Tempting tango, juicy sizzling beef, Eva Peron, Diego Armando Maradona, Lionel Messi – these are the images that immediately spring to mind when Argentina is mentioned. But for old motors aficionados, especially motor racing enthusiasts, there is also Juan Manuel Fangio very high up in the Argentinian agenda.
Between 1880 and 1930, beefed up by its vast cattle products exports, Argentina became one of the top 10 leading economies in the world. This fact coincided with the rapid introduction and subsequent innovative development in Europe of the four-wheeler and the internal combustion engine. From its initial introduction in the late 19th century, the motor car was extensively imported and harnessed in this big South American country for daily use, racing purposes, as well as for opening up and connecting the isolated north and south regions, hitherto dislocated from the capital, Buenos Aires.
To get an overview of old motors in this country, one has to look at the history of the Automovil Club Argentino (ACA), one of the oldest car organisations in the world, having been set up in 1904. Its founder was Dalmiro Varela de Castex, a wealthy businessman, who in 1887 imported from France the first auto in Argentina, a French De Dion Bouton tricycle powered by a steam engine. As from the same year, other captains of industry, artists, and several visionaries started importing cars from Europe, and subsequently from the United States. Soon they felt the need of banding together by forming a car club.
From its very modest beginnings, the ACA eventually grew up to the massive organisation that it is today, with 330,000 members in a country that has a 44-million strong population. It provides a plethora of services, ranging from emergency services, insurance, and litigation assistance, to driving schools and tourism facilities. A massive multi-storey building erected in 1942 in Avenida Libertador, central Buenos Aires, serves as its headquarters and houses a very significant and historical old motors museum.
The origins of the museum go back to 1943, when the ACA held an old motors show to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the four-wheeler. Twelve standard vehicles and four racing cars took part. At the end of the event, all the owners of the former, and one of the latter, decided to donate their cars to the club. Eventually, other old motors owners or their families started to follow this generous gesture, and now the ACA possesses dozens of historic motoring masterpieces that form part of the national heritage, as well as giving homage to those who were the pioneers of motoring in Argentina.
It sees itself as the keeper of the nation’s motoring history, and as part of its social corporate responsibility, charges no admission fee to the museum, open all weekdays.
On a recent visit to Buenos Aires, I was given a tour of the museum by the ACA director of public relations, Fabio Redondaro. At the reception hall of the headquarters, four huge vehicles, resembling luxury train carriages, greet the visitor. They are a 1910 Renault, a brass dominated 1908 Fiat, a 1915 Dodge, and a massive 1915 Daimler. The latter was bought for Argentinian president Roque Saenz Pena, who died before he could use it. His successor, Vitorino de Plaza, being a man of the people, considered this car a luxury and subsequently it was sold.
Pride of place goes to a bright blue Ferrari 166, one used by Juan Manuel Fangio is his 1956 title winning Formula 1 season
The main exhibits in the museum are displayed in a large hall on the first floor. There is a 1892 Daimler, the oldest vehicle in the collection, and significant as the first registered number plate in Argentina. Historical masterpieces of bygone days and forgotten makers abound – a 1901 De Dion Bouton, a 1902 Schacht, a 1903 Holsman, a 1907 International Model D, a 1904 Darracq, and a 1911 Swift Speedster. Other old motors from makers that are still around today include an 1897 Benz, a 1903 Peugeot, a 1904 Cadillac Model B, a 1911 Austin, and two Ford samples: a 1908 Model T and a 1929 Model A – Baquet.
From its inception, the ACA has been closely associated with car racing, both in organisation as well as sponsorship of participants in international competitions. A number of ACA owned racers adorn the museum. There is a 1969 BWA Fiat Bigua driven by Argentinian ace Carlos Alberto Reutemann in Formula 2, and a 1971 Brabham BT 36, in which the same driver won the Hockenheim Grand Prix.
But pride of place goes to a bright blue Ferrari 166, one used by Juan Manuel Fangio is his 1956 title winning Formula 1 season. Considered as one of the greatest drivers of all time, Fangio (1911-1995) competed in seven Formula 1 seasons between 1951 and 1957, being crowned world champion in five and finishing runner up in the other two. His driving was a determined display of daring and skill, done with style, grace and chivalry, in an age when the racing car was significantly less sophisticated than the slick, computerised production of today. No wonder Stirling Moss called him ‘Maestro’.
Having won everything in motor racing that South America could provide, Fangio ventured into Europe, sponsored by the ACA and the Argentinian government. The rest is history. His record five Formula 1 wins stood for 45 years before being surpassed by Michael Schumacher in 2003. On that occasion, the German had this to say: “Fangio is on a level much higher than I see myself. What he did stands alone.”
Fangio was born in Balcarce, in Buenos Aires province, where a few blocks from his home now stands an impressive museum dedicated to his memorable feats.
Space problems have meant that the ACA had to scatter and store many other donated vehicles, including vans, motorcycles and scooters, in other corners of the headquarters, not accessible to visitors, as well as outside the building. Luckily, I was taken round every nook and cranny connected with old motors. Other impressive vehicles include a 1904 Panhard and Levassor, a 1908 Renault Racing, and a Hudson Super 6 Racer dating from 1924. Two early electric vehicles – a 1903 Krieger and a 1912 Cadillac known as the ladies’ car for lack of starting handle – show that electric motors are not a recent phenomenon.
Many car assembly plants operate in Argentina, but the country has never produced its own car – with one exception. The museum houses the only wholly Argentinian designed and built vehicle, a 1963 Yruam. The metallic silver grey car was designed by Francis Maury, an aeronautical engineer, in the 1920s. It finally came off the line in 1963, looking more like a small plane, with a straight V8 engine, and incorporating much of modern technology, like four-wheel braking and use of aluminium.
At frequent intervals, the museum rotates its exhibits, and brings in samples from the storerooms. I visited the ACA headquarters twice and on the second visit three weeks after the initial one, I could notice some significant vehicles not present before. Among the newcomers, there was a 1911 Wanderer Puppchen from a German firm in Chemnitz, and an 1899 Mors from France. The latter has an interesting story, as Mors vehicles were very popular in the early 1900s, owing to impressive results in motor races, including winning the first Paris to Madrid race in 1903. Lack of further design innovation led to financial problems which the owner, Emile Mors, thought of overcoming by recruiting a certain Andre Citroen as president in 1908. There were some encouraging initial results, but the tide could not be turned, especially as Citroen started to build cars under his name, finally taking over Mors for his own production.
If you are ever down Buenos Aires way, do make some time to visit the ACA museum – it is just round the corner from another must-see attraction, the Recoleta Cemetery, the last resting place for national heroes, independence warriors, presidents, writers, scientists and artists. Some of these had old cars, which were donated to the museum. But while the owners rest in peace, their old motors come to life once a year in August, when the ACA vehicles, all lovingly restored to their former glory by dedicated volunteers, participate with other vintage, veteran and classic cars from all over the country in an annual old motors run in the capital.
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