Theme : Sudamerica – Parallel States of Evolution

I write as someone who is far from convinced of the universal wonders of the Free Market, yet I tend to the conviction that state-owned car makers are a bad idea.


I think that’s because I can’t help but regard most cars as rather frivolous things, so I base my prejudice on the feeling that I wouldn’t want to be governed by an organisation that wastes even part of their energies thinking about cars, except in legislating their use.

This prejudice soon falls apart. True, most of the cars built for a captive market in the old Communist states of Eastern Europe were disappointing at best, but Tatras were glorious things. The nationalised British Leyland was a reasonably cack-handed enterprise, with sparks of cleverness, but it only got nationalised due to the uselessness of its private management.

And Renault, extracted by the French government from Louis Renault at the end of the War in a very murky way, produced their most influential vehicles during its 50 years of state ownership.

And then there is Alfa Romeo. Admittedly, Mussolini’s Fascists weren’t, thankfully, your average government, but taking a manufacturer of high-end sporting vehicles into full government care, rather than letting it go the way of so many other such manufacturers in the 1930s, was a bit extreme. Although its postwar products were not as lavish as the 2900 8C, all the Giulias, Montreals, Alfettas, Duettos, GTAs, etc made up until 1986 were made by a state-owned company.

So when, in the early Fifties, the Brazilian, state-owned Fábrica Nacional de Motores (FNM) were looking for a new collaborator for producing commercial vehicles, Alfa-Romeo made a lot of sense. Thinking of them solely as makers of sporting cars, I was surprised when I first went to Italy, to see the Alfa badge on the front of vans, trucks and buses but they once offered a good range of such vehicles.

An FNM D-11000
An FNM D-11000

The building of Alfa Romeo large trucks and bus chassis in Brazil was a big success for FNM for almost 20 years. Their trucks got a reputation for being slow, but very reliable – they’d get you there in the end. Hardly the image the average European Alfa owner had, but a decent, solid enterprise for a government organisation, though not sexy.  So when then President Kubitschek saw the chance for FNM to take over a failed project by another company to build the Alfa Romeo 2000 under licence, FNM became a car maker too.

Alfa Romeo 2000 - image :
Alfa Romeo 2000 – image :

Despite its fashionable Farina fins, the 1958 Alfa Romeo 2000 could trace a lot of itself back to Alfa’s first postwar product that departed from the exclusive, luxury market, the 1900 Berlina. Nevertheless, in specification, it still held its own with competing products of the time with a twin-cam 4 cylinder engine and coil sprung live rear axle. But was it the car that a state-owned manufacturer in a then poor country should be building?

Nevertheless, the first FNM 2000 was sold in 1960. At the same time, in Argentina, IKA were cannibalising the old Alfa 1900, and popping in a Willys engine to make the Bergantin. But, whereas IKA downplayed the Alfa connection, FNM retained a prominent Alfa grille to hold their badge, as well as, most important, its twin-cam engine.

FNM 2000 - image :
FNM 2000 – image :

Typically, no car maker is happy until they produce a proper sports car and FNM’s first offering was gloriously oddball. Based on the 2000, the ONÇA covered all bases. With a name meaning Jaguar in Portuguese, it had an Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint looking front end, even down to the drop down forward of the bonnet. But go round the side and its GRP body morphed into a … Mustang notchback. Despite this description, it is oddly attractive.

FNM Onca - image :
FNM Onca – image :

Despite Alfa replacing the car in Italy with the 6 cylinder 2600 in 1962, with power tweaks and minor styling changes the FNM 2000 saloon lasted 8 years. In 1968, Alfa Romeo took a controlling share in FNM and the 2000 had a capacity increase to become the near-identical 2150. By the early 70s the car was looking very old, despite an attempt to give the brand a bit of modern style with the complementary Lamborghini Jarama-like Furia GT.

But, in 1974, Brazilian Alfa evolution appeared to take a real leap forward and converge with what was coming from Milan. On first glance the crisply styled Alfa Romeo 2300 was obviously an Alfetta. But, no, a second look revealed a wealth of proportional differences from the Italian car introduced two years earlier. It was longer and wider and, beneath the skin, there was no De Dion and no transaxle.

