Welcome to In Plain Sight, where I make myself late for things to stop and admire one of the many fascinating, Jalop-worthy cars parked right on the street amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Between the terrible road conditions, dense street grid, abundance of pedestrians, and maniacal cabbies and panel vans, New York is not a friendly environment for cars. So it's always a pleasant surprise when you come upon something unique and unusual braving the conditions, and such is the case with this 1999/1989 Laforza. Why the two years? We’ll get to that! Sheesh.
For those who aren't familiar, this rare SUV was based on the Rayton-Fissore Magnum 4x4, which was a civilian adaptation of an Italian IVECO military truck chassis in the 1980s. Rayton-Fissore was an Italian coachbuilder that saw an opening in the already-growing SUV market for a high-end luxury product. They commissioned designer Tom Tjaarda, who was responsible for a bevy of crazy-cool cars: the 1962 Chevrolet Corvair Pininfarina Coupé, the 1966 Ferrari 365 GT California, the 1970 De Tomaso Pantera, the original Ford Fiesta, and the interior of the Lamborghini Diablo. The result was the Magnum, which was a fitting name as the military-grade construction had it tipping the scales at over 5,000 pounds.
The Magnum ran in small numbers in Europe for a few years, where no one appreciates big cars anyways (kidding, Euro-friends), until a group of American businessmen happened upon the truck in Europe and decided to try and introduce it to the US of A in 1988, when people were just starting to go cray-cray for SUVs. The bodies were shipped over from Italy and forcefully mated with a Ford V8 and transmission. With the new guts came a new name - Laforza (like Madonna, one name only).
Sadly, although we built it, they did not come. Sales never took off and the original importer went bankrupt after a year. The Laforza was resurrected with slightly (and I mean slightly) updated styling in the mid-90s by none other than Monster Motorworks of V8 Miatas fame, and soon after by the reformed Laforza Automobiles, but even they couldn’t move this odd duck off the lots and the effort petered out around the end of the millennium.
But because of this uneven production history, there were still unused 1989 model year bodies lying around, and you could still order a NEW 1989 Laforza in 1999 for less than half the cost of the updated version, hence the two model years. It’s hard to tell, but my guess is that this one comes from that second run, by virtue of it sharing a front bumper with the new model and being a freaking hand-built Italian SUV that’s still on the road.
But on to the show! I’ve actually seen this particular Laforza a few times on the way home from work, and that plus its fair-to-decent body condition makes me think it’s someone’s daily driver. That’s kind of ridiculous, considering all the little Italian gremlins that must live in the electronics system and that finding anything other than drivetrain parts is probably a herculean task. This is made even more impressive/silly by the fact that it appears the owner has swapped out the stock steering wheel for an aftermarket wooden one with the Ferrari logo slapped on it, a common but sadly mythical connection. That automatic gearbox you see is likely mated to the aforementioned 5.0 liter Ford V8, which itself is probably one of the main reasons the owner here has been able to keep this girl on the road.
And speaking of that body, it may seem a little plain to some, but I like its honest proportions. I’ve always thought it kind of looks like a Playmobil truck brought to life, which is definitely not a bad thing. Just look at that ground clearance! The approach angle ain’t bad, and the departure angle is pretty bonkers. Although the base model was never a very quick truck, the standard 5.0 liter Ford V8 had an optional supercharger in 1999, so that’s a possibility here. Either way, it’s still probably a very fun SUV.
My guess is that even though the company hit the SUV craze at basically the right time, most Americans had no interest in a strange truck from the same land that had brought them a decade of Fix it again, Tony! It’s a shame though, because in terms of the luxury that we as a PEOPLE would soon demand from our trucks, the Laforza was miles ahead of its domestic competition, and the Ford and later GM engines were easy enough to maintain. But I’m glad that at least one driver has chosen to stay ahead of the sunset and keep his on the road.