Isabel Ruiz de Aguila uses a '27 Model T truck to run a delivery service under the firm name Bati-Flet, meaning, roughly, Batman Freight. "If you take a picture you'll fracture the engine block," she jokes. "The motor runs fine, even on kerosene, and starts with a mere touch of the crank." As with most Uruguayan Model Ts, a conventional modern ignition system replaces the original four wood-cased spark coils, much misused by practical jokers four decades ago to create 10,000 volts of electricity for wiring toilets and beds.
Car dealer Peixoto employs a '31 Packard to travel to his nearby ranch. This car, which has oak-framed doors that close with an elegant boardroom thunk, has been preserved intact right down to the tires that were on it when it was imported from New York the year it was made. Its suspension is rougher than it ought to be, given its pachydermic weight: 4,620 pounds. But it makes up for that in swanky touches such as a cigarette lighter with a reel-in cord long enough to reach the passengers in the back seat, who seem to be about a quarter of a mile behind the driver.
A perfect car, in the collector's sense of having all original parts and paint even though it is just transportation to its present owner, is the '29 Chevrolet Double Phaeton open touring car owned by Antonio Vila. It was among the first of the Chevy Sixes, the basic engine used by Chevrolet until 1948, and can still do 130 kilometers an hour (80 mph). "But if you go faster than 90 kilometers the fabric top whips up and down too much," says Vila's son Alberto. Another Montevideo motorist, Lawyer Hector Gerona Araúcho, having concluded that his '25 Rolls-Royce was simply too old to put up with, shifted to a '28 Isotta-Fraschini valued at $7,000 which he drives to work every day. Its straight-eight engine has twin carbs and a cast-iron fan, and the car can top 90 mph. "I hate new cars—I think that until 1930 they can be called cars and after that only vehicles," says Gerona.
Cars like Peixoto's Packard and Gerona's Isotta-Fraschini are, of course, recognized as classics in Uruguay although in daily use, and there is a certain amount of hobbyism even with cars not quite so grand. Rich parents buy their kids Ford As, or old Erskines as playthings for vacations in that fabulous resort, Punta del Este. Andrés Razzetti, 76, a car-loving mechanic with a white handlebar mustache that matches his nostalgic temperament, makes a hobby of owning five classic cars, largely bequeathed to him because he tended them in their youth.
One is an air-cooled Franklin, shipped from San Francisco in 1925 and still wearing its AAA emblem. The only replacement parts it ever needed were piston rings and exhaust valves. "It runs exactly like it used to—exactly, exactly, exactly," says Razzetti. A year older is his 5,280-pound Isotta-Fraschini, which has gone only 11,000 miles in 44 years and still has the tires and sparkplugs of its nativity. The stenciled boards of the case it came in form a floor in Razzetti's garage. He also has the first Dodge to reach Uruguay, a 1916 touring car, plus a ballroom-size 1913 Renault saloon with a five-spoke steering wheel and an 1897 one-cylinder De Dion Bouton, which was preserved by somehow having got buried in a vineyard.
Like the diamond in the De Beers ad, a car is forever in Uruguay. The motoring public accepts the proposition that there is no reason why an auto should ever stop running. All it takes, says Hector Paseggi, manager of a leading garage, is care and "money power."
Part of the care is inadvertent. Uruguay measures only 506 miles the longest way and with undistinguished roads, particularly back in the adolescence of what are now old cars, it has never offered scope for engine-wearing high speeds and long trips. The tranquil middle classes do their driving on Sundays, taking the bus to work. The old cars themselves, with real ammeters and oil-pressure gauges, make keeping track of the car's health simpler than with those modern shortcuts, warning lights.
Oldtime quality shows in other ways too. "A Model T front-wheel bearing will easily run for 40 years without wearing out," says a Montevideo junkyard operator. Also going for long life is conscious care. Uruguayans handle their Hudsons and Panhards like specimens of rare old T'ang Dynasty pottery. "Mentally and technically we work by the standards of before World War II," says Emanuel Regusci, automotive writer for the newspaper El País. "We keep cars in garages, we button the side curtains, we watch the water, we put in new sparkplugs and we change the oil every 1,500 kilometers." Car salesman Roberto Calafí finds cars from the late '30s that have never had the cylinder head off and others that have gone 200,000 miles with only a ring and valve job.
Not that car care is perfect in Uruguay. The driving style includes flagrant tailgating, backing into busy streets and crossing the center line as a matter of course. Only light traffic saves many museum-quality antiques from collisions. A multiple crash in Montevideo can easily wipe out $30,000 worth of cars. Moreover, the country has its share of cachilas, Uruguayan slang for jalopies. Many seem to suffer some kind of mechanical leprosy, dropping parts as they go and oxidizing into indefinite outlines.
Even with care, parts do break or wear out, and when that happens the Montevideo mechanic is likely to call on car-parts row, Cerro Largo Street. The bigger stores there take as their ideal nothing less than warehousing at least one of every part for every model made by every prominent car manufacturer throughout the world in the last 40 years. Salvador Livio Importers, one of the biggest dealers, has six floors containing 87,000 kinds of parts and the store tries to supply the needs of even the 16 one-of-a-kind cars in Uruguay, the 25 cases of two or three of a kind and the 50 cases of four or five. Livio's people are full of esoteric knowledge, e.g., that '25-'29 Chevy back-axles snap with notorious ease but can be replaced by the Scheid machine works in Germany. Or that Hillman used to change the dimensions of headlight shells by distressingly small but critical amounts from year to year. Or that many Chrysler parts will work in a Graham-Paige.