Last time I told you of the perfect legal, societal and media storm which conspired to make me let go of the car of my dreams. This time reasons of a more personal, and very human, nature, joined up to make the Fiat Tipo a car that never was to be mine.
The year was 1997 and my former wife and I were living in Brasilia, pursuing our respective dreams. We were doing well and on a family visit back in my hometown, Belo Horizonte. Lunch at my grandparents’ home provided me with a chance to get my Tipo after all. An uncle mentioned he was going to sell his 1995 Tipo. Though very happy with my plain Jane Uno, the idea of a larger, more powerful, even luxurious car was very compelling, given that my wife and I were doing well financially. In contrast to the 1.0, Uno that had manual everything and no creature comforts, the Tipo was complete, almost luxurious by 1990 Brazilian standards (1.6 engine, AC, power everything).
I negotiated a deal with my uncle. I wanted the car and his asking price was very reasonable. It was not bottom barrel, but it wasn’t the top of the range either. I believe it was about R$14,000 which would have been about US$7,000. As luck would have it, the car was in the shop for something minor, so I couldn’t take it right then and there. Due to my agenda, I would only be able to make it back to Belo Horizonte three weeks later.
Back in Brasilia, I savored the thought. I was living the dream. Everything was working as we’d planned, we were growing, and soon we’d be driving a car that would better suit our new station in life. Then, of course, it all went to naught.
About a week from our rendezvous date in which I’d hand over the money and drive back home in bliss, my Dad called. Uncle had called him and said he was reneging on the deal. Now he wanted R$16,000. I think greed got the best of him. And spite and anger got the best of me. Though the increase wasn’t too bad, my youthful spirit got the best of me. Vai chupar manga”, was the message I relayed to him. I’m pretty sure my Dad didn’t tell Uncle the second part of my reply.
I should have just let it go, but the seed had been planted. I was now obsessed with a new car. Looking around, I found a brand-new Fiat Siena 1.6 and nothing else, on sale in Belo Horizonte. Fiat had just launched the car and the official price was close to R$20,000. However, as this was 1997, the Asian crisis was in full swing. Brazil, though it never officially admitted it, was in a state of technical bankruptcy. That meant that after a couple of white hot years, where the new car market had doubled in size, sales had come to a standstill and soon took a precipitous fall. That’s why I was able to negotiate the price down to R$17,500.
Negotiations were over the phone and took two days. They bought my used Uno sight unseen, trusting me on the condition of the car. The deal was closed at 6:00 PM on Friday. I got in the Uno and made my way down the 716 km road to Belo Horizonte. I got there at 2:00 AM. It was not an easy trip, as I was very tired at the end. The last 100km I stopped at every gas station to drink a Coke and gulp down a cold cup of coffee in my attempts to stay awake. Being that it was wintertime, I took advantage of the situation and cracked open the windows to use the cold wind as yet another way to keep my eyes open.
Saturday morning, I went down to the shop where they inspected my Uno and agreed that the car was as I had described and discounted the agreed upon amount from my new Siena’s price. As I was there, I talked them up and asked how I was supposed to get my new car. They had told me that the car was not in Belo Horizonte, but the car would be here early Sunday. The shops usually claim they have an auto carrier truck to bring in the cars. Knowing something of the business, I knew this was often not the case. They confessed to me that a driver would be driving the car in. From where, I asked? Ituiutaba was the answer.
Ituiutaba? I knew it was far, though I didn’t know how far. The thought of my shiny, brand new Siena in the hands of some driver who would undoubtedly abuse it on the trip broke my heart. So, of course, I negotiated that I’d go to that city myself and drive the car home to Brasilia. Whatever, I’m young I can do it.
The best part of that Saturday was the afternoon at my grandparents. My uncle was surprised to see me there. I casually mentioned I had bought a new car. I even, ever smoothly, mentioned how the car I bought was brand new. I may even have upped the price a bit to rub it in. The look on his face was priceless. As to that Tipo, my father later told me it had taken him more than 3 months to sell it off, probably for less than what I had agreed to pay him, as the car’s reputation at the time was irremediably tarnished by the fire scandal.
Saturday night, I hopped on the bus at 10:00 PM. As I settled down for the 8 hour trip, I notice a suspicious drunk or drugged young man getting on. As I have never had much luck on bus trips, I hugged my backpack that much closer. I then dozed off only to be awakened by a high pitched screech.
A woman was yelling and the bus was doing a panic stop. The driver soon entered the passenger compartment. The woman was shouting that she had been attacked. Her attacker was the young man that earlier set off my internal alarms. The driver diffused the situation as best he could and calmed the woman down enough by taking the assailant into his compartment and after a half hour of this drama, off we were again. A short time later, the driver stopped again, this time at a roadside police station.
Almost 2 hours later we were off again, minus the rogue. The police had informed us before we parted that that young man was a fugitive. He was a drug dealer, rapist, and murderer. Praying for more protection, I must have dozed off again as soon enough we were in Ituiutaba.
When I arrived, I jumped in a taxi, off to the dealer, and got my car from the dealer’s watchman. After another 500 km drive, I’d be home, in Brasilia. As excited as I was to be in my beautiful, powerful, 1.6 Fiat Siena (92hp, 10 more than the Tipo!), a nagging thought would not leave my mind. In Brazil, between purchase and the putting on of license plates, there is a “grace period”. However, this legal permission to driving without license plates extends only to driving inside state lines. To cross boundaries, permission from the each state’s transportation authority was necessary. I would be crossing 3 state lines that day.
For the moment though, I was relishing my car. The smell of a new car is, in my mind, second only to a newborn baby. This was my first sedan. A grown up car for me, my first at 26 years of age. To me it was beautiful and though it had nothing else, it did have that 1.6 engine. Yes!
Off we go. In Minas Gerais State, no problem. Crossed over into Goiás state. No police. I consoled myself saying, this is just a regular Sunday, no holiday, there’ll be no police. I concentrated on breaking the car in. Tried to keep it at a steady 110-120 km/h clip. Constant speed was the key to a successful beak in, I was told.
A little more than halfway to Brasilia, I saw them, the police. They saw me too and, of course, waved me to stop. Mentally reciting the lines I had practiced so many times, I prepared for the worst. There I was, in the middle of nowhere, with no documentation, but a bill of sales, trying to imagine a way to talk my way out of trouble. I stopped, the two cops came. Interestingly, the coppers were smiling. I was too worried to notice at first, but I kept my cool. I hold my tongue, let them take the first step.
“Good afternoon!”, I reply the same. The smiles linger, “hey, look sir, is that the new Siena?”. Yes, yes it is I reply. “Can we check it out?”, they ask. “Of course, of course!”, I almost cry. They check the car out, get in it, examine the huge trunk, congratulate me on my purchase and wish me a safe trip, “have a good trip, sir.” All I can do is pray an Our Father and a Hail Mary and thank my lucky stars.
Looking back, with the experience I have now, I should have just paid off my uncle. I would have gotten a better, more comfortable car for less money. Between the heat of youth and the relative calm of my middle age, I see the folly of what I did. I spent more, for a lesser car. However, if I had done that, I would not have been able to tell the story I am relating to you today. Putting a price on experience is tough, if not impossible.
And so is realizing that the Tipo will always be the car that slipped through my grasp.