By on January 22, 2011

This Pictorial History of the Brazilian Car has been graciously made available by our man in Brazil, Marcelo de Vasconcellos. This is part one of a five part series.

When writing about Brazil and the Brazilian car industry, many of times it has been pointed out to me that made of the statements I made were very broad and didn’t take into account the many nuances of our automotive history. Specifically, the statement that Brazil has done little but take old stamping presses from corporate HQs and produced technically inferior cars has proven to provoke repercussions. So, in order to correct some of that, I’ve been inspired by your comments to write a brief history of the Brazilian car industry. Happy reading for a beautiful sunny, summer morning (well at least from my little corner of the world)! Hopefully, you will also get a better hang of what the hell I’m always going on about!

Brazil was a little, isolated, largely agricultural country back then. It survived exporting coffee, but little else. As in other countries, WWII brought on some immense opportunities and whetted the desire for more. At the end of the war, similarly to the US and Argentina, Brazil was debt free and a creditor country. We had been on the winning side, after all.

In terms of industry we were a wasteland…in the sense there wasn’t any (practically). All cars at the time were imported. Big American yachts predominated and ruled the few roads. Ah! Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Cadillacs! The stuff that made our granddads dream! Some European cars, too, though usually they were shrugged off for being too small and sluggish (oh how time changes perceptions).

Brazilians wanted more. In these years, the dream of becoming technically proficient and thusly (as was believed) more independent and truly rich, was burning a hole in the Brazilian soul. Out went fiscal prudence, small government. In the next few decades the government would take charge and industrialize and enrich this country, whether it wanted to or not. Costs, what costs? Where there’s a will (not to mention WWII money), there’s a way!

The 50s
The new decade brought a new optimism. Brazil was really growing now! Besides coffee, we now produced steel (we got the factory for our efforts in helping the allies, an American grant shall we say)! TV was starting. Mass migration to major cities had begun in earnest. New roads! A new capital! Boy, oh boy, we were just a step away from first world status. In Rio, new music called bossa nova provoked new mores. Or perhaps the new attitudes brought on the new sound?

We had our man. Juscelino Kubitschek. His slogan for President promised 50 years of progress in his 5 years of mandate. People loved him. He was a man of many dreams. Using up all of Brazil’s newfound wealth, he built Brasilia. He built the interstate road system (until the road was completed in the 60s, it took a full day to drive from my town, Belo Horizonte, to Rio about 500 km away. Heck, half of the way wasn’t even paved! And if that was the main link between Brazil‘s second and third largest cities, imagine the rest of the “road“ system!).

Kubitschek also had a dream related to cars. He believed the car industry would be a locus for the development of other industries. It was necessary to build in Brazil! For jobs! For industrialization! No more would we be pictured as the land of the sugarcane plantation. Where ignorant and cruel white people abused innocent black people in a tropical hellhole! No. Now we would join the civilized world and get the respect of foreigners for our engineering prowess.

Some critics say the program was unnecessary because some companies were already installing here and producing on their own. But Brazil was having a head rush. It couldn’t wait for the vagaries of liberal policies. No, we wanted the future and we wanted it now. However, some examples show it didn’t have to be that way. Cases in point: Chevy developed and built the first vehicle in Brazil (in the sense that most of its parts were sourced locally), but doesn’t get recognition as they built a pick up and an SUV-like thing, not a car as the per government definition.

The Chevrolet Amazona looked like American pick-ups of the time. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first to use a Brazilian engine. Romo-Isetta came too, but ended up having to close shop as their car didn’t qualify as a car in the program mentioned, and thus they didn’t have access to the rich funds allocated to the car makers who decided to follow the plan (plus they were a little bit too modern and too precocious). The reason was that the car had just one door. (Amazing, this car was one of the foundations of BMW …)

The government’s program established that a car had to have at least 2 doors. Poor Isetta, but such are the vagaries of capitalism, heavy-handed government style!

VW was the fastest, and using government incentives, built their first out-of-Germany factory. In it, the star was the Beetle, the first official “national” car.

Though weirdly, the Bus had already been produced in the thousands before the first Beetle.

French Simca and Renault came. Willys-Overland (long dead American car company) came, too.

German DKW (whose Vemaguet is pictured above) came as well.

