1960s / 1970s / 1980s / Alfa Romeo / Autobianchi / BMW / Fiat / German / Italian / Lancia / Mercedes-Benz

Vintage test mules

For as long as the automotive press has been around, journalists have been trying to get a peek at new models before their official launch.

For some it has become a full-fledged career, while for others it is merely a hobby; even we have been known to chase down BMW test mules on back roads from time to time!

In response to the unwelcomed curiosity of journalists, auto manufacturers have gone to great lengths to camouflage their test cars, sometimes fitting them with entirely new bodies.

As a follow-up to a similar article we published last year, we’re taking a look at some past test cars from this cat and mouse game.

Alfa Romeo Alfasud

This four-door 1971 Alfasud test mule featured four round sealed beam-type headlights that were similar to the ones that were later found on certain ti models. The grille was replaced, and it was adorned by an odd S-shaped emblem meant to throw off journalists. Sheetmetal was added to the back end to avoid revealing the car’s true lines, but it was recognizable as an Alfa thanks to the four-lug steel wheels.

Production car:

BMW 5-Series (E12)

In order to camouflage the first installment of the 5-Series, BMW grafted an entirely new front end onto it.  The four round lights were replaced by two rectangular ones and two fog lights.  The traditional kidney grille was removed and replaced by a more mundane grille that featured horizontal bars.  Unfortunately, no photos of the rear of the car are available.

Production car:

BMW 7-Series (E32)

BMW went all out to camouflage this E32 mule.  The tail lights were covered up by smaller Mercedes-esque horizontal units.  A big plastic spoiler was fitted to the trunk lid, aftermarket hubcaps hid the wheels, and a wide variety of plastic trim was tacked on to the side of the car.  It is interesting to note that this photo appears to have been taken in the United States.

Production car:

Fiat 126

These blurry photos taken in 1971 show the Fiat 126’s basic lines, though they were camouflaged by plastic panels added to both ends of the car.  The front turn signals were replaced by smaller units, and the rear decklid featured extra air vents.  This could be because the side air vents that were found on the production version of the 126 were buried under the test car’s new body.

Production car:

Fiat 132

Fiat fooled the press again by making its upcoming flagship sedan look like a hatchback.  It’s a little hard to tell from the photo, but it appears that the grille and both headlight bezels were removed from the front end.  The bulge on the hood was not found on the production car, which leaves us to wonder what exactly is this test car was powered by.  It is worth noting that although the photo was taken two years before the 132’s launch, the door handles pictured appear to be identical to the ones found on the production car.

Production car:

Lancia Beta sedan

Under the boxy, almost Volvo-like body hides the Lancia Beta sedan.  Journalists must have gotten a sneak peek at the car without camouflage, because the article that accompanied this photo stated that the car’s overall silhouette would be similar to that of a Citroën GS, which was not very far off.  Where the press was wrong was under the hood: the car was said to be powered by a 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine.

Production car:

Lancia Beta Scorpion/Montecarlo

When this photo was taken, rumors circulating around the Italian auto press claimed that the car was going to be released with an Autobianchi badge.  This was not the case, and there is no evidence that Fiat ever considered giving the model to Autobianchi.  The car pictured seems to be pretty close to production, but the shape of its body was altered with plastic.  A careful eye will notice the “PROVA” license plate which was attributed to all road-going test cars and prototypes in Italy.

Production car:

Mercedes-Benz w116

The horizontal taillights found on the production-bound w116 were replaced with three small round units, a technique which was widely used by Mercedes-Benz in the 1970s.  The turn signals and the headlights were camouflaged, but the grille automatically gave the car away as a Mercedes.  

Production car:



6 thoughts on “Vintage test mules

  1. The “S” on the Alfasud’s grille may not have been chosen at random. With the grille, four headlamp arrangement and bonnet line, take a quick glance and you see a scaled-down version of the contemporary Sunbeam Rapier’s front end.

  2. love the Volvo grille and the Ford taillights on the Mercedes 123 mule! thanks for posting this, I really enjoyed it.

  3. Pingback: Ist das ein getarnter E32?

  4. Pingback: Camouflage | Roues carrées

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