The regular release of sealed-for-decades 'secret' government papers in the UK and elsewhere occasionally turns up a gem like this - a late-70s proposal to swap Australian beef for cars.

Details of the 1978 scheme to exchange for 7,000 tonnes of Aussie beef and offal for 2,000 Alfa Romeo cars came up when cabinet papers for that year were released recently by the country's national archives. And the Malcolm Fraser government apparently seriously considered going ahead with the plan.

Papers seen by just-auto show that Alfa Romeo was prepared to buy a very carefully specified 7,000 tonnes of beef and offal to be consumed in company canteens in return for import quota for cars to the equivalent value of the meat.

The Australian market was at the time tightly controlled to protect domestic automakers such as Holden which still had (since closed) assembly plants in states outside its Victoria home base, and the local units of Ford and Chrysler. Add in local assembly operations for VW (later Nissan), Toyota (now a full manufacturer and the top exporter) and various European brands (all now fully imported) and the auto industry had some political clout.

The papers suggest the quota would have worked out to about 2,000 cars on top of Alfa's normal allocation and was considered against a backdrop of now defunct European Economic Community (EEC) bans on imports of Australian primary products as an ingenious way to bypass EEC trade barriers.

The ideal was apparently suggested by the Italian embassy in Canberra with Alfa Romeo subsequently confirming it was willing to serve the Australian beef in its factory canteens.

There were a number of complications and concerns, including possible complaints from and demands for similar treatment from existing beef-buying countries which shipped, or would like to have shipped, cars 'down under', so the deal did not proceed in the end.