A Democrat Crushed By A Dictator

A brave attempt at autonomy snuffed out before its time. 

IBAP Democrata. (c) Lexicarbrasil.com

Large country though it is – the fifth largest in the world by area – the República Federativa do Brasil has never had a national car maker of any far-reaching market significance. Foreign makers had, and continue to have factories that produce cars in Brazil of course: Volkswagen, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Fiat and Ford to name the major ones, and also exiles such as DKW, Borgward, Kaiser and Willys who with varying degrees of success sought to prolong their activities in Brazil, after the feasibility of the business case in their home countries evaporated.

At the dawn of the 1960’s, Brazilian business tycoon Nelson Fernandes attempted to finally give his country its own car. Fernandes had become wealthy building country clubs and a large hospital through a fund-raising drive targeting affluent Brazilians. One of his funders (and friends) was Luis Carlos Fagundes, a director of Willys do Brasil. Together, they hatched plans to create a purely Brazilian car make that would offer a range of three vehicles: a small car with an engine of just 300 to 500cc, a luxury sedan with a V6 engine and a light van. With these vehicles, they reasoned, it would be possible to cover the automotive needs of virtually all Brazilians.

In October of 1963 IBAP (Industria Brasileira de Automoveis Presidente) became reality. Fagundes managed to lure the head of Willys do Brasil’s sports department to the new company; Fernando Beraldin, who had been instrumental in the fiberglass-bodied Willys Interlagos project. In early 1964 a design competition was launched for the V6 sedan – its name already decided upon – Democrata. Nelson Fernandes once again utilised his fund-raising talents to buy land and have a factory built in São Bernardo do Campo.

On the 1st of April of 1964 however, the Brazilian military executed a coup d’etat and deposed sitting president João Goulart. This event would ultimately prove to be fatal for IBAP’s plans. For a start, the word Presidente in the company name referred to previous presidents elected by the people such as Kubichek or Goulart, and the name of IBAP’s planned first car – Democrata – left the military junta in no doubt about Fernandes’ political views.

The coup at first did not deter IBAP’s ambitions however: Fernandes announced that he planned to have his factory produce 350 cars daily, which at the time was similar to that of Volkswagen do Brasil.

It did not take long for problems to arise. The junta’s new Ministry of Finance did not look kindly upon the way Fernandes financed his company through fund-raising and the issuing of shares and launched a parliamentary investigation. They accused IBAP of never having any intention of actually producing cars and of proposing an unrealistically low sales price for the Democrata.

It is rumoured that the judgment of the parliamentary investigators was influenced by managers from competitors VW do Brasil and FNM who were not keen to welcome a new competitor into their ranks. In the interest of fairness however it has to be noted that no documented proof of this is available. Still, Nelson Fernandes may have seen parallels with the treatment Preston Tucker received in the United States about fifteen years earlier…

Appearance-wise, the first prototype of the Democrata did not really help IBAP’s case – it looked suspiciously like a slightly modified Chevrolet Corvair. Which it was, as Fernandes admitted. The reason for using the Corvair as a base, he declared, was that it had the same size and mechanical architecture as the planned Democrata. The American car offered a shortcut for Fernandes to be able to show a working example of their planned car.

As far as the engine went however, IBAP commissioned the Italian company ProCosAutoM (Proggetazione Construzione Auto Motori) to design and build an aluminium V6 engine with a capacity of 2.5 litres delivering 120Bhp. Production of the engines was planned to take place at IBAP later to circumvent import duties.

Trouble arose in the form of negative press coverage by both the general press and the automotive specialty magazines, whose editors of course were more or less under control of the reigning military powers. The junta continued to pile pressure upon the fledgling company. IBAP was accused of, amongst other things – financial fraud (the fund-raising method), counterfeiting (using the Corvair as a base) and smuggling (the first batch of V6 engines from Italy was seized but later released).