Ford and GM were already here, but up until then sold only imported cars (with exceptions like the Ford T) and mounted some trucks Ckd. Now they participated in the program and got hold of incentives. They started building cars.

The cars that marked people’s memories of the times were things like the Aero Willys.

The Jeep Willys found enthusiastic friends in Brazil.

The French brought us an American-styled Simca Chambord …

… and a distinctively French-styled Renault Dauphine.

Mercedes, BMW, Austin, Olds, Cadillac, Volvos, Ferraris disappeared due to restrictive trade policies. Never to be seen again. Well, never to show their faces again until the 90s.

Look tomorrow for parte dois of this five-part series.

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22 Comments on “(Not So) Brief History Of The Brazilian Car. Parte Um...”

  • avatar

    Informative article and pictures.  Looking forward to part 2.

  • avatar

    Great stuff, Marcelo! I love reading things like this.

  • avatar


    • 0 avatar

      Hi djn!

      Thanks for the inspiration. It was in answer to one of your questions (on my last post), that this series got its start.

      Now, as the title implies , it is a brief history. Let’s say I followed the main road. The little side roads that curved off into nowhereland, well, I mentioned some (like Gurgel later on), but really didn’t mention all of them Like FNM or Mercedes later in the 90s. Or else it would be an even less brief history. Let’s say this is an appetizer. As you read, send me your questions and doubts. Who knows, one of them may inspire a full article.

      FNM, FNM. A most misbegotten program. Enriched some. Gave jobs to a few. What do you say of a gvernment owned and run car company that produces the most expensive car in the market? Though I think they actually started producing in the 60s. Eventually Alfa Romeo took them over (and as a side note also produced heavy duty trucks in Brazil in late 60s early 70s) in the early 70s, but by the late 70s Fiat had taken them over. Fiat then continued the car and truck line into the 80s, but eventually closed them down by early 80s, when they’re factory in Minas Gerais got into full swing.

      Rotten prgram, beautiful cars. On par with what was most in vogue in Europe. Sold very little though as sometimes their models cost almost 2x more than Chevy’s, Chrysler’s and Ford’s big cars. Also, in the 60s people preferred the American cars as luxury. By the time the 70s came along and tastes became more Euro, the car was ageing (and still too expensive).

      I’ve driven a few (a friend’s father had a fleet of 2). Wow. What workmanship and luxury. But small (especially in comparison with Galaxie, Landau and Opala). Fast though low end grunt wasn’t as plentiful as in the American cars. Had to rev it.

      In short, home of scandals, misunderstood and except for those of us who love cars, largely forgotten.

    • 0 avatar

      Caro Marcelo,
      You should note, that the very first FNM 2000 JK was driven from the factory to Brasilia for the inauguration of the new capitol in April 1960.  I heard this first hand from the FNM employee who drove the car.
      The FNM 2000 was a brasilian produced version of the Alfa Romeo 2000 Berlina (102) series based on the 1900.  It was in production through 1972 when it was superceded by the 2300, a model looking a lot like an Alfetta but with the cast iron block, twin cam alloy head from the 2000.
      Fabrica Nacional de Motores was not a dead tangent.  It was at one time the top producersof heavy trucks under license from Alfa Romeo starting in the late 50’s.
      The FNM 2000 car was never produced in large numbers, about 600 per year. It’s competitors also were not high volume cars, such as Aero Willys Itamarati and the Simca Chambourd.
      In fact, for a decade, the FNM 2000/2150 had the most advanced technology of any car made in Brazil. Twin overhead camshafts, hemispherical combustion chambers, alloy head,  5 speed transmission.

    • 0 avatar

      Meu amigo djn,

      No doubt, no doubt! I know of the story of the car being driven to Brasilia. It was a marketing/engineering stunt meant to show that JK’s program was working and viable. BTW do you have any insider info as to that trip? I’ve heard conflicing stories. Some say it was pulled off faultlessly, others that it was a nightmare and that the car made it to Brasilia on gambiarras (or, in other words, creative and impromptu mechanical solutions).

      All your info on the car is correct, and in my comments I do not wish to in anyway diminish the car. As I said it was in vogue woth the best of Europe, so it was surely the best in Brazil. Rest assured, in my dream garage of old cars, a 2300, especially in ti guise, would be a star.

