The lesser-known Argentinian Farina variations.
The car you see before you here today is likely to be, for many at least, an unfamiliar member of the BMC Farina family, but it was a unique and interesting variation in its own right. Its story begins with one of Argentina’s greatest and most revered industrialists, an Italian immigrant named Torcuato di Tella (1892–1948), who had disembarked in Buenos Aires with his parents in 1895. At just eighteen years of age, di Tella developed and produced a dough-mixing machine which became very popular with bakeries across the country.
Before long, di Tella had extended his range of products to include gasoline pumps, refrigerators, washing machines and other household appliances, but S.I.A.M., the name of the manufacturing company he established in 1911, paid tribute to the product started it all: it is an acronym for ‘Sección Industrial Amasadoras Mecánicas’ or, in English, ‘Bread Making Machine Industries’.
Di Tella was politically engaged and very much an anti-fascist, financing the opposition to Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship in his native country and assisting those prosecuted and marginalised under il Duce’s regime. In 1948, the Italian businessman died quite young at the age of 56 and left the company to his two sons: Torcuato Junior and Guido, both of whom were engineers by profession. His sons changed the name of the company to SIAM di Tella and expanded into the field of mobility by signing a license agreement in 1948 with Italian scooter manufacturer Lambretta. Labeled Siambretta, the scooters would be mnanfactured until 1970. The Siambretta tooling was then sold to the firm Franco Brothers, who used it as a base to produce a small three-wheeled truck called the Frambretta.
With business going well, by the late 1950s the Di Tella brothers decided the time was ripe to enter car manufacturing. In 1959, SIAM di Tella reached an agreement with BMC to produce their new Farina line of cars under license. The fact that Farina is also the Italian word for flour is an amusing coincidence in light of the original name of the company(1).
In order to add the production of cars to SIAM di Tella’s portfolio of products, the plant located in Monte Chingolo was extensively refurbished over a period of four months and reopened in March 1960. Just two weeks after its inauguration, the first Di Tella 1500 was completed.
The Argentine Farina variant was mostly identical to the Riley 4/68 and 4/72 apart from the rear end, which was that of the Austin Cambridge A55/A60. Power was provided by the familiar B-series four-cylinder engine coupled to a three-speed manual gearbox with column shifter. Apart from the four-door sedan there was also an estate named Di Tella Traveler and, from 1961, a pick-up ‘ute’ version unique to SIAM di Tella.
Early cars were assembled by using imported British components, but strict protectionist rules imposed by the Argentine government resulted in all Di Tella 1500s being built with mostly locally produced parts from 1961 on. A team of BMC production engineers supervised the manufacturing process, with the main objective to lower production times. Their efforts certainly bore fruit as, in 1960, just 4,000 cars rolled of the assembly line but three times that number were completed in the following year.
On the strength of its positive brand image for making quality products, SIAM di Tella soon became the car of choice for the Argentine taxi trade: as early as 1962, three out of every ten Di Tellas on the streets of Buenos Aires were the distinctive black taxis with their bright yellow roofs(2). Strengths cited by the Buenos Aires cabbies were good interior room and bootspace, reliable mechanicals and overall durability. Feeble brakes and only barely adequate performance were the most often mentioned deficiencies.
The Di Tella Magnette 1622 was added to the lineup in 1964. Its four-speed manual gearbox was also fitted to all other Di Tellas from that moment on. By the middle of the decade, however, the bloom was fading as the rose as the Farina started to age; sales spiralled downwards and, in September 1965, IKA-Renault took a controlling interest of 65% in SIAMs automotive arm. It was renamed Compañia Industrial de Automotores S.A. (C.I.D.A.S.A.). The Di Tella 1500 was facelifted and now named Riley 1500 or Morris 1650, depending on the version.
Alas, sales numbers failed to pick up in any meaningful way, so IKA-Renault halted production of all Farinas in 1967, concentrating instead on its own existing range of French and American vehicles. During its brief period of car manufacture, SIAM di Tella had produced some 28,000 Farina variants.
Their popularity as taxis notwithstanding, in 1978 the junta government under Jorge Videla, worried about projecting a bad impression with foreign visitors to that year’s football World Cup, banned all taxis that were over ten years old. At a stroke, virtually all Di Tella taxis disappeared from the streets.
As late as 2012, however, long after Videla’s rule had ended, the SIAM di Tella was clearly still not forgotten and was immortalised in the form of a statue (an honour not often bestowed on a car) dedicated to the Argentinian taxi trade, and also depicted on a national postage stamp.
Subsequently nationalised, then experiencing a further changes of ownership, SIAM di Tella still exists today as a manufacturer of refrigerators and the company opened a new plant as recently as 2014.
(1) Hence, in the lead photo of this article is a pebete, one of the most popular Argentine sandwich variants. It is pictured next to the car itself.
(2) In Argentina, ‘taxi’ is a derogatory term for a brunette who has dyed her hair blonde, inspired by the taxicabs’ mandatory colour scheme of black with a yellow roof.