Avi Weissblei’s absorbing documentary, Desert Tested, is the story of a dream that imploded. It will be screened online by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from June 3-13.
Yitzhak Shabinsky was an ambitious and driven Israeli entrepreneur who dreamed of creating a home-grown car industry in Israel. His company, Autocars, manufactured an eclectic line of vehicles — the Susita, a sedan; the Sabra, a sports car, as well as a station wagon and a pickup truck — in a plant in Haifa from the late 195os until the early 1980s.
It seemed like a good idea, and the Israeli government of the day backed it materially. But Autocars went bust, leaving a trail of recriminations.
Shabinsky is the central figures in this drama. But he appears only after his competitor, Efraim Ilin, has been introduced. One of Israel’s wealthiest men in the 1950s, he built a factory in Haifa to assemble the Kaiser-Frazer car, whose components were made in the United States. Opened by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1951, it was the largest automobile factory in the Middle East. Its first shipment of cars was exported to Finland.
Several years later, Shubinsky and his partner, Ladislav Schneller — an engineer who manufactured electric rickshaws — formed Autocars, planting the seeds of a bitter rivalry with Ilin. There was simply no room for a car assembler and a car manufacturer in a small country like Israel, says Ilin’s son, Arnon.
Shabinsky, a Polish Jew, arrived in Palestine in 1934 with few assets to his name. Earning a living as a courier, he worked himself up to the ownership of a liquor store in the mixed Jewish-Arab port of Haifa. In 1952, he began importing eggs, sweets, smoked salmon, cigarettes and iron ore from Turkey.
He got into the car business because he needed a vehicle to distribute tobacco. He linked up with Schneller and they formed the Autocars partnership in 1957 in association with the British auto manufacturer Reliant.
To publicize the new vehicle, Autocars published an ad in newspapers asking the public to give Israel’s first car a brand name. The winner of the contest would receive a cash prize.
The Susita, which was named after an ancient Israelite settlement, was a hybrid par excellence. The chassis, constructed of fibreglass reinforced polyester, was lighter and stronger than steel. The ten horsepower Reliant engine consumed seven litres of gasoline per 100 kilometres. Supposedly reliable in all weather and road conditions, the Susita could be serviced cheaply. The first batch, manufactured in the Haifa suburb of Tirat Carmel, were sent to Turkey.
Thinking of expanding Autocars, Shubinsky dispatched several of his models by ship to the United States, but in transit they fell apart and had to be reassembled. By way of promoting the Susita, he claimed it had been “desert tested.” In retrospect, Shubinsky’s son thinks his plan to market it in the United States, the world’s biggest producer of cars, was futile, like selling ice to eskimos.
Autocars segued into manufacturing sports cars, but Sabra sales were very low and the venture was abandoned.
In 1969, Ilin sold his factory to Shubinsky for 12 million liras in a deal endorsed by Israel’s influential finance minister, Pinhas Sapir. By that juncture, Autocars had a work force of 75o employees.
Strangely enough, Weissblei leaves out important pieces of information, neglecting to state how much buyers paid for a new Susita, or how many of them were sold in Israel and abroad.
Autocars seemed like a thriving enterprise, especially after it signed a contract with the Israeli armed forces. But the Susita could not compete with European imports, and its reliability was sharply called into question after some of its owners were involved in fatal road accidents, or complained of leakage during the rainy winter months.
To add to his woes, Shubinsky was charged with bribery and tax evasion, and he was relieved of his company. A judge acquitted him, but hefty legal fees burned a deep hole in his pocket and caused him bouts of depression.
Shubinsky’s life ended abruptly and tragically, his passing spelling the demise of Israel’s short-lived car industry.