A dream car for troubled times: The SEAT 1200 Sport "Bocanegra"
Developed by a small coachbuilder and sketched by one of the most influential industrial designers, the Bocanegra became the post Francoism dream car.
1975 was a year that changed the Spanish history. The death of the long running dictator, Francisco Franco, opened a new era that was full of challenges and uncertainties. The whole country would live a transition from a dictatorship to a full democracy in barely three years. Three years that changed the face of the country forever.
In the Spanish automotive world, it was a time for changes too. The arrival of Ford with its brand new Fiesta to a yet closed to imports market, changing the rules along the way, put SEAT in a very difficult situation. Facing an ever-growing competition and with more and more cars accumulating unsold, the statu quo of the government owned company was changing fast and for bad.
And still, among the political and social turmoil, and under quite unfavourable market conditions, SEAT launched the most gorgeous car built in Spain during that decade: The SEAT 1200 Sport, nicknamed "Bocanegra" (black mouth) because of its front plastic bumpers. However the story behind that car, is quite complex, and involves a small coachbuilder, a renowned industrial designer, two prototypes from different brands and even a famous motor journalist.
From Carrocerías Costa to INDUCAR: The seed of the Bocanegra
Carrocerías Costa built special models for SEAT and developed three models, the SEAT 800, pictured here, the Furgoneta Costa and the 850 4P
Founded in the mid-fourties, Carrocerias Esteban Costa Net, was a small coachbuilding business located in Terrassa, near Barcelona that was specialized in body repair and the building of wood bodies. When the son of the founder, Enrique Costa Sellés, entered the business, the small company began an important expansion. They began to build cabins for Barreiros, as well as special bodies for the Tempo - Onieva vans, or cabins for the delivery trikes built by ROA.
Nevertheless, Enrique Costa felt that being so close to the SEAT factory, and given the good quality of its work, he should try to make a partnership with the INI company, a partnership that could give the company an enormous boost, like happened with other coachbuilders like Siata Española.
After recruiting Franco Ambrosini, an ex-Siata engineer that designed a box van based on the 600, and with Antoni Amat as technical director, Costa developed another 600 box van, and presented it to SEAT in 1962. SEAT greenlighted the model, as it needed a higher production figure in order to compete with the Citroen AZU.
The SEAT Costa Furgoneta, opened the doors for future works with SEAT, as it happened the next year, when the SEAT 800, a four door version of the SEAT 600 was released. The 800 enjoyed a moderate sales success.
The SEAT 850 Cuatro Puertas was the car that gave Carrocerías Costa its most important work, and enough workload to guarantee its survival
In April 1966, SEAT launched the 850, a version of the Italian 850 Super released in its homeland two years before. The 850 was a very important product for SEAT, as it was a true mid size car that finally completed the product range, covering the market gap between the 600 and the 1500.
Of course, given the success of the 800, a four door version of the 850 was expected sooner or later, and in 1967, two of them were developed: a short wheelbase version, that was a carbon copy of the model developed in Italy by Francis Lombardi, and an elongated wheelbase version, developed by Costa. In the end, the Lombardi model was discontinued after a few months and just 419 cars built, leaving the Costa model as the only four door conversion available.
INDUCAR became one of the biggest industrial co-ops in Spain. Here, the 850 Cuatro Puertas is being assembled at the new INDUCAR facilities
The 850 Cuatro Puertas was a blessing and a curse for Carrocerias Costa. It gave the company enough workload to guarantee its viability, but also brought production problems: The Costa workshop was not prepared to cope with the SEAT demand, estimated in 120 cars per day, being the painting process especially problematic. In 1969 the problems between employees, technicians and the management rose to a full confrontation between the parts. The future of the company and the contract with SEAT were in danger.
Esteban Costa proposed an idea that solved the problem: gave the workers and technicians the chance of buying the company and the assets in order to keep building the car according to their own planning. In late 1969, INDUCAR, that became one of the largest industrial co-ops in the country was born. The facilities enlargement allowed the new company to carry on with the 850 4p production. However, Antoni Amat knew that the production of that model would be terminated mid term. A new model was needed to guarantee the survival of the company.
Italian style for a Spanish dream
One of the development models of the future Bocanegra. The Aldo Sessano input was key to reach the final design.
Between 1969 and 1970, FIAT, the biggest car manufacturer in Europe was living a revolution. After many years rejecting it, was finally embracing the FWD trend. In 1969, the 128, a small family saloon was released, becoming an instant hit. The 128 would develop later into a complete range of models with a great variety of body styles available.
