The little Israeli car that couldn’t: The story of the Susita

Many today know of the Susita simply as a name, or have seen one of the handful of collectors’ cars at a rare auto show in Israel.

A SCENE FROM ‘Susita.’ (photo credit: DANNY SHECHTMAN/YES)
A SCENE FROM ‘Susita.’
(photo credit: DANNY SHECHTMAN/YES)
The troubled history of the Susita, the short-lived Israeli-made car reflects the conflict between Israel’s attraction to Western technology and the Middle-Eastern corruption that often hobbles advances here. 
The documentary, Susita (also known in English as Desert Tested), which will be shown on April 14 at 9 p.m. on Yes Docu and will be available on Yes VOD, is a fascinating, hour-long documentary directed by Avi Weissblei that could have actually have been longer and sometimes rushes through a complex tale of chutzpah, vision, ambition, Zionist pride and corruption. 
Many today know of the Susita simply as a name, or have seen one of the handful of collectors’ cars at a rare auto show in Israel. But there was an actual Israeli car industry which got going just 12 years after the establishment of the state and flourished briefly, although, as the documentary explains, this industry was never viable and was, metaphorically, built on sand. 
Two auto companies were developed in parallel in the late 50s and early 60s and both could not survive. One, started by Efraim Ilin, essentially expanded a contract for assembling three-wheeled vehicles used for making deliveries. But Ilin’s venture was overtaken by a company started by brash, Poland-born businessman Yitzhak Shubinsky, who talked a great game and was able to obtain government support for the development of what became the Susita. 
Much of the film consists of Shubinsky’s sons and other family members, as well as a business associate of his, recalling the turbulent history of the Susita as they sit in the back of one. One of his twin sons observes: “He wasn’t always in touch with reality.” And yet much of Israel was built by people who weren’t quite in touch with reality and for a time, the Susita prospered, as a business venture, if not as a car. The exterior of this car was made of fiberglass – a material which was said to be a tasty snack for camels, but which seemed like a good idea at the time.
Israelis were hungry for cars and Shubinsky was able to get then-finance minister Pinhas Sapir on board. Sapir insisted that if Israel could build planes and other military hardware, it could build cars. Shubinsky received contracts from the army and government to provide Susita vehicles to officials and the top brass, and eventually to much lower-level functionaries as well, which, as the film tells it, made the entrepreneur a fortune. It also provided jobs to hundreds of unskilled workers in development towns such as Tirat Carmel, helping the government fulfill the goal of finding work for many recent immigrants.
An Israeli-made car inspired catchy headlines around the globe, as the world was curious about the fledgling Jewish state. But the car never ran well. When Shubinsky shipped the automobile to a trade show in New York, it fell apart in transit. There were jokes about it, but there was a more serious side to the deficiencies in the design and performance of the car: thousands of crashes, some of which resulted in deaths and serious injuries. 
Shubinsky was eventually accused of corruption and stood trial, while the company was taken away from him. Was Shubinsky’s cronyism actually illegal or merely business as usual? The interviewees disagree on this, but a court exonerated him. He lived the rest of his life haunted by the loss of his life’s work and struggling to pay his legal bills, and he eventually died in a one-car crash in a fiberglass vehicle, although the film suggests it was because he had a heart attack at the wheel, not because the car was unsafe. 
The film will leave you wondering about parallels to today’s government corruption scandals and whether or not the Susita represents world-class folly or a sad missed opportunity to compete on the world industrial stage. But while the saga is bittersweet, the documentary is breezy and fast-paced, featuring 60s’ tunes and fun retro ads for the car. At the end, several collectors drive around modern-day Israel in the few remaining Susitas that still run and are easily overtaken by even the smallest compact cars of today.