- Image: www.bonhams.com

These days manufacturers pay special attention to China's capacity-based tax system, but Italy had something very similar until the 2000s.

Tax increased from 19% to 38% on cars with engines bigger than 2.0-litres, giving rise to some weird and occasionally wonderful mini marvels.

1. Lamborghini urraco P200

Lamborghini: it's all thundering V12s, innit? Er, not when the 'it' is a Urraco tax-break special with 180bhp and a feeble 130lb ft.

Only 66 buyers went for the P200. Most Lambo buyers grew a pair, took the tax bill on the chin and went for the 217bhp P250.

2. Volvo 850 T5

The big Swede's 2.3-litre engine helped the 850 T5 transform Volvo's performance credentials, but it was no-go in Italy.

But since the engine was turbocharged already, Volvo was able to shrink the unit to 2.0-litres and hang on to most of the power.

With an 81mm bore and 77mm stroke, this Lego-brick Volvo was definitely over-square. Okay, I'll get my coat.

3. BMW 320is

BMW's M3 might have been loved by race fans, but its 2.3-litre S14 meant it put a smile on the Italian tax man's face too.

Same story with the hairy 325i. BMW's answer was to drop a shrunken M3 motor into a stock narrow-arch E30 shell, just for the Italians - and the Portuguese, who's tax people also thrived on spoiling fun.

The 320iS made 189bhp in 2.0 guise, way more than the 168bhp of the 325i and alarmingly close to the 197bhp of an early uncatalysed 2.3-litre M3.

In fact the man behind it, Jost Capito, later of Ford's RS division, VW Motorsport, and the McLaren F1 team (from where he's just been booted) once told us this engine was so good the hardest bit about building it was making it produce noticeably less punch than a real M3.

4. Ferrari 208

Like Lamborghini's Urraco, Ferrari's ugly Bertone-designed 308 GT4 was offered with a naturally-aspirated 2.0 version for the Italian market that suffered for its tax savings.

Ferrari used the same recipe for the two-seat 208 GTB, only this time it was even weedier. Ferrari hadn't made a car with 150bhp since the 1950s. Think Magnum PI with a BB gun.

But then in 1982 Ferrari evened the balance, adding a turbo and making the 217bhp 208 GTB almost as powerful as the then-new 237bhp 308 QV.

5. TvR V8 S

TVR's tax beater was a Rover V8 fitted with a short throw crank to half the capacity. Adding an Eaton supercharger helped make up for those lost cubes, the finished engine producing 230bhp compared to 240bhp for the unblown 4.0.

We can't imagine the Italians being big into TVRs, and apparently only one car was built with their tax regime in mind. Still, being that bit slower meant more time to browse the selection of ladies littering the Via Emilia of an evening.

6. Maserati Merak 2000GT

Image: www.bonhams.com

Image: www.bonhams.com

The Merak was Maserati's answer to Ferrari's pretty Dino 246 (and its not so pretty Dino 308 successor). Most markets got it with a version of the Citroen SM engine opened up from 2.7 litres to 3.0 to give 187bhp - and then 217bhp in the Merak SS.

But to keep the tax man off their lire, Italians were offered a 2.0 version. You could probably accept 168bhp given the sweet music, but it sounds like the 137lb ft of torque wouldn't uproot a stick of cress, never mind a stump.

7. Maserati Ghibli

Maserati was still messing with downsized motors in the 1990s, only the power figures were a bit meatier by then.

So meaty in fact, that the theoretically stifled 2.0 Italian-market Ghibli made 302bhp in 1992, whereas the 2.8 version sent to the rest of Europe made do with 280bhp, and by 1995 the 2.0 Ghibli Cup was pushing out 325bhp.

Turbo lag? We hear someone flattened the accelerator for the first time back in '95 and is still waiting for the boost to kick in.

8. Lotus Esprit

Early Esprits all used 2.0 versions of the canted over alloy four-banger, but since 0-60mph in 8.0sec meant the supercar styling was overselling on a pyramid scheme scale, this was later upped to 2.2 litres.

But in the early 1990s Lotus downsized the engine again just for the Italians, then used the resulting engine to create the storming Esprit GT3 sold elsewhere in 1997.

9. Alfa Romeo GTV V6 Turbo

Alfa's four-cylinder twin-spark engines were great, but who didn't want a V6 with THOSE induction pipes and THAT sound? Maybe someone who didn't want their pants pulled down by the Italian cash collectors.

Enter the 2.0 V6! Very slowly, in the case of the 130bhp naturally aspirated version in the early 1980s Alfa 90 saloon.

And slightly more quickly when fitted with a blower and bolted into the quirky GTV coupe: the 2.0 TB's 197bhp actually outpointed the 189bhp of the contemporary 12v 3.0 V6.

Tags: #new-era-icons #classic-cars #modern-cars #cult-cars #hero-cars #italy #italian-cars #tax-beaters #ferrari #maserati #alfa-romeo #volvo #tvr #lotus #bmw #lamborghini #urraco #ferrari-208 #308GTB #volvo-t5 #gtv #alfa-gtv #esprit #esprit-turbo

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