Mick Walsh FROM THE COCKPIT / #Willys-Capeta
After almost 35 years involved with C&SC, I still relish discovering a photograph of an intriguing car that I don’t recognise. While recently digging through an Autocar file, an evocative #1965
shot caught my eye. The image of the #Willys
stand at the #São-Paulo-Motor-Show
captured crowds massed around a sleek coupé with a glamorous model in the driving seat. On the back, only the word ‘Capeta’ – a colloquial Portuguese term for ‘devil’ – gave a clue to its origins.
When this magazine was launched in 1982, the internet was the stuff of science fiction, so other than a team member’s chance knowledge or our well-thumbed Georgano encyclopaedia, it would have taken ages to discover what the mystery car was.
Now an online search will instantly relate its history, provide more pictures, and even connect you with a knowledgeable enthusiast somewhere around the world. It’s less challenging but ultimately more rewarding, as I learnt with the Capeta – a saga that involved secret development, styling by a young illustrator, murder, museum vandalism and a long legal battle.
Few know more about Brazilian sports cars than 24-year-old David Marques, who is fascinated by his country’s automotive history. “The Capeta, and the Uirapuru, were products of our major manufacturers,” enthuses Marques. “Both were born in the same optimistic 1960s that led to the rise of Puma, Brazil’s leading independent sports-car maker of the ’70s.”
The Capeta, codenamed #Project-213
, was the result of an intense 11-month challenge to produce a glamorous Gran Turismo for the South American division of Willys-Overland. Based on a stiffened Rural chassis, the prototype featured lower wishbones and leaf springs at the front with a live axle, coil springs and torsion bars at the back. The engine, a bored-out Aero 3-litre ‘six’ sat behind the front axle, which greatly helped weight balance and the futuristic lines.
With an aluminium head, sports cams, new intake manifold, twin Solex 45 carbs and tuned exhaust, the rugged motor produced 160bhp. A four-speed ’box was developed, the brakes were finned drums, and the steering was worm and sector. Top speed was projected to be 180kph.
Opinions vary on the credit for the Capeta’s sleek look. Roberto Mauro Araujo, an architecture graduate, headed the styling department but Marques says illustrator Ramis Malquizo was given the task of producing the body’s visuals. There’s no doubting the influence of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s gorgeous Ferrari 250GT Bertone Coupé, particularly its distinctive sharknose front. The modellers, headed by Chester Wong, turned Malquizo’s drawings into 3D, leading to a full-scale clay design proposal before committing to the glassfibre mould.
The team worked all hours to finish the car, including stylish leather trim and a sporty dashboard influenced by European GT trends. On the night before the Brazilian show, the silver sensation was pushed into a prominent position inside the Exhibition Pavilion at Ibirapuera Park. Also making their debuts were the Brasinca 4200 GT and GT-Malzoni – forerunner of the Puma GT. Various wheel options were tried, including wires with huge triple-eared spinners, while the badge design featured a red devil riding a forked spear with chequered-flag tail.
The Capeta had a second showing at the Industry and Commerce Fair in Brasília, where even President Castelo Branco was tempted to investigate before the project vanished back into factory storage. Frustratingly, no magazine was given the chance to test the prototype. The GT couldn’t have arrived at a worse time and, with a new military regime, the economy dived.
Thankfully, the Capeta was saved from the crusher, and in 1968 Ford (which by then owned Willys) instructed that the car be loaned to a local automotive museum belonging to Robert Lee. Tragically, this enthusiast was murdered in the 1980s and his family began a long legal dispute over ownership. The museum remained open to the public but many of the exhibits were vandalised and parts stolen. The more valuable cars were removed and sold, many leaving Brazil.
Even Ford had a struggle reclaiming the cars that it had loaned to the museum, but eventually the Capeta was rescued. Other than a few missing parts, the prototype had survived well and, after cosmetic restoration, the little-known GT again made the headlines when shown at premier Brazilian classic-car shows. The museum was ultimately closed for railway storage, and again the Capeta vanished.
Even Marques has never seen it, but his fascinating e-books spread knowledge of Brazilian sports cars (Top ten, Sept ’16), while his latest title investigates the Fiberfab Jamaican. You can buy the Kindle editions for a few dollars.
From below: as displayed in the museum; drawing crowds at its 1965 debut in São Paulo; Malquizo’s Capeta styling sketch.
‘The saga involved secret development, styling by a young illustrator, murder and a long legal battle’