Remember when Jeep made a lightweight sports car?


The Willys-Overland Interlagos holds the title of Brazil’s first-ever sports car.

Willys-Overland, the brand which gave us the iconic Jeep, isn’t known for manufacturing small, lightweight sportscars. But, that’s exactly what happened in Brazil in the 1960s when Willys started producing the Interlagos, a two-seater sports car that looked strikingly familiar to Europeans.

The story goes that Volkswagen do Brasil announced in 1959 it would start building its own Karmann Ghia, beginning in 1962. That would have given Volkswagen the distinction of building Brazil’s first sports car.

But, Willys-Overland, which had set up shop in Brazil in 1953 and was part-owned by French giant Renault, was having none of it.

Enter the Interlagos, a lightweight two-seater that looked remarkably like a Renault Alpine A108, primarily because it was.

Built under license, the Interlagos featured a small Renault in-line four cylinder engine displacing a meagre 845cc. It was the same engine, dubbed Ventoux, as used in the Renault 4CV. Fed by single Solex one-barrel carburettor, the tiny rear-mounted four-pot was good for 45kW at 6500rpm and around 95Nm. A four-speed manual gearbox sent drive to the rear wheels.

While those numbers sound meagre on paper, the fibreglass-bodied Interlagos only tipped the scales at a svelte 540kg, meaning its top speed was around 175km/h. The benchmark 0-100km/h sprint was dispatched in a claimed 14 seconds. Contemporary reports praised its agile handling, just as Europeans were discovering the nimble qualities of the Alpine A108.

Thanks to that fibreglass construction, the Interlagos was relatively easy and quick to build.

Available in three body styles – coupe, convertible and Berlinetta – the Interlagos was built-to-order at Willys-Overlander do Brasil’s Jurubatuba factory in Sao Paulo.

As for its name, that came courtesy of local automotive journalist, Mario Salles, who suggested the car be named after the racing circuit of Interlagos, also in Sao Paulo.

The car made its debut at the Sao Paulo motor show in 1962, although the first 131 production examples had already rolled off the factory floor, beating Volkswagen to the punch to claim the honour of ‘Brazil’s first sports car’.

Inside, the two-seater Interlagos featured a timber instrument panel with twin dials and a beautiful timber and aluminium three-spoke steering wheel that simply oozed 1960s cool. The seats were trimmed in leather.

While Willys may have been first to market with the Interlagos, Volkswagen do Brasil had the last laugh though, producing over 40,000 of the now iconic Karmann Ghia from 1962-75 while Willys managed to get just 822 of its delightful little sports car off the production line from 1962-66.

Today, a nice Interlagos asks for some serious coin, prime examples listed online from anywhere between $AUD36,000 to $AUD72,000. But, that’s not a patch on its French sibling, with prices for the Alpine A108 starting at $AUD70,000 and topping out at around $AUD115,000.

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