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.
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.
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.
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.
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.