Where a '74 Impala Is King of the Road; Old
Gas-Guzzlers Ply Venezuela, a Land of Cheap Fuel and Scarce Money
by Diana Jean Schemo (International Herald Tribune,
When Salomon Romero bought his Chevy Malibu 22 years ago, it
must have been a beautiful moment.
Back in 1974, Venezuela was flush with oil money and gasoline
flowed as easy and cheap as water. Venezuelans on shopping sprees
in Miami were nicknamed damedos, or "give me two's." American
cars - big, sturdy and unabashedly gas-guzzling - were the
country's badge of opulence.
In all but the wealthiest neighborhoods or towns, streets are
filled with the six- or eight-cylinder workhorses sold here by
U.S. auto manufacturers. For America's gas crisis was Venezuela's
oil boom. While big cars became the dinosaurs of Detroit, here
they were embraced.
But if Mr. Romero imagined that many new cars would follow the
Malibu, he was wrong. The moneyed days of the 1970s proved a
brief flash of plenty that would disappear quickly. What would be
left, other than the memories, would be the cars that wouldn't
die: fleets of Caprices and Valiants and El Dorados chugging
These days, Mr. Romero uses wires, paste and screws to patch
the bits of his car that give out and finds ingenious uses for
whatever is beyond repair.
A metal brace fastened inside the door jamb and running the
width of the car props up the front seat, while the
air-conditioning vents hold pens and disposable razors. A switch,
instead of a key, turns on the ignition. There is something sad
about the legions of old cars that were considered luxuries when
they were new. Their bodies are rusted bare in spots, their hoods
held down by string. To cut down glare, many have a dark purple
film over the windows, with only a mask-like space left clear
across the windshield.
With the profusion of outsized cars and the difficulty of
affording a smaller, sporty model has come junker mystique. Their
drivers say that big cars are safer and more powerful and that
parts are cheaper.
Besides, added Cruz Urbano, who drives a 1982 Chevrolet
Caprice in Porto Ordaz, "only women like smaller cars."
Most prominent among the arguments for ample metal is that as
long as there are so many big cars on the road, it would be
suicidal to drive anything smaller.
"Those Japanese cars look like they're disposable," said Juan
Fernandez Veiga, a car dealer here. "One little knock and they're
Francisco Gomez Oseja, 61, a taxi driver here, said the hills
around Caracas required a strong car. "If you have a small
four-cylinder you can't do it."
A few years ago, the government subsidized the purchase of
small, fuel-efficient taxis in Caracas, he said. "You don't even
see those cars on the street any more," Mr. Gomez said.
Manoel Areilo, 23, a taxi driver in the gold-mining town of
Tumeremo, said that because of the size of his 1980 Impala he did
not worry much about the broken seat belts.
"Nothing can happen to you," he said confidently. "We're
inside the car. " His odometer, at 83,499 kilometers (51,885
miles), was still spinning. Asked how many times it had started
back at zero, the driver's hand went hypnotically round and
Despite their age, Mr. Areilo added, the cars are subject to
rigorous annual inspections. "They even inspect the paint," he
insisted. A raised eyebrow and a yank of the dangling seat belt
sufficed for him to reconsider. "Really, they're just checking
for stolen cars," he conceded.
Alberto Fernandez, a taxi driver in Caracas, said passengers
preferred big cars. "You really only need a taxi for three
reasons," he said. "In an emergency, to carry things and to get
to the airport. For all those times, it's better to have a big
Mr. Fernandez stood by an unusually neat taxi stand in the
upper-middle- class neighborhood of La Florida, where a row of
taxis, clean and polished, demonstrated the importance of fine
maintenance. His was the 1979 gray Malibu. "Look how many are
still on the road," he said. "I'm lucky to have it." Just then
three gleaming Malibus rolled down the street.
"It's not the year of the car that matters, it's the person
who owns it," he said.
But even the drivers of the biggest cars dream small. A Toyota
Corolla is considered the luxury car of the moment, though few
here can afford a new Japanese import. "I hear that it has good
pickup and takes curves really well," Mr. Urbano said.
The popularity of big cars, said German Perez, president of
the Automotive Chamber of Venezuela, an industry trade group, is
not esthetic or even muscular. "It doesn't have to do with
cylinders or models," he said. "The problem is the economic
crisis and the standard of living."
The owners of big old cars say they could never buy something
new, or even smaller, with the price they would get.
Mr. Veiga, the car dealer, noted that an old car in reasonable
shape brings about $3,000, while the cheapest Fiat compact costs
more than $8,000 new. There are no popular finance plans or
reasonable interest rates for buying a new car. And gas, even
with a major increase last spring, is still 10 cents a gallon
That is why there will always be a solution, however inspired
or doomed, to an aging car's latest ailment. For old cars may
choke and sputter, but they seldom die.