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South American auto quest

4 January, 2015

An intrepid Gerard Richards goes all Joseph Conrad and does the ‘Heart of Darkness’ thing while searching out old cars on a recent trip abroad

The highway out of Lima was shimmering in the blinding sunlight. I couldn’t get out of that tortured gridlock madness quick enough, and, of course, a car was to blame — a ’69 Ford Fairlane, to be precise.

Obsession can be a dangerous thing, and when I had spotted the big, blue, original-looking US cruiser floating around a corner into my path before it tantalizingly lurched off into a side-street driveway, I had had no choice but to abandon the security of my walking-tour party and follow that piece of automotive history.

A couple of hard-working Chev pickups from the ’60s and ’70s seen in central Lima

As a result, I soon found myself lost, wandering down an endless succession of side streets, seemingly plunging ever deeper into a dark hole. Luckily, like a drowning man breaking the surface, I broke free, somehow managing to crack Lima’s code, and, rejoining my tour party, was soon safely on the bus heading south.

This would become a regular pattern over the ensuing weeks of my Latin American tour, often to the serious consternation of my long-suffering partner. The ‘Lima episode’ — as I came to refer to it — could not be repeated at any cost if I wanted to retain my sanity, not to mention that of the rest of the tourists in our party.

If you’re going strike out and explore off the beaten path to hunt down derelict auto treasure, you have to to know where the hell you’re going. I needed to crank up my map-reading skills to avoid another debacle. Actually, carrying a map might have helped!

Motorcyle-taxi madness in a small coastal town in Peru

That big Ford may have escaped my clutches, but I’d only been in Peru for a couple of days, and I was already hungry to track down more interesting auto relics. 

The antique-auto–hunting addiction

It’s a strange disease I must admit, and one I can’t really pitch a bulletproof case for, especially in the light of my fellow travelling-tour companion’s intellectual aspirations, and the lavish visual alternative of exotic Spanish architecture and sublime natural wonders, if you get my drift.

But there’s no accounting for taste, and the ’69 Ford incident in Lima had whetted my appetite for scouring more backstreets and tracking down some groovy retro tin.

Straight-looking Dodge Coronet V8 from the mid ’70s spotted in the Andean city of Cusco

The plan I had running in my head was to try to snap a load of pretty cool photographs of some original runners and abandoned derelicts, all against the atmospheric backdrop of South American street scenes.

Easier said than done when you’re locked into a tour scenario, but, fortunately, there were only seven of us, plus our tour leader, on this two-week Peruvian escapade, the first stage of our South American sojourn. The trick, I quickly learned, was to feverishly scan all points of the compass for auto gold when the tour minibus pulled in for a landing at the next historic or tourist location. Later, with several free city days on the tour, I attacked the distant — and sometimes very dodgy — backstreets as I attempted to sate my auto lust. Obviously, by then a local map accompanied each off-tour excursion and, of course, I had the map details crunched down to a tee.

So there I was, a dangerously wired Kiwi petrolhead, hell-bent on recording some of the last auto relics from the ’60s to the early ’80s street-side in Peru, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Colonia. My deluded quest was to record an era that’s on the cusp of vanishing forever.

Oldest taxi spotted in Lima — 1963–’64 Chevrolet Impala. Looks rough but it’s still doing the business

Our tour would also cover segments of the daunting Pan-American Highway — splendidly titled ‘The Death Highway’ in some quarters. It runs down the entire western seaboard of Latin America, and, on the road out of Lima, we were soon traversing a solid section of this risky two-lane blacktop.

Auto relics alive in Lima

Lima receded, along with my dark memories of its tangled side streets. To be fair, it hadn’t been all bad, but, mind you, the city’s jungle of motoring chaos had to be seen to be believed. However, for an auto photography and archival fiend like me, Lima hadn’t been quite as riveting as Buenos Aires or Montevideo would turn out to be.

In Lima, there had been less early American iron on display. That said, I did capture in action the oldest taxi I saw on tour — a 1963–’64 Chevy — and spotted a few other seriously dilapidated Detroit clunkers, also still ferrying passengers.

This customized and ‘restored’ car was for sale in Lima — looks like it could be a mid-to-late-’70s Oldsmobile

The daily invasion of the sea mist had left ruthless evidence of its killer effect — the corrosion on the older cars in Lima made them some of the rustiest I’ve seen on the road anywhere. Some had seemed to defy physics by the way they still hung together.

