The exciting story of Portugal's automobiles
Racing cars, 4x4s, supercars, great race tracks - Portugal holds a secretive and special place in automotive history
Driven by racing
The 2021 F1 Portugal GP in Portimao may be in the past, but this beautiful track will remain in history as the one loved by almost all drivers and described as properly challenging. So what is the history of the cars, engineered and built in Portugal?
It's actually quite extensive, although most people don't drive Portuguese cars these days. And it started with a small, lightweight V8 sports car called Edfor Grand Sport in 1937. It was created by Eduardo Ferreirinha, a racing driver and mechanic in the 20s and 30s. During the 30s, Eduardo worked with his brother Jorge at the "Irmãos Ferreirinha" shop. Together they transformed Ford vehicles into race cars, which became popular with Portuguese racers. Modifications varied from a lowered chassis to custom bodies to engine changes. The shop also designed and built suspension and engine parts, including their own trademark - Ferreirinha Pistons. The car had a Ford-based 3.6L V8 with 90 hp and some features well ahead of their time, like shock absorbers adjustable from the dashboard, front suspensions with adjustable helical springs, fin-cooled brake drums and a body that was tipping the scales at just 970 kilos. It had a top speed of 160 km/h.
One of the shop's first prototype race cars was a modified Ford Model A called the "Ferreirinha Especial". Eduardo's experience with Ford products led to a partnership between their company "Ed Ferreirinha & Irmão" (EFI) and the largest Ford dealership in Porto - Manuel Menéres. The partnership sought to promote racing in Portugal.
Edfor Grand Sport (1937) - Credit: CarThrottle
Sparking national debate
Years earlier, a media debate has been started by the "O Volante" magazine with many articles and interviews concerning the creation of a Portuguese automotive brand. In 1937, the announcement of the Edfor was a surprise. Finally, there was an automobile that was designed and had a large number of parts built in Portugal. But after the presentation of the Edfor at the Porto auto show, there was little to no press follow-up. This completely destroyed the sales momentum that had been previously building.
With the beginning of the WW2, Ferreirinha's dream of building a production series came to an abrupt end. Only four were ever made, only two were registered and survived - one in Germany and the other, still with Ferreirinha's family, and often being shown on various exhibitions to this day.
Rise of the racing culture
Even with the media blackout, Eduardo Ferreirinha has made an impact and inspired people in Portugal to embrace the racing culture. The next to jump on that train was Mário Moreira Leite, who in 1950 presented the Marlei car. Partly following the example of the Edfor, it was very light, but it ditched the V8 for a much smaller 1.6L inline four engine, producing only around 48 hp. And it was still fast with a top speed of 160 km/h. Curiously, it used the platform of the Opel Olympia Caravan, which was a much bigger estate car with no sporting credentials whatsoever.
Marlei car - Credit: Clube Fiat Portugal
Keeping with the trends
Then in 1952, the Alba racing car was born. It was created by António Augusto Martins Pereira in 1952. It is disputed whether three or four copies of the Albas were built. The name of the car actually came from the manufacturing site - Albergaria-a-Velha metallurgical factory. Keeping in touch with the trends of the time, the Alba was very light and agile. It was powered by a 1.5L inline-4 engine that produced 90 hp and it had a 4 speed manual transmission. And this Portuguese racer was properly fast, capable of reaching a top speed of 200 km/h. It even earned some racing credentials, as it appeared in multiple competitions. Nowadays one is a museum exhibit in Portugal and is being paraded from time to time. Recently the car even entered a classic cars showdown.
The unicorn racer
Built by Dionísio Mateus in 1952 the DM was a racing car powered by a 1.1L inline-4 that produced 65 hp. And it was a real featherweight at just 500 kilos! It could reach a top speed of 170 km/h. The DM was manufactured in the Federal Auto facilities. They were produced 7 different bodies, one of which survives as a museum piece. Unfortunately, not much more is known about the car.
The favourite child
The Olda was a yet another racing car built in 1954. It used the platform of the Fiat 1100 and its 1.5L inline-4 engine as well which produced 80 hp, it also had a 4-speed manual transmission, while keeping the weight down to 500 kilos and it could reach a top speed of around 165 km/h. The Olda from Agueda quickly earned the role of a favourite at the races, not only because of the quality of the project and the excellent driving of Joaquim Correia de Oliveira, who was the driver and the mechanic, but also because of Angelo Costa, responsible for preparing the engines. One Olda survives today in a Portuguese museum.
