Among the 4,500 Model A Fords that to this day throb in geriatric contentment along the streets and roads of the little car-conserving South American country of Uruguay, there is one in Montevideo that is a particularly fine autumnal beauty. A lean and modest open touring car, it has been refinished in the gleaming maroon that it was born with 39 years ago in Detroit, but, barring tires, all its parts are original, even the unblemished chrome radiator. It was thus a pity, one day lately, when a freak, accident crumpled the shell of one of the headlights. After a moment's distress, though, the owner perked up and set out to scavenge an identical headlight from one of the city's auto junkyards. He failed to reckon the full measure of Uruguay's claim to fame as the world's leading border-to-border museum of living, breathing antique cars. "A 1930 Ford A!" exclaimed the junkman. "We haven't had any cars that new brought in here yet!"
To be a car in Uruguay is to be in line for automotive immortality. Though there are no official statistics, a good guess would be that the median age of the auto population of 131,400 is 20 years. That includes plenty of fairly new cars, of course, but it also means that many thousands of automobiles that would be scrap iron anywhere else are necessary transportation in Uruguay. The cars-for-sale classified ads in the newspaper El Día read to an American something like the antique and classic ads in the Sunday New York Times, although to Uruguayans the listed machines are vehicles very much in normal use: "Rugby '27 4-cyl.; Kaiser '51, radio and heater; Studebaker '50, overdrive; Ford '37 Tudor; Jowett '42, unique cond.; Vauxhall '48; Willys '31, hydr. brakes," and so on for columns.
The reason the 2.7 million Uruguayans have their old cars is, predictably, governmental. The official position is that car owning is a sumptuary sin. Back of this attitude is a real economic peril: since Uruguay's earnings abroad from exported beef and wool total a slim $200 million a year, very little can be spent to bring in cars.
To hold down car imports the government piles on restrictions: excise taxes, customs duties, luxury taxes, supercharges—in all, 25 added costs. "A Chevrolet landed here costs $3,000, the government adds $9,000 and it is sold for $12,000," says Washington Peixoto, a Montevideo dealer For months at a time the supply of foreign exchange to buy cars is cut off entirely. As a further discouragement registration and license plates cost as much as $250 a year for a luxury car. By these means the government both drastically holds down car imports and gets much-needed revenue from those that do come in. Apart from cars assembled at the rate of 2,000 a year from kits supplied by manufacturers plus Uruguayan tires, glass and upholstery, the country makes no automobiles.
February 10, 1969
Prices of cars, kicked up at the start by taxes and duties and kept there by the need to treasure everything on wheels, are naturally stratospheric. "Cars here cost more than houses. I recently sold a Mercedes-Benz for $35,000," says Peixoto. A new Volkswagen bug sells for $10,500, a '55 Rover for $5,000, a '34 Ford convertible for $1,800. Owner Vicente de Matteo is perfectly confident that he could get $350 for his ramshackle '23 Ford Model T with homemade body.
Often enough, though, the price of old cars as transportation in Uruguay is less than the price of the same car as a classic in the U.S. It is tempting to fantasize some stunning swap—perhaps a thousand well-kept, pre-1930 Whippets, Essexes and Hupmobiles, vendible in the American antique car market, for the same number of Mustangs, Camaros and Barracudas, picked up in American used-car lots, which Uruguayans would slobber after. But for some incomprehensible reason, Uruguay makes exporting cars as difficult as importing them. Besides, not every Uruguayan oldie is a classic. Dealer Peixoto has a '52 Cadillac that he will not sell for less than $3,500, although when he was in Miami recently he saw the same thing in a used-car lot going for $50.
The extraordinary economics of the automobile in Uruguay turns every stroll through the streets of Montevideo into an experience approximately as rewarding as visiting the Museo dell'Automobile in Milan. Each block yields its prize: here an old Durant, there an aged Dodge, next an air-cooled Franklin with a wooden chassis, or a Ford Model B, a choice two-tone '30 Citro√´n, a Willys-Knight, a '38 four-door Buick convertible, a mid-'20s DeSoto, a Flint with a backseat heater, a Bradford, an Isuzu, a Hansa. A gallant recent sight was a '28 Essex towing an ailing '66 Falcon.
One Montevideo car-parts maker estimates that makes and models multiply out at around 200 easily distinguishable types, while a catalog-minded parts dealer figures that small year-to-year changes build the total of varieties up to 2,200. This spread obviously includes cars from everywhere: French Renaults and Peugeots, Japanese Datsuns and Toyotas, British Hillmans and Austins, German Taunuses and D.K.W.s, Italian Fiats and Alfa Romeos, even Chechoslovakian Skodas and a Russian Volga.
But the majority are North American. Experts estimate that there are 1,000 Whippets, made in the '20s by Willys-Overland Ltd. of Toronto, still on the road in Uruguay, as well as 1,500 Model Ts and 2,000 four-cylinder Chevrolets. The commonest antique by far, though, is the '28-'31 Model A—two-and four-door sedans, coupes with rumble seats or touring cars with isinglass side curtains. Because Uruguay drove to the left, English style, until 1945, most of the old cars have right-hand drive.
