In 1958, João Augusto Conrado do Amaral Gurgel had ten thousand dollars, a load of ideas and bucket load of people who were desperate to work with him.
He handed in his resignation at Ford do Brasil, the Brazilian subsidiary of auto giants Ford, and set to work on great plans of his own. Whilst Gurgel was a student at the University of Sao Paulo, he had dreamed of making Brazilian cars, and against all odds, he managed.
It was a process that took over thirty years, but he created honest domestic vehicles with innovative ideas that he the bought patents to. At one point, Gurgel was estimated to be worth about £55million. Not bad, considering his cars were made from plastic.
Well, fibreglass to be exact. Fibreglass' technical name is glass-reinforced plastic, and due to it's light weight and high strength, it is a common material used in the product of cars, boats, aeroplanes, water tanks and surfboards. The plastic and glass is woven into a mat, and is considered to be a cheaper alternative to carbon fiber.
Vehicle plastic recycling... Fibreglass?
We love to talk about vehicle plastic recycling, so it's perhaps a strange example to use vehicles made out of fibreglass, as it is difficult to recycle. The reason for this is that there are two broad types of plastic, thermoplastic and thermoset. A thermoplastic can be shaped and molded when heated, a thermoset plastic cannot, and this is due to a treatment performed at the production stage. You may think it's no good making plastic that can't be recycled, but consider domestic plug sockets, they use thermoset plastics so that they don't melt when overheated, and that's deliberate, for your safety. Fibreglass is a thermoset plastic.
Until only a few years ago, fibreglass was not being recycled, as it cannot be broken down and used for it's plastic parts. Fortunately, it has now found a home in the cement industry, being ground down and mixed in with bags of cement powder.
Back in Gurgel's day, the fibreglass was definitely not being recycled, though in Brazil, nor was much else. That's different nowadays; for at least the last decade Brazil has boasted the highest aluminium recycling rates in the world. Sadly though, Joã
o Gurgel is no longer with us, having died from Alzheimer's Disease in 2009. His cars live on though.
Only 4,000 BR-800s ever made...
Brazil's first domestically designed car, the BR-800 (see left, fitted with a VW engine) is still on the roads of Brazil now, but it won't be forever, as Gurgel went bankrupt in 1995. His debt was so astronomical that his assets only managed to pay 3% of a USD $1.2 billion settlement. It was no great surprise that Gurgel went under, and that was due in part to the no guarantee loans he managed to acquire, refusing to take no for an answer when one bank would turn him away.
It's a shocking fact that only one of Gurgel's designs was a commercial success. When exported to Europe, the vehicle was named the 'Xavante X', but back in South America, it was known as the 'X12 TR'. We have managed to track down a photocopy of the bizarre Jeep-style vehicle's publicity brochure. Take a look below.
Aside from the success of the Xavante X, Gurgel's motors were hugely unpopular, with strange design details, bad paint jobs, low quality materials and better alternatives at a lower price. They are becoming a collector's item in Brazil though, with many of their parts being interchangeable with Volkswagen. That means they are easier to restore, so in a way, they are still somewhat useful for vehicle plastic recycling, though they remain far less powerful, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing than their German counterparts.
We'd love to say that vehicle plastic recycling was implemented in the design of Gurgel's motor's, but it would be a lie. One of the only things that is re-used is the fond words spoken of Joã
o Gurgel. Despite a huge debt, many unpaid workers and suppliers, and a poorly designed fleet of vehicles, Gurgel was a national hero for designing the first Brazilian car, and was flattered by the press for over twenty years. His supporters suggested that politicians forced him into bankruptcy and he faced more hurdles than gates, not receiving the support he should have.
Thinking of 'O Futuro'...
In 1974, Gurgel designed and released an electric car made out of plastic, called the Itaipu (see right). This kind of progressive thinking led the way for many modern low-emission vehicles. The top speed was just over 30mph, it had a range of 60 miles and 70% of the car's weight was made up of batteries. Gurgel convinced local government to grant free parking to the electric cars, in a move that has been replicated in modern times. The ideas to install charging stations and owner's homes and workplaces is also mimicked by modern government schemes for electric car owners. The Itaipu was the cheapest car on the Brazilian market, and they said in a press release that as the Itaipu became more popular, they would lower the price. Sadly though, only 20 were ever made, as the vehicle failed many tests and never truly made it past the prototype stage. Would you buy one?
Despite being a terrible money man, and not the most aesthetically pleasing car designer, Gurgel was a man of the people, and remembered fondly. In 2014, Joã
o Augusto Conrado do Amaral Gurgel's cars live on, in members clubs not just in Brazil, but worldwide.