Nevertheless, IBAP managed to present a production-ready Democrata. This new in-house design showed no resemblance to the Corvair and was in fact thoroughly modern for the day and quite pleasing to the eye. The fact that it was rear-engined was not immediately obvious.

After presenting the Democrata to the press, articles were published that again accused IBAP of not being serious about actually producing a car as the Democrata prototype had a body made of fiberglass. Fernandes responded by sending the Democrata on a tour through the country in order to demonstrate the strength of the fiberglass body. Rumour has it that members of the public were even invited to hit the body with a heavy metal rod to test its resilience. Somewhat controversially, at the same time Fernandes announced that the actual production versions would have steel bodies!

The junta’s continued hostile stance towards IBAP ensured that the project never got off the ground. In 1968 the Corvair was on the way out – together with the concept of rear engined family cars – and in a desperate move IBAP tried to purchase FNM who were in trouble also at the time, albeit for different reasons. The idea was to finally produce the Democrata at FNM alongside its existing range.

Alas, the junta decided that FNM would be sold to Alfa Romeo who were only too pleased to be able to buy back their licensee, and quite cheaply at that. After this final attempt failed, IBAP was doomed. Fernandes continued to be presumed guilty of several accusations and it was not until 1984 that all charges against him were dropped.

Only five prototype Democratas (all with fiberglass bodies) were completed. Unused bodyshells could be seen dumped in a yard nearby the defunct IBAP factory for years afterwards. It is believed that ProCosAutoM built and shipped close to 500 V6 engines to Brasil – if true lending some credence to IBAP’s declared intentions – and that these were eventually sold for scrap.

Was Nelson Fernandes too ambitious? Perhaps. Many have tried to gain their place in the automotive landscape, but comparatively few have actually succeeded. Maybe IBAP would have been better off trying to build that small 300-500cc car first, or even the light utility vehicle.

But what is also clear is that the military dictatorship was not exactly enamoured by the political affiliations of Fernandes or the name of his car. Furthermore, the established car industries in Brazil (Volkswagen, FNM and Ford for example) would rather not rock the junta’s boat and reap the benefits under military rule, and for them a new competitor was probably seen as an unwanted complication.

Only two or three Democratas survive today, of which only one is fully roadworthy. If nothing else, the survivors represent the drive of an ambitious businessman who in the end was forced to fold against the might of a junta before being ultimately vindicated – but far too late to save his dream.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

13 thoughts on “A Democrat Crushed By A Dictator”

  1. What an interesting story. Thanks, Bruno, for unearthing it from the dark recesses of automotive history and bringing it to DTW. When I saw the photo of the red car, I immediately thought of the Corvair, mainly because of the unusually rearward position of the rear axle:

  2. Notwithstanding GM deciding not to include a front Anti-Roll Bar on the Corvair from the beginning, it seems the IBAP Democrata’s more conventional 60-degree V6 was what the Corvair could have also benefited from in retrospect (which could have had much wider application for decades like the Ford Essex and Cologne V6) instead of an air-cooled Flat-Six.

    At the same time have been of the view a Corvair family of rear-engined cars equipped with an earlier version of the Corvair Gen 2 modular engines would have done very well in a market like Brazil had GM do Brazil been formed earlier in place of the locally built Opala and Chevette given how ubiquitous Volkswagen’s rear-engined cars were said to be in the country and other parts of South America.

    https://www.curbsideclassic.com/automotive-histories/engine-prototype-the-stillborn-corvair-gen2-modular-engine-from-two-to-twelve-cylinders/

    1. Habe you looked at the picture of the engine showing the carbs ‘outboard’ and the exhaust in the V? Where do you want to use such an engine if not in the rear? Other pictures also show a transmission with the differential underneath the engine, K70-style and one reason for the set back rear axle necessary to tame the rear engjne oversteer. This engine would habe been useless in the front of any car.

