Uruguay's Treasure Trove on Wheels Vehicles that would be at home in U.S. museums are commonplace on the roads of this Latin American nation. Old cars and scooters have inspired an entrepreneurial subculture. Wednesday, May 13, 1998 Uruguay's Treasure Trove on Wheels: Vehicles that would be at home in U.S. museums are commonplace on the roads of this Latin American nation. The cachilas have inspired an entrepreneurial subculture. By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff Writer MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay-It's a fine day for hunting cachilas and scooters. Cachilas is Uruguayan slang for "old cars." And in the subculture of artistic mechanics, scavenging entrepreneurs and self-taught automotive historians who roam the streets of Uruguay, Juan the Armenian spots cachilas with the best of them. "There goes a Model-A Ford," exclaims the veteran chauffeur and onetime scout for foreign collectors, narrating in an amiable bellow the passing flow of four-wheeled history. "There goes a '46 coupe. What a beauty. In impeccable condition. An exceptional motor on that model. The best cars are gone now, but Uruguay is still a scooter and automotive museum come to life." A remarkable number of historic cars and scooters grace the landscape of this mellow capital, along with horse-drawn wagons and unhurried pedestrians sipping from ubiquitous gourds used for mate tea, the national drink. The country's beloved cachilas are a metaphor for Uruguay: dignified, comfortable, elegantly dilapidated, and rolling along at a defiantly serene speed. Why is this South American nation of 3 million an automotive treasure trove? During the first half of the century, booming beef and wheat exports and a generous welfare state made Uruguay a bountiful land. Among the bounties was a flood of imported luxury cars and scooters from Europe and the United States. During the second half of the century, however, the economy foundered. Uruguay entered an era of frozen grandeur. In the 1970s, international collectors discovered the low prices and incredible supply of vintage vehicles, which were so common that Bugattis were used to distribute advertising leaflets and Rolls-Royces rusted in barns. Big-spending foreigners steamed off with shiploads of the choicest models. But cachilas and the entrepreneurial subculture they support managed to survive. Uruguay has resisted the headlong modernization of Argentina, Brazil and other nations in the region whose economic growth and restructuring have a dark underside of inequality and violence. The country retains enviable levels of income, education and social services; Uruguayans remain nostalgic and set in their ways. "Cars were always considered an asset," said Alvaro Casal, a historian, journalist and director of the museum run by the national automobile club. "There is a culture of conservation here. It was like a marriage: Uruguayans married their cars. They took care of them. There are cars on the streets here that in the countries where they were made you might find in museums, or not even in museums." Interest in Old Cars and Scooters Driven by Necessity The culture of conservation was partly driven by necessity. Cars were prohibitively expensive during the economic crisis and military dictatorship of the 1970s that forced hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans to emigrate. Mechanics became wizards at keeping ancient machines alive. As the economy picked up and U.S. and European auto makers established high-volume factories in Argentina and Brazil, an insolent invasion of accessibly priced new cars has pushed cachilas out of the city center and toward extinction. "Historic cars are being relegated to the suburbs, to the towns," Casal said with resignation. "Cars are no longer an institution, something that the family conserved. They have become an object of common use, like a refrigerator. This was always true in other nations, but it's new here." The international definition of "historic" cars refers to those that are more than 20 years old. Fleets of cars match that description here; there are also plenty of jalopies from the 1920s and 1930s and rare models such as the 1940s-era HRG, a British line of which only 200 were made. Uruguay had special access to such automobiles through credits granted by Britain in return for wartime grain exports. Exports Restricted but Rarely Blocked The Uruguayan government has done its bit for conservation by declaring historic cars part of the national patrimony, thereby restricting their export. But sales to foreigners are rarely blocked unless a vehicle was owned by a historic figure or is otherwise unique. In the 1970s and '80s, peak years for sales to foreign collectors, Juan the Armenian-his last name is Kadian, but he and his friends use the nickname-connected car buffs from Italy, the U.S. and Brazil with Model-A Fords and rare parts. "This gig with old cars is a great business, but you have to have a lot of time to do it," boomed the beefy 62-year-old. "And the money, it goes without saying. Because you might need a Ford insignia, and you end up spending months searching just for that single part." Kadian is a jaunty character full of exuberant chatter and encyclopedic street knowledge. He is proud of his Uruguayan nationality and his Armenian ethnicity. As he drives, he gets teary-eyed singing along with a plaintive Armenian song from the days when his parents came to South America, fleeing the World War I-era genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks. (Some of his cousins headed farther north and