(first posted 6/1/2015) Brazil’s political history is more than a bit complicated, and often a bit less than democratic, to say the least. Before World War II we had right wing Getulio Vargas in power for quite some time. In order to keep himself in power, Vargas had to please certain segments, especially the armed forces. The results were not always as intended, and one of the more unexpected ones was the presence of Alfa Romeo vehicles in Brazil. And not just their sporty sedans, but trucks too.
To make our generals happy, Vargas was eager to modernize the armed forces and he didn’t really care where the new weapons would be coming from, so he started to flirting with Nazi Germany. When the Great War was all but inevitable, Uncle Sam saw Brazil as a good country to have as an ally, and made efforts to cut short any budding relationship with Germany. An immense US-led program was now on the table, not only to modernize our Armed Forces but our whole industry. In exchange we would trade our cotton, wood, oil, iron and other raw material badly needed in war time.
One point of this plan was a brand new aircraft engine factory, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. This factory was to build licensed Curtiss-Wright airplane engines for both the USAAF and Brazilian Air Force. The name of this state owned factory was Fábrica Nacional de Motores (“FNM”).
It was indeed an awesome plan on the paper, but the dumbness of our politicians can screw up just about everything. Due the lack of competence, we took too long to build the factory, and the first engine produced was in 1946. By this time it was cheaper to buy a war surplus DC3 from Uncle Sam than to produce a pair of radial engines.
In other words, we had a brand new factory that was pretty much good for nothing.
To keep the factory working, it started to build whatever was necessary, from replacement parts for heavy machinery to appliances.
Only in 1949 the FNM found a suitable way to keep itself in business. A contract was firmed with the Italian “Isotta Fraschini” to assemble The “D 7300”, a 7,5 ton diesel-powered truck.
Unfortunately Isotta was in financial trouble by this time, and it sent parts to build no more than 200 vehicles before it went bankrupt. The market for trucks was very good, and the solution to stay in this lucrative business came from another Italian company, Alfa Romeo.
Another contract was signed, and in early 50s and the factory started the production of trucks and buses. The FNM D 9500, based on the Alfa Romeo “Tipo 800” was an immediate hit. It was a 8 plus ton truck, equipped with a 6 cylinder, 130 hp diesel engine.
The truck proved to be very tough, it was rugged and easy to build. The interior was very simple. It had all the characteristics of a pre-war design. The “Tipo 800” was a reliable truck that had been used by the Italian Army in various battle fronts in World War II. In other words, it was exactly what we needed at the time.
The truck was ugly, slow, and smoky, but would accept all kinds of abuse. It earned the affection from Brazilian truckers. They used to say that a overloaded FNM may take a while, but it always got on top of the hill.
FNM produced a whole range of Alfa trucks, including this handsome heavy-duty D-11000, from 1961. By the end of the 50s, FNM had gobbled up more than 50% of the market share for the heavy trucks. The momentum was perfect for the company to try a new venture: the passenger car segment.
In 1960, Brazil was living some kind of good times, Vargas was gone and we had a new democratically elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek. He was a nice guy and the biggest enthusiast of the domestic auto industry. To honor our new president the new FNM car would be called simply “JK”, in his honor. The JK was a license-built Alfa Romeo 2000, which first appeared on the European market in 1957 to replace the venerable 1900.
The car was way above anything we had in Brazil at the time. It had elegant Italian design, a luxurious and roomy interior, and a powerful 4 cylinder, 2 liter engine that was a masterpiece, with aluminum head, hemispherical combustion chambers and dual overhead camshafts producing 95hp, attached to a 5 speed manual transmission. To stop the car, it had four aluminum drum brakes with little fins to help keep it cool.
And in a final “All European” statement, even the wheels were not measured in inches, but in a exclusive 400 mm diameter, wrapped in Pirellis Cinturatos. The car was the first to come equipped with radial tires in Brazil
Of course all those features didn’t come cheap. The JK was the most expensive car in Brazilian market. It was a rare sight on the streets, the first reason for that was the prohibitive price and in second, passenger car was not the main business of FNM, and the productions numbers of the JK were low and not steady.
Interesting fact: since FNM was a state owned company, the Brazilian politicians had some unfair advantages over normal customers. They had better discounts and financial plans and on top of that, they were the first to be served, having the chance to get a JK even before the car hit the showroom of the dealerships.
For the first four years of production the car received only cosmetics changes. In 1964 our country got another “punch in the stomach”, a military coup brought down the president and the generals took over . In order to erase any remembrance of the dead democracy, the “JK” nameplate was dropped and the car became simply FNM 2000. And it received its first revised front end design, where the big triangular Alfa grille gave place to a slim, more aerodynamic one.
In 1966 came the sports version named T.I.M.B, Turismo Internacional Modelo Brasil (seems like “TI” would have done the job), with dual carburators and 8.25 compression ratio, producing 140hp. and the car got a pair of disc brakes in the front.
In 1968 Alfa Romeo took over FNM and it became a private company, but the nameplate was unchanged. For 1969 the engine got slightly bigger, going to 2132 cc and the name of the car was now FNM 2150.
In 1970 the 2150 hit its biggest production number with 1200 units, but the market was a lot different from the year the FNM was unveiled. The car was still charming and wasn’t the most expensive anymore, but there were some tough players in the arena like the Chevy Opala and Dodge Dart.
By 1972, the Brazilian Alfa Romeo started a project of a new car to replace the 2150, the Alfa 2300. In 1973 FIAT bought 43% of the Alfa Romeo shares and in the same year the last FNM 2150 was produced.
In 1974 was the debut of the 2300, the car was based stylistically on the European “Alfetta Sedan”, a bulky, square design that had none of the “sex appeal” of its predecessor. Under the skin, it was the same old FNM/Alfa 2000 platform, engine and chassis, with the engine displacement increased some.
When FIAT assumed 100% control of Brazilian Alfa Romeo in 1976, everybody was sure the 2300 would be discontinued, but despite the weak sales numbers, they kept the car in production until 1987. I could share more thoughts about the 2300, but I don’t think it is necessary. The 2300 never left a remarkable impression on the market and only good thing I can remember about the car is for being a good engine donor for the JKs.
Let’s go back to the truck business. The FNM brand was still strong in the minds of the Brazilian truckers. That was the reason for Alfa Romeo to keep the FNM logo on the trucks after 1968.
In 1972 a new truck was unveiled, the FNM 180 and FNM 210, with a new design and more powerful engines with 180hp and 215hp . It carried along the good reputation of the older FNM, it was reliable and affordable.
The “180” had an FNM logo until 1977 when it received FIAT emblems. And even after that, FIAT was reluctant to let the FNM name plate to go away.
Despite all that confusion of brands, the truck was truly a Alfa Romeo product and it was replaced in only in 1979 with a 100% FIAT truck, the “new 190”.
Brazil always had strong ties with Italy; in the 19th and 20th centuries, countless Italian families migrated to Brazil in search of a better life. During WW II as part of the agreement between Brazil and US, we had to send troops to Europe to fight the Nazis, and Italy was the battle ground. We never saw Italy as an enemy, but as country in need of liberation.
For years we had the good feeling of having in Brazil a “true to the core” Italian auto maker like Alfa Romeo. Ok, we have FIAT as the biggest car maker in the country nowadays… but they only produce boring cars. We used to see pictures in magazines of the red racing Alfas, with that huge triangular grille element and guess what? We had that too, right here…
Ok… it was mostly a four door sedan Alfa, but it was good enough for us. It was ours.