Surprisingly, early Japanese cars and VW Beetles had been more in evidence, some in astonishingly good shape, including several late-’60s Toyota Coronas. The top car I had spotted in Lima, though, was an original-looking 1964 two-door Volvo, nicely set off with tasteful steel wheels. A potent little number.

The death highway

South of Lima, the Pan-American Highway plunges into the coastal desert region and passes through a series of fascinating and arid coastal towns. These were a constant hive of motorized mania — meat and drink to the crazy, auto- and road-culture–obsessed, camera-wielding tourist on the bus!

Fortunately, we had to make regular ‘bano’ (toilet) stops in some of these towns to relieve ourselves of the copious amounts of liquid our leader insisted we drink. This, of course, was fertile ground to break cover for the odd unobtrusive camera shoot. Mind you, a visit to the fairly rudimentary facilities offered by the banos in some of these places could seriously dampen one’s enthusiasm for dashing around in the heat!

’60s Falcon — this example may have been assembled in the ’70s. Still in daily use on the streets of Bodeo, Buenos Aires

Around this time, while traversing the many hazards of the Pan-American Highway, I slipped into a minor obsession with spotting mid-’60s Dodge pickups. There were an amazing number of survivors, which speaks volumes for their toughness. They also had a really cool style and street attitude.

However, the ace in the deck for me was one cab that had a to-die-for clean instrument cluster, with a nice steering wheel and shifter. Old pickup trucks out in the desert apparently just keep on trucking — but the Dodge appeared to be the undisputed king.

The highway also brought us into contact with that other Peruvian icon — the little three-wheeled motorcycle taxi. Droves of them buzzed around, often making seemingly suicidal manoeuvres in-between articulated juggernauts. These scuttling, motorized insects — strange little critters with their bright paint schemes and canvas flaps — filled many smaller towns and cities. They looked a little unstable on the rough tracks that passed for side roads bordering the highway. I liked them a lot, and they added much colour and vibrancy to the hustle and bustle of main-street Peru.

Discovered just around the corner from the author’s hotel in Montevideo — derelict-but-cute–looking car which looks like it could be a ’60s Opel

On the road in the Andes

From the coast, our journey took us inland, climbing through the Andean cities (still in Peru) of Arequipa, Cusco, and Puno, towards our ultimate goal, Machu Picchu.

Charting these Incan/Spanish cities was a revelation in many ways, not least because of their narrow, atmospheric alleyways. This was definitely not suitable turf for large and old American iron — they would never have been able to squeeze through these passages. Hordes of small taxis pounded the cobblestones, and stepping off the narrow sidewalk without exercising extreme vigilance could be hazardous to one’s health.

Fiats and Toyota taxis seemed to be everywhere, along with flocks of battered old Daihatsu Charades and Miras, many in severely dilapidated states, these seemingly being favourites with low-budget taxi operators.

Out on the alpine highways (many of them precipitous), life looked to be held quite cheaply, at least going by the very sketchy driving standards on display. Two truck wrecks in one day and a couple of very dodgy overtaking manoeuvres by our new driver had everyone in an agitated state at times.

Oldest original vehicle seen that was still in daily use — 1946 Chev truck, with its long-time owner, that delivers fruit to shops around Montevideo every day

The main automotive interest in the highlands — and I’m talking around 3000–4000 metres (over 10,000 feet) above sea level —continued to be ’60s and ’70s US pickup trucks, still faithfully going about their business of transporting people and goods. I also spotted the occasional original V8 sedan from the same era, the oldest example I saw being a 1964–’65 Dodge.

The mountains were sublime, as was Lake Titicaca and the ancient lost Incan city of Machu Picchu. Jetting into Iguazu Falls, a mind-blowing convergence of thunderous waters that left one humbled by nature’s grandeur, brought us to the end of the Peru stage of our tour. For this auto-hunter — on a sacred mission to record the last survivors of a dying era — this meant we’d now be heading towards the richer motoring pastures of Argentina.

Prior to leaving Peru’s boundaries, we spent a few nights in a nearby small town, and, during a short evening walk, my pulse raced as I hit pay dirt while strolling around local streets. Amongst the monuments to an earlier automotive era I spotted were a ’64 Chevy Nova, 1968–’69 Chevrolet Malibu, several old pickups, a ’60s Falcon, and other assorted gems. I could barely contain myself. 

Our next stop was Buenos Aires, which held the promise of a wealth of old iron — and so it proved.