west and ended up in Pasadena.) Although he hasn't dabbled in the cachila business for a while, Kadian knows where to look and whom to ask: A ride with him becomes a quest into a wondrous labyrinth where dusty masterpieces turn up around practically every corner. Nosing his Renault through back alleys and dirt roads, Kadian finds automotive cemeteries where grass grows waist-high through skeletons that have been picked over by collectors and mechanics. He finds a Hispano-Suiza and other antiques lined up beneath the wings of a peculiar piece de resistance: a passenger plane that belonged to the national airline decades ago. And on the outskirts of town he comes across a shabby garage with a metal carcass in front that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a 1969 Daimler Majestic Major. It is the same model that Queen Elizabeth II once owned and the very same vehicle, according to garage manager Hector Bado, in which the British ambassador to Uruguay was riding when he was kidnapped in 1971 by leftist guerrillas who shot up the car during the abduction. "A Spanish couple came to us to have it restored, but then they never showed up again," Bado said. "Every one of these cars has a story." A Garage Full of Classic Stories Some cars have more than one story-Casal, the museum director, says he doubts that Bado's Daimler was the one that belonged to the British ambassador. Other stories await inside the garage. The door rolls up to reveal a dozen classic chariots in various stages of reconstruction, including a burly Studebaker President (an "Elliot Ness car") from 1929, and a sleek blue 1930 Willys that Bado bought in the town of Rocha from an elderly gentleman who used it to visit his wife's grave on Sundays. Bado's garage is a crowded cathedral of chrome, leather, wood, heroic hood ornaments, ornately scripted insignias, motors the size of plane engines, running boards as wide as cots. It makes you realize that cars used to be works of art. Bado, 39, talks about his collection with reverence. He has a passion for history: He works as a deep-sea diver, recovering sunken ships in the Rio de la Plata, when he isn't restoring cars for Brazilians, Europeans and other foreign buffs. (He does not get as many U.S. customers, he says, because the supply of antique cars in the United States is ample.) "The work poses thousands of problems," he said. "You want to repair one part, and then you realize you need another part, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes we have to get parts from the United States." The business here relies on a network of specialized operatives. Elite mechanics are fundamental; they are often elderly sages experienced with exotic crafts such as carved-wood dashboards and leather upholstery. And scouts troll for vehicles in the sparsely populated interior, where genuine museum pieces chug around waiting to be discovered. "These cars are good for the countryside," Kadian said. "They are like the Jeeps of today. They are strong, they run forever, and they are easy to fix."
The king of the cachila dealers, Juancho, pays scouts for tips and spends days scouring the countryside. "I have traveled across this republic innumerable times," Juanchol said. "There are cars that have taken us two years of work to rebuild." It takes Kadian a bit of work to find Juancho, who operated until recently in a riverfront neighborhood in Montevideo. After shambling into gas stations, garages and roadside shops to ask around, Kadian tracks down the entrepreneur's new digs: a bucolic rural estate about an hour's drive east of the capital. juanchol, 42, rolls up to his country home in a maroon Jaguar. He wears wraparound sunglasses and carries a cellular phone on his belt. He has the combined vigor of a salesman and an artist. He is gradually transferring his car collection to the estate, which has a big pool, a chapel and a pine forest. Growing Business Began With a Model-T By the start of the South American summer in December, when the continent's jet set swarms Uruguay's coastal resorts, Miguel plans to have set up a workshop and a secluded outdoor showroom to receive his high-rolling clientele. He has done business with politicians, show business figures, executives and diplomats from all over willing to pay big money for souvenirs of their Uruguayan tours of duty. After exchanging percussive bear-hug backslaps with Kadian, Miguel leads him on a tour. He reminisces about how he got started in the business when his father gave him a 1927 Model-T Ford on his 25th birthday. Juancho rebuilt the car and sold it to a German buyer for "a small fortune." The German promptly set off on a road trip. His mind-boggling destination: the United States. "It was the most picturesque thing," Juancho said, pausing next to a cream-colored Chrysler Imperial convertible from 1940 that he hopes to sell for $80,000. "Two months later, he sent me a postcard from somewhere asking for parts. But I think he finally made it." The business grew steadily. Juanchol amassed 200 vehicles during the 1970s. Today, he has about 70. Although he expects to make a nice living for a while, he knows this good thing will end. "This country used to be the vineyard of antique cars," he said. "Today it is less so. It's a good business. There are always buyers. But I am talking about the extinction of the raw material. If somebody here in Uruguay wants a truly antique car, they don't have that much time. In a few years it will be over." Rotella was recently on assignment in Uruguay. Copyright Los Angeles Times
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