But the car that would change everything was the 127, a small compact two box sedan (would later become a hatchback) with transverse engine, front wheel drive and independent suspension that changed the small car market forever.
Antoni Amat, was well aware of the new FIAT and knew that SEAT would introduce it on its range soon after the Italian release. As the 850 was a car that would be eventually replaced in short term, he thought that the new 127 would be a fantastic benchmark to develop new bodies or even a whole new model.
Amat model of a future 127 coupe. This project was immediately greenlighted by SEAT
In 1970, a year before the FIAT 127 was launched, Amat and his team at INDUCAR began to sketch some alternative takes on the 127: A four door version, a van and a small coupe. All are presented to the SEAT management, that rejects the van, as a commercial version would be available from factory and the four door version, already in development by FIAT to be built by SEAT. However the coupe was well liked by Günter Oistrach, SEAT engineering manager, who convinced the directors board about the goodness of the INDUCAR project. The future small coupe was greenlighted and SEAT asked INDUCAR to start the development right away.
However, Amat wanted the project to be revised by a professional car designet, whose input would be key to bring the project to fruition. In november 1970, Antoni Amat travelled to Turin to attend the 52nd Turin Auto Show, looking for ideas and designers to improve its project.
OTAS KL A112, a two seater coupe built on the Autobianchi A112 chassis and designed by Aldo Sessano. It was one of the two concept cars the Italian designer presented in the 1970 Turin Auto Show.
Some of the most influential concept cars of the decade were introduced at the 1970 Turin Auto Show, for example, the Porsche Tapiro or the Lancia Stratos Zero. However, two of them caught the eye of Amat: The OTAS KL A112 and specially, the Glasurit Nergal 1000. Both were designed by the same man: Aldo Sessano.
The OTAS was based on the Autobianchi A112, which was in fact mechanically identical to the future 127. The car lines were very agressive and sporty, with a side view that reminded to the AMC Gremlin and specially a very innovative front end with the bumper occupying the whole frontal area.
Glasurit Nergal 1000. The design of this concept car heavily influenced the Bocanegra design
The Glasurit Nergal 1000 was a rear engine coupe based on the NSU TT 1200. It was a technical study for a car intended to replace the ageing German model, but as NSU was acquired by VW, the project was cancelled. Still, in collaboration with the automotive paint company Glasurit, Sessano presented its car in Turin. Antoni Amat fell in love with the lines of the Nergal, that was pretty much all that he wanted for his INDUCAR Coupe. Amat and Sessano reached an agreement soon, and the Italian designer moved to Spain to work on the INDUCAR project.
While the original Amat's mock-up was nice, but somewhat conventional, Sessano's input turned it into a true dream car. Many design cues from the Nergal were used, like the high rear end and the side view. As the Nergal was based on a rear engine car, and also for cost reasons, the super low front end couldn't be kept and had to be modified, losing the pop up lights. Instead, a new front end, similar to the one seen on the OTAS A112 was used, using metal reinforced polyurethane to build the bumpers.
The final real scale mock-up car, finished in 1973 was almost identical to the production car.
The INDUCAR Coupe, now under development as 127 Coupe, was not only aesthetically unique. It was also very innovative in terms of engineering. Not only the polyurethane bumpers were a novelty in a production car. The car was a 50% more rigid than a FIAT 127 as it was one of the first production cars with the windshield and the rear screen glued to the body and therefore acting as structural elements. The interior of the car was entirely designed by Sessano, and included another novelty: A single piece molded dashboard.
Once the exterior and interior were completely defined, it was time to put an engine on it. Once discarded the 903cc unit from the 850 Sport, which was the engine used in the 127, and the twin cam 1600 and 1800 from the 124 Sport, deemed as too powerful for the chassis and size of the car, the 1200cc engine from the 124 and the 1438cc engine from the 1430 were the logical and only choice for INDUCAR.
The first running pre-series car. Note the 1972 license plate, that in theory belonged to another INDUCAR product, a 850 4P
The 1200cc engine seemed a good choice: Reliable, well known by the mechanics, and readily available. There was. however, a problem. And it was a serious one. The 124 engine was designed to be used in longitudinal position, and attached to a rear wheel drive transmission. The Bocanegra was exactly the opposite: a front wheel drive car with the engine in transverse position. The INDUCAR engineers tried all kind of modifications, but the car didn't work properly.
Finally, INDUCAR outsourced the engine modifications to DDAUTO, which was the most solvent SEAT engines specialist in the country. DDAUTO modified the 124 carburettor, installing a dual symmetric opening system for the barrels. Although it helped the car to work more or less properly, the solution was not ideal. Finally, the 124 engine was installed canted 16º which allowed a lower bonnet line and an astonishing aerodynamic coefficient of 0,36.
