santa matilde
santa matilde

Forgotten — Brazil’s homegrown Santa Matilde

WHAT do you do if the government bans cars from being imported?

Humberto Fonseca pondered that for a while in the early 1970s, when Arab members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo against the United States in retaliation for the US supplying the Israeli military — and to gain leverage in post-war peace negotiations. 

It was to have global implications.

The embargo resulted in an upward spiral in oil prices with the price per barrel first doubling, then quadrupling and imposing skyrocketing costs on consumers and structural challenges to the stability of whole national economies. 

In Brazil, the government banned the import of cars and many industrial companies, among them, Companhia Industrial Santa Matilde, ran out of work. 

So owner Humberto figured it might be a good time to put his idle plant to use and invested in the production of a car to brighten the days of the motoring public. 

His daughter, Ana Lídia Pimentel Fonseca, designed a neat coupe and with the help of former pilot and racing car mechanic Renato Peixoto, they started the project. 

The first sketches appeared in 1976, the prototypes were completed and the cars were launched in 1977.

But the first cars had lots of problems so Humberto fired Peixoto and built a much better product under the supervision of Fernando Monnerat. 

With everything fixed, the quite classy and well-finished 2+2 coupe was re-launched — and lived on for the next 20 years.

The sleek Santa Matilde had a polyester-reinforced fiberglass body reinforced with polyester. 

In 1982, two Chevrolet-derived engines were available: a 4.1 straight six cylinder with 157kW, or a 2.5-litre four cylinder turbo which produced 104kW. 

The instrument panel is said to have resembled Porsches of the period and instrumentation included water temperature, oil pressure, speed, odometer, rev counter, fuel level and a clock. 

Central locking, power windows, and air conditioning were standard equipment and transmission was a four or five-speed manual. 

An unusual feature was retractable bumpers made of a rubber compound with steel frames.

Unlike most cars on sale in Brazil at the time, the Santa Matilde had disc brakes all-round.

It was a well respected car, but was never made in volume.

Limited resources restricted production to fewer than 900 in the Santa Matilde’s life.

A sedan joined the coupe from 1983 and a handful of convertibles appeared from 1984 to 1990.

The 1997 model had many modifications, among them new rear suspension and differential, and a digital instrument panel.

However, it was to be the car’s swan song after Humberto shut the gates on the plant that produced Brazil’s finest cars.

Few made it out of Brazil and the brand remains unknown to most of the world.

One, said to be in excellent condition, was sold in the US a few years ago for about $35,000 Australian.

Indications are only 884 were ever built, which must make the Brazilian beauty one of the rarest modern-day brands.


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