I have a new appreciation for the Carlisle Import and Performance Nationals, a combo show for vintage import cars and modern tuner cars all sharing the same fairground in Pennsylvania. Expect to see a V8-swapped Mazda RX-7 with a rear wing as big as a tea table next to a classic Land Rover and an actual tea table. We made it out this year and found some very Good Cars.
Carlisle is known for its gigantic American car shows, but the Import and Performance Nationals ruled. Lots of people complained about the weather this year but that’s completely off base. It was low key and drizzly, which was wonderful for walking around and staying cool. Why car show people like to bake under the hot sun is beyond me, but all the wimpy owners who are afraid of getting their cars wet didn’t show, and all the good owners who don’t mind a little rain did make it out. There were very few BMWs. There were lots of Saabs. That probably says something.
Even with the turnout as it was, the show was huge and there were too many wonderful cars to highlight in one video. (Not seen in our vid is a Renault R5 Maxi Turbo with fresh Tour de Course stickers on it.) As such, we picked five cars that should give you the full air of the thing, without going into V8-swapped Volvo shooting brake or manual-swapped Subaru SVX.
The BRAT is a fun vehicle bone stock. It’s a historic oddity, woven into America’s strange Chicken Tax with jump seats in the bed made to skirt old regulations based off of the time America had a feud with Germany over Volkswagens and livestock. Reagan had one and kind of hid it from the public. It was just strange and neat in a way that the 1970s can only be.
But it’s still a Subaru and that means that you can stick a much later, much more modern engine and drivetrain into one with (relative) ease. We found a stock one next to this swapped BRAT to give you a sense of context for the change. No more spare tire under the hood, only intake.
We never got the Opel Calibra here in the United States, kind of like a European equivalent to the Chevy Monte Carlo. It might be better to say it was more like the Ford Thunderbird, the aerodynamic one, as the Calibra was touted by GM as being super aerodynamic and advanced. It was supposedly the most aerodynamic production car in the world when it debuted in 1989, though it was based off of a normal Vectra sedan. They’re kind of looked down upon in Europe as a wannabe car (a Möchtegern) in that it is both driven by wannabes and that it, itself, is kind of a car always wishing it had more unique sporty parts under its unique sporty body.
As such, it is weird to see one in the States. (You could import anything, and you imported basically a Euro Chevy Beretta?) And it is super, extremely, mega weird to see one in such patriotic livery. But hey! This is what car shows are for. I’m sure this car’s owner loves it, and I never would have seen it before, so I appreciate it quite a bit.
Understanding Saab is like trying to read Beowulf in the original old English. Little bits and pieces will sort of make sense, but then there will be huge gaps of what the hell is going on here.
Take, for instance, the Saab Sonett (not related to the poetry but kind of like a Swedish way of saying so neat). It’s sort of like Saab’s Corvette, in that it’s a fiberglass sports car from the middle of the 20th century. Being a Saab, however, it is weird.
It’s front-wheel drive, like all other old Saabs, and it comes with a built-in roll bar, three-point belts and high-backed fiberglass bucket seats stock. This is a second-generation Sonett, though strictly it’s a Sonett V4 rather than a Sonett II. Under the hood is not a typical-of-Saab-in-the-1960s two-stroke engine but rather an equally-small V4 from the Ford Taunus. This is not to be confused with the slant-four Triumph engine that Saab also got (I got this mixed up in the video), nor is it to be confused with Ford’s other Essex V4 or the other Saab fours that were based off of the Triumph engine and, well, you can see how I got thrown off. Saab is weird.
The Sonett’s V4 made about 65 horsepower but it only weighed 1700 pounds, so it was fast in the Saab kind of way. These cars are way cheaper than you think they’d be and are normally in rough shape, but this one at Carlisle was immaculate.
Americans sort of forget that French cars were once, like, a normal part of the automotive landscape over here, with dealerships and salespeople and legitimate buyers and everything. We are devoid of new French cars at the moment, so we tend to forget their slight eccentricities.
We found some very interesting Renault Encores from the 1980s when, after the second oil crisis, we all figured we would forever be locked into austerity and our biggest pickups would be S-10s and family hatchbacks should have rear wheel spats to save a tiny bit of gas on the highway.
There were also some Renault 17 Sport Coupes, front-wheel drive sporty cars from the 1970s that I find oddly handsome and I never thought I would ever see in person. And we also bumped into a guy with a 2007 Renault Megane that, well, federal agents, please ignore this segment. Do not look at this car. It came from Mexico. It’s... fine. I’m not a cop. Are you a cop? Don’t look at this if you’re a cop.
Did you know the Nissan Pulsar GTi-R had individual throttle bodies? It did! So cool.
We never got this “Forgotten Child of Nissan,” as the owner put it, here in the United States. We never got a chance to appreciate the company’s rival to the WRX or the Celica GT-Four. This was the company’s World Rally Championship contender, and Nissan had to make a road-legal homologation special for it to be legal for racing.
All-wheel drive, a manual transmission, and an intercooled, turbocharged SR20DET sideways under the vented hood.
Some people call these things “baby Godzilla,” like they’re mini Skyline GT-Rs. I’m just thrilled that they are now totally legal under America’s 25 Year Import Rule.
In any case, big thanks to Carlisle for having us out and I apologize if I got drool on anyone’s manual, white-over-grey, 1990s Toyota Mark II. I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry.