Genius or Joker? João Gurgel and the Lost Cars of Brazil

By Andy Bannister

12.29.2009

Joao GurgelAs 2009 draws to a close, spare a thought for one of the lesser- known personalities of the auto industry to die this year, the enigmatic João Gurgel.

Largely unheard of outside his homeland, Gurgel was lauded by nationalists there as “Brazil’s Henry Ford”. He created a car brand which bore his own name and sold some decidedly outlandish creations in the years up to the early 1990s.

His dream of a mass-market, wholly Brazilian small car was brave but ultimately doomed.

Back in 1969, when enterprising 43-year-old businessman Gurgel set up his own tiny factory, Brazil was still a slumbering giant, with a small local auto industry. It was protected by strict regulations effectively preventing car imports.

A string of multinationals like GM, Ford, Chrysler and Volkswagen were, however, well-entrenched, manufacturing cars locally, and had the market all but sewn-up.

It was to Volkswagen and its Fusca model (better known elsewhere as the venerable Beetle), that Gurgel turned for the mechanicals which would set him on the road to his ambition of producing a car which was truly 100% a product of Brazil.

With the help of a simple fibreglass body using many other VW components underneath, he was soon turning out small numbers of the first of a number of utility off-roaders that the company soon became best-known for.

Gurgel Tocantins brochureModels such as the Ipanema, Xavante, Tocantins and Carajás did modestly well in one of the largest countries on earth with more than its fair share of difficult terrain.

Cynics might add this was particularly so given that there was little or no alternative choice for buyers, especially at the lower end of the price scale.

Locally, the only competition came in the shape of big North American-style 4X4s and the smaller Toyota Bandeirante, Brazil’s version of the Land Cruiser.

During his often-controversial career, Gurgel’s company introduced at least 12 models, but the parallels with Henry Ford don‘t run deep. None of the Brazilian offerings had any lasting commercial success, even in the highly-protected home market, and many were little short of sales disasters.

Gurgel was nothing if not bold, however. His products were never ones to ape the competition, and the company soon developed a style of its own, particularly in the field of economy cars, where he had an especial interest.

Gurgel Itaipu E150

A sign of things to come – and a design which in many ways was years ahead of its time – appeared in the mid 1970s in the unusual shape of the Itapiú, Brazil’s first (and so far only) indigenous electric car.

Poorly-made and by all accounts unreliable, it was never much of a sales hit, but it sowed the seed of João Gurgel’s dream to make Brazil a world leader in small car design and manufacture, to which his company would return in later years.

Gurgel line-up 1980The country was experiencing a heady growth in auto production and exports in the 1970s. Fiat, which began manufacturing the 147, a local version of the Italian 127, was one of the big national success stories of the decade.

Gurgel offered Brazil’s leaders more than Fiat and the others could ever do – the dream of a motor industry that was not owned by foreign shareholders far away.

Consequently, the country’s government looked kindly on the entrepreneur and his plucky little company, showering them with loans and privileges which would far exceed any favour shown to his competitors.

As well as his SUVs, Gurgel soon diversified into characteristically odd-looking vans and small trucks, with designs spilling out of the fertile little factory at what seemed like breathtaking speed.Gurgel Truck

All were niche models, however, and the company never made a serious attempt to challenge bestsellers like the aforementioned Fiat 147, the Chevrolet Chevette and of course the Volkswagen Fusca and its many locally-designed derivatives.

Even at the height of its success, Gurgel only commanded 1% of the blossoming Brazilian new car market.

The company did have a remarkable ability to introduce models that were resolutely different. One such example, the XEF, had seemingly orthodox saloon car looks.

On closer examination, though, it sat three passengers abreast on the front seat but had no rear seating compartment at all.

Gurgel XEF

The XEF sold in tiny numbers and was never more than a toe in the water, but the company got into terminal difficulties thanks to its persistent, but ultimately fruitless, ambition to crack the market for the country’s lowest-priced small four-seater car.

In theory, such a vehicle should have sold like hot cakes in crowded cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as well as being a useful rural runabout thanks to high ground clearance and simple mechanicals.

During the 1980s, the then Brazilian president José Sarney granted large unguaranteed state loans to Gurgel to develop just such a car, the ambitious BR-800 model. Many private investors also unwisely backed the company, which always managed to have a positive profile in the country’s media.

Crucially, Gurgel also secured an unheard-of deal to ensure that buyers of the company’s new small model paid much less tax to the government on purchase than if they selected a mainstream competitor.

