AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Did you know they made cars in Israel and Spain? Neither one is known as an automobile capital, but they did produce them, and cool ones at that. I saw autos from both countries during the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida.

Auctions circle around the main car show like pilot fish on a shark, and Bonhams, for one, held its sale a few days before the central event. I was stunned to see a 1964 Sabra there. It's a cute little sports car, but there were plenty of them in the 1960s. This one, though, was produced in Haifa, Israel! It used to be possible to make a few dozen cars a year, and survive. These days it isn't easy to start a boutique automaker.

Israeli SabraThe Sabra had neat little fins, British antecedents, and an international audience — particularly in Belgium. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The name "sabra" refers to a Jewish person who was born in Israel, and so was this car, though its parents came from elsewhere — Britain, specifically. The body was via kit car manufacturer Ashley and actually made by Reliant; the chassis, with a 1.7-liter Ford Consul engine, from Les Ballamy.

So even if it was something of an illegitimate child, the Sabra was a proud son of Israel. The man behind the car was Itzhak Shubinsky, who built his first prototype in time for the New York Auto Show in 1961. Sabras were sold on the U.S. market, though in tiny numbers (just 144). They loved the car in Belgium, apparently; 88 made it there.

In total, 379 Sabras were sold in Israel (where they had tax advantages) and elsewhere between 1961 and 1968. The car at Amelia Island was one of the Belgian ones, and had been delivered new to the wife of the Belgian Israeli Consulate General. It was in rough shape and got a ground-up restoration.

Performance is said to be "feisty," though your Toyota Corolla would leave it in its dust. At the auction, it fetched $93,500, though there's no word if it was a sabra who bought it.

Pegaso Z-102This Pegaso Z-102 is the only survivor with amazing Cupola bodywork. The first owner was Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Spain was also a hotbed of car manufacture, and not just Italian designed Seats. A proud company named Pegaso built beautiful exclusive sports cars. And they were a featured marque at the Amelia Island Concours. Can you believe they were produced by a truck company?

Pegaso Z-102Look at that amazing glass. And the red tires! (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

It helped that the company's technical manager and engine designer was ex-Alfa-Romeo and a Ferrari rival. Pegaso built just about everything itself, starting with prototypes in 1951. The elegant aluminum bodies were by Carrozzeria Touring or Saoutchik. And the chassis was innovative, featuring in the Z-102 five-speed gearboxes, a four-cam alloy V8 and dry-sump lubrication.

A big row of Pegasos brightened the field at Amelia Island. I was absolutely blown away by a bright orange car, one of two built (and the only survivor) with amazing and ultra-streamlined "Cupola" coupe bodywork. There's not a straight line on the car and an astonishingly huge rear glass hatch. The stranger-than-fiction story is this Z-102 was displayed at the 1953 New York Auto Show, then sold off the stand to President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic; it got nicknamed "El Dominicano" as a result.

Trujillo was a brutal dictator known for human rights abuses, deposed and killed by rebels in 1961. He loved "El Dominicano" though. The car was confiscated by the Dominican government, and eventually made it onto the international classic scene, the Rosso Bianco collection and then the Louwman Museum in Holland.

Pegaso Z-102This unrestored Pegaso Z-102 sported stylish Saoutchik bodywork. A mere $300k and it would look new again. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

One of the intriguing Z-102s on the show field, with a stylish Saoutchik body, was one of the few totally unrestored cars at the show. It sat in a Connecticut garage for 40 years, and it only emerged for the show. The owner's son told me the original tires were pumped up, held air, and the car rolled onto the trailer for a long trip to Florida. It may soon be restored, as its now-pristine mate — with the same owner — was sitting nearby.

Just 86 Pegasos were produced, and production was discontinued in 1958. Hagerty values a concours-level 1956 Pegaso at $1.5 million; imagine what that Trujillo car — with no other like it — is worth!

Hispano-SuizaThere was a whole row of coachbuilt Hispano-Suizas at Amelia Island. This one dates to 1934, the height of the Great Depression. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Incidentally, another Spanish car — the Hispano-Suiza — was also well-represented at Amelia Island. The car was launched in Spain, circa 1904, with Swiss parentage, hence the name. And starting in 1911, it was also built in France. Hispano built huge cars, with coach-built bodies (many very exotic) for the very rich. That was effective as a strategy for a while, but the Depression and World War II made it untenable.

Production in France ended in 1938, with 3,000 built. The car was built in Spain until sometime during the early war years. A few were made in Czechoslovakia and in Argentina, until approximately 1942.

Israel and Spain, two countries that can claim only footnotes in automotive history, but they're interesting footnotes.


I thought I'd throw in here that Amelia Island isn't dedicated to celebrity cars. The actual provenance of the automobile is the key thing. But that doesn't mean there aren't star cars. One of the biggest crowds was around Janis Joplin's 1964 Porsche 356C, which she had painted in psychedelic colors (the murals include a faithful rendition of her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company). The car was sold for $1.7 million last year, affirming its iconic status.

Janis Joplin's PorscheJanis Joplin's lovely 1964 Porsche 356C fetched $1.7 million at auction. A Janis impersonator rode in it around Amelia Island. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

And let's not forget the 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible from "Rain Man." It's still owned by the film's director, Barry Levinson. Here's video on that one:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.