Among the 4,500 Model A Fords that to this day throb in geriatric contentment along the streets and roads of the little car-conserving South American country of Uruguay, there is one in Montevideo that is a particularly fine autumnal beauty. A lean and modest open touring car, it has been refinished in the gleaming maroon that it was born with 39 years ago in Detroit, but, barring tires, all its parts are original, even the unblemished chrome radiator. It was thus a pity, one day lately, when a freak, accident crumpled the shell of one of the headlights. After a moment's distress, though, the owner perked up and set out to scavenge an identical headlight from one of the city's auto junkyards. He failed to reckon the full measure of Uruguay's claim to fame as the world's leading border-to-border museum of living, breathing antique cars. "A 1930 Ford A!" exclaimed the junkman. "We haven't had any cars that new brought in here yet!"
To be a car in Uruguay is to be in line for automotive immortality. Though there are no official statistics, a good guess would be that the median age of the auto population of 131,400 is 20 years. That includes plenty of fairly new cars, of course, but it also means that many thousands of automobiles that would be scrap iron anywhere else are necessary transportation in Uruguay. The cars-for-sale classified ads in the newspaper El Día read to an American something like the antique and classic ads in the Sunday New York Times, although to Uruguayans the listed machines are vehicles very much in normal use: "Rugby '27 4-cyl.; Kaiser '51, radio and heater; Studebaker '50, overdrive; Ford '37 Tudor; Jowett '42, unique cond.; Vauxhall '48; Willys '31, hydr. brakes," and so on for columns.
The reason the 2.7 million Uruguayans have their old cars is, predictably, governmental. The official position is that car owning is a sumptuary sin. Back of this attitude is a real economic peril: since Uruguay's earnings abroad from exported beef and wool total a slim $200 million a year, very little can be spent to bring in cars.
To hold down car imports the government piles on restrictions: excise taxes, customs duties, luxury taxes, supercharges—in all, 25 added costs. "A Chevrolet landed here costs $3,000, the government adds $9,000 and it is sold for $12,000," says Washington Peixoto, a Montevideo dealer For months at a time the supply of foreign exchange to buy cars is cut off entirely. As a further discouragement registration and license plates cost as much as $250 a year for a luxury car. By these means the government both drastically holds down car imports and gets much-needed revenue from those that do come in. Apart from cars assembled at the rate of 2,000 a year from kits supplied by manufacturers plus Uruguayan tires, glass and upholstery, the country makes no automobiles.
Prices of cars, kicked up at the start by taxes and duties and kept there by the need to treasure everything on wheels, are naturally stratospheric. "Cars here cost more than houses. I recently sold a Mercedes-Benz for $35,000," says Peixoto. A new Volkswagen bug sells for $10,500, a '55 Rover for $5,000, a '34 Ford convertible for $1,800. Owner Vicente de Matteo is perfectly confident that he could get $350 for his ramshackle '23 Ford Model T with homemade body.
Often enough, though, the price of old cars as transportation in Uruguay is less than the price of the same car as a classic in the U.S. It is tempting to fantasize some stunning swap—perhaps a thousand well-kept, pre-1930 Whippets, Essexes and Hupmobiles, vendible in the American antique car market, for the same number of Mustangs, Camaros and Barracudas, picked up in American used-car lots, which Uruguayans would slobber after. But for some incomprehensible reason, Uruguay makes exporting cars as difficult as importing them. Besides, not every Uruguayan oldie is a classic. Dealer Peixoto has a '52 Cadillac that he will not sell for less than $3,500, although when he was in Miami recently he saw the same thing in a used-car lot going for $50.
The extraordinary economics of the automobile in Uruguay turns every stroll through the streets of Montevideo into an experience approximately as rewarding as visiting the Museo dell'Automobile in Milan. Each block yields its prize: here an old Durant, there an aged Dodge, next an air-cooled Franklin with a wooden chassis, or a Ford Model B, a choice two-tone '30 Citroën, a Willys-Knight, a '38 four-door Buick convertible, a mid-'20s DeSoto, a Flint with a backseat heater, a Bradford, an Isuzu, a Hansa. A gallant recent sight was a '28 Essex towing an ailing '66 Falcon.
One Montevideo car-parts maker estimates that makes and models multiply out at around 200 easily distinguishable types, while a catalog-minded parts dealer figures that small year-to-year changes build the total of varieties up to 2,200. This spread obviously includes cars from everywhere: French Renaults and Peugeots, Japanese Datsuns and Toyotas, British Hillmans and Austins, German Taunuses and D.K.W.s, Italian Fiats and Alfa Romeos, even Chechoslovakian Skodas and a Russian Volga.
But the majority are North American. Experts estimate that there are 1,000 Whippets, made in the '20s by Willys-Overland Ltd. of Toronto, still on the road in Uruguay, as well as 1,500 Model Ts and 2,000 four-cylinder Chevrolets. The commonest antique by far, though, is the '28-'31 Model A—two-and four-door sedans, coupes with rumble seats or touring cars with isinglass side curtains. Because Uruguay drove to the left, English style, until 1945, most of the old cars have right-hand drive.
Far from resenting the enforced anachronism of ancient wheels, most Uruguayan motorists cherish their venerable vehicles. "Between this car and a new one, I'll keep this one," says Pedro Granero, owner of a handsome '30 Graham-Paige with a ram's head radiator ornament. The engine, rebored and repistoned four years ago, starts at a touch and sounds like a gurgling brook. José Carlos Souto, owner of a big, brutish '29 Cord brought to Uruguay by the late President Gabriel Terra, proposes to drive it to the U.S. as soon as a local machine shop hand-fabricates a new universal joint for its front-wheel drive. The dashboard has gauges for water temperature, oil pressure, oil level, gasoline supply and amperage, and controls for spark advance, hand throttle, carburetor-heat and lights. Adjusting spark and throttle, Souto proudly brings to thunderous life the immense eight-in-line engine—"built by Lycoming" says its brass plate.