This Brazilian-Built Puma GT Is A Unique Factory Build That’s Stayed With One Family
Photography by Alvaro Pinzón
I recently took a look at a very nicely restored Volkswagen SP2 in my quest to explore the cars that are unique to Brazil, and today I’m here to share my experience with a Puma. Perhaps the second most well-known classic from the country after the low-slung SP2, the Brazilian line of Puma sports cars are the most successful ever produced here. I was looking for a GT Malzoni or an early Puma GT model for my piece on the Puma, and I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Ricardo Prado, who owns one of the most unique examples of the car.
Before going into his though, let’s take a moment to look at how it came to be. The roots of Brazil’s most successful sports car date back to 1964, when Genaro “Rino” Malzoni—an Italian-born car enthusiast, former lawyer, and owner of a sugarcane plantation—started a project building a sports car with a body made in metal and an engine out of a DKW (part of Auto Union, which later became Audi). The so-called Malzoni GT made an impressions thanks to its bodywork and relative reliability in racing environments, and soon after the first car, three more cars were made in metal and caught the attention of VEMAG, the company building DKWs in Brazil. VEMAG bought a couple of the first Malzoni-built cars models and raced them in events like the 1000 Milhas Brasileiras.
Soon after finding success in those competitions, VEMAG commissioned a new version using fiberglass, making it even lighter and more successful in competition. In that year, two versions were made; one with a spartan interior intended for racing, and a “luxury” version with all the available accessories. During the period of 1965 to 1966, around 45 Malzoni GTs were built.
By 1966 an updated model was released under Malzoni’s supervision with the help of the designer Anísio Campos and Jorge Letry, and the name of the company was changed to Puma, and the new Puma GT rectified the structural and styling downsides of the early iterations of the GT. The new car kept the same two-stroke three-cylinder though, with 981cc and 50hp available from the DKW engine. For its time it was impressive enough though, especially compared with the VW boxer engines that had a larger displacement of 1200cc and was only capable of making 36hp.
By 1967, approximately 120 Pumas GTs were made, and it was also the end of the use of the DKW engines, as the VW Group bought VEMAG-DKW, and the design of the Puma was adapted to use VW engines and the Karmann structural base.
As 1968 arrived after the end of the DKW-era Pumas, our story with this particular car becomes interesting. According to Ricardo, his father, who was the general manager of the production at VEMAG, decided to make a project car of his own, building his unique vision of the DKW Puma GT out of the last remaining DKW parts at VEMAG before the switch to VW. As we were going for a drive in the car, Ricardo told me some more details about the car’s interesting background.
Alvaro Pinzón: What a cool project for you dad to do, can you tell me more about how that happened?
Ricardo Prado: Of course! So by the time the Puma GT was a successful and desirable sports car here, the model was awarded as the best and most beautiful Brazilian car design in the words of Nuccio Bertone in the magazine Quatro Rodas. My father, working at VEMAG, wanted to have his own Puma, but he wanted it to be to his taste, to insert his own touches with a few quasi-“factory” modifications.
The old DKW assembly line was being dismantled at the time, and in order for my father to get the main parts he needed at a low cost, a DKW chassis with no mileage on it was purchased from the factory. That chassis was previously used for the factory mechanics’ instructional courses, and when my father got it the gearbox, rear axle, rear brakes, semi-axles, springs, etc. in this chassis were duly revised or upgraded, and in the gearbox he added a longer final ratio than the normal DKW’s came with.
AP: Please, go on.
RP: Then another “naked” chassis was purchased from Puma, already cut for the necessary Puma trim and with modifications requested by my father like reinforcements on the rear bridge, additional center ribs and central bracket for attaching the handbrake mechanism that would be in the center of the seats as in the VW, and not under the dashboard as in the other DKW Pumas.
The engine was chosen among several after dynamometer tests in the factory, and the cylinders were worked, the head got some attention too, all equalized and ported, all inside VEMAG itself, but only for my father’s car. The steering box was also been changed in the factory for a quicker ratio unit fit for more sporting use cases, and then he purchased a pair of special distributors with harmonic and logical vibrator pulleys, and then moving outside the engine bay he put ATE disc brakes on his Puma, which were imported by VEMAG as factory options.
With the arrival of all the pieces, the new chassis was assembled and sent to Puma Veículos e Motores Ltda. where it was paired with the last manufactured body remaining, all of this already in 1968.
AP: Were you with your father as all of this was going on? Did you care much back then?
RP: Yeah I was around, and I still remember the assembly of the car, it was totally done by hand, the only one in the production line at that point, just sharing the place with the chassis of the first VW-era Puma that would turn into the prototype for the new Pumas. I was nine years old then, and every Saturday I went with my father to accompany the assembly process.
All the details were then made according to his preferences, such as the special panel with seven instruments, the special middle console, the handbrake between the seats, interior air vents like those on the DKW Fissore, loop carpet like you’d find in a Galaxie, ATE Lockheed disc brakes, the competition-type distributor, the steering ratio, the wheel, and a few other details I’m forgetting.
The car left the factory as the last DKW Puma GT, and it’s a very unique build that is properly stamped and in the registries as a series car, not a custom garage build.
AP: And this car stayed exactly like that, and in your family for the past 50 years?
Ricardo: Yes, it’s been almost exactly 50 years. After running more than 300,000km, the car still remains original where it counts mechanically, including the engine block, exhaust, etc. and it has not undergone any changes to the mechanicals in 50 years apart from fluids and other consumables.
In 1976, when I turned 18 and entered the Faculty of Engineering, I received the car as a gift along with the financial support for a restoration. And in 1990, I made another restoration, and since then the car has been used frequently in regularity rallies, classic car track days, exhibitions, so on and so forth. It’s a car that’s been enjoyed for the past five decades and counting.