When it emerged, the BR-800, despite its overwhelmingly patriotic credentials, certainly needed help.

Having abandoned the trusted VW power plants which had served the company well up until then, the new all-Brazilian twin-cylinder engine was underpowered and the car was cramped inside.

Gurgel BR-800SL

It did, however, feature vaguely wedge-shaped styling which looked like nothing else on the market, with a flat windscreen and a particularly small glass area which must have hampered visibility.

By all accounts it was not a pleasure to drive or own, and few people were won over to this supposed motoring revolution.

The company was never geared up for mass production, which was probably just as well, as in its four years of existence, from 1988 to 1992, less than 4,000 BR-800s were made.

During these years, the company suffered a serious body blow which would hamper its future chances.

In 1990, new President Fernando Collor took office, and shortly afterwards the protectionism which had shielded Brazil’s car market from competition with the outside world was eased.

It says little for the quality of Gurgel’s SUVs that they were immediately threatened by imports of the Russian Lada Niva, which was cheaper despite an 85% sales tax, much more capable off-road, and considered to be a better-made product overall.

Collor’s government also ended the special treatment accorded to Gurgel’s BR-800, meaning its price advantage against small cars like Fiat’s locally-built Uno Mille was eroded. The Uno, although hardly the freshest model on the market, was bigger, faster and felt far more of a proper car, and Gurgel sales became harder and harder to come by.

Gurgel SuperminiThe cold winds of reality must have hit Brazil’s Henry Ford hard, but João Gurgel was not a man to be beaten easily.

He still believed in the essential rightness of his small car design. The rather rudimentary looks of the BR-800 were smoothed out to create a somewhat more conventional model called the Supermini.

It was too late, though. With the free market gaining strength in Brazil, and no real groundswell of popularity among buyers for the company’s vehicles, the new car stood almost no chance. Only 1,500 Superminis were sold in the next two years.

Gurgel-Moto-Machine

A remarkably peculiar, if inventive, open-topped derivative, the Moto Machine, was even less of a success.

The collapse of Gurgel’s traditional SUV sales by 1991 and the commercial failure of the its small cars meant the company was in desperate trouble, and loans were increasingly hard to come by.

Gurgel’s last design, the Delta, never made it past the prototype stage. This was an even more pared-down utility car which was to have sold at a very low price, but in the end it was stillborn.

By the close of 1992, the company couldn’t afford to pay its workers, and production more or less ended, although technically the outfit didn’t go bankrupt until 1994. Millions of dollars of loans from various Brazilian institutions were never repaid.

After his fall, critics rounded on Gurgel, saying he surrounded himself with yes-men and lived in a state-bankrolled dream world, and accusing him of taking millions out of the country.

In retirement, though, he consistently refused to accept any responsibility for his company’s fate, blaming politicians and the system for ultimately wrecking his dream of a national motor company.

The man behind the all-Brazilian car developed Alzheimer’s disease in later life, and died early in 2009.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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20 Comments

  1. You would have to be pretty damn hard up for a car to drive one of these things. Any of these vehicles, to tell the truth. They’re ugly, seem dangerous as hell, and they’ve got be slow and uncomfortable. Not exactly a compelling package!

  2. Strange cars. It’s hard to blame the guy for taking the government’s money, though. If the Brazilian government hadn’t been giving him all those breaks, the company would have died on it’s own way before it did.

  3. Thanks for an interesting tidbit from automotive history. Ugly little vehicles only a mother could…well no, I don’t even think a mom could love them. But cool article.

  4. How could this guy produce so many crappy cars after so much practice?

    He had a lot of opportunities to get it right at least one time.

    How can you fail so consistently and not realize you’re in the wrong line of work? It’s hard to believe the government kept giving him aid.

  5. The re-skinnedd VW platforms must have been reliable cars. Those must have been okay.

  6. In the group photo there appear to be variations of the jeep type VW 181 (Thing)/ Citroen FAF, which were very popular overseas during the 1970s. The cab-over front axle flat beds that resemble contemporary IVECO (FIAT) designs of that day and even the famed MB Unimog and Steyr Puch utility designs like the Pinzgauer.

    The Itaipu E150 seems a trapezoidal AMC Pacer.

    The story of Gurgel certainly bears certain parallels to the Tucker debacle.

  7. Sad, so sad. What awful-looking cars.

  8. George, this company produced cars for much longer than Tucker, and got government aid.

    Maybe a more apt comparison would be one of the French companies like Matra or Simca.

