Today, the Romanian automotive industry is mainly associated with the Dacia car company, but long before its birth there was Auto Romania, abbreviated ARO, based in the city of Campulung. It was a specialist in off-road vehicles, at a time when this type of vehicle was not as widespread as it is today.

This manufacturer’s focus on off-road vehicles goes back to its very beginnings. In 1957, the factory, which had mainly produced aircraft components since the war, switched to automobile production, with the first product being the license-produced GAZ-69. It started production as IMS-57 (later ARO M461).

First own product

At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, however, a product of its own design, the ARO 24, debuted. Compared to the previous licensed GAZ, it got a more modern and, above all, safer and more comfortable cabin. However, it was still supposed to be a car capable in off-road conditions. This was helped by a rectangular frame design with independent suspension at the front and a rigid axle at the rear. Of course, all-wheel drive with a connectable front axle was available.

Photo: ARO

The ARO M461 was a license-produced GAZ-69.

The 4,033 mm long car was powered by a self-designed four-cylinder petrol engine with a volume of 2,495 cm³, which reached an output of 59 kW. It was paired with a four-speed manual transmission supplemented by a two-speed reduction. Later, as part of the export, engines from foreign suppliers also got under the hood, including units from Peugeot, Chrysler or Ford.

Several derivatives were considered from the beginning. The basis was a two-door model with a canvas roof (240) and a four-door model with a canvas roof (241), which were complemented by an open pick-up (242), a pick-up with a fixed roof (243) or a five-door station wagon (244). The extended ARO 32 series followed later.

Photo: ARO

ARO was created mainly for off-road conditions.

The ARO 24 became so popular that it was even manufactured under license in Portugal in 1974. The local company SEMA sold the car under the name Portaro. The Czech importer AMC also left a significant mark in the model’s history, modifying the cars of the Romanian manufacturer. And he was even preparing significantly modified derivatives that were to be sold under the Bugaro label. Unfortunately, this did not happen after the collapse of the ARO car company. However, one of the pieces built did at least play in the movie Snowboarders.

Little brother is coming

In 1979, Auto Romania expanded production with a second model series, the ARO 10. It was the smaller brother of the existing car, which, after all, indicated its numerical designation. By today’s standards, it was a very compact car, with a length of only 3,594 mm and a wheelbase of 2,700 mm. It thus competed in size with the much more famous Lada Niva.

Photo: ARO

ARO 10 as Spartan’s leisure special.

The drive was provided by a Dacia engine, in the form of a gasoline four-cylinder with a volume of 1,289 cm³ and an output of 40 kW. It was paired with a four-speed manual transmission, but the equipment also included a two-speed reduction or a connectable front-wheel drive. Later, a Dacia four-cylinder with a volume of 1,397 cm³ and an output of 46 kW or a four-cylinder 1,557 cm³ with 54 kW were also available.

The ARO 10 was also offered in several derivatives. The basic two-seater version 100 (later 10.0) with a canvas roof and a drop-down rear end was supplemented by the 101 (10.1) with a rear folding bench, the van 103 (10.3) with a fixed roof and two-piece rear doors, or the five-seat 104 (10.4) with a fixed roof.

Photo: ARO

The ARO 10 proves its off-road capabilities.

At the time of introduction, the car was primarily intended for the army and state organizations, private individuals could only purchase it with a special permit from the Ministry of Economy. However, this logically changed after the fall of the Ceauşescu regime in 1989, when the ARO 10 entered the mainstream market.

Truly the first Duster

The car was sold abroad a long time ago. In Great Britain, the car was called the Dacia Duster, even though ARO only cooperated with Dacia – but from a commercial point of view, it was a better-known name. Elsewhere in the world, the car was labeled Dacia 10, or ARO Ischia.

After 1989, other derivatives followed, including pick-ups or versions with a wheelbase stretched to 2,650 mm. The interesting thing was the Spartana, a model with an open body. Then other aggregates got under the hood, including those from the West – ARO used engines from Volkswagen, Renault and Peugeot.

Production of both model lines continues with several innovations into the new millennium. In 2003, the car company is privatized by the Cuban-American businessman John Pérez, who has grandiose plans for it. It expects to sell in the US or license assembly in Brazil. Unfortunately, he didn’t do very well, as ARO went bankrupt in 2006 after protracted financial difficulties. And that concludes the history of the interesting Romanian SUV.