Motoring: Who on earth buys these cars?: Some of the world's more unusual models are now coming to Britain. But, says Jonathan Glancey, the most bizarre still don't make it

Modern cars? All the same aren't they? Give me a car like the old Morris Oxford any day - they don't make them like that any more. None of those fancy electronics. And did they have character]

Actually, they do make them like they used to. Only last year two English enthusiasts began importing the venerable Hindustan Ambassador to Britain. The Ambassador is a mildly updated 1954 Morris Oxford built in Mukherjee Road, Calcutta. Among its virtues are ruggedness, a stately ride and utter simplicity. Beyond that, it might be fairest to say that, from New Delhi to Darjeeling, the Ambassador serves the Indian taxi trade well.

A much more intriguing new import is the Tatra 613-4, a rear-engined, air-cooled, luxury saloon from Koprivnice in the Czech republic. The British-specification Tatra costs pounds 30,000, comes with uprated suspension and a wooden dashboard, and is more luxurious than the version that once took Communist Party officials to mind- numbing congresses in Prague, Moscow and all points Red.

The current Tatra is a mid-Sixties development of the great V8- powered streamlined saloons designed by Hans Ledwinka, the brilliant Czech engineer, in the Thirties. The 613-4 - big, upright, boxy and unmistakable - is a genuine 135mph alternative to BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

There are, in fact, dozens of characterful cars being produced across the world. Most are not exported to Britain, and perhaps this is just as well. Many that look fun or appear to be exceptional value can turn out to be nasty to own and even nastier to drive. I would not recommend a bottom-of-the-line Moskvich or Lada. And I am loathe to suggest the swish Hindustan Ambassador Classic, unless you want a new Indian-built 1972 Vauxhall Victor, available in brown with an orange interior.

However, I think I can easily tempt you with a new Volkswagen Beetle. Production of Hitler's 'people's car' stopped some years ago in Europe, but it is still made by Volkswagen in Mexico. The latest version has a 1.6-litre, fuel-injected engine, is catalysed and has a compression ratio of 6.6:1 - which means that it should run happily on a bottle of meths. Expensive to get back? Yes; but next time you happen to be in Mexico, drive one through the United States and ship it home from New York.

Two other small cars I like are the Zaz, an NSU Prinz lookalike, and the Premier Padmini, the 1955 Fiat 1100 that is still being manufactured in Bombay.

The Zaz 968M, from Ukraine, has two doors, four seats, a rear- mounted, 1.2-litre air-cooled engine, a top speed of 80mph and a decidedly perky character. The Premier Padmini has all the virtues of Fifties Fiats: it is compact, well engineered, handles effectively and has charm. Its limitations are a four- speed gearbox, a top whack of 78mph and the cost of importation.

Up-to-the-minute small cars that might be popular in Britain include the Daihatsu Opti (a tiny city vehicle powered by a perky three-cylinder, 659cc, 55bhp engine) and the Mazda AZ-1, a miniature mid-engined 'supercar', distinguished by butterfly doors (like the great mid- Fifties Mercedes-Benz 300SL or the infamous De Lorean) and 64bhp. Look out for thorough engineering and a top speed one third that of a Porsche Turbo.

Two supercars missing from these shores are the exquisite Maserati Barchetta Stradale and the brutish American Vector.

The Maserati redeems the ugly, awkward cars the Modena manufacturer has been making over the past 15 years. This two-seat, open-top road racer is as far removed as possible from a Volvo Estate. It cannot take children to school and has no room for shopping (not much for a toothbrush either). With no hood, it cannot even keep you dry. It is simply an ecologically unsound racer for grown-ups - or at least those old enough to be grown-ups.

The Vector is something else again: Star Wars on wheels. This other-worldly vehicle was dreamt up by a tiny American outfit, the Aeromotive Corporation of Wilmington, California, in 1978 and is still not properly in production. It is engineered to the highest standards and should top 200mph, courtesy of a titanic 634bhp, 6-litre V8 throbbing behind the driver's head. There are now two versions: the original W8 Twin Turbo and the Avtech WX-3 (above).

For much more down-to-earth motoring, the stuff of mud, ruts and rocky tracks, the snappily named UAZ 31512, a Cold War-style Russian jeep, would make a lot of sense. Painted olive green or drab grey, it looks great, seats seven and should make for a problem-free trip anywhere but on the road to Vladivostok and back. Power from its four- cylinder, 2.4-litre engine enables it to cruise noisily at 60. However, it does have some distinctly vintage features - principally a gearbox with no synchromesh on first and second gears - that make it a poor second choice to an automatic, air- conditioned Range Rover. Still, you should be able to import several UAZs for the price of a single Range Rover.

For those who like going out in style, with large families or lots of carless pals, what about a new limousine for the price of a boring, everyday family hack? How about a Zil? Last revised in 1985, the Zil was the car of the Soviet elite, and today acts as a gun carriage for the Moscow mafia. It can carry seven gangsters in sumptuous style. The exterior of this huge and impressive mobile congress hall - it weighs 3.35 tons - is surprisingly sleek and clearly influenced by the shape of Lincoln Continentals of the late Seventies. Despite its heroic mass, it is no slouch: a mighty 7.7-litre V8 offers a top speed of 120mph. Fuel consumption? Pass.

Slightly less impressive, but worthwhile for the novelty value, is the Hongki, an eight-seater that has been made at the First Automobile Works, Changchun, China, since 1966. It has lots of plush inside and purrs up to 110mph, the push coming from a 220bhp, 5.6-litre V8.

However, if I were going to import a car from the People's Republic, it would be the slightly smaller Shanghai SH760A. Behind an American-style grille, a fretwork of chrome and peepings of net curtains, the Shanghai is a mid-Fifties S-type Mercedes-Benz. It was first made in 1970 and is still impressing the comrades with its blend of surface glitz and reliability. A six-cylinder, 2.2-litre, 90bhp engine and an unbreakable four-speed gearbox takes it all the way to 80mph (81 say the manufacturers, the SVW Automotive Company, Shanghai).

Now who says that modern cars lack character and aren't what they used to be? Your problem, however, is not a lack of choice, but persuading companies such as Mazda in Hiroshima and the First Automobile Works of Changchun to ship the car of your dreams to Britain. Happy hunting.

(Photographs omitted)

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