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, 11/1/96)




    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

across Venezuela.



   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

finished."



   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

round.



   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

car."



   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

here.



   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.