Uruguayans Hang On to Their Old Cars


Stopping for a traffic light at a main intersection in Montevideo, a 1947 British Hillman pulls up next to a Studebaker. A 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air stops behind it.

Uruguay's streets are a car buff's heaven, an endless show of vintage cars and old jalopies. Models that North Americans and West Europeans see only in movies or museums are regular means of transportation for local residents.

Huge American classics survive along with practically every model of the German Volkswagen and Opel, austere Czech Skodas and ancient French Citroens.

Ford trucks dating from before World War II can be found in any marketplace and Internationals from the 1930s are still used to make deliveries.

While a flow of exports to foreign collectors has depleted their number, quite a few Ford model A's trundle along Uruguay's roads alongside luxurious Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs and brand-new Japanese compacts.

Local mechanics must improvise spare parts to keep their customers' old crocks running in Uruguay, where all motor vehicles are either imported or built from kits.

Montevideo mechanic Sergio Lerner, 36, said he has to deal with any problem his clients bring. Lerner, who owns a 1969 Fiat 850, was working on a Chevy Chevette and a tiny West German DKW.

"I think it's a question of purchasing power. Businessmen are among the few who can shell out $15,000 or more for a new car. Others make do with a $1,000 or $2,000 clunker to take the family out on Sundays," Lerner said.

A 1955 Bel Air costs about $3,300 and a well-kept 1951 De Soto goes for $5,000. A Ford model A in good condition costs $3,500, but old Packards and Vauxhalls can be snapped up for less than $1,500.

Motorists usually hold on to the same vehicle for two or three decades for several reasons--old cars usually require lower taxes, lower insurance rates and cheaper running costs than new models.

"I bought my van in the early 1950s and it turned out to be so good that I've never wanted to sell it. Besides, taxes and insurance for new models are very expensive," said bank employee Antonio Fernandez, owner of a British Commer.

High registration costs and insurance rates have driven many Uruguayans to trade their "practically new" decade-old cars for older models.

"I owned a 1976 Chevette, but taxes became too expensive so I had to sell it. Now I have a 1962 Opel Rekord that's running really well," one motorist said. "And it costs me less than half of what the previous one did."

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