  9. I know it’s going against the current here, but I think that Supermini is fairly attractive.

  10. The eletric was named itaipu, and almost all units of it were sold to itaipu binational the company that run the hidroeletric powerplant between Brazil and Paraguay.
    and mostly of they we’re still running till 6 years ago…
    Motomachine was the first unit of the new gurgel and we’re only sold to those who bought shares from gurgel company, br-800 and supermini came later.
    The 2 cilinder was called Enertron and was basically a Aircooled VW cut in half.

  11. I’m a Brazilian. I saw the sad history of this bufoon called João Gurgel. Using the privileges of a closed economy, during many years, he got money(mainly from loans) and fame. Brazilian press gave complete support for this bad guy called João Gurgel. Such as dozens of times before, again the “nationalism” was used as a way to impose a hoax to the Brazilian people. The correct Brazilian president Collor opened the Brazilian market and refused to give new loans, to the charlatan João Gurgel. As in so many times before and since, illusions were used as a disguise to got big fortune and put it overseas. Gurgel’s family is living in the United States and is very rich today.

  12. I’m also a Brazilian. This criminal called João Gurgel gave a fortune for his family for illusions and many money from the idiot Brazilian people. Even so, all persons looking for to know what you must never do as a leader of a car factory, should read about the Gurgel company. Bad products, many spending in propaganda and many grafts for politicians all these things paved the path for the end of Gurgel.

  13. It is fun to read so many thoughts classifying Gurgel and the cars that way, specially from the article’s writer.

    Just to remember, Gurgel Motores finished activities circa 1994-1995, but Gurgel’s cars are still on road today – Xavante, Tocantins and all the X-12 family are very common on brazilian roads for out-of-production cars, despiste the total lack of specialized maintenance. What other car – besides the VW Beetle – last this long? The FRP body is also a bonus, as the cars normally have original body – without any corrosion, nor smashes.

    About the sales, sorry but this article is just FUD: for instance, the X-12 family outsold VW 181 in Caribe, and for that reason VW halted the 181 production there. And it was not just for Caribe that Gurgel exported: Gurgel cars were sold to more than 40 countries. Is this a “marginal” sale?

    Also, naming the cars “ugly” is a matter of POV. For instance, how do you call the original Land Cruiser design? I would not dare even to search a word for it. Comparing to the brazilian cars of the time, the design of Gurgel cars is a bit innovative, but it recalls them a lot. Search for the look of Fiat 147, Uno, Gol, and other cars around 1980-1990, and you will see similarities on styles. Nothing too radical, just a matter of style and taste.

    We have to remember that the goal for the BR-800 and Supermini was to produce a urban mini-car, cheaper than any other – so everyone could have a car. The original project name was CENA (Carro Economico NAcional, or “National Economic Car” in English). It was not big – in fact, the smaller car ever produced in Brazil – it did not have an astronomic horsepower, but it worked very well for going to the market, picking your children at school, and even traveling short distances. It also was very economical, as the project name stated.

    This higher goal was a *higher* goal, because the car would have to be a lot cheaper comparing to with names like VW, Chevrolet, Ford, Fiat, and other big car makers. The problem is that they had to buy a lot of machinery to produce all the needed parts, and had little money to do research – also, after Collor, the car was not really cheaper. The question is simple: if you could buy both a Isetta and a Beetle by the same price, what would you choose? This rhetorical question is the better *impartial* answer for the bankruptcy of Gurgel.

    It is also fun to read someone saying good things about Collor, the first brazilian president to suffer an impeachment. Due to an thoughtless opening of the economy, he literally killed a good amount of the brazilian industry, not just Gurgel. And we could never forget the disaster of the frozen accounts. But what do people remember now, since it was ~20 years ago? Collor is back to politics, so people tend to put this things apart.

    It’s a shame most people which are reading this would not be able to read Portuguese articles, as there are a bunch of material from the time (circa 1970 until 1990) talking about the cars, test drivers and such, that are worth reading.

    A good place for searching: http://www.gurgel800.com.br/publicacoes/

    Reading those articles (maybe an online translator can help), is possible to understand the idea about Gurgel cars: simplicity, durability, innovation with smart solutions.

    And that’s it.