Far from resenting the enforced anachronism of ancient wheels, most Uruguayan motorists cherish their venerable vehicles. "Between this car and a new one, I'll keep this one," says Pedro Granero, owner of a handsome '30 Graham-Paige with a ram's head radiator ornament. The engine, rebored and repistoned four years ago, starts at a touch and sounds like a gurgling brook. José Carlos Souto, owner of a big, brutish '29 Cord brought to Uruguay by the late President Gabriel Terra, proposes to drive it to the U.S. as soon as a local machine shop hand-fabricates a new universal joint for its front-wheel drive. The dashboard has gauges for water temperature, oil pressure, oil level, gasoline supply and amperage, and controls for spark advance, hand throttle, carburetor-heat and lights. Adjusting spark and throttle, Souto proudly brings to thunderous life the immense eight-in-line engine—"built by Lycoming" says its brass plate.
Isabel Ruiz de Aguila uses a '27 Model T truck to run a delivery service under the firm name Bati-Flet, meaning, roughly, Batman Freight. "If you take a picture you'll fracture the engine block," she jokes. "The motor runs fine, even on kerosene, and starts with a mere touch of the crank." As with most Uruguayan Model Ts, a conventional modern ignition system replaces the original four wood-cased spark coils, much misused by practical jokers four decades ago to create 10,000 volts of electricity for wiring toilets and beds.
Car dealer Peixoto employs a '31 Packard to travel to his nearby ranch. This car, which has oak-framed doors that close with an elegant boardroom thunk, has been preserved intact right down to the tires that were on it when it was imported from New York the year it was made. Its suspension is rougher than it ought to be, given its pachydermic weight: 4,620 pounds. But it makes up for that in swanky touches such as a cigarette lighter with a reel-in cord long enough to reach the passengers in the back seat, who seem to be about a quarter of a mile behind the driver.
A perfect car, in the collector's sense of having all original parts and paint even though it is just transportation to its present owner, is the '29 Chevrolet Double Phaeton open touring car owned by Antonio Vila. It was among the first of the Chevy Sixes, the basic engine used by Chevrolet until 1948, and can still do 130 kilometers an hour (80 mph). "But if you go faster than 90 kilometers the fabric top whips up and down too much," says Vila's son Alberto. Another Montevideo motorist, Lawyer Hector Gerona Ara√∫cho, having concluded that his '25 Rolls-Royce was simply too old to put up with, shifted to a '28 Isotta-Fraschini valued at $7,000 which he drives to work every day. Its straight-eight engine has twin carbs and a cast-iron fan, and the car can top 90 mph. "I hate new cars—I think that until 1930 they can be called cars and after that only vehicles," says Gerona.
Cars like Peixoto's Packard and Gerona's Isotta-Fraschini are, of course, recognized as classics in Uruguay although in daily use, and there is a certain amount of hobbyism even with cars not quite so grand. Rich parents buy their kids Ford As, or old Erskines as playthings for vacations in that fabulous resort, Punta del Este. Andrés Razzetti, 76, a car-loving mechanic with a white handlebar mustache that matches his nostalgic temperament, makes a hobby of owning five classic cars, largely bequeathed to him because he tended them in their youth.
One is an air-cooled Franklin, shipped from San Francisco in 1925 and still wearing its AAA emblem. The only replacement parts it ever needed were piston rings and exhaust valves. "It runs exactly like it used to—exactly, exactly, exactly," says Razzetti. A year older is his 5,280-pound Isotta-Fraschini, which has gone only 11,000 miles in 44 years and still has the tires and sparkplugs of its nativity. The stenciled boards of the case it came in form a floor in Razzetti's garage. He also has the first Dodge to reach Uruguay, a 1916 touring car, plus a ballroom-size 1913 Renault saloon with a five-spoke steering wheel and an 1897 one-cylinder De Dion Bouton, which was preserved by somehow having got buried in a vineyard.
Like the diamond in the De Beers ad, a car is forever in Uruguay. The motoring public accepts the proposition that there is no reason why an auto should ever stop running. All it takes, says Hector Paseggi, manager of a leading garage, is care and "money power."
Part of the care is inadvertent. Uruguay measures only 506 miles the longest way and with undistinguished roads, particularly back in the adolescence of what are now old cars, it has never offered scope for engine-wearing high speeds and long trips. The tranquil middle classes do their driving on Sundays, taking the bus to work. The old cars themselves, with real ammeters and oil-pressure gauges, make keeping track of the car's health simpler than with those modern shortcuts, warning lights.
Oldtime quality shows in other ways too. "A Model T front-wheel bearing will easily run for 40 years without wearing out," says a Montevideo junkyard operator. Also going for long life is conscious care. Uruguayans handle their Hudsons and Panhards like specimens of rare old T'ang Dynasty pottery. "Mentally and technically we work by the standards of before World War II," says Emanuel Regusci, automotive writer for the newspaper El País. "We keep cars in garages, we button the side curtains, we watch the water, we put in new sparkplugs and we change the oil every 1,500 kilometers." Car salesman Roberto Calafí finds cars from the late '30s that have never had the cylinder head off and others that have gone 200,000 miles with only a ring and valve job.
