Automotive History: Compadre – The Anti-Cadillac For Developing Nations

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Fellow readers, what you see above this text, while admittedly not beautiful, is a piece of history. More unique than a Ferrari 250 GTO, though not nearly as desirable, what you’re looking at is the only car to ever be manufactured in Central America. If you’re surprised you didn’t know about this, don’t be. The Compadre (I’m not joking, that actually is its name) seems to have a perception filter built on it. Very few people know it exists and extremely few examples survive to this day. Finding information about it, let alone pictures, is extremely difficult and no one seems to know for sure what is actually the story behind it, why did it came to be and how did it disappear from our shores. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll find quite a story.

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It was a seemingly simple idea. In the early ‘70s a manufacturing company called Fabrica Superior de Centroamerica (Superior Central American Factory) decided to embark on a project that would bring jobs and strengthen the manufacturing sector in the region. To achieve this set of lofty goals they decided to design a car that would be easy to run, extremely cheap to buy and well-suited to the inclement conditions of the Central American region.

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After the design was completed they’d set up assembly lines all throughout the region and employ the local workforce to manufacture everything except the engine, gearbox, and the axles which would come from the main branch of the Fabrica Superior.

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It was a project for Central Americans by Central Americans, extremely large and ambitious in scope, somehow it was made to work. And so, in 1975 the vehicle was simultaneously released in three different countries. Honduran-built models were called Compadre while the ones built in El Salvador and Nicaragua were called Cherito and Pinolero, respectively.

Power was given by a 1.2 liter four cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed manual gearbox. It had such amenities as hydraulic power brakes and…no that was pretty much it. Just a good honest vehicle for the cash-strapped Central American farmer to haul his whatsits to the marketplace and sell them straight from the pickup bed.

I wasn’t alive then but I presume that on those days of initial hype before the car was released the people were actually very excited “finally we as a subcontinent were doing something for ourselves instead of having to succumb down to some namby-pamby man in a suit from the U.S. cynically forcing us to buy their cars at some ridiculous markup to help himself to whatever little money we may have. No, this is all coming from here and it’s going to be amazing!”

You can probably see where this is going.

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Ladies and gentlemen, I bring to you the General Motors Basic Transportation Vehicle, or BTV! In 1972 Vauxhall was tasked to design a vehicle for emerging countries. They achieved this by taking a Bedford HA and throwing almost all of it away, only keeping the axles, the low compression 37 HP engine and the gearbox. Using that as a basis they set up to build a body and a chassis that could be built as easily and cheaply as possible. Hence the bodywork having absolutely no curves.

A colonnade Compadre would’ve definitely been quite something to look at, but curves don’t save money, and saving money is what these cars were all about. It wasn’t just Central America, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Ecuador, Thailand. All of them had their own version of the BTV.

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Yes, turns out the General was actually behind the whole thing. Fabrica Superior de Centroamerica was a subsidiary of General Motors designed specifically to bring the BTV to our shores and the whole thing was run by GM’s overseas division. What was in it for the countries where the BTV was built? Quite a lot of things actually.

For starters they now had access to a very cheap mode of transportation. The BTV wasn’t competing with the Volkswagen Beetle or any Eastern-bloc cars. It was competing with the horse, public transportation (if it even was available) and walking. The 1300lb payload was certainly better than all of the above. Also, employment and skills development for people that would ordinarily only aspire to work in the fields for all their life.

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GM also got some numbers that would look nice on the next shareholders meeting and had a vehicle that didn’t create them so many tariff and tax woes because it was almost entirely built on the country it was going to be sold. As far as the population was concerned the only thing GM had to do with them was the engine, and even that in only some countries. The only site that has info on the Nicaraguan Version swears it has an engine built by the “Mitford” brand.

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When I started my research for this car I myself thought that they were a regional-only initiative. It was until some research directed me to a LinkedIn profile of the man that oversaw the BTV project in Central America that I could look at the whole picture.

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Also, the most easily found picture of a Compadre is the one seen above. For all my saying that most people don’t even know about the existence of the poor thing, this particular model is on permanent display on the National Air Force museum in all its patina and dented glory. Dig those door visors.

As for the BTV project, I couldn’t find the date where it ended. Nor could I find a date when the Compadre ceased production. Some people say that it didn’t actually catch on because it was too plain-looking and simple for the general populace. Personally I think they’re missing the point. GM still makes small practical cars for developing markets but they’re overall more developed efforts like this Chevrolet Montana pickup. Designed and developed in Brazil.

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As a closing image I leave you this. A modified Cherito (El Salvador model) I think Black and that Jeep-inspired grill suits it quite well. Proof that everyone can have a passion for a car don’t you think?