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The history of a brand

How Gurgel managed to make totally Brazilian cars

Ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a mind bubbling over with ideas, and a few partners. With these tools, in 1958, João Augusto Conrado do Amaral Gurgel resigned from Ford do Brasil, a giant of the auto industry, and began to set up a project thought up when he was still a student at the Polytechnic School of the University São Paulo: to make Brazilian cars. Against all the prognoses, he succeeded. For over 30 years, he rode over the difficulties and created national automobiles, with original solutions (some of which generated patents). The holding company ran by him came to be valued at as much as R$ 200 million, in today’s currency, according to an estimate recorded in Gurgel, um sonho forjado em fibra [Gurgel, a dream forged in fiber] (Labortexto Editorial, 160 pages), a book by journalist Lélis Caldeira launched this year. Until the bad times came, and Gurgel began, slowly, to lose all the fights he got himself into.

The last and most significant of them overthrew him for once and for all: in 1997, it was discovered that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The disease destroys the cells of brain and leads the patient to lose progressively his intellectual capacity and to show levels of skill similar to those of a newborn child – the person becomes incapable of walking, feeding himself alone, recognizing members of the family, and even of speaking. The fact of the ailment having struck Gurgel, today 78 years old, seems to be an excessively tragic end to a brilliant career of an entrepreneur.

But this is not how the users of these vehicles see the outcome of this story – even today, it is common to see Gurgel’s utility vehicles circulating over the country and gathering the admirers of these cars together in clubs and associations. Born in Franca, in the interior of São Paulo, Amaral Gurgel graduated in mechanical-electrical engineering. In the work that concluded the course, he surprised his professor by presenting Tião, “the first genuinely Brazilian automobile”. The project caused laughter, and the student heard a phrase from his professor that he never forgot: “In Brazil, you don’t make a car, you buy one”. Some time after graduating, Gurgel went to the United States for an training period with the General Motors Truck and Coach, in Pontiac, and with Buick Motor, in Flint, both cities of Michigan.

In the United States, he got to know the technology of hard plastic, and went back to Brazil after four years, already thinking of adopting it in the future. After working for some time in the Brazilian branches of General Motors and Ford, Gurgel decided it was time to take care of his own business, in 1958. It was when he got together the US$ 10,000, arranged some partners, and created Moplast, which produced plastic light fittings for companies. With the profit from the plastic, he made karts for competition. Years later, in 1964, Gurgel left Moplast and created Macan Veículos, a Volkswagen dealership that allowed him to carry on making karts and to invent a novelty: cars for children. They were min-Mustangs and mini-Karmann Ghias, with 3 horsepower engines.

Gurgel’s climb continued. The next step was to convince Volkswagen to let him have the chassis (the structure on which the car’s motor and bodywork are fitted), for him to make his own cars. In that year, in 1964, Volks ordered a car from him to present at the Automobile Salon – it was the cue for Gurgel to create the Ipanema, a buggy mounted on the platform of the Volkswagen Sedan, with a rear engine and bodywork in Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP). The vehicle was a success, but he did not manage to get money for production in series. “The car sector was almost a hobby in those years in Brazil”, says Lélis Caldeira. In 1969, the moment came to take a larger leap forward. With US$ 50,000, the engineer founded Gurgel Indústria e Comércio de Veículos Ltda., in São Paulo, and began to produce four units a month of the Ipanema.

At that same time, Gurgel developed the plasteel system, which is a resistant structure made up of layers of FRP, which covered a square framework of steel tubes. This chassis, of the monobloc kind, proved to be very resistant, and it made it possible to abandon the Beetle platforms and to construct utilitarian vehicles for “all terrain” (the expression arose from the Gurgel cars). In the 70’s, Gurgel went firmly into the jeep market and had a lot of success: his vehicles had a young and sporting image, low fuel consumption, and cheap maintenance.

In 1973, he acquired a plot of land in Rio Claro, São Paulo, to set up his factory. He also began to manufacture another jeep, the Xavante. In the following year, the company presented the Itaipu, a pioneering electric car for urban use for two people, which used batteries rechargeable in any 220 volt power socket. In the following years, several other models of jeeps were made and sold to the Army and the Air Force. One of them, the X-12, received orders from the Armed Forces of several countries. There was a time when 25% of production was sent for export.

“The X-12 was a taxi in Bolivia, a car for the desert in the Middle East, and a vehicle for tourism in the Caribbean”, Caldeira says. After all the experience, Gurgel was ready to launch a genuinely national car, including the engine, up until then supplied by Volkswagen. In 1985, he presented to the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep) the idea of the Economical National Car (Cena in the Portuguese acronym) and received funding for developing and manufacturing prototypes and for production in series of 2,000 units a year. A law was also approved that was to reduce significantly the taxes on cars of a small size and low cubic capacity. In 1986 the Beetle stopped being manufactured – an excellent moment for the launch of the Cena, which was done officially in 1987. Because of a judicial dispute with the family of Ayrton Senna, the name of the car changed.

It became the BR-800, BR for Brazil and 800 for the cubic capacity of the engine of two cylinder horizontally opposed engine. In December 1989, the thousandth unit of the BR-800 was delivered, but in 1990 things began to topple. The incentive for the popular car was extended to the vehicles with an engine of up to a thousand cubic centimeters (1.0), and Fiat launched the Uno Mille, with a price similar to that of the BR-800, but better performance and space. At the same time that he needed loans to take new projects forward, Gurgel acquired a plot of land in Ceará, to set up a factory in the Northeast. He was counting on the express support of the governments of Ceará and São Paulo and from the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES).

This support did not materialize, and Gurgel, after manufacturing over 40,000 cars, in debt, was obliged to file chapter 11 proceedings in 1993. “Alzheimer’s disease was diagnosed in 1997, but several symptoms that we thought were ‘post-bankruptcy’ depression were already from the disease”, says Maria Cristina do Amaral Gurgel, the middle daughter of Gurgel and Carolina. Paradoxically, a fight in the courts gives the size of the value that the work of the engineer, inventor and industrialist has even today. This year, the family is to sue businessman Paulo Emílio Freire Lemos, who is selling farm machines with the Gurgel brand in the interior of São Paulo. As the time limit for validity at the National Industrial Property Institute had expired in 2003, he registered it in his name. The attitude of this businessman, even though it may be regarded as morally condemnable, as Cristina says, indicates that Gurgel’s credibility for selling cars and machines continues intact.