A rare beauty

Martin Backley looks back at the Monica, the 1970s supercar killed by a political crisis
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Monica definitely falls into the "near-mythical" category of motor cars. You might be aware of it from an old Observers Book of Cars, a dog-eared early 1970s Motor Show guide or a playground game of Top Trumps, but you've probably never seen one.

At £14,000 the Monica was more expensive than a Ferrari Daytona or a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow when it emerged in 1973. It was the world's fastest four-door saloon, good for nearly 160mph. But it couldn't have been launched at a worse time, a 12mpg supercar born in the middle of a fuel crisis and an era of speed limits.

Unsurprisingly it was cancelled after only 35 were built. Twenty-five of these were in effect prototypes from the car's five-year development period, when its designers struggled to find a suitable company to build the bodywork.

The Monica was a truly international effort. It was designed in the UK by Chris Lawrence (who now works for Morgan), powered by a Chrysler 5.4-litre V8 engine, styled by a Romanian called Tony Rascanu and financed and built by the French industrial tycoon Jean Tastevin. He certainly got rid of a lot of his fortune getting the Monica into production, but he had fun trying. In many ways the car he built, far from being a lash-up in a pretty dress, was more sorted than most exotics that made it.

A fan of fast, luxurious cars, Tastevin dreamed of building a successor to the Facel Vega and the great French Grand Routier cars of the 1930s. Named after Tastevin's wife Monique, the first car, built by Lawrence in a Chiswick railway arch, was ready in 1968.

It looked bulbous, and was not the glamorous GT car the French tycoon had dreamed of. Rascanu's final shape - with refinements by the English designer David Coward - was much more satisfactory, a svelte blend of Maserati nose (with fashionable pop-up headlights) and sweeping Ferrari roofline, with a touch of Aston Martin DBS, but with four doors and four seats.

When the car was announced, prematurely, in 1972, it was powered by a bespoke Martin V8, a 3.5-litre unit with a rather fragile temperament that was designed by the British engineer Ted Martin for use in racing cars.

Getting the engine into production proved difficult, and as the Monica began to put on weight with more and more luxury features it became increasingly obvious to Lawrence that the Martin engine didn't have the character his buyers required. So when the Monica appeared again at the Paris Salon in 1973, a Chrysler V8 had been fitted under the bonnet that was tuned to give 285bhp. It didn't look as pretty, but it was proven and reliable.

Other than the US engine the Monica was no parts-bin job: its suspension was rose-jointed and featured a Dedion rear suspension, huge racing brakes and rack-and-pinion steering, which was rare in luxury cars at the time. Lawrence even devised a two-speed differential that could change the gearbox from a three-speed automatic to a five-speed manual. Production versions, built as Tastevin's factory at Balbigny, didn't have the alarming-sounding sill-mounted fuel tanks, while the plush interior echoed Tastevins' love of English luxury cars. The seats were leather and the walnut dashboard was redolent of a Rolls-Royce.

The car had electric windows and air conditioning, but also electric door-catches that popped open when you pressed switches on the door or touched the outside handle. Tastevin liked the idea, but should the battery go flat with the windows up, getting out of the Monica could prove tricky.

Tastevin announced that he was cancelling his project in February 1975. The car had enjoyed enthusiastic reviews but the buyers didn't materialise and even established marques like Ferrari and Jensen were struggling with the fuel crisis.

Bob Jankel of Panther was briefly linked with a plan to revive the car in the UK, but the idea came to nothing. Today there is no club for the cars, which seem to be hidden in collections around the world. I know of one in Sweden, one in Holland, one in LA and at least two in the UK, of which I own one.

When it runs it sounds fabulous, but I've only driven it twice and each time it has run out of fuel. And where Tastevin risked not getting the doors to open, I can't get mine to shut because of those stupid door locks. I've also struggled to get the necessary work done despite it having been used little since it was restored. This year, hopefully, my mythical Monica will finally come together.

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