By on January 30, 2015

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The first car Brazilians ever saw in their own country was brought in from France in 1890 by Alberto Santos Dumont of later first dirigible, plane and wristwatch glory. It caused quite a stir in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Soon, other wealthy men began importing cars and there are reports of street racing and accidents between the cars themselves, pedestrians and horses.

In 1903, the state of São Paulo promulgated the first laws pertaining to auto traffic. At the time only 16 cars were officially registered in all the state. It was a time of great change on Brazil. The Republic had been born in 1889 while all slaves had been set free just a year before. Immigrants poured into the country, helping the population to double then triple in a few short decades. Only the US and Argentina attracted more immigrants at the time.

Those immigrants proved instrumental to the development of industry and agriculture in Brazil. Though industrially the take off was slow, Brazil became the coffee king and the roaring 20s brought unprecedented wealth to the country. By 1923, the mark of 30 000 registered automobiles was reached.

This ebullition attracted the attention of a company based in far off Detroit. Interested in chasing the new found wealth circulating in this country, General Motors opened for business by registering itself at a Public Notary in São Paulo on January 26, 1925 under the name of Companhia Geral de Motores do Brasil. Or perhaps it was just chasing eternal rival Ford that opened up here in 1919 and began production of CKD Model Ts in 1921.

Just eight months later, the assembly line in a calm neighborhood in São Paulo was inaugurated. A Chevrolet delivery panel van was the first vehicle put together there. General Motors would produce other all of their brands here, so CKD Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Oaklands and Pontiacs were all assembled. Production was slow at first, just 25 cars a day. In the following year, production reached 40 vehicles a day. In 1928, the factory was up to a feverish 150 vehicles.

1927 saw the production of the 25th thousand GM car, another Chevrolet. To witness the event, very important people from the home office and New York bankers were invited. The record shows that car was put together in just 20 minutes.

At the end of the day, the 800 workers went home and the patio would be brimming with cars. The next day all cars would be gone. In that time GM had around 150 professionals called caravanistas. Their function was to drive the car from the factory to wherever the buyer lived, wherever that would be in the country.

In 1928, the city of São Paulo was inhabited by 700,000 people and the population of Brazil had grown to more than 34 million. GM produced its 50,000th car, again a Chevrolet. It had outgrown the capacity of their first industrial site.

They moved to São Caetano do Sul, then still a small, sleepy and bucolic city neighboring São Paulo. The huge facility completely dominated the cityscape. There, GM do Brasil has its corporate headquarters and factory to this day.

General Motors has been a fundamental company in the history of the automobile in this country. In 1957, the first fully Brazilian vehicle was built by GM, a light truck. In 1958, the first car in the form of a pickup, the Amazona or 3.100 taking advantage of President Juscelino Kubtischek’s program of stimulating local production. Under protective measures instituted by those policies, GM diversified and produced batteries, air conditioners, and the famous Frigidaire refrigerators (the gold standard in those days and more than 2 million units were bought by Brazilians).
In 1964,the grandad of present SUVs was launched, the C-1416 or Veraneio. After that, General Motors finally released its first Brazilian built car, the Chevrolet Opala. Based of the Opel Reckord, the Opala inaugurated a link between GM do Brasil and Opel, that would only be severed in the present century. In a negative side effect of the policies used to jump start the Brazilian auto industry, the Opala, launched in 1968, would last until 1992.

In 1973, the Chevette made its worldwide debut here. Though that was pretty exiting, the Chevette marked the emergence of GM Brazil as an engineering center for global GM, a position it still enjoys today.

In the 90s, the Brazilian market was suddenly wide open. GM was one of the first to take advantage of this and a rapid succession of thoroughly modern Opel products were launched in Brazil: Omega, Vectra and Corsa. This proved so successful that GM would occupy second place, seriously threatening Volkswagen’s lead.

Then a period of complacency. Administrating the crisis, several GM do Brasil Presidents would go on to lead global GM. Due to the trouble brewing at GM U.S., local GM starved for product and slowly, but surely, its line became uncompetitive. As the 10s started, Opel-based Brazilian Chevrolet products disappeared and were substituted by GM Korea products. Though that has left Opel-widows pulling their hair and wailing in the desert, the fact is the move has proved successful. So much so that Chevrolet is now claiming to be the most beloved auto company of Brazilians since if fleet sales (which include government purchases in this country) are discounted, Chevrolet is the most sold auto brand to private buyers two years running.

To celebrate GM do Brasil becoming a nonagenarian local and global GM top suits came to Brazil to show off GM’s new logistic center (double the size of the previous one and completely computerized). Global Chevrolet President Dan Ammann came down and detailed the 6.5 billion real investment announced on the occasion. It would be used to modernize motors and factories and develop a new 3-cylinder 1.0 and transmissions. He also highlighted that Brazil is Chevrolet’s second largest market worldwide, and GM’s third.

General Motors do Brasil has three car factories in Brazil. Besides the 80-year old unit in São Caetano do Sul, there is one in São José dos Campos and another in Gravataí. In Mogi das Cruzes there is another industrial site producing stamped components and parts, the logistic center is in Sorocaba, testing grounds in Indaiatuba and an engine factory in Joinville. In São Caetano do Sul, besides the factory and corporate offices, there is a technological center capable of designing and developing cars and motors from the ground up.

In 90 years General Motors do Brasil has produced over 14.5 million cars. From the humble beginnings in a warehouse in a calm São Paulo neighborhood, GM do Brasil has grown into a giant in the Brazilian car-scape and a vital part of global GM. It has earned Brazilian’s respect and manages to avoid the Fiat-Volkswagen rivalry, being one brand that seems to attract all Brazilians. It has launched hits and duds, has pushed the market and watched from the sidelines others fight it out.