  14. The person that wrote above (“Leonardo L.”), repeated the same useless silly nationalist claims about João Gurgel (1926-2009). I’ll repeat some of these claims and my answer:
    1-”Gurgel’s cars are still on the roads today”.
    Answer: Just about one hundred Gurgel’s bad cars are on the roads today.
    2-”Gurgel cars were sold to more than 40 countries”.
    Anwer:Gurgel never was a real and regular exporter. These dozens of countries are full of one country, with just one car exported. Less than 2% of Gurgel’s production was exported. Gurgel’s exportations became over in late 1980 decade, because its products became 100% uncompetitive in international markets.
    3-”Due to an thoughtless opening of the economy, he literally killed a good amount of the brazilian industry, not just Gurgel.”
    Answer:Before Collor’s government, Brazil was such a tropical Soviet Union. Products were just a few and bad. All kinds of Brazilian industries became bigger after Collor, than before. About automobiles, after Collor took power, the Brazilian production grew, while Gurgel’s production fell from about 1,000 cars each month to just a few dozens also each month. Why? Because Gurgel was uncapable to compete with anyone, including imported car, available since late 1990 year. In this site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jo%C3%A3o_do_Amaral_Gurgel you can read these sentences about Gurgel:”Even today, João Gurgel remains with followers, claiming that he was sent to bankruptcy by politicians. In fact, between 1970 and 1990, all Brazilian Presidents gave public money to Gurgel. And the amount of money was ever bigger, with the time. In 1990, Fernando Collor refused to give any new loan to Gurgel, but this came after more than 20 years of Brazilian Federal Governments favors. Between 1976 and 1990 was out of law to import jeeps or in fact, any kind of vehicle in Brazil. Even, so in 1990, the tax to import a jeep in Brazil was about 85%. Until Gurgel’s bankruptcy, Brazilian press gave all possible support to João Gurgel. In fact, he was flattered by Brazilian press and for more than twenty years. His vehicles had bad quality and were expensive, even for the weak standards of Brazil, but Brazilian press ever was telling that João Gurgel would be the Brazilian Henry Ford of the future. Another fact is that 1990 decade (at least until 1997), was a very good time to cars’ factories in Brazil. Brazilian car’s production climbed fast between 1990 and 1994, while João Gurgel went to the bankruptcy. João Gurgel was also a popular figure. In 1987-1988 he launched a crusade to get money from partners. Thousands gave their money in a few months. All these “partners” became fools, because they never got any money from the investment that they did in Gurgel’s company, in good faith. In simple terms, Gurgel bankruptcy didn’t come from lack of Government’s money, lack of protection, press’ criticism, lack of public support or lack of growing in auto industry. João Gurgel got all of these things, in more amount and time than he deserved.
    João Gurgel skills as a manager were terrible. He was ever looking for support from Brazilian politicians and Brazilian press. João Gurgel ever hated any engineer with skills); he was ever with “yes-men” and looking for flattery. Being called “The Proud of Brazil” and “Brazilian Henry Ford” by Brazilian press, the “nationalist” João Gurgel in fact, put far more money in the United States than in Brazil. The site Default claims that João Gurgel default was about US$1,200,000,000, in 1994. The Brazilian banks, never got a cent for their “loans” given to João Gurgel, from 1985 onwards. The Brazilian partners were deceived and paid many money to the bad Gurgel BR-800 and useless shares. João Gurgel also gave defaults to suppliers of parts of his small vehicles. His workers weren’t also paid after December, 1992. Many years before the bankruptcy, the “nationalist” João Gurgel, using weakness of Brazilian laws, sent fortunes to the United States, where his family is mainly living since decades ago, with height levels of living. João Gurgel went to bankruptcy mainly from his failures. The real person responsible for João Gurgel’s bankruptcy was himself.
    In bankruptcy, João Gurgel became sick with Alzheimer’s disease. He died with this disease in 2009. João Gurgel’s family is now living very rich in the United States. “

  15. I read with interest the article and comments being made here. I am English so have no nationalistic motives. I have owned a 91 Gurgel Tocantins, and a 1987 Carajas. And currently own two G-15 models. My favourite Gurgels are the G-15 models. The Carajas is very strong…..but its not 4×4, thats what lets it down.
    I also owned two fibre glass vehicles in the UK – both Reliants. Reliant was a private British company privatly funded and existed for a very long time mostly making three wheelers. I have to say a lot of what has been said here makes sense, judging by the amount of money invested and loans one would have thought Gurgel would have lasted much longer. Look at Reliant a small British company successful for years and without protection from overseas competitors or Government loans and favour. I owned both the Reliant Fox and the Rebel – both 4 wheelers and look a lot better than the BR 800s Gurgel turned out. The Xef I think looks really cool…lots of potential Its a shame after all the money invested and loans etc it all went belly up.

  16. I have a 1970 Gurgel QT. More than 40.000 people buy Gurgel cars. Those people tha dislike the car, had drive one ?

    Gurgel paid all the money he got from the government. And Ford, GM, VW, Fiat, Chrysler, Peuguot got much more.