In fact it remained essentially the same car that could be traced back to the 1950 Alfa 1900. Unfortunately, the model did not sell that well in South America and neither did it do well in Europe in the early 80s, when Alfa tried to offload a batch there with the jaunty ‘Rio’ designation. The last car was made in 1986 and, in 1988, the remnants of FTM / Alfa Romeo were absorbed into Fiat’s South American operations.

Not an Alfetta. Not an Alfa 6. The Alfa Romeo 2300B.

9 thoughts on “Theme : Sudamerica – Parallel States of Evolution”

  1. I’ll bet Martin Buckley has owned a Brazilian Alfa and has written how good it really was. If only Myles Gorfe was the owner of one of these then he’d be perfectly set up.
    Thanks for this fascinating detour.
    I didn’t know the Mustalfa had a plastic body.

  2. I’m a bit late to the party, but, well, let’s go.

    First, let me tell you that the Alfa Romeo trucks, especially the FNM-badged ones, are hideous. That said, up until the 1980s, “fenemê” (the way we Brazilian pronounce the acronym, something like FEN-NEN-MEN) became a slang for ugly individuals.

    Sadly, when the Onça was being prepared (1966), the relationship between FNM and Alfa Romeo was bad. The Italians did not like the Brazilians’ plan to build a sport car of their own, and ended up vetoing it. The ambitious privatisation programme conduced by President Castelo Branco led to the sale of FNM to Alfa Romeo (ironically, another state-owned company) in 1968, as you remarked. No one knows exactly how many Onças were actually built, but Roberto Nasser, arguably Brazil’s greatest alfisti, reckons that seven or eight Onças were made. He owns one of them, permanently displayed at the Automobile Museum in Brasília (if you from the DTW crew fly down here, I’d love to take you there and have some pints after the visit).

    The Furia is a different beast. Six units of the original Furia project were built to race different Touring categories. You can check some pics of this Furia here:

    In 1971, the Furia GT that you mentioned was introduced, but only one unit was built, for a raffle – thus the third-world Lambo was never actually sold. Sadly. Three years ago, as you mentioned, the Alfetta-inspired 2300 (still carrying the old 1900 platform that based the first JK) was launched, with a short stint of exports to the Netherlands as the Alfa Rio. In 1978, eight years prior to Fiat’s worldwide acquisition of Alfa Romeo, Fiat bought the Brazilian branch of Alfa and just kept producing the 2300 until 1986 – though some MY1987 units were accidentally made.

    Alfa Romeo withdrew from the Brazilian market for good in 2006, and plans for a comeback, just like in the U.S., are forever delayed. If you’re in love with the 2300, the surviving units sell at about € 4,000 around here, rust included.

    1. Hi Eduardo: thank you for the kind invitation.
      The Ford del Reys are fascinating in their vagueness. I’ll Google them a bit more. It’s exciting that the Alfa 2300 carried on so long – there must be one in Europe. That would make it a splendid unicorn for lovers of obscure motors. From a European perspective these hybrids are interesting alternatives to what we think of as Fords, VWs and Fiats. How does it lool to see South-America described? Do you recognise the descriptions?

  3. Richard, I fully recognise the descriptions. in fact, there are three main groups of South American markets with different features:

    – the first one (Brazil, Argentina) filled with local oddities from the 1960s until the early 1990s. in the 21st century, they became mere repeaters of “developing markets projects” like Dacias and byproducts of old-gen cars.

    – a second one was a mere assembler of CKD imports up until the 1990s (Colombia, Chile, Peru and Venezuela). this group split and parted ways: Colombia still has manufacturers (Ford, Renault, Mazda), Peru became a paradise of sorts for Chinese cars (including GM Chinese offers), Venezuela teamed up with Iran to produce a turd loosely based on the old-and-not-gold Peugeot 405 and Chile became a melting pot: Subaru is a major brand, Opel, Samsung (the Korean Renault) and Skoda sell their cars there (but refrain from any other South American market) and there are some 10 Chinese car brands also available in Chile. think of the country as the definitive free market for cars.

    – a third one (the small nations and Peru nowadays) where cheap brands rule, there is no ban on importing used cars (which explains why there are so many RHD cars in LHD countries like Bolivia and Paraguay). old Toyotas (both cars and trucks), new Hyundais and Chinese offerings dominate the landscape.

    as for unicorns, one of my favourite is the Brazilian-built Karmann-Ghia TC, the third world’s Porsche 912. have you already wrote something about it?