    2. Is it regarding the idea of place the Corvair’s Flat-6 at the front, which was not what was suggested at all or referring to notion the Corvair should have received a V6?

      If the latter, is it based on the Buick V6 and even the all-alloy 215 Buick/Rover V8 appearing to be pretty common engine conversions in the Corvair.

  3. Thanks Bruno for your research and an enlightening article.

    The conclusion is that IBAP were doomed by political events s, rather than their products, but the Corvair was a strange choice of inspiration. By 1963 mad old GM had already decided it was a lost cause, and had the Falcon-clone Chevy II in place as an internal competitor. Being the world’s most butt-headed car company, they continued US production of the Corvair until 1969, rather than shift the tooling to some car-hungry closed-market state. Brazil or Argentina would have suited well.

    As far as I can work out, ProCosAutoM was a corporate ‘vehicle’ founded with the sole purpose of developing the Democrata’s V6, and the justification for outsourcing the design to Italy was to avoid industrial espionage in Brazil.

    The engine is a strange thing indeed. Apart from the ‘hot V’ arrangement, there’s that “integral transmission”. If I’m reading correctly, the engine is almost in a mid-rear configuration, rather like the Tatra T613.

    The reported 120bhp is relatively modest for a 2527cc OHC engine, but it looks like a racing engine repurposed. Some Greek Al influence too, if the description of the in-sump transmission is correct.

    1. Having the gearbox under the engine doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sharing their oil, BMC-style.
      Ferrari’s mid engined boxer cars and the Dino V6 road cars had a gearbox under the engine but separate oil reservoirs.
      If you look at the drivetraing picture and assume that the fan is facing rearwards in direction of the radiator it is clear that the larger part of the engine is forward of the axle line, making the democrata a four seater mid engined car like a 308 GT4 and a possible explanation for its long wheelbase.
      The drivetrain is conceptually similar to the Berlinetta Boxer/Testarossa which also has a part of the engine atop the axle line and the larger part in front of it
      https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn%3AANd9GcRPcIKmiTSj74362wKIU3eoLhoZKTn70lG8VQ&usqp=CAU
      The larger part of the gearbox is facing toward the front of the car.
      Here’s a pic of the drive train:

    2. The 1965 Corvair Gen II with a fully independent rear suspension instead of swing axles and sophistication well beyond the trailing arm Porsche 911 came out in autumn 1964. Given manufacturing lead times, that new body design and the suspension was done in 1962.

      Then Ralph Nader happened and scuppered GM’s plans with his 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed” referring to the first Generation models. There were Congressional hearings on the matter. No matter that the old model was no longer on sale, and that the new one had been at dealers for almost a year, the attack was on, and GM did itself in by hiring private detectives to try and get dirt on Nader, which tactic was found out and decried by politicians and public alike. That was what killed the Corvair, lack of sales from then on, and GM’s intransigence in not killing the Second Gen off earlier than 1969 was just corporate face-saving. Sales effectively ended with the 1967 model.

      Yes, I know various pundits with revisionist ideas, mostly born after the Nader schemozzle and who had no idea of the giant flap it caused at the time, by not actually being there, say it was because another car was being designed in 1963 and that GM knew the writing was on the wall. That one turned out to be the Chevy II redesign which was also used as the chassis of the Camaro. All one has to do is look at sales figures. Well over 200,000 of these Corvairs were sold each year from intro through the first year 1965 Second Generation car. After Nader, the ’66 that came out at the same time of his “revelation” sold far less than the year before, and then sales continued to fall off a cliff. You didn’t chuck away a model that annually sold over 200K units in a mere 7 million total market of which 500K were Beetles, nor spend money on a body redesign, back in 1963.

      I’ve been in numerous examples of those Corvairs of both generations. The second one was lovely, the first, well, it was of the Beetle and Triumph Herald useless variety with a swing axle rear. We enthusiasts wondered why the Beetle hadn’t been equally dunned — it was a dreadful car in a crosswind , let alone cajoling it around a corner — the thing was a standing joke. I dispute the assertion that GM were throwing in the towel on the Corvair in 1963 — it doesn’t square with any facts I’m aware of.

