There are these crackers that are sold in Europe called TUC crackers or TUC biscuits or something and they’re ruining my life. Not because they’re bad. The opposite, actually. They’re awesome. They’re like Ritz but better. TUC has perfected the ratio between salt and cracker flawlessly, and they won’t give them to us. TUC doesn’t operate in the US, in part because we have Ritz. But Ritz is merely a cracker. TUC, to Americans, is a forbidden way of life. I can only enjoy them in my memory. It’s my personal version of Rick Sanchez’s Szechuan sauce. Anyway, here’s a car. This is a 1977 Dacia 1300.
I start with this story of suppressed love because that, in many ways, is what this is. Dacia isn’t an especially recognizable name in these parts. But in Romania it’s about as popular as livestreaming a fidget spinner that has opinions on Wonder Woman. That’s right, this is Forgotten Metal’s very first Romanian car. The word Dacia comes from the ancient kingdom that eventually became Romania, and pronunciations vary but tend to fall into either the “DA-cha” or “DAY-see-uh” camps. The car company opened its doors in 1966. This particular Dacia is the 1300, which should be familiar to you as the company’s second-ever car (their first was a car called the 1100). Well, familiar if you’re a fan of cars. And a bit of a nerd. And a francophile, as it turns out.
You see, Dacia sprung from the forehead of the French manufacturer Renault. You want to know what Dacia did to make the 1300? Here’s what they did: they took a Renault 12 and changed the word “Renault” to “Dacia.” That’s it. The 1300 is about as Romanian as marrying your high school drama teacher. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. Manufacturing for the 1300 was based in Mioveni, Romania, so the car is technically a Romanian product. But the design and engineering is French through and through. Luckily, the Renault 12 was quite a good car, featuring a front-mounted, longitudinal four cylinder engine sending power to the front wheels through a four speed manual. Dacia mainly sold cars to the Eastern Bloc and parts of South America and Asia, whereas Renault dealt with other parts of Europe and the Americas. Which brings us, depressingly, to what could have been.
This car (in Renault form) existed at a crossroads in American buying habits. The big-car, big-money tastes we’d cultivated in the sixties were losing the battle against the reality of the gas-crisis-plagued seventies. We knew times were changing. We couldn’t continue living in the same sort of way that we had been. But we hadn’t quite reached the point where we considered a small foreign car like this a feasible option. We had our land yachts, but for some reason they just weren’t as fun as they once were. Cars like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Corolla captured our hearts in the eighties, and that’s fine. But consider this little bit of alternative history. If we’d wisened up sooner, a company like a Renault (or Dacia) could’ve taken off. Today, we could be driving stuff as delightfully weird as the rear-engined Renault Twingo or the charmingly honest Dacia Sandero. Instead, the 1300 never became a common sight on our roads, as it did across the world. But like a Romanian Bette Midler, it soldiered on for far longer than anyone expected it to. The last one- an updated pick-up version– rolled off the line in 2006.
I actually rented a modern Dacia when I was in Iceland a couple years back. It was a Duster, and it was nothing that would light your hair on fire: just a small SUV with four wheel drive and a manual transmission. No gimmicks, no flash. It was refreshing in that way. It captured the spirit and simplicity of the 1300 (not coincidentally, there’s a Renault version of the Duster as well). I really liked driving it. I kinda miss it, to tell you the truth. That’s because Dacia, for the reasons we discussed, doesn’t sell it here. Realistically, there’s a very small chance I ever drive a Duster again. Much like those TUC crackers, I can only enjoy that little car within the confines of the memories I have of it. And that’s a little sad.
- The other orange car in the background of the first picture is, lo and behold, a Renault 12. So someone in Queens is committed to preserving midsize French sedans in all their guises. Not all heroes wear capes.
- The Renault 12 platform also underpinned at least one prototype for a Rhodesian sports car called the GNW Duiker, though the project never saw the light of day. These are the only pictures I can seem to find of it.