Hillman on the cobblestoned streets of Colonia

Buenos Aires — Motor City

Descending in over the Rio de la Plata (River Plate), the metropolis of Buenos Aires swept to the horizon — acres of beckoning, decaying tin all lying in wait for the retro-motor historian. My camera was primed and ready to catch the last refrains, still kerb-side, of a fast-disappearing auto dynasty.

The auto reigns supreme in Buenos Aires, with all its arteries constantly pumping endless streams of traffic that wage battle across the entire city. It’s a daunting ask driving here unless you’re combat-ready. Wisely, being a soft-living Kiwi, I didn’t make the attempt, though it has to be said that motoring conditions in Buenos Aires were a significant step-up sanity-wise from the utter madness and chaos of Lima.

Sampling a cross section of the many flavours of Buenos Aires is a sobering exercise, given it covers such a vast area. As such, our tour party targeted a number of the character-laced older ‘barrios’ (suburbs) and central-city regions renowned for both their history and architecture.

The city, famed for its style, food, and dance, as well as being the home of the tango, also threw up an interesting scattering of intriguing old Detroit iron and other auto relics. Some were abandoned and condemned, while others appeared to be mobile, if not entirely roadworthy.

Three ageing and marooned auto dinosaurs in the street where our little boutique hotel was located — in the barrio of Bodeo — certainly got things off on the right foot. Dodges (I keep coming back to them) were built like fortresses in the ’60s and ’70s, and two four-door sedans (plus a mid-’60s Ford pickup) were testament to their virtually indestructible build quality. The earlier late-’60s example was encrusted with years of neglect — it might have had blighted and pitted paintwork and various fittings may have been long gone, but the exterior metalwork still looked like armour plating.

Tracking down similar sorts of automotive shrines around the town didn’t turn out to be that difficult, as circumstances were to prove. I was in heaven as I paced the city streets, buzzing with what I might strike around the next corner. >

Well-used early ’70s Chevrolet Nova/Malibu spotted in the slightly dodgy backstreets in the soccer-mad suburb of La Boca, Buenos Aires

As the Falcon flies

One of the most bizarre auto sagas presented by Buenos Aires was the 1962–’65 American/Australian Ford Falcon, a car that was built here with the same body shape till the early ’80s.

What was going on there? Sure, there were the subtle cosmetic trim updates, interior improvements, plus bigger engines, but what could they have been thinking?

As you’d expect, there were a lot of these Falcons still around, in various states of health and dilapidation. The Argentinean government must have come to some arrangement with Ford to keep producing this ‘iconic’ model at a budget price.

It was quite surreal, you could say, to see this ancient American-cum-Aussie in its many guises still cruising serenely through the cosmopolitan streets of Buenos Aires, or simply squatting by the roadside.

A day or two into my antique auto quest here revealed more patterns that indicated the survival of the fittest. Like the Falcon, there were other brands that had come here as part of some cut-price deal, probably as a result of the not-always–squeaky-clean Argentinean administration.

More Ford Falcon genealogy — another facelift variation of the ’60s classic spotted in Palermo

Heavy street metal 

Chevrolet Novas/Malibus (early ’70s), Dodge Coronets (late ’60s and early ’70s), Ford Fairlanes, and — wait for it — Hillman Avengers were not to hard to find, all being four-door examples.

It seemed that most of the Chevrolets came equipped with either the 3.8-litre or 4.0-litre (230ci or 250ci) six-cylinder mills, but many had been hotted up with V8 power in their later days. Most of those I saw were derelict or quickly getting to that point, though I did spot a couple of nice originals, one driven by an elderly gent.

All the Dodges I saw appeared to be out of action, many having had citation stickers slapped onto their windshields, but city officials didn’t seem to be breaking their necks to remove the cars, judging by the faded print on some of those stickers. Again, the Dodge had survived better than its contemporaries, which suggested a better build quality. I only spotted one Ford Fairlane whilst searching on foot, and that appeared to be no longer mobile, though several others were observed during taxi rides around the city.

Another Detroit relic still gracing the streets in reasonable numbers was the Rambler Classic/Rebel, from the ’60s to early ’70s. I saw several Rambler station wagons still in service.

This Volvo Amazon looked fairly straight. Spotted in Palermo, Buenos Aires

British Bulldogs and Europeans

Probably the most gobsmacking revelation on my wanderings, aside from those Ford Falcons, was the number of ’70s Hillman Avengers still doing the business. They had been optimistically badged as Dodges, and, obviously, they must have some substance to them otherwise they’d never have kept going this long.

It seems that prior to the infamous Falklands War (1982), more cordial relations existed between Argentina and dear old England. This reputedly had a lot to do with the British appetite for beef, though that might be over simplifying it a tad. Although, having sampled the famous Pampas steak myself, I admit I can see why this theory could have some credence. 

