Antique cars fuel Uruguayans' yearning for past

November 03, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- A bubble-shaped 1939 Plymouth weaves its way through traffic followed by a polished 1930 Ford Model A. A Chevy from the mid-1940s sits at a stop light, while a Buick from the same era crosses the intersection.

In this tiny, gentle country that seems forgotten by time, Uruguayans love their old cars, tinkering and collecting them with tireless energy. There are three antique car clubs in the capital, and several antique car road rallies are held each year.

But today, many Uruguayans drive old automobiles as much out of necessity as nostalgia.

"People buy old cars not just because they like the style but because they are practical," said Alvaro Casal, curator of Montevideo's antique car museum and owner of a 1950 Morris. "New cars are more expensive. They have higher taxes and insurance rates. They don't hold their value like the old cars."

Uruguay, wedged between Brazil and Argentina, was once one of South America's richest countries. Wool and beef exports financed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and an elaborate welfare state.

During the boom years, roughly 1915 to 1950, more than 1,000 cars a year were imported, many of them luxury sedans from the United States and Europe. But as beef prices fell after World War II and wool exports plummeted, Uruguayans could no longer afford new cars.

Today, Uruguayans have a powerful yearning for the past. Residents still celebrate the anniversary of the country's 1950 World Cup soccer championship, its second. Milk is still delivered by horse cart. And residents -- seemingly never in a hurry -- spend hours in the city's cafes talking politics and sipping mate, a bitter tea.

"There is a great nostalgia for the past," said Danilo Arbilla, editor of the weekly news magazine Busqueda, Uruguay's most widely read publication. "It's difficult for people to accept the country isn't what it used to be."

Automobiles, especially old ones, have always had a special place, in part because they are perhaps the only conspicuous sign of wealth.

A Uruguayan military leader in the 1970s is said to have looted government coffers in part to buy more than 200 antique cars. In the 1950s, the government was shaken by protests after the president bought a Cadillac convertible for official business that voters felt was too extravagant.

In 1989, newly elected President Luis Lacalle went to his first day in office in a 1937 Ford convertible owned by his late grandfather, one of Uruguay's great caudillos.

Each year, more than 5,000 people visit Montevideo's antique car museum, which houses 40 gleaming classics, including a 1923 Ford Model T, a 1925 Packard and a 1948 Austin. "I've been here at least 100 times," said Christina Perez, a teacher who is looking to buy a classic. "Antique cars are beautiful. I'm fascinated by them."

Alvaro Greco, who was examining the paint jobs on the museum's finest, is restoring a 1938 Morris convertible he bought recently for $900. "It's tough to steer, but the engine runs really nice. For $900, it's a bargain," Mr. Greco said of a car that might bring $20,000 in the United States.

Most of the country's best antique cars are owned by local collectors or have been restored and shipped abroad. The government tried to limit the trade by declaring cars more than 40 years old "national patrimony" and requiring a permit to export them.

Dealers say only the rarest automobiles are prevented from leaving Uruguay. Mr. Casal, the museum curator, estimates that 150 cars a year are exported, although rare autos can still be found: Last year, he discovered a 1910 Dutch Spiker in a barn in the Uruguayan countryside.

"Uruguayans don't throw things away," Mr. Casal said, explaining that many of the rarest autos are restored using original parts from three or four cars of the same model. "They keep things and repair them. Everything has value."

Most Uruguayans shop for less valuable classics in several Montevideo neighborhoods, where autos for sale are parked at the curb and marked by an empty oil can on the hood. Spare parts are bought near the Mercado Modelo, a huge market where hundreds of broken-down cars are piled in separate lots.

"I have original parts for Fords made in 1911, for Renaults made in the 1920s and most other cars. People come from Brazil and Argentina to get spares," said Alfredo Marmo, 28, who owns a 1958 Ford Fairlane.

Mr. Marmo and other old car enthusiasts say it's increasingly difficult to find well-maintained classics in Uruguay as exports continue, and old cars are dismantled for spare parts. But few say there is any danger that Uruguay's antique cars will disappear.

"I won't sell my car to anyone," Mr. Greco said as he proudly displayed his Morris convertible to a visitor. "Can you imagine driving this on a warm summer day in the countryside? You can't beat that feeling."

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