Sabra Coupe is Rare and Relatively Unknown
Photography by Giuseppe Filippone for Petrolicious
In the mood for Sabra, anyone?
No not the Sabra brand of Hummus that you find in most American supermarkets these days, but the intriguing little sports car built by the first of only two Israeli car manufacturers that ever existed in the young country’s history, Autocars Co. of Haifa (the other being AIL). This company started up in the 1950s building economical, small cars trying to provide an alternative to imported vehicles, which were taxed to the hilt by the government because they were seen as a luxury import item. Autocars produced several models, including a sedan and a station wagon. All of the cars had fiberglass bodies, and running gear sourced from either Reliant or Ford.
The darling little specimen you see here was no exception. Introduced in 1959 at the New York Auto Show, the Sabra sports coupe and convertible were produced between 1962 and 1968, and production totaled just under three-hundred. The name is the same moniker that Israelis use to refer to themselves and is derived due to the cacti’s tough, prickly exterior and sweet interior (not sure how this applies to the car, though).
The Sabra’s owner, collector James Goren, son of a postwar Fiat importer who lived in Israel when this car was in production, recalls seeing them on the Israel’s streets and falling in love with its quirky lines as a boy. He vowed that he would find and own one someday. And his chance finally came when he found out about this car, bought new and owned since by the wife of Belgium’s Israeli consulate general. After a thorough ground up restoration wherein every particular was revised with exacting detail, James is thoroughly enjoying his feisty, little Sabra coupe.
The car, upon starting, has a mellow growl about it. The exhaust note is typically pronounced as you would expect from an un-catalyzed, straight-pipe-exhaust vehicle of this era. And its four-cylinder Ford 1701cc Cortina engine revs surprisingly freely, accelerating this super-light car about with a fair bit of authority. Unfortunately, the car’s steering is not necessarily as precise as that of a contemporary Alfa Romeo Giulietta or Fiat 1.2 convertible.
Life inside this coupe is surprisingly pleasant, given the ample greenhouse relative to the small footprint of the car. The seats, though quaint, are well padded and supple, and the upholstery is comfortable to the touch. The dash panel is well organized and pleasing to the eye and the steering wheel is well positioned for any driver between 5’3” and 6’2”. The shift lever has a surprisingly crisp action about it and rather short throws to boot.
Regarding the exterior of the Sabra…it does have good proportions, though the car as a whole does not show the same kind of strong theme or graceful integration of surfacing as some of its more famous contemporaries (see most Triumphs, MGs, Alfa Romeos, or Lancias). Yet, some design details, particularly the rear end shapes and placement of tail-lights, seem to foreshadow vehicles of later English production.
And while its auto industry didn’t last, Israel’s only sports car ever was an honest, solid attempt at competing with contemporaries. In spite of its awkwardness and quirks, or perhaps because of them, the Sabra is lovable all the same.