A brave attempt at autonomy snuffed out before its time.
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.