Misfit Machines: Ilin VALEM TA6 Amamit

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Obscure cars fascinate me, which may be why I so much like Corey Lewis’ Rare Rides series on unusual and limited edition vehicles. Unfortunately, when you’ve been to as many car shows as I have, you can become a bit jaded; sometimes, unusual limited-edition vehicles don’t quite satisfy that jones for the weird and strange.

Corey’s Rides are usually some kind of actual production vehicle, something you might actually be able to buy. I’m thinking more like something you’d find tucked away in the corner of some private car museum somewhere outside of BFE.

Sometimes you need a hotshot of pure uncut obscure right to the mainline. That’s what Misfit Machines is all about. I’d like to say it’s going to be completely strange, but they’ll most likely all have wheels, so I’m aiming at 99 percent weird.

For example, since many of Corey’s Rare Rides are culled from for sale ads, I wouldn’t be surprised if he profiled the Autocars Sabra, a Reliant-based sports car built in Israel in the 1960s. The Sabra is probably the best known Israeli built car, but Autocars wasn’t the first company to build cars in Israel. That distinction goes to Kaiser Ilin, founded by Ephraim Ilin in 1951.

Ilin and Autocars Yitzhak Shubinsky tried to create a native Israeli automobile industry, competing with each other, dealing with bureaucrats in what was then a socialist, centrally planned economy, and coping with the fairly rigidly enforced Arab boycott of Israel. The boycott meant that companies exported to Israel at the cost of not being able to do business in the Arab world. It also meant Ilin and Shubinsky generally did business with companies that needed them as much as they needed established automakers. That’s how Ilin’s business became Kaiser Ilin.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler owned subsidiaries that manufactured vehicles in Europe, but America’s independent automakers — Studebaker, Nash and Kaiser Frazer — weren’t big enough to do so. They did, however, see an opportunity to expand their business with exports.

Shubinsky’s cars were probably the closest thing to self-produced Israeli automobiles made in the 1950s and ’60s, while Ilin’s factory assembled a series of knock-down kits (CKD) supplied by established automakers. Still, Ilin was first. He saw a business opportunity providing cars and trucks for the young country and the Israeli government saw Kaiser-Ilin as a means of establishing bilateral trade deals. For example, some Israeli-assembled Kaisers went to Columbia in exchange for coffee.

Besides bureaucratic micromanagement, other factors hindered Ilin as well. Still, the company did represent a significant fraction of Israel’s GDP in the 1950s. When Kaiser Frazer folded in the mid 1950s, Ilin made a deal to assemble Studebakers, ironically building them even after the South Bend company stopped functioning. Most Israelis couldn’t afford something like a Studebaker and Ilin started looking into local production of a people’s car. They imported kits to build Renault Dauphines, but eventually the Renault company yielded to the Arab boycott.

Ilin then decided to build a small people’s car in Israel, apparently called the Amamit, which Google translates as folks, as in Volkswagen; some irony there. The word “Ahm” in Hebrew means people but it also means nation, so the name of the car could also be translated as the National.

Shubinsky’s Autocars was already making the Sussita in wagon, commercial van, and pickup forms, using an Israeli frame, suspension, and crude fiberglass body powered by an imported 1.0-liter Ford 105 Anglia engine. Supposedly, camels belonging to local Beduins found Autocars’ composites tasty.

Microcars were having their brief flourish in war-torn Europe in the 1950s, so Ilin tried to make a deal with England’s Nobel, which made the 200 bubble car. Any kind of large-scale industrial operations had to be approved by the Israeli government at the time, and Nobel’s application was turned down. Next, Ilin got Glas, the German maker of the Gogomobil to submit a proposal to the Inter-Office Vehicle Committee, but that was also rejected.

Roger Budin was a French engineer who had worked for Simca and Hotchkiss. He started up a small company, VELAM, to produce Iso’s Isetta, which was licensed by its designer to a number of manufacturers, most notably BMW. A VELAM Isetta was shipped to Israel and Ilin crafted a proposal to the government, promising to build a factory in the southern development town of Sderot where the engine and other major components would be locally made for the 6,000 units Ilin hoped to build. To sweeten the proposal, Ilin told regulators that he could export half of his output.

That deal also petered out, but Ilin returned to France to try and find some kind of people’s car he could produce in Israel. The French-built Isetta did not prove as popular as the German and Italian ones, and by 1959 production was stopped. When Ilin approached Budin about designing a car to be built in Israel, the French engineer saw it as an opportunity to save his company.

Ilin’s design brief specified that the car had to carry six people while remaining as small as possible. In his proposal to the Israeli government, to keep taxes on imported parts down, he said 60-70 percent of the content would be Israeli, including the chassis and suspension. About the only thing that would have to be imported would be the engine and transmission

The prototype was named TA6, for “traction avant” (front-wheel drive) and six passengers. Budin’s team put together a cute little car that shares a two-box design with Alec Issoginis’s original Mini. Unfortunately, that shape was not entirely retained. While the car was undergoing testing in France, Ilin’s vice president predicted 2,000 sales per year in Israel and 5,000 units would be exported annually. After Budin arrived in Israel to guide the development of a locally produced prototype, Ilin’s team added a trunk.

