Romi-Isetta, 65: why the first national car was brief and wronged – 05/09/2021

(SÃO PAULO)Although Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, among others, were already installed in Brazil importing or assembling vehicles, the first national car produced in series was born from a lathe manufacturer headquartered in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, in the interior of São Paulo.

On September 5, 1956, Máquinas Agrícolas Romi (later Indústrias Romi) launched the Romi-Isetta with pomp and circumstance: a convoy of 12 of them sewed downtown São Paulo before receiving the blessing of Cardinal Dom. Carlos Carmelo Motta, at the Episcopal Palace, and then present himself to Jânio Quadros at the Campos Elíseos Palace, then seat of government.

Romi-Isetta Jânio - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center

Romi-Isetta is presented to the governor of São Paulo, Jânio Quadros

Image: Romi Foundation – Documentation Center

Conceived by aircraft designer Ermenegildo Pretti and unveiled at the 1953 Turin Motor Show, the Isetta was Italian Iso Autoveicoli’s bet for urban mobility in the post-European War.

Carreata Romi-Isetta 2 - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center

Launch of Romi-Isetta had a motorcade through the center of São Paulo

Image: Romi Foundation – Documentation Center

After two copies were brought to Brazil for testing, negotiations began on license and royalty rights between Romi and Renzo Rivolta, owner of Iso. Engine and gear were imported, but other parts came from 60 local suppliers. The first car was ready on June 30, 1956, with 72% nationalization.

Romi-Isetta Assembly - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center

Assembly of the Romi-Isetta in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste (SP)

Image: Romi Foundation – Documentation Center

At first, it was driven by a 236 cm3 twin-cylinder engine with 9.6 hp. But starting in 1959, he took over a 289 cm3 and 13 hp single-cylinder from BMW, which four years earlier had bought the manufacturing rights from Iso to have its own Isetta.

BMW Isetta - Press Release - Press Release

BMW Isetta 250

Image: Disclosure

The Romi-Isetta’s sights pointed to the Volkswagen Beetle: costing Cr$370,000, it was more affordable than VW’s rival, which started at Cr$540,000 – or 38 and 56 minimum wages at the time, respectively.

Romi’s plans were bold and included a partnership with BMW to grow the family with two pickup trucks, a van and a four-passenger model. At the last minute, the German manufacturer gave up, as it was still facing the hardships resulting from the Second World War.

Right off the bat, the cart was a hit with the artistic class. However, his most famous moment was perhaps during the National Integration Caravan, an event that marked the inauguration of Brasília in 1960 – the then President of the Republic Juscelino Kubitschek paraded through the Esplanada dos Ministérios in a Romi-Isetta.

Juscelino Romi - Brasília Agency / publicity - Brasília Agency / publicity
Image: Brasília Agency / publicity

Too bad the end came soon after. “At that time, the cities did not have mobility problems and gasoline was cheap. The advantages offered by our car still did not sensitize the public”, assesses Eugênio Chiti, son of Carlos Chiti, who is the stepson of Américo Emílio Romi, founder of the company .

On April 13, 1961, after about 3,000 units had been built, the friendliest car of the time, perhaps too far ahead of its time, was produced for the last time.

Today, the approximately 350 copies that are still running are dealing with an injustice. In the same year that Romi-Isetta was born, the Executive Group of the Automobile Industry (GEIA) was also created, an organization created by JK to stimulate and guide the Brazilian automobile industry.

And that became the pivot of a stir that lasts until today: who is, after all, the first national car, Romi-Isetta or DKW-Vemag?

This is because the decree 41,018, presented by GEIA on February 26, 1957, in summary says that “passenger cars, for the purposes of this decree, are commercially designated four-wheel vehicles, intended for the transport of personnel, with normal capacity for a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 7 passengers, including the driver”.

Romi-Isetta - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center
Image: Romi Foundation – Documentation Center

As noted, the Romi-Isetta is capable of carrying only two occupants. However, with 72% of parts manufactured locally, it met an item more connected to the intention of nationalizing the Brazilian industry, as determined in Article 4:

“The national production of passenger cars must reach, by the dates set forth in this article, the following levels of achievement, indicated as a percentage by weight of the parts manufactured in the country: July 1, 1957 – 50%, July 1, 1958 – 65% , July 1, 1959 – 85%, July 1, 1960 – 95%”.

Launched on November 19, 1956, the DKW-Vemag Universal was (initially) 54% of its weight made up of national parts and could hold four passengers – hence some consider it the first.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Historical Documentation Center – CEDOC of the Romi Foundation set up an exhibition on Avenida João Ometto, in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste – where technical drawings of the car (many in Italian) are revealed for the first time.

Exhibition Romi-Isetta - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center - Romi Foundation - Documentation Center
Image: Romi Foundation – Documentation Center