Last revised: 24-7-2011

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Car of the Month - April 2011

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Puma GTS - spyder body - manufactured in 1979

In order to establish a local car manufacturing industry Brasil opted to discourage import by imposing high taxes on cars produced abroad. To avoid those taxes companies like GM, Ford, Fiat and Volkswagen founded or acquired production plants in Brasil and produced their most popular models locally as well as some unique models specially tailored to Brazilian needs and circumstances. Most of these Brazilian made cars were practical and functional and there was little available for those Brazilians who wanted something more sporty or special, until Rino Malzoni and his associates began constructing sportscars in São Paulo based on components from the local industry.
Rino Malzoni was a wealthy farmer and lawyer of Italian origin who had a keen interest in fast cars and autosport. In the early 1960s he set out to create his own sportscar using an engine and drivetrain made by Vemag, a company that manufactured German DKW models for the Brazilian market. The car was dubbed the DKW-Malzoni and presented in 1964. It was a modern and attractive 2-seater coupe styled by Malzoni himself with a lightweight fiberglass body showing influences from contemporary Italian and French sportscars, powered by a 1100 cc 2-stroke 3-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. Performance was better than what you'd expect from such humble figures: the head of the Vemag racing department, Jorge Lettry, tuned the engine until it cranked out more than 100 hp which even baffled the DKW engineers back in Germany. The car soon became legendary on the Brazilian racing tracks but was less suited as a commercial offer because of its high price and uncompromising nature. Still, it proved there was plenty of interest in Brasil for such a car.
After producing about 35 DKW-Malzonis the small company reorganized for production on a larger scale. Anisio Campos redesigned the body and gave it a more distinctive Italian look and the company adopted the brand name Puma. The revised car was named the DKW Puma GT and produced from 1966 till 1967; about 136 of these cars were made until Volkswagen took over Vemag and stopped the production of DKW models. Volkswagen didn't sever the inherited relation with Puma however but the GT had to be modified to accept VW parts and that meant a conversion from front engine and front wheel drive to rear engine and rear wheel drive. This could have lead to something awful but in fact it paved the way to international acclaim.
Utilizing the wider platform of the VW Karmann-Ghia with 1500 cc 4-cylinder air-cooled boxer engine in the rear and not the more ubiquitous VW Beetle platform and again the styling talents of Anisio Campos the resulting 1968 Puma GT was actually a very attractive car. It's design hinted more than a little Ferrari 275 GTB & Dino 206 GT style while its rear engined configuration was well concealed. Though the standard performance of the engine wasn't very exciting at 52 hp the car was appealing enough to find a few hundred buyers each year. In 1969 a version with 1600 cc 68 hp engine, front disc brakes and more futuristic styling was shown as the Puma GT-4R, which was a limited production model ordered by a Brazilian car magazine of which only 4 were made. Puma's international debut came in 1970 at a Spanish car show and its favorable reception lead to the introduction of the Puma GTE, with the E standing for "export", which had the 1600 cc engine and front disc brakes of the GT-4R. A 1800 cc engine became optional and soon also an open topped version, first named GTE Spyder and later shortened to GTS, became available.
By now production numbers were increasing steadily and cars were exported to Europe, North America (in the US as kits) and South Africa. An additional model was introduced in 1973: the GTB. This car was based on the Brazilian Chevrolet Opala, was front engined and rear wheel drive and looked like a small American fastback muscle car; it remained destined for the domestic market only. Another redesign for the GTE/GTS models became necessary in the mid 1970s when the supply of Karmann-Ghia chassis ran out. A switch was made to the underpinnings of the VW Brasilia which changed the proportions of the car a little. A more notable revision followed in 1977 when the coupe received rear quarter windows, the rear air intake was changed and the interior was upgraded. This proved to be the most successful version of the Puma GT with around 3000 cars produced each year and it was also the most "pure" looking version, with practically all frills and unnecessary details done away with. What remained was an elegant, timeless shape with a dash of Porsche 911 added to the Ferrari-inspired cocktail that boosted its attractive flavor.

The good times didn't last long unfortunately. By 1980 Brasil found itself in an economic recession and had to loosen its import restrictions. Not only did the home market shrink for Puma, the company also had to compete against cheaper imports, mainly from Japan. Within a year production was down with 66%, preluding a steady decline the following years. Just before the recession hit the GT was modernized again; the front and rear were restyled for the 1981 model year with bumpers now incorporated into the bodywork and big square lightclusters in the rear. The GTE coupe was now named the GTI (yet the boxer engine was still fitted with carburettors as standard) while the GTS spyder became the GTC, which was the more popular bodystyle since 1978. These weren't the modifications the customers were waiting for, since the sporty Puma's humble engine was the main grievance. Lack of power and the outdated suspension meant that modern production cars could effortlessly outrun a Puma, much to its owner's chagrin.
So next up was a technical update which became known as the P-018. The car received long overdue independent rear suspension and more powerful engines up to 2 litre displacement became available. Introduced in 1982 this model ran alongside the GTI/GTC and distinguished itself with a slightly modified exterior; most notably the convertible, which was given square headlights and a more rectangular rear that didn't improve looks. All was in vain however; in 1984 Puma's annual car production was down to a mere 33 and in 1985 the last 10 original Puma cars left the factory in São Paulo, after a production run totalling about 20,000 cars since the early beginnings.

That was not quite the end; the rights to both the rear engined GT and the front engined GTB were sold, and sold again. In all about 215 Pumas were made between 1986 and 1993 by other companies in Brasil, with various updates and changes but hardly profitable. In 1995 Ford bought the rights to the Puma name since they liked it for their own little Fiesta-based and German build sportscar that was introduced in 1997. A strange twist of events really since the Ford Puma didn't look anything like the Brazilian car and yet in concept it was remarkably the same: a 2-seater coupe based on humble, mass produced technology. South Africa is the place where the original Puma GT, more or less, still survives. There were a few short lived production runs since 1973 but apparently since 2009 the Puma GT, its body slightly contorted to fit on a Beetle floorpan, is in production in Pretoria.
Rino Malzoni's vision almost 50 years ago of a sportscar made in Brasil was a strong one. It lead to a car that still seduces enthusiasts all over the world until this day, just by sheer presence. The Puma GT wasn't remarkably fast or competitive but did trigger the right emotions which made it a success and a timeless classic that isn't only valued in Brasil but has fans everywhere. Although it competed against their own products, like the VW SP2, even Volkswagen has acknowledged the importance of the Puma GT and added a few to its factory museum Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany, like the crisp spyder shown here.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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