A little-known incursion by BMC under the marque Austin into the South American continent was the assembly of Austin commercial vehicles and Gipsy off road cars in a factory near Bogotá, in Colombia, in the early 1960s.
This is the story, as told by Graham Arnold.
The Austin Motor Company in Colombia
A very short-lived venture in South America
I doubt very much whether many people have even heard of the Austin Motor Company’s venture in Bogotá, in Colombia, South America, let alone know much about the subject. But, strange as it may seem, a range of trucks and Gipsy off-road vehicles was assembled in there at the beginning of the 1960s, by a company called Colmotores. These vehicles were built from completely knocked down (CKD) kits sent from England to Colombia. However, the venture lasted little more than 3 years before it fell prey to dire financial problems and the installations were taken over by the Chrysler Corporation.
The motor car had never formed part of an indigenous industry in any of the countries of the South American continent, unlike in Europe and America. The few vehicles that did exist were mainly of American origin, having been imported during the 1930s and ’40s. Like so many other countries in Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s, Colombia was just starting to wake up to its transport needs, especially road transport. It had always been hampered, in part, by the mountain chains formed by the northern portion of the Andean mountain system which traversed the country. Thus, a road network was never high up on the list of priorities for the successive Colombian governments at this time. To a certain extent, both air and water transport were far more suitable for people who needed to travel from one area of the country to another and for getting agricultural products to market, along with the few manufactured goods being produced at that time. In 1950, for example, there were in fact only 1,000 kms of roads throughout Colombia within an area of 439,737 square miles. It was also a time of great political unrest and economic hardship, although industrial development had started in the 1940s.
However, one man did have the foresight to envisage the need for a motor vehicle industry in Colombia. That man was Don Germán Montoya Veléz, who, together with a group of Colombian businessmen, started talks in 1956 on the possibility of setting up a vehicle manufacturing/assembly plant on Colombian soil, albeit for commercial and off-road vehicles. To a certain extent, the time was ripe for such a far-reaching project, since the National Government of the time was anxious to see through its recently-introduced reforms which limited the number of imports of different products and encouraged home manufacture, and also because the government had just introduced a new law whereby those industries that used products produced in Acerías Paz del Rio (Paz del Rio Steelworks) would be exempt from having to pay income tax and property tax, amongst others, for the next 10 years.
So the decision was taken to form a company for the assembly of motor vehicles. After surmounting innumerable difficulties, both financial and political, the Fabrica Colombiana de Automotores S.A. (Colmotores) was founded on 27 July 1956 with an initial capital outlay of 5million pesos. Different departamentos (departments) throughout the country, especially those of Antioquía, Cundinamarca, Caldas and la Costa, had seen to it that the initial plan would get off the ground by contributing part of this money, and the deeds of the newly-formed company were officially signed on 25 August 1956. Talks were soon started with the British Motor Corporation (BMC) management with a view to assembling Austin trucks and the recently-introduced Gipsy off-road vehicles in this new assembly plant. These talks came to fruition on 28 November 1956 when a contract was signed by both parties for the assembly of Austin vehicles by Colmotores of Bogotá.
Work soon commenced on the building of the new installations on a site just outside Bogotá, the national capital, under the auspices of the newly-elected president of Colmotores, Don Santiago Trujillo, and Don Germán Montoya Veléz, the managing director. While the new plant was under construction, Colmotores adopted the role of Austin’s Colombian distributor. The factory was finished by the end of 1961 ready for the inauguration ceremony on 16 February 1962. The President of the Republic at that moment, Dr Alberto Lleras Camargo, had the honour of conducting the opening ceremony while the 2nd Bishop of Bogotá, Monseñor Emilio de Brigard, blessed the installations and the employees. Meanwhile, CKD kits had already started arriving from England and the first ever Colombian-assembled Austin vehicles began rolling down the assembly lines that very same month of February. Production was limited to Austin trucks between 2.5 and 6 tons, minibuses and the short- and long-wheelbase Gipsy off-road models.
Before any vehicles had been built in Colombia, Austin had already carried out exhaustive tests in the country at the beginning of 1961, the main object being to ensure that the range of commercial vehicles which was soon to start rolling down the assembly lines in Bogotá would give undiminished performance at all altitudes. As can be read in the article below, Austin’s in-house magazine reported at the time how successful these trials had been. However, that conclusion contrasts sharply with other recent, independent reports which state that one of the reasons for the relative failure of this venture in Colombia was that Austin commercial vehicles were completely unsuitable to the Colombian terrain and road conditions at that time. They were no match for the highly popular and far better suited American vehicles – both cars and trucks – which had been used up until then to ply the badly-surfaced roads (perhaps “tracks” would be a more apt description) in many areas of this Andean country.