Olda racing car - Credit: Clube Fiat Portugal
For the masses
The AGP IPA 300 was presented at the Portuguese Industries Fair of 1958 with the goal of being an affordable transportation solution for the common people. It was a city-friendly 2-door coupe with a small air-cooled engine, mounted in the rear. The tiny power-plant was a British Anzani 300cc two-stroke 2-cylinder engine which produced a whooping 15 hp! Yet the car was so light at 390 kilos that it was capable of maxing out at an impressive 85 km/h with two passengers and a full tank of fuel.
The IPA 300 was the brainchild of João Monteiro Conceição, who had an encounter in 1954 with another contemporary vehicle of the same kind (A.G.B. Lusito) that had broken down during its testing and ended up in his repair shop, and decided he should have a go on trying to perfect that same principle, to create a true popular automobile. For that, the car needed a more powerful and elastic engine. He was also aiming for a more fluid and curvaceous styling, leaving the dated boxy look behind.
It was never mass produced for the most hilarious reason ever! The manufacturer was searching for state support, having presented the model personally to then President General Craveiro Lopes and a President-to-be Marcelo Caetano, and receiving their initial approval. But when the Secretary of Industry inspected the vehicle, it turned out he was tall enough to actually been unable to fit inside! He was so disappointed that he never approved any state-financing to be put forward for production.
Civil services, utility and . . racing
In the beginning of the 70s there was a sharp increase in demand for civil service vehicle and a previously unknown in the automotive world metal works factory decided to capitalise on that. The União Metalo-Mecânica (UMM) hired the french engineers from SIMI to design an agricultural 4x4 that was aiming towards increased mobility in rural parts of Portugal. This was how UMM Cournil and the later model Alter were born. Both were so well thought out that they quickly gained more ground as a fire engines, ambulances and one even ended up as a Pope-mobile for Pope John Paul II. But that was not all.
They became known for their durability, especially when in the Paris-Dakar rally the team was able to finish with all the cars that started, proving once again the racing DNA in their Portuguese heritage. Many UMMs are still in use by utilities in Spain, Portugal, Cape Verde (in use by the national army) and France, and also by the "Guarda Nacional Republicana" (Portuguese Gendarmerie), fire service and military, although the majority of their customers were private individuals. Around 700 UMMs are still in service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire). They are also popular in Angola.
It's quite similar story with Portaro - another Portuguese brand that actually managed get some love from the government, but which deserves a separate article!
The Portuguese Peel P50
The Sado 550 was created by the company Entreposto in 1982 and it was like an 80s Portuguese version of the SmartForTwo, although it looks more related to the legendary Peel P50. It was powered by a 550cc 2-cylinder Daihatsu engine that produced 28 hp, connected to a 4-speed manual transmission and it was a very light at just 480 kilos. So despite the lack of power it was capable of hitting a top speed of 120 km/h. Just imagine going so fast in this thing...! It was in production for two years, around 500 little machines were ever made and very few are surviving today. Shame! It was a properly mental ride!
Oh wait! There's also a supercar!
Vinci GT is a Portuguese supercar project, that officially has not been scratched just yet. In 2007 the brand announced the first vehicle. The design was inspired by the cars heritage of the 60s and 70s. The car is equipped with the GM LS engine, the same as the Chevrolet Corvette. The rest of car was claimed to be a product of Portuguese engineering, although some doubts still exists about that. The concept has been produced in collaboration with brands like UMM and Bravia (builder of military armoured vehicles). The brand, Vinci, is also developing other models like Vinci Sport, Vinci TT (from the Portuguese "Todo-o-terreno" All Terrain) and Vinci Eco (a 'nature-friendly' car). The company wants to forget less successful Portuguese experiences in the automotive industry, such as UMM and Bravia, and instead follow the example of AJP, a Portuguese builder of motorcycles. There's a lot more to talk about, but this particular car deserves a separate article!
What happened then?
As it often happens with a lot of things in life - support can mean everything. Unfortunately almost none of the manufacturers in Portugal had received any government support at any point in time. With the lack of additional tax benefits or government investments, nearly every Portuguese project was doomed from the beginning. It's a sad ending for this article, especially considering the early development of a motorsport culture and today's aspirations for the return of this competitive spirit with some excellent recently built circuits, such as Portimao. It's a hint that the Portugal's racing car heritage is alive and well. And people should embrace it, to lead them into a future - full of well engineered racing cars, popular drivers and a desire to win. Much like their past.