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The secret story of Albania’s Toyota Previa-derived Tartan Prancer Vacation van

As an unrepentant fan of the mindless lowbrow slapstick comedy of the National Lampoon’s Vacation film series, I was mildly intrigued by the notion of the reboot/sequel mashup Vacation 2015, but mildly intrigued became full-blown obsessive curiosity as soon as I spotted the 21st-century counterpart to the venerably ridiculous Wagon Queen Family Truckster – the Albanian Tartan Prancer minivan pictured above and prominently featured in the movie preview shown below – and immediately noticed a greenhouse bearing a more than passing resemblance straight out of the original 1990s Toyota Previa. So how did this seminal mid-engine minivan morph into the Tartan Prancer? Read on as Kaizen Factor investigates…

The (maybe true) history of the Tartan Prancer
Our story actually starts not in Albania, but roughly 5000 miles away, in China. Anyone who follows the ins and outs of the world’s largest automotive market should know a couple of its basic tenets:

1) There are somewhere between 120 and 170 carmakers in China, some of them obscure regional brands.

2) The Chinese see nothing wrong with copying other carmakers’ designs, with the Daewoo Matiz/Chevrolet Spark vs Chery QQ row being among the oldest notable examples, and the Range Rover Evoque ripoff LandWind X7 among the newest.


BYD Auto, China’s 10th-largest selling brand overall, the largest selling indigenous Chinese brand and 10% owned by Warren Buffett, seems particularly enamored of making egregious Toyota knockoffs, such as the F0, F3, S6 and M6, which ape the 1st-generation Aygo, 9th-gen Corolla sedan, 2nd-gen Harrier/Lexus RX and 3rd-generation Estima/Previa, respectively. But it was tiny, obscure Bu Shi Motors that became enthralled with the original, egg-shaped Previa and proceeded to shamelessly copy its distinctive passenger cabin in creating the Feixing Xunlu (Flying Reindeer) model. It eventually evolved from being a straight Toyota knockoff to incorporating elements from other vehicles, such as Land Rover Discovery 3/LR3 headlights (shown at left) and a Subaru XT steering wheel (shown below), not to mention a curious tail bustle that gave it a unique “is it coming or going?” vibe (no doubt enhanced by the dual front and rear exterior side mirrors).


One generally thinks of the Chinese car industry as one that produces almost exclusively for the domestic market, but that is less true than it appears. Chinese-built Honda Fits have been sold in Europe and Canada, and Volvo’s long-wheelbase S60 Inscription sedan, built exclusively in China, will be going on sale soon in the United States. Even more surprising are foreign assembly initiatives from indigenous Chinese carmakers. Forbes’ Jack Perkowski informs us that

Chery…already has 17 assembly plants overseas (and) has sold its cars to consumers in 80 countries around the world…Geely is planning to have 15 production bases…

The International Business Times adds that one of Chery’s overseas plants is

a $400 million facility in Sao Paulo, set to become the first Chinese auto manufacturer in South America. And Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Co. Ltd. is also slated to break ground on a factory in Brazil

Given all this, should it really be surprising that China’s Bu Shi decided to set up foreign assembly in Albania? Um…yes, given the impoverished country’s inexplicable penchant for 1990s Mercedes-Benzes, but it is what it is (or is it?) At any rate, Bu Shi decided to avoid the pitfalls that sent other Chinese carmakers scurrying away from Europe (such as subpar crash test results) by Anglicizing its foreign outpost’s name to Tartan Motors and the Feixing Xunlu (Flying Reindeer) minivan became the Prancer (because Dasher, Vixen, Comet and Blitzen were already taken by Volkswagen, an obscure motorhome maker, Ford’s defunct Mercury division and Subaru, respectively)

In a further unexplained (and unexplainable) twist, unsubstantiated rumors suggest that Toyota saw a golden opportunity in this Chinese carmaker’s Eastern European beachhead. Away from the native Chinese copycat culture, Toyota could experiment with bold, unusual and “out-there” technological breakthroughs. If they worked out, the Japanese carmaker could eventually take credit for them. If they didn’t, plausible deniability would allow Toyota to wash its hands of this crap.


What about its “V8 Dual-Tank Electric” powerplant? Is it related to the current Toyota/Lexus UR engine family? We can’t even begin to fathom how Tartan Motors managed to squeeze in a V8 when the original Toyota Previa’s engine bay could hold something no larger than a 2.4-liter inline 4. Unless it was one of these…

Dual-fuel gasoline/E85 capability as on some Toyota Tundra pickup trucks? Or HCCI (Homogeneous charge compression ignition), which supposedly combines the best characteristics of gasoline and diesel engines? Bah, who needs it when the Tartan Prancer combines bi-fuel gasoline and diesel capability with plug-in hybrid functionality in a so-called Tri-Element Hybrid Synergy Drive system. (Is this circumstantial evidence of Toyota involvement, given its HSD trademark?). All that power is transmitted via “a quad-clutch, 12-speed gearbox that you literally cannot explain”. Hey, at least it’s not a CVT!


Tartan’s fevered imagination carries over to interior amenities such as a detachable steering wheel and, as highlighted in the ADM (Albanian Domestic Market) commercial shown below, a central water fountain activated by a push of the upper right button of the central multi-multi-multi button array shown in the picture to your right, the one marked GJRS. GJRS?! Perhaps that stands for Grapefruit Juice – Regular Strength, so maybe it’s not water after all…

The inexplicable continues as Albania, hit with a case of envy for the success (ahem) its northern Yugoslavian (now Serbian) neighbors had with the highly-regarded (cough, wheeze) Yugo automobiles in the United States back in the second half of the 1980s (what were people smoking or snorting back then?), decided to make its own bid for transatlantic New World glory by exporting the Tartan Prancer minivan to the U.S. And isn’t that Prancer logo badge something of a nod or homage to its neighboring Adriatic carmaker?


But is this story true?
Much of what you’ve read above is apocryphal, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s fictitious, made-up, untrue or, more to the point, B.S. (wasn’t the name of Tartan’s Chinese parent company enough of a clue?) Ah, you say, but what about all those links to outside internet sources? Those are all true enough, so is what you have here something of an alternate history, perhaps?

Back to reality (sort of): the Edmunds comparo
Why, given those Toyota roots (apocryphal or otherwise) is the Tartan Prancer described as the Honda of Albania? Why ask why? Perhaps it’s better left that way. Still, given that description, Edmunds’ Carlos Lago decided to settle things once and for all by putting together a comparison test between the Honda of Albania (the Tartan Prancer) and the Honda of America (the Honda Odyssey) for top honors as best minivan. (what, no Toyota Sienna?) Edmunds’ written account is joined by the video you see above. And that video brings to light a heretofore-undisclosed feature of the Tartan Prancer’s rear passenger doors: dual front/rear hinged functionality (hinted at by the dual front/rear door handles on each rear door). The photo below clearly shows opposite-hinged “suicide” or coach doors as on the early 1960s Lincoln Continental or the current Rolls-Royce Phantom. Yet, the video above, at the 2:04 mark, appears to show the rear door hinged next to the driver’s door…NO!…WAIT!…that’s the passenger side, not the driver’s!…Wow! Whew! Whee! I guess the Tartan Prancer’s “vertigo-inducing upholstery” (What? No Tartan Plaid?) has us so that we don’t know whether we’re coming or going, either, so we’ll just go now…


In parting, however, we’ll leave you with one more video courtesy of Edmunds, this one featuring the engineers creators of the Tartan Prancer describing their…um…creation.

Published inHybridPreviaToyota

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