racer

The IKA Torino 380W has a distinctly European profile, despite its American underpinnings

The Torino puts the power down well, with no axle hop as you extend the revs of the lusty, Weber-fed ‘six’ – working the ZF gearbox away from traffic lights – and there’s minimal roll on roundabouts.

Massive potholes push the ride to the limit, yet the car feels strong with no scuttle shake or steering kickback.

Impatient taxi drivers and commuters are surprised by our determined charge, and only cautious braking impedes our progress back to Retiro.

Matching its Italian looks, the Torino feels more European in driving spirit than its American cruiser roots.

Rugged, quick, stylish and full of character, it’s easy to see why the locals adore the ‘Toro’.

Images: Tony Baker

This was first in our June 2013 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

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