      The Chevy II came out in the autumn of 1961 with a nice new optional straight six, which made mincemeat of the Ford Falcon six, and a pair of unique single-leaf springs dubbed Monoplate holding up the body from the cart rear axle.

      This Brazilian Democrata V6 hot vee engine is definitely unusual for the time. Nowadays the Germans love the idea. What’s left unsaid in this article is whether the car itself had the first gen Corvair rear swing axles or the sophisticated second generation one. Hardly matters now if only one example is left, but that is quite the story all right, Bruno. Thank you for sharing it.

    3. I’m not aware of any German V6 with exhaust ports pointing inside the Vee. What they have are lots of turbocharged V6s with the turbo in the V (predominantly Audi diesels) and the exhaust running around the head to the turbo and downwards from there.

      It’s very practical when you want to get the ice off the bonnet on cold winter mornings.

  4. I’m basing the speculation on this:

    http://carrosnacionaisantigos.blogspot.com/2015/01/industria-brasileira-de-automoveis_13.html

    Procosautom projetou o motor e a transmissão (que ficava embutida no cárter de óleo)

    “Procosautom designed the engine and transmission (which was embedded in the oil sump)”

    It could have separate oil from the engine, but BMC’s design would have been well known by 1963-4. In the British examples, it gave the advantage of maintaining a fresh oil supply, both through servicing and leakage.

    1. I like the idea to keep the oil fresh through leakage even if I invested considerable work and time to get my British motorcycles oil tight which originally tended to follow the same idea.

  5. Thank you Brrrruno for another really interesting article about an unknown and interesting car.
    The background of this story is also quite intriguing: the real grounds of the destruction of this company appear to lie essentially in the fact that the “Junta Militar” wanted only international capital invested in the production of durable goods produced in Brazil, while the consumer goods production was to be left to the private internal capital.
    This means that it was decided from (very) above that in Brazil there was no place for Brazilian-owned car factories: for instance, the government took duly care in destroying the local superiority in the heavy trucks market of FNM, which was a state-owned factory. The superiority was basically due to the greater payload of the FNM trucks with respect to other competitors, for instance Mercedes-Benz.
    This was achieved by enforcing a new law (n. 62.127 January 1968) about the maximum possible payload, reducing it to a value below the FNM value and within MB limits. The FNM trucks already in use were therefore continuously stopped and fined, not the MB trucks with inferior payload falling within the new restricted limits, while the FNM sales went down. The situation became a sales downfall for FNM, which in the end was bought by the not-Brazilian Alfa Romeo, satisfying the Junta requirements, while MB went to have the best market share in heavy trucks, enlarging also its Brazilian production capacity.

    Coming back to Democrata and its engine, il would appear that the company ProCosAutoM, unknown before and after this adventure, and founded under Italian law, belonged 60% to Ibap and 40% to Alfa Romeo people, the technician Enrico Franchini and the engineer Gabriele Toti, both of Alfa Romeo.
    This was clearly a stratagem in order to present to the Junta a foreign company involved in the engines.
    Interestingly, the Italian ProCosAutoM owned the Brazilian company “Retifica de São Paulo” (São Paulo Rebore), founded in 1966 and still active: I suppose this was also a step undertaken in order to circumvent the Junta requirements, so to mount or produce afterwards the engines.

    More about this Western economic story in this document, a Brazilian university thesis from which I took most of the above information.

    Click to access 000425779-Texto%2bCompleto-0.pdf

    Here a shorter version on the same argument, 8 pages

    https://brapci.inf.br/index.php/res/download/55516

  6. Thank you Daniel, Dave, Bob, Robertas, Bill and Anastasio for your comments, thoughts and additional information- always nice to see an active readers community!

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