It’s not often we here at Drive find ourselves stumped when it comes to things automotive. But that’s exactly what happened last week when both content boss James Ward and I happened across – independently of each other, I should add – the delight that is the Brazilian carmaker, Gurgel.
‘Wardy’ crossed paths with the quirky Gurgel brand via Pinterest while I came across a story by our friends at The Autopian. No matter the genesis of our curiosity, consider it well piqued, fitting of a short exploration worth sharing here.
Gurgel, named for its Brazilian founder João do Amaral Gurgel, made cars for the Brazilian domestic market between 1969 and 1994. The recipe was simple. At first.
Take the chassis and running gear from a Volkswagen Beetle and plonk a new fibreglass body on top.
The first car from the newly-formed brand, the Ipanema, was little more than a beach buggy, built on a VW Beetle platform, and derived from the earlier Macan Gurgel 1200, designed by João Gurgel when he was partner in Macan Industria e Comercio.
The Ipanema found favour with farmers in Brazil, who used the buggy as paddock bashers, much to the chagrin of Gurgel who abandoned the VW Beetle-based business model, focusing his energies instead on an in-house chassis constructed of a blend of fibreglass and steel, dubbed Plasteel, a manufacturing and engineering innovation patented by Gurgel.
The first car utilising Gurgel’s revolutionary construction was the Xavante, also called the X-10. Praised for its robustness, the Xavante, while still basically a buggy, set the tone for the design language of Gurgel.
Straight edges and sharp angles defined the Xavante, with nary a curve in sight. It would prove a theme throughout the company’s 25-year history. As our selection of favourites shows, each successive model was more angular and straight-edged than the previous one. Down with French Curves. Long live the T-square.
The first car built on Gurgel’s patented Plasteel framework with Volkswagen Beetle running gear, the small off-roader remained in production through three generations – X-10, X-11 and X-12 – well into the 1980s.
The robust soft-roader featured a distinctive and rudimentary, yet effective, manual slip-diff. Twin handbrake levers inside the cabin operated the brakes on each rear wheel individually. In low-traction environments, the driver could use the handbrake to ‘lock’ which ever wheel lacked traction, thus apportioning engine power to the wheel with the most grip. Gurgel dubbed the system Selectraction.
A car ahead of its time, 1973’s battery-electric Itaipu remains the only electric car ever produced in Brazil. With a range of around 60-80km – and a top speed of 30km/h – the little two-seater was slated for production in 1975.
But, stymied by rudimentary battery technology of the era, the Itaipu (below) never got past the prototype stage. Around 20 pre-production cars are believed to have been built and remain highly-sought after today.
Thanks to Brazil’s ban on imported vehicles between 1975-90, the Carajas enjoyed an astonishing 75 per cent of the large SUV market.
In production from 1984 to 1991, the two-wheel drive only Carajas was available with a choice of three engines – a 1.8-litre petrol, 1.8-litre ethanol or 1.6-litre diesel – and either in short wheelbase two-door trim or the longer wheelbase with four doors. The bonnet-mounted spare wheel was just icing on the cake.
But, sadly for Gurgel, the end of the ban on importation in 1990 signalled the end of the line for the Carajas, supplanted at the top of the sales chart by the Lada Niva. Boo!
As The Autopian pointed out recently, the G-15, a Volkswagen-based utility vehicle could easily be considered the progenitor to Tesla’s Cybertruck. Its raked and angular design bears more than a passing resemblance to Palo Alto’s creation that came some 40-plus later.
And with variants ranging from a single-cab pick-up to a fully-enclosed ambulance or even a military assault vehicle, the G-15 was Brazil’s ultimate utility vehicle. The G-15 later evolved in the X-15, which featured among other things, an asymmetrical split windscreen. Love it.
The XEF was ground-breaking in that it blended city car dimensions with a sedan body shape, a single row of seats with seating for three.
Its compact dimensions ushered in a shape not dissimilar from a Mercedes-Benz SL coupe of the era. Whether by design, or by accident (and looking at the alloy wheels on the XEF, the chances of an ‘accidental’ similarity diminish) the result was a cute-as-all-get-out city car that nevertheless failed to excite Brazil’s buying public, the company producing around 140 XEFs before changing tack with the BR-800.
Shame really, as the Volkswagen air-cooled 1600cc engine under the bonnet made around 45kW while inside there was room for three people abreast in the front row – and only – row of seating. McLaren F1, eat your heart out.
With such a low production run, it’s unsurprising the XEF has become a highly-prized collector’s car, commanding around $R100,000 ($AU26,000) for examples in good condition.
It’s my personal favourite from this obscure Brazilian carmaker.
A city car in production from 1988 to 1992, the BR-800 was Gurgel’s vision for Brazil’s ‘national car’ and could only be purchased if the buyer also agreed to buy 750- shares in the Gurgel company. This effectively doubled the price of the BR-800 and with Brazil’s import ban ending in 1990, signalled its demise, the fully imported Chevrolet Chevrette undercutting Gurgel’s ‘national car’ by a significant margin.
Despite having the backing of Brazil’s then president, José Sarney, production of the BR-800 ended in 1992 with only around 4000 cars having been built. It was succeeded briefly by the Gurgel Supermini but by then, the manufacturer was in dire financial straits, the flood of cheaper and arguably better built imported cars crippling the Brazilian auto industry.
In 1994, and having built over 40,000 cars, Gurgel filed for bankruptcy, closing its doors at the end of the year. Sad face.
Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.