Juan Manuel Fangio’s Legendary Race Cars Are Socked Away In A Small Town In Argentina
Photography by Alvaro Pinzón
In San José de Balcarce, a little town near the Argentinian city of Mar del Plata, you’ll find a temple of motorsport history dedicated to one of the best racers in the world. I’m referring to the Juan M. Fangio Museum.
My visit to the museum gestated about a year ago while I was back in my home country of Colombia, thinking about the vintage sports car culture in South America, our racing history, and how to share that with the rest of then world. In the back of my head I knew there had to be plenty of people with stories to tell about Fangio, and I figured that a few of his cars probably remained here as well. Of course, the center of gravity for these things, if you will, is the official museum dedicated to the man’s racing career.
A few months later, I set off to see the place in person. Balcarce is where Fangio grew up and began his motorsports career—in other words, a fitting place for the museum. My route there wasn’t the easiest or most straightforward: it began with a seven-hour flight from Bogotá to Buenos Aires, then the following day a seven-hour train ride to Mar del Plata, and finally an hour-long bus ride to Balcarce! Indeed, a proper adventure already.
Upon going inside the building, one first encounters a great hall with a massive ramp that continues up to the fourth floor. The ground level is littered with all variety of racing car, like one of the the Torinos that raced for 84 hours on the Nürburgring during the Marathon de la Route. Next to that car is one of Fangio’s Mercedes, one of many of his Mercedes in fact, like the Celeste Blue one given to him as a gift. Mercedes also donated a number of other vehicles to the museum—not everything is Fangio-related—like the prototype race car they ran with Sauber called the C9, the car that dominated Group C racing in 1989. There was also a nice selection of F1 and F2 cars driven by South Americans, including some of Carlos Reutemann’s.
Further up the ramp I am met with one of the cars that Fangio drove during his last races in the Argentinian TC series, a ’39 Chevrolet Coupe. It was in this car that he competed in the Gran Premio de la América del Sur, a 9,500km race from Buenos Aires to Caracas, a race in which he crashed just outside of Lima, Peru, killing his copilot and nearly losing his own life. Near this car are more Chevrolets driven back when Fangio was still primarily racing on this continent, along with some of his rivals’ machines from that era, driven by people like Juan Gálvez and the Emilliozi brothers.
Going up another level we come across the Volpi pictured directly below, a formula-type car developed in Argentina that used a six-cylinder Chevrolet motor. Fangio used this car for the National GP in 1947 and 1948. Up here you will find a selection of cars from around the time when Fangio jumped the Atlantic to start racing in European series, one of the first being the #11 SIMCA Gordini 1430 that he ran at the circuit of Reims, in France.
Also on this floor are examples of cars that he drove in his Formula 1 days, like the Ferrari 125-166 run by the Argentinian team Aquiles Varzi in which he outdrove the factory team at the Monza GP in 1949. Also in Aquiles Varzi cars that season, like the Maserati 4CLT, he would win the GP of San Remo, of Pau, of Perpignan, and of Marseilles. The Ferrari 125-166 is accompanied by the Lancia Ferrari D50 in which Fangio won the 1956 F1 World Championship, and of course the beautiful Maserati 250F with which he won his 5th in 1957.
At this point I felt a bit overwhelmed by the history surrounding me and the ability to lean down into the very cockpits he sat in so many decades ago. To think of him in the period, jammed inside these monoposto machines, driving in such a way that everyone agrees no one will forget, it’s hard to view his tools—these exceptional cars—as the mere metal and leather and rubber that they are.
Exploring deeper into the second floor, I then entered a space where there were a few examples of the sports cars he drove in contrast to his Formula racers. These ranged from a Maserati 450S, a 300S, a Talbot-Lago Sport, and the Lancia D24 he raced in La Carrera Panamericana.
Though there were plenty that did, one car that caught my attention in particular up here was a beautiful SIMCA Gordini Berlinette, and the story goes that this car was offered to Fangio to drive in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans by the engineer himself, Gordini. Fangio and his talented co-driver and friend José Froilán González had engine problems and had to abandon the effort.
Another that stuck out to me was this beautiful Alfa Romeo 8C-308, owned by Fangio and raced by Juan Gálvez, it is one of the four originals produced in 1938. If the Alfas had their day in the Grand Prix limelight during the ‘30s though, Mercedes-Benz took the reigns after that. A testament to this resides at the museum in the form of Fangio’s Mercedes-Benz W196s. The car won the only two World Championship seasons it participated in—1954 and 1955—and Fangio drove both the streamlined and open-wheel variants of the car to great success, winning twice in the enclosed machine and capturing nine Grand Prix victories out of 14 starts with the monoposto car.
Of course these are just a few pieces of special metal filling up the museum, and if you don’t mind sitting on a long bus ride after a long flight, it’s somewhere I think every Fangio fan should visit. Then again, when you have someone as significant to the sport as he was, it should be on the bucket lists of anyone with even a passing interest in the history of motorsport.