By late 1974, once the 850 4P had been discontinued early that year, the new coupe, baptised as SEAT 1200 Sport could enter production.
The Times They Are A-Changin': The SEAT 1200 Sport is launched.
The rear end was as attractive as the front. Note how the rear grilles from the rear engine Nergal were kept as an stylistic resource, and used as interior vent valves.
During the first months of 1975, SEAT renewed its range. In June, the 124, 1430 and 124 Sport 1800 were discontinued. While the 124 and 1430 were replaced by the 124 D Renovado, SEAT had no immediate replacement for the Sport 1800.
The car that was going to do that task was the SEAT 1200 Sport, that during the first trimester of that year, began its production. The first 500 units were entirely built at the INDUCAR factory, at a cadence of 20 cars per day. In May, the first cars were pictured in a sneak peek for the motor press, although the official presentation wouldn't happen until late November.
Finally, the first December week, just ten days after dictator Francisco Franco died, and with Juan Carlos I appointed King of Spain that same week, among the social and political uncertainty , SEAT officially presented the 1200 Sport to the press. 30 cars were tested for two weeks in the roads of Andalusia. The press verdict was unanimously positive: The 1200 Sport was not as fast as the 124 Sport, but with a weight of just 810kg and 67hp, it was sporty and fast enough for most of the users, and way easier to drive. The press also praised the aesthetics, deemed as revolutionary, although there was some criticism as well.
For example, the modified carburettor didn't work as smooth as it should, with the car having some jerky idle and some "coughs" when running. The price, of almost 300000 Pesetas (Almost 25000€ today) was judged as expensive for a car whose most direct rival, was the Renault 5 TS, that costed almost 80000 Pesetas (More than 5000€) less.
During that motor press test, a lie was born and until today, has not been corrected. In a press conference, SEAT said that the Bocanegra was the first model entirely developed in Spain, a work carried out at the Martorell SEAT development and research center, that had been inaugurated just some months ago. While the first statement can be more or less ambiguous, as the car was based in the chassis of an Italian car, but the whole development was done in Spain, the second one is not only not true, but quite unfair to INDUCAR that not only developed the whole project but also built it.
The Bocanegra was launched to the market in January 1976, with great success, enough to increase the daily production from 20 to 30 cars. Nonetheless, the commercial run of the 1200 Sport was not going to be any placid, as abrupt changes were going to arrive during the year to the SEAT range.
Brotherly rivalry: New engine and the launch of the SEAT 128 3P
In 1977 SEAT was forced by FIAT to assembly the 128 Berlinetta, in exchange of 10000 extra SEAT 127 four door for export. The consequences were mostly negative for the Sport.
In 1976, the Spanish automotive market was changing fast. The arrival of Ford with its new Fiesta brought changes to the laws that regulated the automotive market, as well as more competition, even if the imports were still limited. Also, the first months after Franco's death were quite troubled, with strikes happening often. In the middle of those troubled times, SEAT was facing two complicated scenarios: First, the political and social turmoil was harming the sales almost as much as the competitors did. Second, the unions demanded more workload in order to SEAT to not laid down any employees.
In the spring of 1976, FIAT reached an agreement with SEAT to buy 10000 SEAT 127 four door, a model only built in Spain and that would be exported mainly to Italy to be used as micro-taxi. With those extra cars, SEAT would receive an extra workload and yet, would be able to sell more cars abroad, when its domestic market position was slowly shrinking.
However, that contract had a B side, that was not very favourable to SEAT. In exchange to that purchase, FIAT compelled SEAT to build the 128 Berlinetta, in CKD form, in similar quantities to the number of 127 exported.
In December 1976, SEAT launched the SEAT 128. The car was an exact copy of the Italian model, except for the engines. The Spanish models did not use the 1300cc type 128 engine developed for that model, and instead, SEAT used the Lampredi engines used on the 124, like did on the Bocanegra. However, this time the engines were better adapted thanks to two imported components: a new gearbox and most of all, a new carburettor specifically designed to be used in transverse engines.
SEAT introduced the second series of the Sport in September 1977. A new 1438cc engine was added to the range, and the new version enjoyed the new 128 sourced parts.
Trying to avoid a direct competition of the 128 with the Bocanegra, SEAT decided to advertise the new model as a polyvalent vehicle, that was at the same time a wagon, a sedan and a sport car, making emphasis on the advantages of the rear hatch. It did not work, as the 128 was aimed to a market segment not big enough for two models at the same time. The sales of the 1200 Sport dwindled until September 1977.