Not that car care is perfect in Uruguay. The driving style includes flagrant tailgating, backing into busy streets and crossing the center line as a matter of course. Only light traffic saves many museum-quality antiques from collisions. A multiple crash in Montevideo can easily wipe out $30,000 worth of cars. Moreover, the country has its share of cachilas, Uruguayan slang for jalopies. Many seem to suffer some kind of mechanical leprosy, dropping parts as they go and oxidizing into indefinite outlines.
Even with care, parts do break or wear out, and when that happens the Montevideo mechanic is likely to call on car-parts row, Cerro Largo Street. The bigger stores there take as their ideal nothing less than warehousing at least one of every part for every model made by every prominent car manufacturer throughout the world in the last 40 years. Salvador Livio Importers, one of the biggest dealers, has six floors containing 87,000 kinds of parts and the store tries to supply the needs of even the 16 one-of-a-kind cars in Uruguay, the 25 cases of two or three of a kind and the 50 cases of four or five. Livio's people are full of esoteric knowledge, e.g., that '25-'29 Chevy back-axles snap with notorious ease but can be replaced by the Scheid machine works in Germany. Or that Hillman used to change the dimensions of headlight shells by distressingly small but critical amounts from year to year. Or that many Chrysler parts will work in a Graham-Paige.
Customs and taxes on parts are less than on cars but still reach 36% of sales prices, which spurs lively smuggling from the factories of Brazil and Argentina. This clandestine competition angers Rubén Livio, son of the firm's founder, but it has its comic possibilities. Do the smugglers, one wonders, drift up to motorists, snap open their coats and hiss, "Wanta buy a feelthy connecting rod?"
Short of a shiny part in Livio's, a clever mechanic may find what he wants in local junkyards. These are nothing like the pop-art piles of metal that disfigure the U.S. countryside. Instead the Uruguayan scrappers receive the remains of total wrecks plus debris from garages, sort out and save the one-tenth that is possibly reusable and resell the nine-tenths that is strictly for melting down.
One of the biggest car junkyards is La Universal Used Parts for Cars, a fine, esthetic garden of rust. Methodically divided up by Owner Salamon Rubinovich, it has here a hillock of fenders, next a butte of brake drums, there a mountain of wheels. The bed of old Model T planetary transmissions flaunts pedals as petals; upended axle housings look like a field of iron toadstools. The yard has heaps of oil pans and running boards, arbors of leaf springs and front-end assemblies. In the shed are carburetors, pistons, transmission gears, bearings. "It's not a fast-turnover business," remarks the sad-faced Rubinovich in wild understatement. For finders of found art the place is perfect.
The desperate parts hunter in Uruguay can also get what he needs by having it made. The firm of Sarasola y N√∫√±ez, for example, will undertake anything in the gear line. Someone lately brought in a '33 Pontiac camshaft with the distributor driving gear worn down to a barely visible spiral. Sarasola ground it off clean, welded on two steel half cylinders, cut helical teeth in the blank thus formed and gave the car hopes for another 36 years of life. "You have to be ingenious here," says Owner Hector Gervasio Sarasola. On his lathes, gear cutters and reamers he undertakes to make parts for all common cars plus Adlers, Bedfords, Singers and Fordson tractors. "Take those old mustache Fords," he says, meaning Model Ts, whose spark and throttle levers make the wheel look like a mustached face. "We make differential crowns and pinions for them in runs of 200 at a time."
The basic trick in keeping an engine running into eternity is reboring the cylinders and fitting new pistons—followed when the cylinder walls get too thin from several reborings by insertion of new sleeves (which in Spanish translates as camisas, shirts) to restore the cylinder to original size. This takes lots of pistons, regular and oversize, and in Uruguay they are supplied by the most specialized branch factory of the great German piston-making firm Mahle KG. "We make pistons like a tailor makes a suit," says Bernardo Heiduk, the factory manager. His hand-ladle foundry and machine shop turns out no fewer than 250 kinds of pistons in runs of 120 to 150.
Tires come from a firm called FUNSA (Fàbrica Uruguaya de Neumàticos, S.A.), which makes virtually every known size. Body work is almost invariably done by welding in heavy new sheet metal; Uruguayans regard epoxy fixes as quickie expedients unlikely to hold up for even 20 years. And when worst comes to worst, a parts-hungry Uruguayan driver can always appeal to the local Sunday morning thieves' market. The owner of a '60 Simca, missing a hubcap, drove out there recently and sought out the specialist who deals in those disks. Don't have any, the fellow said, but could probably get one in half an hour. The owner killed time browsing in other parts of the market. When he came back the specialist had skillfully located the needed hubcap and they made a deal. Congratulating himself on his purchasing savvy, the driver returned to his car to find that all the other hubcaps had been pilfered—by his friendly '60 Simca specialist, of course.