Dispatches Do Brasil: Law, Society, Media and Fires. Consumers Are Just Dust in the Wind
The year was 1995. The country: Brazil. A new Constitution had been proclaimed a few years before, and our fledgling democracy had survived a presidential impeachment. Society was growing up and demanding new, more transparent relations with big business. The car market was more open than it had been since the 1950’s, and due to the deluge of imported cars, that brief window would soon close. I was there, in the eye of a hurricane, looking to buy my very first car with my own money. All those factors made up the perfect storm, which conspired to pull me away from the car of my dreams.
That car was the Fiat Tipo. Due to the economic shock tactics of the now-impeached President, Fiat imported it to Brazil by the boatload and it even became the sales leader for a month or two in 1995, the only time an import has ever topped the charts in Brazil. Offering great looks, lots of space, generous features list, a very sporty and comfortable ride, and, perhaps more importantly, a price that undercut the competition, the Tipo was the hottest car at the time. It had everything one could want, and seemed destined to become the most sold car that year and the foreseeable future. Then, disaster struck. Tipos were self-immolating at alarming rates, all over Brazil.
Taking advantage of the new possibilities the Constitution and a brand-new Code of Consumers’ Protection and Defensean association of owners was created (AVITIPO – Association of Tipo Victims). The mainstream media took it up with a vengance. As it was, a new type of collective lawsuit demanding reparations of civil responsibilities, made possible by the Constitution and the new Code, was to be tested. Anyone who had a Tipo that had caught fire, irrespective of joining the association, would be entitled to moral and material damage from Fiat, if the Italian company was found guilty.
Fanning the flames of the growing fire, Fiat fought it. They had not perceived the Brazilian world they were working in had changed as evidenced by the new Constitutional and Consumer Code dispositions. They did not anticipate that the media would make this the litmus test of the new Brazil that had come out of a painful process of re-establishing liberal democracy. At first, they dragged their feet. They claimed there was no problem with the car. After a couple of months, with the pressure mounting and sales plummeting, they finally acknowledged some responsibility. However, Fiat could not have been more inept. They blamed consumers, saying that the fires were the result of the habit of some consumers of washing their engines with kerosene, which would affect the cardboard lining of the “hot air convergent tube”.
That did it. Societal fire around the case reached feverish levels. AVITIPO proved in the courts and, perhaps more importantly, in the court of public opinion, that Fiat had given the wrong solution to the problem. Association pundits proved that the fires were the result of a hydraulic power steering hose not coping with the pressure in the system when the wheel was at full lock in situatiosn like maneuvering into a tight parking spot. In this situation, a hose would come loose, and fluid would drip into the engine compartment, eventually reaching the beginning of the exhaust system under the engine and, voilà, a fire would ignite.
Brazilian consumers watched the drama in awe and disgust. Awe that consumers’ rights were effectively being imposed on unwilling big business and that the new Constitution had effectively given them new rights and powers against even the biggest corporations. They were also disgusted that such a big company could have been so incompetent as to not find the problem and so resistant to the new mores.
Fiat eventually recanted and recalled the cars to change the defective hose. It lost in the courts too, though they took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Consumers patted themselves on the back, as did the press, which delighted in its new role of the knight in shining armor for consumers. New legislation was put in place making the mandated recalls easier. Some companies, aware of the public relations fiasco, did indeed become more transparent and would not fight consumers as harshly.
Me? I never got the Tipo. Afraid of the fires, unsure as to what to do, in the middle of the howling winds of this perfect storm, I bought another kind of Fiat, an Uno, and was very happy with it. The whole situation made me realize how small we are in the whole process and how we go back and forth, mere pawns in the big money game.
I lost an opportunity to get the Tipo (a new situation would present itself a couple of years later) and regretted it. In the end, the solution was found, roughly 100 cars burned and owners were compensated. In its 4 year Brazilian career, Fiat sold more than 180,000 imported Tipos. Around 150,000 in its first two years. After the start of the melée, the last two years saw only 30,000 find their way into consumers’ hands.
In 1997, the Tipo went out with a whimper. I wince when I think of the car that got away from me.
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