That month, SEAT introduced the second series of the Bocanegra. The car got a number of changes, starting on the name, as the cars would be now named SEAT Sport 1200 and SEAT Sport 1430. The addition of that 1430 engine, taken from the 128, was the most important novelty. The new engine, developed 77hp, 10 more than the original 1200 and with the weight still around 810 kilograms, gave the Sport 1430 the performances it always needed.
The second series of the Bocanegra also received the 128 gearbox and the carburettor, so the engine ran finally smoothly. Another of the first series issues was also addressed with a new brake booster.
The renewed SEAT Sport seemed to have solved the problems the first series had, but during the press test, Arturo de Andrés, the most reputable motor journalist of the country, felt that something was not right with the new 1430 model. He discovered that while driving over wavvy pavement, the car tended to go to one side to immediately go to the opposite side in a sort of parasitic movement of the steering wheel. De Andrés told about the problem to the INDUCAR engineers that after investigate the car the journalist was driving as well as other 1430 units, discovered that there was a problem with the steering rack. As it had to be moved to allocate the 128 gearbox, and the slightly bigger 1430 engine, the steering rack was now off-centre, as one of the supports was two centimeters higher than the other.
After deeming as impossible to completely rework the steering system, the INDUCAR engineers solved the problem adding a spacer so the steering rack was supported at the same height in both sides. The forced recall of the 1430 model didn't harm the reputation of the renewed model that kept selling at the same pace.
SEAT 1430 brochure for the Dutch market. The SEAT Sport was the first SEAT exported to the ECC under the Spanish brand. Note how the car is called "127 Sportcoupe"
The SEAT Sport found new markets abroad, as it began to be exported in late 1977. For the first time, SEAT was going to sell a car under its own brand in the ECC markets, where the Spanish models were usually rebadged as FIAT. The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany or Greece were the markets where the little Spanish coupe was offered through the FIAT network. It was indeed an important step for SEAT, that started to build a market name in countries where it was completely unknown.
The sunset of a dream car.
Despite the improvements received in 1977, the sales of the Bocanegra never took off. The critical situation of SEAT didn't help.
In December 1978, Spain voted a new Constitution. Once it was approved, the country became a full democracy, and ended the transition from the dictatorship it was until 1975. But the country had other problems: The financial situation was not good with high inflation figures and a recession incoming. The unemployment rose to levels never known before, and the citizens began to spend less money, especially in expensive goods.
That situation hit all the car manufacturers, but harmed SEAT specially. As it was a government owned company, some decisions regarding workforce or production were not made using just a financial or cost-related point of view but also a political one. As as result, SEAT was an oversized company, with an enormous workforce and an irrational range of products with some models overlapping in the same segment, or some models absolutely obsolete.
The most obvious example of overlapping were the SEAT Sport and the 128. Both very similar, both relatively exclusive and none of them with enough sales, as one was taking market share away from the other.
The situation was critical. In 1979 SEAT had 56000 cars unsold waiting at the warehouses, with skyrocketing costs that the company couldn't afford. Juan Miguel Antoñanzas. who was appointed chairman in 1977 made a drastic decision. With the introduction of the new and futuristic Ritmo in the spring of 1979, began a rationalization of the product range that in the end, killed the 124, the 133, the 128 and of course, the Bocanegra.
Born in troubled times, the SEAT Sport deserved a better fate.
Despite its aura of exclusivity, and the good performance and quality, the SEAT Sport never achieved the success it really deserved. Between mid 1975 and September 1979, INDUCAR built 11619 first series and only 7730 second series. From those 7730 second series cars, 5122 were sold abroad. Just to compare, SEAT assembled 31893 128 3P between November 1976 and September 1979.
In both cases, sales were slower than expected. The Sport 1430 stock did not exhaust until 1981. Same in the case of the 128, that even saw how some export batched had to be sold in Spain due the lack of demand.
Epilogue: A dream car for a new country
The gorgeous Sessano design has aged well. Nowadays the Bocanegra is a cult classic car.
The SEAT 1200 Sport is probably the most interesting car built in Spain in the last quarter of the 20th century. The tenacity and professionality of Antoni Amat, and the incredible talent of Aldo Sessano created an automobile that was not only stunning to look at. It was also an engineering gem.
The Bocanegra, however, was born in troubled and uncertain times for both the country and its manufacturer. The political, financial and social situation of Spain during the four year production run of the car didn't help this dream car to achieve the success it really deserved.
After a long purgatory during the 80s and 90s when many units were lost, the little coupe is now considered a cult classic. A cult status it always deserved