Featured: The Medellín Concours d'Elegance Is A View Into Colombia's Earliest Automobiles

The Medellín Concours d’Elegance Is A View Into Colombia’s Earliest Automobiles

By Alvaro Colombiano
June 7, 2017

Since its inception over a century ago, the automobile has left an indelible mark on countries and cultures in every corner of the world. In Colombia, this began as early as 1899, when Carlos Coriolano, a very rich and very visionary man who lived in the flourishing society “Valle de Aburrá” which is now known as the city of Medellín, began importing rare and at-the-time lavish machinery capable of bringing people more rapidly from A to B than simple human ambulation. His dream was that one day these cars would propel people and their dreams on a larger scale. He wanted to utilize this great invention for both pleasure and work alike, and he was the first in the country to own a car. 

The people of Colombia marveled at the magical advancement in technology. At the time cars were still configured in “vis-à-vis” layout, with the passengers facing each other as the small gasoline motor propelled them along. Visibility was not such a key factor when traveling at 1900s speeds. Coriolano’s favorite car featured a whopping 3.5 horsepower single piston engine produced by the successful French manufacturer De Dion-Bouton, and this model was very similar to the first car in the country, though it is disputed as to who was truly the first to import such a machine.

Back then, it’s likely that no one could have imagined the level of today’s enthusiast culture surrounding the automobile. And similarly, looking from modern time back to then, it is difficult to grasp the role of the very first cars. Now, these older cars are considered pieces of art instead of implement. They are objects of desire that inspire passion, and even as crazy as it sounds, they qualify for our emotional consideration to become “part of the family.” What other object has had such importance ascribed to it?

The passion for the cars of old has continually risen to new heights in Colombia; every year in this country, more and more events and gatherings celebrating the car as an important part of our history and culture take place.

The foundation El Museo del Transporte recently gathered a slice of 50 of the best pre- and post-war cars, which they call “Autos Pioneros” or “pioneering cars” from around the country. Though I typically prefer cars from the ‘60s-‘90s era, I was curious as to what the earlier history of the automobile looked like in my country, so I set off to find so let’s see what we found.

In Colombia, most of the very early influential cars came from the American manufacturers industry, as was the typical case in many parts of the world in the beginning of the 20th century. The majority of the cars in the Medellín Concours were Fords and Chevrolets from the ’20s and ‘30s. As you see, the majority of these models arrived here configured as pickups, a layout required for the agricultural labors demanded of the machines in that time. Though they were often workhorses employed in grueling labor, the cars and trucks were still only accessible to the wealthiest people in town, who would buy them for use in their industrial pursuits and leisure alike.

As I start to talk with the owner of a car, the important thing for me is to discover the story between the owner and his or her machine, no matter the rarity, price, or condition. For me, and I think many of us who read Petrolicious will agree, it is these human stories intertwined with the cars that are the most compelling tales. Seeing somebody’s emotion as they reminisce or excitedly plan for the next step in his or her relationship with these machines is what I try to find at places like this. No matter if it’s one sole year of ownership so far, or a century of family history. The stories come from the roads traveled, the incredible experiences that accompany the car and driver combination.  After all, trying to find the joy in these machines is what we all pursue as individual car enthusiasts, and that’s also what brings us together.

When you see a car, it will sometimes tell you its history in its patina or its restored gleam, but there is often much more than meets the eye. Everything on the lawn had a story to tell of course, but I found a few that were particularly interesting.

One car that caught my attention was this Depression-era Packard pictured above, with its eight-cylinder lump under the long hood. Back then, as now, it wasn’t a car for the masses. According to the owner, it was imported by the local Catholic diocese, and it was driven around in Medellín for 10 to 20 years until it was abandoned for nearly four decades in a barn beside a gas station. The car was used as a deposit bay of sorts, a simple receptacle for storing oil containers and other items for the station. Its current owner found it in this state and went about restoring the Packard to its former glory; a process that lasted nearly 20 years! It’s an incredible sight to see. The car still shows its signs of abuse in the wooden floor, which is stained by the oil that leaked during its time as a storage unit. Then again, the car was also very well preserved in some spots—you can see it in some unmolested details like the badges adorning the expansive trunk.

Another interesting story came from from the above pictured 1935 Buick Series 60 Phaeton. Found abandoned in a small, quiet town, it was perfectly restored by local artisans pitching in to bring back its original luster and poise. Their is a similar story attached to the Rolls Royce Silver Wraith from 1949, shown below, albeit in a different setting; when talking with the owner of that car, he told me that had not spent its early years in Colombia, and in fact was imported to the country in the early 2000s for a complete restoration. This example, in particular, is said to belong to an important inventor of an airborne refueling method during the second World War. Also, it was one of the few Silver Wraiths ordered with a shorter wheelbase, and its bodywork is made out of aluminum panels covering the wooden inner structure. It is said to be one of only a handful like it around the world.

With an increasing interest in the classics, Colombia is becoming an fascinating place to be a car enthusiast, with artisans and builders and mechanics and just plain old car fans pursuing  the preservation of these vintage machines, what does the next 100 years hold for the history of the automobile in Colombia? Just as the people seeing the first non-horse-powered carriage, we can’t begin to fathom what a century of progress might look like, but we can’t wait for whatever’s in store. We can only hope that the next generations share our passion for the cars of yesterday.

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mohd rao
4 years ago

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Andrew Gilmore
Andrew Gilmore
7 years ago

Great article on a seldom thought of car culture. I think we tend to think of “car Cultures” only in terms of what occurs in the US or Europe and neglect to consider that the automobile is a worldwide phenomenon. Thank you for sharing the perspective form another part of the globe.

Felipe carvajal
Felipe carvajal
7 years ago

An exquisite article with goergeous photography! Keep up with that excellent story telling of Colombian car heritage

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