UK’s rarest cars: 1985 Nissan Cherry Europe GTi, one of only five left on British roads

The ill-fated alliance between Alfa Romeo and Nissan to produce a Golf/Escort rival resulted in this wondrously Eighties sporty hatchback

1985 Nissan Cherry Europe GTi, one of only five left on British roads
A marriage of Japanese styling and Italian build quality: the Cherry Europe and Alfa Romeo Arna were the same thing apart from the badges

On 9 October 1980, two of the world’s most famous car makers signed an agreement to jointly produce a rival to the VW Golf and Ford Escort. The Alfa Romeo Arna, aka the Nissan Cherry Europe, made its bow in 1983 but production ceased just four years later. Today, Eddie Rattley’s 1985-registration example is believed to be one of only five survivors – as well as the original winner of that celebration of everyday motors of yesteryear, Hagerty’s Festival of The Unexceptional.

Forty years ago, Alfa Romeo required a successor to the Alfasud, which accounted for 60 per cent of its sales, but it lacked the financial resources to develop an entirely new car (the more expensive Alfa Romeo 33, also launched in 1983, was essentially a restyled Alfasud). At that time, Nissan sought a European manufacturing base to circumvent various import restrictions. Body panels from the N12-series Cherry/Pulsar were shipped from Japan to the Pratola Serra factory in southern Italy.

The running gear for the Arna (the name is actually an abbreviation of Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli) was sourced from the Alfasud, including its distinctive flat-four engine, but Turin lacked the resources to undertake more than minor body alterations to the angular Japanese styling.

Alfa and Nissan aimed to manufacture 60,000 cars per year, with 50 per cent earmarked for export. The first cars were destined for the UK badged as Cherry Europes; imports of Alfa-badged Arnas would only commence in 1985.

The green seats are certainly distinctive. Note the deeply dished steering wheel, an Alfa tradition

The “blend of good things in motoring” was available as the 1.2 at £4,184.75 and the 1.5 GTi at £5,349.59. Rattley believes that the reason behind the initial Nissan identity was Alfa’s concerns about the new model’s vaguely downmarket image. However, this was probably a mistake. “It just confirmed the prejudices about its Japanese origins,” says Rattley. Nor was there an official launch ceremony and instead the Europe seemed to materialise in Nissan dealerships.  

The brochure stated “So now there is a choice – a Nissan Cherry made in Japan, or a Nissan Cherry made in Europe” but Rattley points out Nissan already had an extensive N12 range. The firm’s traditional customer base was also suspicious of its quality, despite Nissan claiming there was no difference between its Japanese- and Italian-built cars.

By 1984 sales were plummeting, and the Italian press cited this lack of popularity with British drivers as a primary reason for the reduction in production to 25,000 units per annum. Meanwhile, several Alfa Romeo GB dealers regarded the impending change-over with mixed feelings. “Rediscover The Magic of Motoring,” urged the sales copy. Various cynics responded with: “It is a Nissan Cherry with Alfa reliability.”

In its day the Cherry Europe/Arna was criticised for its plainness, although straight lines were all the rage back then

Perhaps the Arna’s major problem was that, unlike the Anglo-Japanese Triumph Acclaim, a joint project between Honda and Rover, it never established a real niche. When Autocar evaluated the Arna Ti in 1985, it thought a Cherry driver “would not be interested in its speed and lower fuel consumption”. Furthermore, an Alfa Romeo owner would “baulk at the Japanese exterior and interior” and “probably end up buying one of the sportier looking competitors, moving away from the marque altogether”. 

This proved to be the case, and the last of 53,047 Arnas left the plant in 1987. A mere three or four UK-model Arnas are thought to exist, in addition to the limited number of Cherry Europes. Rattley has owned B660 LCH since 2014 and finds that it “comes alive” at higher speeds, for the GTi version came very close to fulfilling the 1980s brief of a Japanese car “suited to European tastes”.  

Some of Alfa's sporting heritage rubbed off on the Cherry Europe GTi, although it was widely derided and production only lasted four years

Today, the Rattley Cherry Europe is frequently the object of fascination. Its appearance, once derided as looking as bland as a provincial shopping precinct, now seems wonderfully Eighties, while the GTi offered 112mph, front foglamps and lurid green upholstery.

In short, it is a vehicle that embodies the instruction issued by Alfa Romeo’s CEO to his chief engineer – “Take the Nissan Cherry and stuff into it as much Alfasud as possible”.  

With thanks to Eddie Rattley

For new and used buying guides, tips and expert advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here

To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here

A-Z Car Finder