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Jamie Spenceley’s 1981 Puma GTI Coupe (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Jamie Spenceley’s 1981 Puma GTI Coupe (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Classic cars: 1981 Puma GTI Coupe

Formerly 'rough' Puma a conversation car after four year reno Add to ...

Jamie Spenceley’s brilliant-green, Brazilian-built 1981 Puma GTI Coupe is a head-turner at local car shows, but he’s frustrated and a bit puzzled that, after an initial glance, most people walk right past without stopping to chat.

“It happens all the time,” he says, sounding mildly miffed. “If I was at a car show and saw a car I didn’t know, I’d certainly stop and talk to the guy and find out what it is.” After all, it was his own car curiosity led to his acquisition of the Puma 13 years ago.

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During a two-year interlude as a stay-at-home-dad after his second child was born, partially financed by some family savings, Spenceley was out driving around with his kids one day near his home in Peterborough, Ont., when he spotted the parked Puma and stopped to take a look. “I couldn’t get it out of my head, I just kept wanting it,” he says and, after driving past it a few more times, “wound up spending the money we’d saved on this ‘silly’ car.”

That “little yellow car” which remained garage-bound for a decade was a “bit of a sore point” with wife Karen at times, but Spenceley says that, since its restoration a few years ago, “she thinks it’s all right now.”

And so did the judges at this past summer’s Antique and Classic Car Club of Canada concours d’elegance, who not only gave it a thorough going-over, and were interested in what Spenceley had to say about it, but awarded it a class win.

The Puma name emerged in the late-1960s, the product of a Brazilian car market impacted by heavy import duties (currently up to 55 per cent), which led to local manufacturing operations set up by a variety of foreign firms. And to no little creativity on the part of those who wanted sports cars they could afford, which led to a number being conjured up out of whatever was available.

The fibreglass-bodied Willys-Interlagos, based on the French Renault-engined Alpine A108, appears to have been the first of these to go into series production in 1962, and was an immediate road racing success. To counter it, the boss at Germany’s DKW operation in Brazil asked local car-builder Genaro “Rino” Malzoni to built a racer based on DKW parts, including its three-cylinder two-stroke engine.

The Malzoni GT arrived in 1964 in racer form and a small number were built, which gave the Interlagos some competition. The company changed its name to Puma in 1966, but a year later DKW was purchased by Volkswagen, and Puma made a deal to base a new model, the GT 1500, on VW parts, forcing a switch from front- to rear-wheel-drive.

Puma production continued through the 1970s, including a new GTB powered by a triple-carbed Chevy six, and Pumas were also built in South Africa. But lessening demand and high debt forced Puma into receivership in 1984 and, despite efforts by a couple of hopefuls, it faded away. In all, some 22,000 Pumas were built.

Kit versions of the Puma GT – complete cars less front suspension, engine and wheels – were sold in the United States in the 1970s, and Canadians got their first look at the Puma (complete cars due to different regulations) at the 1981 Toronto International Auto Show, held at the International Centre near Pearson Airport. The show program noted the “sleek Brazilian sports cars” were due to arrive in volume later in the year, which unfortunately proved a little too optimistic.

Spenceley’s Puma likely found its way into its original Burlington, Ont., owner’s hands through the Bay & Lada dealership, located at Davenport Road and Bay Street in Toronto, which ran an ad in the show program, headlined Sportscar Spectacular, seeking buyers for coupe and convertible versions priced at $10,995 and $11,495. A 1981 Fiat X1/9 sold for $11,495, an MGB $10,795 and a Datsun 280ZX $13,300. No references to other Canadian dealerships were found, and only a couple of “for sale” ads for 1982 models.

When Spenceley purchased the Puma, it was “in pretty rough” condition, having been used and abused by 10 or so previous owners, and then sitting unused for some time. Its then-yellow paint was faded and marked, water had found its way in and ruined the carpets and seat fabric and there were holes in the VW floorpan. The flat-four motor was running like a flat-two and the brakes were shot.

Spenceley began restoring the car about four years ago, stripping it extensively and dealing with damage that time, neglect or bodged repairs had created. Since the car was Volkswagen-based, he figured finding the parts needed wouldn’t be a problem, but it turned out Puma had dipped into a variety of VW model parts bins “and nobody seemed to know just what was what.” The wiring, not suitable from the start for Canadian conditions, was “a nightmare” but adapting a VW Beetle loom to suit wasn’t a problem for Spenceley, an electrician by trade.

By the time it was back on the road its Porsche-esque styling standing out in its new bright-green livery, countless hours of garage time and about $15,000 had been consumed, likely more than he could sell it for. But he says he didn’t restore it for money, or car show glory.

“I did it for the fun of it. And I enjoy driving it. And if only six out of a dozen people [at car shows] stop and talk to me, that’s fine. I'm happy.”

Back in 1981

Canadians begin buying gas and diesel by the litre.

The Canadarm makes its debut on the space shuttle Columbia.

The first gull-wing-doored, stainless-steel-bodied DeLorean sports car is built in Ireland.

Brazilian Nelson Piquet wins the Formula One World Championship in a Brabham, something he’ll do again in 1983 and 1987.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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