    1. Hi: That’s a really nice precis. I hadn’t quite put my finger on that as my “survey” is partial and I had shied away from Brazil and Argentina on account of the scale. Also, the smaller countries were utterly unknown to me carwise. Peru, Argentina and Chile are the places I’d like to actually visit. I still have to research Citroen in South America. Another angle involves British cars – I expect the lack of colonial ties might lead to this being a fallow furrow. I was very disappointed the Dutch didn’t get more DAFs over to Suriname.

    2. Richard,

      the French have a strong presence in Argentina and had the same in Uruguay (which they lost to Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia and the Chinese this century). today, Renault’s lineup in South America is basically the Dacia lineup, with a few actual Renault offers (Koleos, Captur and the semi-Renault Fluence). they were always big in Argentina but left Brazil around 1969, returning only in the mid-1990s.

      Peugeot also has a bigger presence in Argentina and Uruguay than in Brazil, but they’re not a common sight in Chile and Peru. and they’re way bigger than Citroën in all these countries. it’s not hard to spot the rugged 504, especially the ute version, in rural areas. early in the 1950s, the Citroën 11 Légére (a SWB version of the Traction Avant, branded under the LWB name) was a hit in Brazil, but the brand quickly vanished from here, returning only around 1992.

      British cars: I know there was an assembly line that built classic Minis in Venezuela or Colombia (once I met a Colombian guy that had one of these Minis). Austins, Morris (Oxford MO and Minor), Vauxhall Veloxes and products from Ford of England (Anglia, Prefect and early generations of the Taunus) were a common sight in Brazil up until 1955, when the Beetlemania started.

      but my favourite part about British cars has to be the success of Riley in Argentina during the 1950s. as far as I know, Riley were never a major player in the UK, but their cars were built in Argentina and became the dream of the middle-class. and an even smaller manufacturer, Cisitalia, also did well in Argentina back then.

      aside from that, Guyana and Suriname, while territorially belonging to South America, are much closer to the Caribbean than to South America. it’s hard to book a flight to these countries from Brazil or even Venezuela, their football squads play in CONCACAF leagues and not in CONMEBOL, there were different patterns of migration. perhaps the car market is also Caribbean (focused on small Japanese SUVs)?

  4. Eduardo: “First, let me tell you that the Alfa Romeo trucks, especially the FNM-badged ones, are hideous. That said, up until the 1980s, “fenemê” (the way we Brazilian pronounce the acronym, something like FEN-NEN-MEN) became a slang for ugly individuals.”

    DTW is truly a place of useful learning.

    I’m put in mind of the Citroën Belphégor, with which all DTW-ers will be familiar. Flaminio Bertoni regarded it as one of his masterpieces, it was certainly prescient – that complex grille and air intake combination appears in mildly modified form on just about everything now.

    In similar vein, on a brief anabasis into Central America, I am indebted to P J O’Rourke for the information that the Nicaraguans humorously suggested that the acronym of the East German IFA trucks – exported in large quantities to their country – stood for “Imposibile frenar a tiempo” – impossible to stop on time.

  5. Eduardo. Thanks for all your extra detail. I’d wondered how Alfa could have countenanced allowing an Alfa grille on what was, superficially, a Mustang (“An Alfa grille on a Ford – Good Lord that’s as likely as us putting one on one of those awful Japanese Nissans”) so the fact that they were going through a bad relationship with Alfa explains it. A pity there were so few Onças – there really is something rather tempting to my eyes about ownership of such a wilfully perverse car.

    I get the idea that the nascent South American industry shared with its UK counterpart good and resourceful engineers forever struggling against semi-competent leadership and mean-minded investment.

    1. Sean, aside from some sixties’ oddities and the long line of air-cooled VWs unique to South America, the Brazilian industry is a long history of failure. I have a soft spot for Gurgel, a Brazilian automaker that closed around 1993. They heavily depended on VW engines but tried hard to do something – even a watercooled version of half a Beetle’s engine (an 800cc flat-2) for a city car (the BR-800/Supermini) was produced, but the company always ran short on money and founder João Gurgel took a variety of ill-fated decisions.

      Another curious case is Troller, a small off-road producer headquartered in the poor Northeastern region. It was bought by Ford some years ago and produces the T4, a raw take on what a new Ford Bronco could be.

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