I’ve been on a sort of weird Brazilian car kick for a while, so I suppose it makes sense that at some point I’d look across the ocean to the place that’s England to Brazil’s USA: Portugal. A Portuguese reader named Paulo actually emailed me to let me know that there’s plenty of good, weird Portuguese iron, like the Sado 550.
Paulo was not lying. There are some fantastically weird and wonderful cars from Portugal, a place that, I’ll be honest, I have previously only thought of automotively as the last place Citroën 2CVs were built.
Today let’s focus on the Sado 550, which Paulo described as “Think Smart Car but 20 years older.” That is to say, it’s a microcar. A cheap, everyman’s runabout for cities like Lisbon. It’s a class of car I’m particularly interested in, because the technical, economic, and spatial constraints on microcars are so punishing that they tend to force interesting, novel solutions.
The Sado 550 was born as part of Project Ximba, which was undertaken by Entreposto, a conglomerate of companies whose name seems to mean “Warehouse.” Sexy! After the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 1974, Entreposto found themselves in some financial trouble. As a way of revitalizing the company, they identified a market need — a cheap, useful supermini — assembled a team of 11 people and got to work.
Part of the goal was to make a 100% Portuguese car. They found they weren’t quite able to do that, but, at about 70% local content, the Sado 550 proved to be far more Portuguese than almost anything else available on the market at the time.
After a good bit of research and development, including some noise and vibration testing from, as this poorly translated page tells me,
the Center of Mechanics and Stuff from the University Technique of Lisbon
Holy crap, that’s fantastic. I would kill for an engineering degree from the Center of Mechanics and Stuff at Lisbon’s technical university.
Anyway, after a lot of research, the team decided to use an engine from Daihatsu — a 547cc twin A-series engine making about 28 HP. The car that this little engine dropped into wasn’t particularily radical, but it was a very practical and well-considered design.
It’s not really whimsical or stylish, but the plastic/fiberglass body has a clean, rational simplicity that makes it appealing. It’s engine, two seats, and some room for luggage, and that’s it. I do like the raked front end and grille (it’s face reminds me a bit of a Suzuki Samurai), and even with what are basically golf cart wheels, the proportions make sense.
The car was sort of like a shrunken Golf, or maybe a Fiat Panda — a small, two-box hatch. Actually, wait — think less like a Golf and more like a shrunken Chevette, or a Mazda GLC, because the Sado 550 was, incredibly, a RWD car.
I didn’t believe it either until I started really looking over some pictures and found that, yep, that little twin is longitudinally mounted, driving the rears through that chunky-looking differential. With a solid beam rear axle, this tiny little baby shoe-car has more mechanically in common with a Mustang than a Mini.
Maybe that’s why videos like this one exist:
Tell me that doesn’t look like an absolute blast. That little farting shoebox just had more fun in 46 seconds than most of the expensive sportscars you’re likely to see on any road in America. That one’s got some bigger tires and clearly had some engine work done, but even the stock Sado 550 was less slow than you’d think (I mean, it was still slow) — those 28 horses only had to drag around about 1000 lbs, so it wasn’t that awful.
Between 1982 and 1984 about 500 Sado 550s were built, and you can still find a few for sale today. From what I can tell, there still seems to be a lot of pride in Portugal about their little home-grown microcar, and I think I can see why. The Sado 550, modest and limited as it is, does strike me as something that could be a satisfying little car to drive, in its own way.
Also, this thing has to be one of the smallest front engine/rear-drive cars, right?
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