And the suitability of the vehicles wasn’t the only problem to affect the operation, as other problems soon started to appear on the horizon. As we have already seen, the political climate at the time was very unstable, with continual changes of government, a faltering economy and economical hardship for many people; soon, the National Party was forced to cancel the tax exemptions and other incentives that Colmotores had been promised at the start of the project. This of course led to financial difficulties for the company and its shareholders. Thus it was that after only 4,000 vehicles had been assembled, the American giant, Chrysler Motors, stepped in on 15 July 1965, acquiring a majority stake of 65% in the company and renaming it “Chrysler Colmotores”. By 1966 the Austin assembly lines had been turned over to producing the Dodge Coronet 440, which had the honour of being the first car produced completely in Colombia. A succession of other Chrysler models then followed, such as the Simca 1000 and the Dodge Dart. However, when Chrysler got into financial difficulties in 1979, Colmotores was purchased by another American automotive giant, General Motors, and the name of the company reverted back to the original one of Colmotores. In 1991 however, Colmotores became General Motors Colmotores SA. In 1996 production at the ex-Austin, ex-Chrysler assembly plant reached the 500,000 mark, and to this day, a wide range of Chevrolet-badged models from various parts of the GM empire are still produced there, including the Corsa, Wagon R+, Jimny, Rodeo and Grand Vitara.
All was perhaps not lost though, since the founder of the company, Germán Montoya Veléz stayed on as President and was awarded the medal for outstanding industry merit by the Colombian National Government in 1971. Then in 1981 he received the “Cruz de Boyacá” medal at the level of “Official” from the same government. What might have become of Austin in Colombia if they had continued producing vehicles there is, of course, anybody’s guess, but one thing is for sure: sooner or later Colmotores would also have succumbed to BMC’s (later British Leyland’s) financial woes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the factory would either have been closed down completely or sold on to another company. Unfortunately, this was another short-lived episode in Austin’s annals.
The pre-production trials
According to the August/September 1961 issue of Austin’s in-house publication, “Worldwide”, a 14-week test programme was carried out in the Andes to prove the suitability of Austin trucks for the extreme climate and road surface conditions which would be encountered in South America. Eight different types of vehicle took part, including a diesel-engined 702 7-tonner, a 303 normal control truck, a 5-tonne 503 model, the recently-introduced long-wheelbase Gipsy, and others.
The average distance covered in the course of a normal day’s testing was around 250 miles, although during one particularly gruelling test programme, a convoy of five vehicles covered a record 450 hard miles in one day, over gravel-strewn roads between sea-level and 12,000 feet. These vehicles had to climb 40-mile long, 1-in-10 gradients, with temperatures reaching 85°F in places. Accompanying the vehicles on this proving run was BMC’s Longbridge-based Chief Road Proving Engineer, Mr Leonard Ainsley, who had organised the tests and supervised the running of the vehicles. The test headquarters for the trip were the premises of Colmotores in Bogotá. One of the long-wheelbase Gipsys was driven by the Austin representative for Colombia, Mr Ralph Codena-Kitchen.
During the tests, it was found that the only diesel-engined vehicle in the fleet – the Austin 702 7-tonner truck – returned similar fuel consumption figures to those obtained in England, whereas all the petrol-engined vehicles used approximately 25 percent more fuel due to the difficult terrain. It was also reported that the local drivers found the comfort and ventilation of both the normal- and forward-control trucks to be excellent, especially under such harsh conditions. The only modification that had been carried out on the vehicles participating in these tests was the fitment of special high-altitude carburettor jets, and the only breakdown of any note during the whole 14-day test period was one puncture, which satisfied Austin that their commercial vehicles were able to operate with 100 per cent reliability in another world market. Furthermore, it was found that only minor modifications would need to be made to the vehicles for production in Colombia thus facilitating material control and production programmes back home in England for such specialised export requirements.
1 The Spanish title, Don, placed before a name to indicate respect and equivalent to Mr has been used throughout the text.
2 In contemporary sources of Austin literature which I have seen, Colmotores has always been referred to as “Colomotores”. However, throughout my research for this article I have only ever seen it spelt as “Colmotores”, and this is how General Motors spells it to this day, so for the sake of consistency I have maintained this spelling, and I suppose that the Austin variation was down to bad transcription of the word at the time.
As in all such short-lived stories, and especially so in one that took place thousands of miles from home, and also nearly 50 years ago, there are still many questions which need answering:
What made Don Germán Montoya Veléz consider a tie-up with the Austin Motor Company in the first place?
Were any Austin vehicles assembled by Colmotores exported to other South American countries or anywhere else come to that?
Which other manufacturers, if any, had he already approached before deciding on Austin?
What factors made him consider Austin vehicles as being suitable for assembly in Colombia?
There is certain evidence that he might have been associated with Austin vehicles before embarking on Colmotores. To what extent had he been associated with Austin and / or BMC?
Were all the vehicles that left the Colmotores, Bogotá factory assembled from CKD kits sent out from England? One must not forget that one of the conditions laid down by the then government for setting up the company in the first place was the condition that local content had to be met. The awarding of incentives was determined by this local content. Thus, were certain components manufactured locally to abide by this local content rule? Which components, and who were they manufactured by?
How many Colmotores Austin vehicles are still extant in Colombia or elsewhere throughout South America?
The author of this article would welcome any further information and/or photographs on Colmotores from its inception in 1956 to 1964 when Chrysler acquired a majority share in the company, i.e. during the time Austin commercial vehicles were rolling off the assembly lines. Any information on the particular models assembled there, photographs of the factory and assembly lines, etc would be gratefully received. Please contact me if you have any relevant information.
El autor de este artículo agradecería cualquier otra información que se pudiera aportar sobre los comienzos de Colmotores en Colombia y en especial durante el tiempo en que estaban fabricando vehículos comerciales de la marca Austin y de los vehículos camperos Austin Gipsy. Se puede enviar cualquier información que uno tenga a Keith Adams.
This page was contributed by Graham Arnold.