On March 10, 1981, newspapers around the world reported fairly unspectacular headlines. US president Ronald Reagan makes official visit to Canada. German race driver Jochen Mass announces retirement from Formula 1. And in the UK, student driver Betty Tudor gives up trying to pass her driving test after 19 years and 273 hours of driving lessons with nine different instructors. The news from Brazil, on the other hand, are all glamor: Michel Charles Eugène Marie Lamoral, Prince de Ligne and member of the Belgian aristocracy, marries Brazilian princess Eleanora von Orléans-Bragança on top of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro.
The most important news on that Tuesday in March 1981 also comes from Brazil, but it doesn’t make international headlines. Two newly developed truck models rolled off the production line of hall 4 at VW’s commercial vehicle plant in São Bernardo do Campo in Brazil’s capital São Paulo. A sensation for the automotive world. The 11.130 and 13.130 models, both of which had been developed in Brazil, were the world’s first heavy-duty trucks to sport the VW logo on the grill. As the world looked to Brazil for fabulous photos of high-society nuptials, mobility history was being written in São Bernardo do Campo, an industrial municipality of São Paulo. The first chapter of a success story that has now continued for 40 years. 2021 will see Volkswagen Caminhões e Ônibus celebrate a landmark birthday, under the umbrella of the TRATON GROUP and with partner brands MAN and Scania by its side. Today, VWCO is one of leading commercial vehicle providers in the Latin American market. More than a million trucks and buses have been produced in the last 40 years. No one could have seen that coming on March 10, 1981.
Back then, the young company had it anything but easy. Roberto Cortes, who has been with VWCO since the 80s and the company’s President for 23 years, recalls: “It all started with just two models. Today, we offer over 280 product variants. At the beginning, we had outdated production lines. Now, we are a model of effectiveness and cooperation with our own plant in Resende and our innovative modular production concept. What began as a handful of branches has today become one of the biggest dealer chains in Brazil with over a hundred locations. We started off with a marginal market share, but are now one of the leading commercial vehicle providers in the Brazilian market with a share of around 30%. At the beginning, we had zero exports, today we cover the markets in more than 30 countries.”
“It all started with just two models. Today, we offer over 280 product variants.”Roberto Cortes, President VWCO
Volkswagen really did make its first steps on the heavy-duty truck market with second-hand equipment. Between 1979 and the end of 1980, the company took over Chrysler’s struggling business in Brazil, which included production lines in São Bernardo do Campo. Up until then, Volkswagen had not produced its own heavy-duty commercial vehicles, which also meant it had been unable to gain experience in this competitive market segment. But this did not hold the German brand’s business in Brazil back. Since its parent company had given this young Brazilian branch free rein to develop a new product portfolio, the engineers had the opportunity to design and produce exactly the truck and, later on, bus models that were required by the very nuanced market in South America.
Especially in Brazil, trucks are the main means of transporting goods, while buses and private cars are the main mode of transport for people. The fifth largest country on the planet stretching out for 8.5 million square kilometers, Brazil has 1.5 million kilometers of roads, but even today only around a fifth of them is paved. The Amazon rainforest occupies almost half of the territory. Today, 212 million people live in Brazil, and many of the country’s regions are difficult to reach, with roads often in poor condition. And yet, trucks and buses still get to the most remote parts of Brazil, ensure security of supply, transport people across the country. According to the information provided by the Brazilian National Confederation of Transport (Confederaçao Nacional do Transporte, CNT), 1,548 million tons of goods are transported by road every year. Transportation by rail and water only account for 350 million tons each.
This means that trucks have to be particularly robust. They must be suitable for use in every conceivable transportation solution and they must be affordable, not least because Brazil has many microenterprises. “We were able to develop exactly the kinds of products our customers needed from the beginning,” explains Ricardo Alouche, who has also been with the company for 30 years and is today its Vice President Sales and Marketing. “That was a major advantage we had over our competitors. Back then, you often had to resort to existing product solutions from large parent companies. These, of course, weren’t tailor-made to meet the market’s requirements. But Volkswagen had no heavy-duty trucks, so we developed them, according to our customers’ wishes.”
The opening of its own plant in Resende in 1996, in particular, meant the Volkswagen subsidiary in Brazil hit the ground running. The new production facility is also the world’s first vehicle plant where manufacturer and supplier companies share responsibility and costs. The so-called Consórcio Modular enables Volkswagen Caminhões e Ônibus to offer an optimum variety of models for the diverse markets of Latin America and, increasingly, Africa together with its partners. Moreover, the company is a pioneer for sustainable mobility solutions in South America. In Brazil, VWCO also opted for biodiesel very early on, developing a truck with a hybrid diesel-hydraulic drive.
Right now, Volkswagen Caminhões e Ônibus is driving forward the introduction of electric trucks to the Brazilian market. A battery electric model of the best-selling Delivery was developed within the e-Consortium together with partner companies. The products are extremely well received in the market: Ambev, a major international brewery, signed a memorandum of understanding with plans for more than 33% of the company’s delivery fleet to be made up of electric trucks from Volkswagen by 2023. Around 1,600 zero-emission vehicles are set to be in operation, making this the world’s largest project of its kind.