      However, in the “evolutionary” tree of the Brazilian car, it’s a lost link (and that is my opinion, take it as you will). Even in their heyday they were hard to spot. And in terms of trucks you could count 10 Mercedes and 5 Volvos or Scanias for any Alfa (or later) Fiat trucks on the road. Italian trucks are now making a healthy and very profitable comeback, in Iveco form this time (but that is, yet, another story).

      It’s a lost link in that it does not have any modern offspring. Sure, Fiat is now market leader (and Alfa, sadly, is an also-ran in the lux segment). But their cars (Fiat) are aimed at another, completely different set of consumer. FNM was always a car for connosiuers (sp???). As such, it really didn’t penetrate that deep into Brazilian recollection of cars. Again I state, even for most rich Brazilian consumers, a Ford Galaxie was much more of a dream (position later take by Chevy’s Opala).

      Again, this does not reflect on the quality of the car itself. Nor to its marred history (did the wikipedia article mention the scandals?).

      BTW, in my commute, I see an old, orange, in (relative) good shape 2300 (not ti) parked in front of the same old house. It does move as its not parked there every day. But I always keep an eye out for it when I drive by. Because it tugs at my heartstrings and make me go back to old, simpler days (or so I’ve heard as I was born in 71). And make ke yearn for that house out in the country where I’ll park at  least 10 old cars. This one could feature in it could it not?

      So, don’t get me wrong. I love the car. But my analysis says its a little bit of an oddity and doesn’t pertain into an alleged brief history of the Brazilian car (except as a sidenote).

      Hope not to offend you and do hope you can understand my reasoning.

      Thanks for your interest!

  • avatar

    Mass migration to major cities had begun in earnest.
    My parents, who are Italian, migrated to Brazil in 1956. Italy was a war torn country with a difficult future at the time and the US was not openly taking in immigrants. The trip was free, payed by the Catholic Church, and we had relatives there. Some of my relatives were born in Brazil as far back as 1906 but were already living in the USA.
    My parents met there, got married in ’57, and had 5 kids. With the economy in the tank starting the early 70’s, slowly my relatives started coming to the US to join the others already here. We came to the USA in 1976, my father had preceded us by one year. Not finding any luck with employment in New York he came to Detroit where he started working for a Tool and Die shop operating a press. It must have been difficult for him being a lowly press operator, since he made precision miniature dies in Brazil for an electrical contacts company. Eventually he got hired at Chrysler and put in 20 years there.

    I’ve told my story here before; My fathers father had already been to the USA long before us. He used to work for Mr Ford  painting the rims of the models T’s, unfortunately he died in Brazil in 1970 and never realized his dream of having his entire family together in the USA (he emigrated to Brazil in the 50’s with my grandma, dad and several other siblings).

    One more interesting note. My uncle used to have a DKW. Not long ago I was doing a Google search to satisfy my curiosity and couldn’t find it … now I know why. In Brazil the W has a V sound and I was searching for a DKV … duhhh.

    Obrigado Marcelo! Can’t wait to read the rest of the “Brazilian Car History” and share it with my family.

    • 0 avatar

      Hi Pgcooldad!

      Thanks for sharing.

      All the articles in series will give a quick run through of the politics, economics and cultural issues of the time. Maybe you can talk to your relatives and consult your memmory and agree (or not) and relive some of the reasons your history turned out the way it did.

      Anyway. Not far from my house, they’re selling a fully restored Vemaguet (just like in the picture, but all white). For R$25,000. Want to come and get it? It’s been sitting there for about 2 months now… Looks like a good and thorough job, too.

      W. Mispronounced often in Brazil. That’s why the Beetle was called Fusca here. W became a V and was confused with an F. Voilà! Fusca! Also, many older people say BMW like BMV. As apparently most of your family with Brazilian experience is rather old, I understand exactly where the consfusion comes from!

  • avatar

    I’ve been waiting for an article like this since the day you joined TTAC! Thanks! It is a very interesting story to be told. I’ve bee hearing this story from my parents as they lived right through it. Their experiences driving their first Fusca (VW Beetle) and taking I don’t now how many people in a Kombi (VW Bus) in trips cross country and South America among many others.
    By the way, is that Ouro-Preto in the first picture?