With products like Onix, Spin and Cruze, and halos like the Camaro, General Motors do Brasil is living in prosperous times and, as always, is fundamental in keeping the mothership afloat.

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19 Comments on “Dispatches do Brasil: Nonagenarian General...”

  • avatar

    Great story, Marcelo, but how can you write a story about the automobile in Brazil, even if it is about GM and not even mention the beloved Fusca?

    • 0 avatar

      Yep. Originally there was a line about it in the part where I write about how GM is in fact the builder of the first Brazilian car and not VW as everybody believes, but I felt it would sidetrack the flow of the story, which is a look at the begging of GM here and that environment and what GM is today here. As such I touched on some relevant points in GM’s history and no one else’s.

      • 0 avatar

        Oi Marcello

        Great story, I thought also that VW was the first builder of cars in Brasil, which now I found it was not, specially since VW was founded in WWII.


        • 0 avatar

          VW’s claim to fame is that they built the first car, which would’ve been the Beetle. The bug or Fusca is considered the first car because it was the first car that completely fit into the guidelines drawn into the policy that started the Brazilian car industry in the sense that most of the parts were built here and not imported.

          As seen in the article, GM beat them to the punch except they built trucks and not cars so they don’t qualify. VW, by the time, also started to build the Kombi first, but it was also not a car. By the time all these cars were built there was indeed a local parts industry that had begun supplying makers and aftermarket, but not one car before the mentioned cars had a nationalization of more than 50%. It would seem that the biggest hurdle was that no one built an engine here.

          Which leads us to another little known fact. There was indeed a car built here even before the GM trucks. An industry called Romi obtained from Iso the license to build the Isetta. And built it they did. They renamed it Romi-Isetta and about 3 000 were built from 1956 to 1961. The reason this is not considered the first car range from reasonable (the two stroke engine was not considered a car engine) to trivial (it had only one door, the program called for at least two). Maybe people forget this car because it did not use public money?

          Even before there had been plans and false starts to build a Brazilian car. Then the Great Depression started or WWII. It was how hard Brazil was hit by the crash in NY a very big reason why Brazil wanted to industrialize. The pain and lessons learned in that episode made the country realize it didn’t want to depend on foreigners anymore.

          Anyway, as to cars, the 50s mark the start of the Brazilian auto industry in the sense of a sudden nationalization of most car components, in other words, all systems and parts were made here.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    How about the GM-Ford rivalry in Brazil? How has that played out?

    A few weeks back I saw a documentary about Fordlandia. Beyond interesting.
    It is not clear to me though, whether Henry Ford’s Amazon adventure was the result of an incredible vision or just a plain lunatic decision.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      As with most things Henry, the correct answer is “both”.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree bumpy.

        Hey schmitt. After Volkswagen’s arrival and complete dominance of the market, the GM x Ford rivalry lost any meaning. Both were playing catch-up and Ford made a lot of mistakes in the 70s which led it to bleed market participation. When Fiat entered they soon passed Ford and Ford was sometimes rumored of leaving the market. Ford’s errors in the 70s had to do with insisting on American cars, design and engines when the market had clearly gone European. In the 80s, the Escort was never cheap enough to compete at the base of the market and that just grew and grew with Uno and Gol showing the way. By the time they entered that market in the 90s with the Fiesta, it was an uphill battle and a persistent reputation problem of their cars being more expensive and difficult to maintain than their rivals.

        This persists until today. Let’s see if the new Ka really gets them going. BTW, in trucks the rivalry was bigger and there were definite camps. But when Fiat introduced the Fiorino pickup and VW the Saveiro, it was game over, too. GM followed with the Chevette based Marajó while Ford also had one (the Pampa). But inevitably, and after the arrival of the Strada, that fight was between Strada and Saveiro, so the focus was again Fiat-VW, with GM as a mere spectator and Ford eventually pulled out of that segment. Now the S10 does indeed fight it with Ranger, but Amarok and Hilux are at least as well considered, so even though they lead that segment, it doesn’t belong exclusively to them.

  • avatar

    The growth in the Brazilian auto market is just crazy these days! My company just made a big investment (buying half) of one of your insurance companies down there (Centauro). Since everyone getting a car must have same the state mandated auto insurance.

  • avatar

    Thank you Marcelo for an entertaining and educational story. You’ve left me hungry for the next installment of the truth about cars in Brazil.

  • avatar

    ah, Chevette! I remember helping a female firend car-shop in the late ’70s, and test-driving a Chevette with her. Complete POS – gutless engine, cramped interior, no redeeming features at all and not at all competitive with Japanese cars of the day. She would up with a Dodge Colt, and was very happy with it.

    Also helpless in any kind of snow. You saw Chevettes get stuck in places where other cars just drove on.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, I just highlighted its importance in Brazilian car engineering as being one of the first cases that illustrated what the local offices of world makers would be able to achieve. At present the Big 4 all have very good engineering capacity here and even some of the smaller makes, like Renault, can design and develop cars here. However it would seem that at the moment GM and Fiat of Brazil are the only ones who could engineer and completely brand new car with their resources in this country.

      I nevwr said the car was any good, ha! Terrible I think too. In the 70s at least it was a new thing and competed in lower segments. However, like the Opala it lived into the 90s. When I started driving in the late 80s several of my friends got stuck with used ones. So I drove it a lot and laughed at my friends’ misfortunes.

      • 0 avatar

        I appreciate your point about its significance in the Brazilian industry, and of course one’s first effort at something is seldom a runaway success.

        It was a sales success in Canada, too, for reasons I could never understand. Except for GM brand loyalty, which was quite strong at the time.

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