Anyway, pre-hostilities, trade was vibrant between the two countries and part of that was a serious invasion of Hillman Avenger, sorry, ‘Dodge’ vehicles during the early/mid ’70s. This all came to end when the volatile Argentinean economy, experiencing another periodic relapse, precipitated the supposedly face-saving invasion of the Falkland Islands. As it turned out, the Argentinean claim to this far-flung arm of the British Empire was probably not the most astute political decision.

Seeing one of these Avengers always brought a smile to my face, along with the Falcons, both being a fast-track nostalgia-blast back to the ’70s.

All these vehicles told a fascinating tale of an earlier era and, while they were the main players, there were several interesting other ingredients in the mix.

Derelict ’70s Chev pickup, Puerto Iguazú, Argentina

European cars also gained a solid foothold in Buenos Aires during the ’60s, and there were quite a few examples of these still around. Again, some were running whilst others simply added a fixed ambience to the streets. Mid-’60s sporty two-door Renaults and Peugeots had a very sexy shape and an exotic coach-built flavour to them. Ford’s Taunus from the early ’70s was a slightly altered Cortina MkIII variant, but the two-door coupé version, which we never got, was very cool. The examples I spotted looked like a scaled-down version of the late-’60s American Ford Torino coupé, as seen in stock-car racing. A few of these Taunus coupés still graced the streets, most of them still running — they seemed quite a trendy car to be seen in.

Some ’70s Vauxhall Chevettes — badged as Chevrolets — were also in evidence, along with the occasional early Opel Rekord and other odd early European tin.

Buenos Aires had provided a sumptuous feast of retro automotive delights — backed up with the odd venture into mainstream sightseeing. As an example, you can’t go to Buenos Aires and not visit a Tango show or take in the famous Plaza de Mayo with its presidential palace, scene of those famous speeches from the balcony by President Juan and Eva Perón in the ’50s. As well, no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without the obligatory pilgrimage to Eva Perón’s grave. Even then, another auto scene could always be just around the next corner — a classic case of every situation being a possible opportunity.
Indeed, across the park from Eva’s grave, you’ll find the famous motor-racing bar Café La Biela. A gathering place for the Argentinean motor-racing fraternity since the late ’40s, it’s filled with interesting photos and motor-racing memorabilia.

Uruguay — old car paradise?

Buenos Aires had been a veritable banquet for the hard-core auto-relic–head, but the trail now led to the final act of the tour — Colonia and Montevideo in Uruguay. The word was out that this would be the ultimate El Dorado for old cars — Cuba and Bolivia excepted.

High government sales tax on new cars apparently meant that old cars had been kept alive by some of the best mechanics on the planet — words of wisdom gleaned from my guidebook. That was the theory anyway, but it proved to be only partially true.

Colonia del Sacramento, to give the town its full name, was an hour’s ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata, the river between Argentina and Uruguay. On arrival, I soaked everything in like stunned mullet — everywhere I looked there were what appeared to be original vintage and classic cars.

I was sucked in only briefly at the outset when I spotted a ’38 Chevrolet sedan and a 1960 Opel in the town square. In surrounding streets was other classic and vintage tin, most appearing to be non-running. They had all been strategically placed to add to the historical precinct of the town, and other traffic was banned from parking so as not to spoil the effect. It was quite disappointing to discover that all this had been carefully contrived as a way of further enhancing the headland town’s extremely atmospheric, cobblestoned streets. Best cars there were a Raymond Loewy–styled 1950 Studebaker and that Opel.

Fastback Ford Taunus coupé in Puerto Iguazu – early ‘70s Cortina equivalent. Pity we never got this model in NZ

Old Chevy trucks never die in Montevideo

We took a local bus from Colonia to Montevideo, about 290km away. It was a tantalizing but ultimately frustrating ride for the serious car spotter. The bus regularly deviated from the four-lane expressway into local towns for stops, allowing me to catch fleeting glimpses of fascinating old and mainly derelict Detroit iron. Cars spotted ranged from Model As to a ’48-ish Nash, Packard models, a ’53 Chevy, and a ’55 Chev Bel Air station wagon, plus a whole range of pickups and ’30s sedans. A treasure trove, but one I could only observe from afar.