  17. This bad man called João Gurgel never payed nothing of his loans got among Brazilian government. In the wikipedia’s webside ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jo%C3%A3o_do_Amaral_Gurgel ) about this crook, we can read these sentences:”Even today, João Gurgel remains with followers, claiming that he was sent to bankruptcy by politicians. In fact, between 1970 and 1990, all Brazilian Presidents gave public money to Gurgel. And the amount of money was ever bigger, with the time. In 1990, Fernando Collor refused to give any new loan to Gurgel, but this came after more than 20 years of Brazilian Federal Governments favors. Between 1976 and 1990 was out of law to import jeeps or in fact, any kind of vehicle in Brazil. Even, so in 1990, the tax to import a jeep in Brazil was about 85%. Until Gurgel’s bankruptcy, Brazilian press gave all possible support to João Gurgel. In fact, he was flattered by Brazilian press and for more than twenty years. His vehicles had bad quality and were expensive, even for the weak standards of Brazil, but Brazilian press ever was telling that João Gurgel would be the Brazilian Henry Ford of the future. Another fact is that 1990 decade (at least until 1997), was a very good time to cars’ factories in Brazil. Brazilian car’s production climbed fast between 1990 and 1994, while João Gurgel went to the bankruptcy. João Gurgel was also a popular figure. In 1987-1988 he launched a crusade to get money from partners. Thousands gave their money in a few months. All these “partners” became fools, because they never got any money from the investment that they did in Gurgel’s company, in good faith. In simple terms, Gurgel bankruptcy didn’t come from lack of Government’s money, lack of protection, press’ criticism, lack of public support or lack of growing in auto industry. João Gurgel got all of these things, in more amount and time than he deserved.
    João Gurgel skills as a manager were terrible. He was ever looking for support from Brazilian politicians and Brazilian press. João Gurgel ever hated any engineer with skills); he was ever with “yes-men” and looking for flattery. Being called “The Proud of Brazil” and “Brazilian Henry Ford” by Brazilian press, the “nationalist” João Gurgel in fact, put far more money in the United States than in Brazil. The site Default claims that João Gurgel default was about US$1,200,000,000, in 1994. The Brazilian banks, never got a cent for their “loans” given to João Gurgel, from 1985 onwards. The Brazilian partners were deceived and paid many money to the bad Gurgel BR-800 and useless shares. João Gurgel also gave defaults to suppliers of parts of his small vehicles. His workers weren’t also paid after December, 1992. Many years before the bankruptcy, the “nationalist” João Gurgel, using weakness of Brazilian laws, sent fortunes to the United States, where his family is mainly living since decades ago, with height levels of living. João Gurgel went to bankruptcy mainly from his failures. The real person responsible for João Gurgel’s bankruptcy was himself.
    In bankruptcy, João Gurgel became sick with Alzheimer’s disease. He died with this disease in 2009. João Gurgel’s family is now living very rich in the United States.”

  18. Hola señores del foro, soy de Panama y respeto todos sus comentarios y hasta ahora es que tengo conocimiento de la historia de la fabrica de autos Gurgel y de su propietario.
    Les comento que tengo desde el año 1996 un Gurgel X12, que lo compre de segunda mano en malas condiciones y lo tengo bien pero bien modificado.
    Le quite todo lo que era de VW, montandolo sobre un chasis de Toyota Corolla año 1986, con el motor 4K de 4 cl. montado adelante, transmision de 5 velocidades, diferencial trasero conectado con un eje mando, tapizado y alfombrado de lujo en cuerina, aire acondicionado, parrilla de techo, llanta de repuesto montada en la parte trasera. Cuando salgo en mi Gurgel X12 todos me miran y me preguntan por la marca el origen y sobre todo si no lo vendo.
    Ese carro es el concentido de la casa y no lo vendo por nada del mundo, estoy muy orgulloso de el. My pequeño Hummer.

    Saludos para todos.

  19. i am currently restoring a X12TR, ( I love it BTW ;-) ) i live in the netherlands, were in te late 70′s these cars were imported bu Ruska. a phew were sold here, so donor cars are very rare. i must say, after deconstructing mine, i was surprised by some technical solutions done by Gurgel. Iam however lokking for some spare parts. i need the windows for the doors, as well the fixed as the sliding ones, and a front windshield. are there still spare parts available, or does somebody wanna sell me these??
    please respond on dehakker@yahoo.com.
    thx

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