    • 0 avatar

      I guess the picture is of Ouro Preto. That particular picture was Bertel’s contribution to the article (thanks Bertel!). Judging by the cars in it, a Ranger from the 90s, an S10 also from the 90s, a Palio from 2002 or there abouts, but especially the Gol G4 Copa (identifiable by the black middle section), I’d say this is picture is not older than 2006.

      The Kombi propaganda refers exactly to your parents’ plight. Imagine having to take not only your children, but nieces and nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles, in-laws! In my family my father’s father talked of trips in the Kombi to Rio or the farm. Carrying all 9 children! 8 of which boys, and one roughly a year, a year and a half younger than the other. Since most were boys (8 of 9), my dad talks about a Coke bottle taking the rounds and serving as restroom. Imagine taking a pee stop everytime one of 9 children claimed they wanted to pee! According to dad, his dad would only stop when the gril wanted to go. For the boys, the Coke bottle and then, out the window!

      Well, I guess it served as fertilizer!

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Your articles always bring a smile to my face.
    Then again, anything with the word ‘Brazilian’ makes me think of Brazilian women. Some really nice coffee, a newspaper, and a surfboard nearby… and boy… I’ve got to get out of Atlanta.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks Steven!

      You know I’m a fan, so your words mean a lot to me.

      Still snowed under? Today must have been like 30 or 32 C out there. Couldn’t enjoy it thiugh. Went out shopping for the new baby’s room. Remember my quation as to whether I should get a new car for the baby? Well, I was overruled. No new car for baby and me. We do get a redecorated house though (sigh!).

      Well, at least I hope baby Daniel enjoys his room.

      So, that’s Brazilian women for you! Want mine? (just kidding!!!)

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, the hormones are in full swing. She’s nest building. Just wait until she finds it perfect then find something else even more “perfect” and she wants to tear out the old stuff.

      Time for ice cream!

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, her eyes are all bright and sparkly (and I guess that makes me a happy man). However, my wish would be that this redecoration woud last another , what? 20 years?

      I’m sure there’s no chance of that ever happening.

      Thanks for the laugh!

  • avatar

    Wonderful article, Marcelo! I look forward to the rest of the series.
    Considering its humble origins and the stubborn refusal of most “First World” countries to take it seriously, Brazil’s manufacturing base is fascinating to me. I’m not very familiar with Brazil’s automotive history — again, looking forward to learning about it! — but in aerospace, Embraer is definitely a company to watch right now.

    • 0 avatar

      They’ve done some good things haven’t they? I mean, they’re putting the heat on Bombardier in some markets and segments.

      As to our manufacturing base, yes its history is pretty peculiar. Letr’s hope it really gains traction. The next few years are a crucial moment in the history of this country.

      It’s either make it or break it time.

  • avatar

    Very interesting article. I did not know that DKW were sold in Brazil. I did not know either that Simca sold their Chambord there.
    There might be a revival of the Simca brand, btw. Auto Bild reported that PSA might be going to use the Simca brand for selling cheap cars, similar to what Renault does via their Dacia brand.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah DKW!Recollected warmly in this country. With the oil going into the tank, it’s peculiar pputter and ever present haze of smoke made it an early favorite of penny-pinching motorists. By virtue of the suicide front doors of early models it also offered cheap thrills for many of Brazil’s viril male youth of the 50s. In a time when most women wore dresses/skirts, my granddad told me a small crowd would always gather round as a DKW was preparing to park. Hopefully the driver would be a woman, and to use a term of the times a coqueta. What a way to get a rise!

      Now Simca. As Paul Niedermeyer himselg showed, it was the Golf before the Golf. Though most now have never heard of it, in this country the drums could be beaten with nostalgia pieces heralding in a new era for Simca. I’d bet it’d be a hit down here! Cachet like no Dacia could ever dream of. Though as always, the devil is in the execution

      Thanks for that info! Loved it! Will keep an eye out, as Brzil would be a primary market for such a car.

  • avatar

    Excellent! I may be in the minority, but I’d love to see a bit more on the Gurgel (and, of course, an obsessive history of the Brazilian Willys Aero).

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