The last leg of our mission in South America was the exotic city of Montevideo. I had high hopes of scoring some cool photos of street scenes with lots of antique vehicles oozing attitude. After our trip down the highway, I figured the town would be teeming with old tin. Unfortunately, for me at least, this wasn’t quite the case, though I imagine the locals were probably pretty happy their city wasn’t littered with old wrecks like Buenos Aires. 

No doubt if my Spanish/Portuguese had been half-decent, I might have learned from the natives where their interesting old auto derelicts may have been lurking. However, I strongly suspect they might have told me to bugger off back to Buenos Aires where they leave all their old crap in the streets! (Just as an aside, non-automotive crap [of the canine variety] on the streets in Buenos Aires is the greatest hazard to the unwary pedestrian, trust me on this.)

Time warp back to the ’40s — Chev pickup seen in Montevideo

Comments like that bring with them shades of the New Zealand–versus–Australia rivalry — you know, smaller country, overbearing bigger neighbour rivalry. This was certainly the case between Uruguay and big brother Argentina. The Argentineans are perceived as insufferably pleased with themselves, having just scored the new pope (remember, these are both still predominantly Catholic countries).

From my point of view, the classic-auto pickings weren’t as thick on the ground as I’d imagined them to be, but there was some interesting stuff and it was mostly original and mobile. The derelicts had all exited out to the countryside it seems. Around the local patch where we were staying, I spotted at least three ’40s Chevy trucks, all in daily operation. A couple of streets from our hotel, I sighted a tatty, marooned, but very chic ’60s-looking winged sedan that appeared to be an Opel.

Tracking down cars through the slightly rougher side of the central city, I crossed my fingers hoping that we wouldn’t encounter anyone with a bad attitude towards a crazy tourist pointing a camera at their battered cars. Actually, as it turned out, the precinct we explored was OK, and, apart from an early Mercedes, a nice Volvo, and a late-’60s Opel, the foot tour went relatively quietly.

Disappearing sills on a Chevrolet Nova indicate this car is only a step away from the auto graveyard

Final rites

I’d seen some pretty time-warped heavy iron that had certainly spun my crank when I tracked them down in their natural state. The Detroit motor relics, plus the early Europeans of Buenos Aires, were my favourites, but the wild Pan-American Highway and Peruvian interior had also presented some intriguing scenes, as did my last port of call, Montevideo. 

It was there that I held the final rites of my quest, capturing the last street-side moments of South America’s disappearing classic automotive era. 

My thirst to hunt out the signposts of an earlier motoring dynasty had taken me down the backstreets of a land of vast contrasts. Some of it didn’t fit the glossy tourist-brochure formula. There was a rawness at times that knocked the rhythm from your stride.

What remains in my mind, though, is the friendliness of the locals, even though my command of Spanish was next to nil. Automotive appreciation has its own language. While admiring a couple of tattered runners in those mean streets, their enthusiastic owners emerged out of nowhere, passionate to talk about their beasts. 

Old tin, it seems, can break through any language barrier for the faithful! 

Becoming fond of Fords part two – happy times with Escorts

In part one of this Ford-flavoured trip down memory lane I recalled a sad and instructive episode when I learned my shortcomings as a car tuner, something that tainted my appreciation of Mk2 Ford Escort vans in particular. Prior to that I had a couple of other Ford entanglements of slightly more redeeming merit. There were two Mk1 Escorts I had got my hands on: a 1972 1300 XL belonging to my father and a later, end-of-line, English-assembled 1974 1100, which my partner and I bought from Panmure Motors Ford in Auckland in 1980. Both those cars were the high water mark of my relationship with the Ford Motor Co. I liked the Mk1 Escorts. They were nice, nippy, small cars, particularly the 1300, which handled really well, and had a very precise gearbox for the time.
Images of Jim Richards in the Carney Racing Williment-built Twin Cam Escort and Paul Fahey in the Alan Mann–built Escort FVA often loomed in my imagination when I was driving these Mk1 Escorts — not that I was under any illusion of comparable driving skills, but they had to be having just as much fun as I was steering the basic versions of these projectiles.

Fear and loathing the blue oval – part one

The slogan went something like ‘There’s a Ford in your future’. ‘Bugger off!’ were always the words that sprung to my mind. Ford and I have never really got on in the manner of many of my friends, so I’d say my relationship to the brand was distant. The accelerating blur of passing time has helpfully blanketed memories of a few Ford encounters which I probably wanted to forget but I have to admit, now I look at them, they are re-appearing through the mists of time. What comes to mind more readily, to quote some uncharitable wit, is that the letters Ford could stand for ‘fix or repair daily’. Still, I have to ’fess up, there were several Fords in my past.