Briefly popular in Argentina and an iconic addition to the scenery of Buenos Aires, the Siam di Tella story is another of those BMC defeats-from-failure that litters the 1950s and 1960s…
Words: Federico Raffo, Auto Test Magazine, Motorpress Argentina S.A. Photography: Miguel Tillous Translation: Alejandro Cáceres.
Siam di Tella 1500: Nunca Taxi
The Di Tella was a common sight on the streets of Argentina in the 1960s and was transformed by taxi drivers into an icon of reliability and strength.
WHEN the first Siambretta scooters arrived on Argentinean shores on the 1950s, due to a licensing deal with Italian manufacturer Lambretta, they were an instant hit and became many Argentinians’ first vehicle. Thanks to financial assistance from the Government, Siam Di Tella Automotores S.A. (makers of the Siambretta) struck a licensing deal with BMC to build the Austin A55 in 1959. The resulting car was called the Siam Di Tella 1500.
Siam established a new factory on a greenfield site in Monte Chingolo, Buenos Aires, and after 4 months (on 15 March 1960) the factory was opened with the first DiTella rolling off the production line on 2 April. The front suspension was modified to cope with the local road conditions and, to give the engine a higher level of reliability, the compression ratio was reduced from 8.3:1 to 7.2:1, costing 13bhp (68 vs 55bhp).
Easy to service and with a family-oriented design, the car – originally designed by Pininfarina – was widely accepted by the middle classes, and the taxi drivers saw in it a great replacement for the already worn out Mercedes 170s and 1951 Chevys among others. Demand for the DiTella was of more than 4000 units on the first year, and this number tripled the following year. At the same time, the Argenta pick-up and Traveller estate were launched.
The 1500 was more modern (design-wise) than most of the cars on Argentinean roads at the end of the 1950s. The front end was dominated by two big, round headlamps surrounded by generous chromed rims, the Riley 4/68 grille and chromed bumpers with chromed overriders. A curved (but pretty upright) windscreen, flat side windows and a big rear window gave the car a very airy and well-illuminated cabin for the time. The crease on the sides sloped slowly to the rear ending on the bottom of the tail lights, which formed two subtle tail fins, but more prominent than on the original A55.
The very spacious boot had a cut on the upper left corner, where the fuel filler cap was located. Overall, its design is very similar to a later Pininfarina car, which had a slightly more pleasing profile, cleaner and with less ornaments: the Peugeot 404. The interior was spartan, with front bucket seats on the first versions, and a Bakelite steering wheel with a chromed horn rim. The gear lever was on the steering column and, to engage reverse, one had to pull the lever out, draw an arc with it and then lower it towards oneself.
The equipment was adequate for the era, with a speedometer with total and trip odometer, water temp, oil pressure and fuel level, ashtray and AM radio. One unusual thing about this car was the turn indicator stalk, which had a green indicator lamp on its end. The ignition key position was also unusual (and uncomfortable): it was located on the centre of the dash.
To bring the saloon up to date, the Magnette 16/22 was launched, with the same bodywork but different grille and tail lights. It also had a brand new dash and new seats. Performance was improved: the engine was enlarged to 1622cc and, with a 8.3:1 compression ratio, power was up (72bhp at 5000rpm). In 1964, Siam went through deep economic problems and was bought by IKA (Industrias Kaiser Argentina), who made Siam its subsidiary (called from now on CIDASA).
After this, the cars were renamed Morris, MG and Riley (the same as in the UK) but the economic problems persisted so, in the first months of 1967, CIDASA closed its doors for good. The streets of Buenos Aires witnessed the reliability of the black and yellow Di Tellas which worked as taxis for years on end – the car became an icon of the local auto industry of the 1960s.
Layout: Front longitudinal, inline 4, OHV (pushrod), water cooled
Bore x stroke: 73 x 83.9 mm
Intake: One SU HS2 38mm carburettor
Power: 56bhp @ 4350rpm
Transmission: Manual, 4-speed, rear wheel drive, dry clutch
Front: independent, double A-arm, torsion bar.
Rear: Live axle, leaf sprung, telescopic dampers.
Steering: Recirculating ball.
Brakes: Hydraulic drums all-round.
Type: 4-door, 5-seats saloon monocoque.
Fuel tank: 43litres
Wheel: Stamped steel, 4-1/2J 14″
Tyres: Bias-ply, 5.90×14″
Top speed: 116km/h
0-100 km/h: 37.5s
Avg. fuel cons: 9.5l/100km
MORRIS 1650 DIFFERENCES
Bore x stroke: 76.2 x 88.9 mm
Power: 75bhp @ 4750rpm
Top speed: 133 km/h
0-100 km/h: 27.2 s
Avg. fuel cons: 8.6l/100km