Because Ilin’s pressing plant could not make complex shapes, the Amamit’s sheet metal panels were exactly that, sheets of metal with minimal contouring. The French prototype had simple lines, and it was cute, but between the tacked-on trunk and flat panels the Israeli TA6 was ugly. Ilin tried to sugar-coat the bad news when the car was introduced in March of 1961.

“We decided to give up beauty, on account of quality,” Ilin told the press.

How much quality was built into the TA6 prototype is an open question, but it certainly gave up quite a bit in the beauty column of the ledger.

The Davar newspaper commented, “After we saw the car, we can confidently determine that this car will not compete with its external beauty.”

The project had gotten its share of publicity prior to the reveal and humorist Eprhaim Kishon was almost poetic in his sarcasm. “It should be noted that the somewhat amphibian looking body of the Israeli chariot is not damaged by any curved line, in any failed attempt of decoration, but rather with sharp and straight angles, as is fitting for a young and struggling nation.”

Kishon’s summation was brutal. “Peoplehood [a play on Amamit] – for what? Because it is the fruit of our planning, the fruit of our weariness, made of Israeli materials and of local processing and polishing, to our great sorrow. ”

The prototype apparently was functional, as at least one promotional photo exists of it out on the open road. It was powered by a 640cc air-cooled twin, likely a two stroke made by Puch in Austria, that put out 24 horsepower (some sources say 35). Unfortunately, under pressure from the Arab Boycott Committee, Puch cancelled the contract, pushing back the announced start of production twice before Ilin stopped making predictions.

Also, price was an issue. By then Autocars Sussita was well into production and, while the initial after-tax price of the Amamit would have seriously undercut the Sussita, Israeli authorities, like the French, taxed cars on engine displacement. With the production engine yet unknown, any announced price would not have been accurate. As it was, the pre-tax price was going to be more expensive than the Citroen 2CV. Though the Israeli public eagerly anticipated a locally produced automobile, the lack of a specified engine also hindered orders. “How can I express an opinion on the car if I do not see the engine and I do not know what engine will be,” one potential customer people was quoted as saying.

To save the project, Ilin reached out to Japan’s Hino, whose Contessa automobile used a 893cc version of the Renault 4CV engine under license. The Contessa’s rear-engine layout made using that engine for a front-wheel-drive car fairly easy. One engine was sent to Israel for testing, where it was determined that changing the powerplant would require substantial changes to the car’s structure. Based on that and the negative reaction to the prototype’s styling, Kaiser Ilin announced that the final design would be more like the Fiat 600 and other small European cars.

That final design was never executed. Sources say the one Israeli-built Amamit was cut up for scrap. By 1962, Autocars introduced its second model, the Carmel. Though still crude by European and North American standards, it would have made selling the Amamit to Israelis difficult. Ephraim Ilin’s attention was also likely diverted from his people’s car to dealing with the fact that by then, his primary supplier, Studebaker, was circling the drain financially.

Israeli writer Avraham Shemesh summed up the ugly little car’s demise. “One day, just as it had begun, it was completely neglected. Put it aside, and that’s it. The car disappeared later. We were very sorry then, because there was a unified national pride surrounding the subject, and a great hope that there would be work for many people here. ”

[Images: israelmotorindustry.org]

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • 2manycars 2manycars on Jan 26, 2018

    The Studebaker company did not "stop functioning" - it just stopped building cars. Studebaker became a mini-conglomerate, investing profits from the Lark to diversify into a variety of businesses. The company was quite profitable once the money-draining automotive division was shuttered in 1966. Studebaker became Studebaker-Worthington in 1967 via merger of Studebaker, Wagner Electric, and Worthington Corp. It was then acquired by McGraw-Edison in 1979, which was then acquired by Cooper Industries in 2004. In 2009 the Indiana Supreme Court deemed that Cooper was Studebaker's corporate successor and responsible for environmental cleanup of the old Studebaker facilities in South Bend.

    • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Jan 27, 2018

      Of course you're correct, in terms of the Studebaker corporation. As an automaker, though, Studebaker stopped building cars in South Bend in late 1963, while production continued in Canada into 1966. It was the diversification of the Studebaker corporation, whose roots go back to the Studebakers building wagons in the 1840s, that hastened the demise of the car company. Studebaker wasn't the first company to get out of the car business because more money was to be made elsewhere. E.L. Cord closed down his Auburn based operations in the late 1930s. He wasn't making money building cars and his investments in the airline industry and elsewhere made him enough money to live in luxury in Beverly Hills.

  • Heino Heino on Jan 30, 2018

    Great read Ronnie, Israel has always been innovative out of necessity. Grew up in the ME. The flip side to the boycott was we couldn't get Ford or Coca Cola products among others till the mid 80s because they had invested in Israel. Also please note, if you are a young woman who is drunk and in a tank top, do not attempt to visit the Wailing Wall.

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.