Juan Kadian

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Juan Kadian is an old car collector and businessman.

Kadian is a jaunty character full of exuberant chatter and encyclopedic street knowledge. He is proud of his Uruguayan nationality and his Armenian ethnicity. As he drives, he gets teary-eyed singing along with a plaintive Armenian song.

Kadian's parents came to South America, fleeing the World War I-era genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks. (Some of his cousins headed farther north and west and ended up in Pasadena.)

Juan the Armenian-his last name is Kadian, but he and his friends use the nickname-connected.

Kadian knows where to look and whom to ask: A ride with him becomes a quest into a wondrous labyrinth where dusty masterpieces turn up around practically every corner.

A remarkable number of historic cars grace the landscape of this mellow capital, along with horse-drawn wagons and unhurried pedestrians sipping from ubiquitous gourds used for mate tea, the national drink. The country's beloved cachilas (that's Uruguayan slang for "old cars") are a metaphor for Uruguay: dignified, comfortable, elegantly dilapidated, and rolling along at a defiantly serene speed.

Vehicles that would be at home in U.S. museums are commonplace on the roads of this Latin American nation. The cachilas have inspired an entrepreneurial subculture.

During the first half of the century, booming beef and wheat exports and a generous welfare state made Uruguay a bountiful land. Among the bounties was a flood of imported luxury cars from Europe and the United States.

During the second half of the century, however, the economy foundered. Uruguay entered an era of frozen grandeur.

In the 1970s, international collectors discovered the low prices and incredible supply of vintage vehicles, which were so common that Bugattis were used to distribute advertising leaflets and Rolls-Royces rusted in barns. Big-spending foreigners steamed off with shiploads of the choicest models.

But cachilas and the entrepreneurial subculture they support managed to survive.

Uruguay has resisted the headlong modernization of Argentina, Brazil and other nations in the region whose economic growth and restructuring have a dark underside of inequality and violence. The country retains enviable levels of income, education and social services; Uruguayans remain nostalgic and set in their ways.

"Cars were always considered an asset," said Alvaro Casal, a historian, journalist and director of the museum run by the national automobile club. "There is a culture of conservation here. It was like a marriage: Uruguayans married their cars. They took care of them. There are cars on the streets here that in the countries where they were made you might find in museums, or not even in museums."

The culture of conservation was partly driven by necessity. Cars were prohibitively expensive during the economic crisis and military dictatorship of the 1970s that forced hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans to emigrate. Mechanics became wizards at keeping ancient machines alive.

As the economy picked up and U.S. and European auto makers established high-volume factories in Argentina and Brazil, an insolent invasion of accessibly priced new cars has pushed cachilas out of the city center and toward extinction.

"Historic cars are being relegated to the suburbs, to the towns," Casal said with resignation. "Cars are no longer an institution, something that the family conserved. They have become an object of common use, like a refrigerator. This was always true in other nations, but its new here."

The international definition of "historic" cars refers to those that are more than 20 years old. Fleets of cars match that description here; there are also plenty of jalopies from the 1920s and 1930s and rare models such as the 1940s-era HRG, a British line of which only 200 were made. Uruguay had special access to such automobiles through credits granted by Britain in return for wartime grain exports.

The Uruguayan government has done its bit for conservation by declaring historic cars part of the national patrimony, thereby restricting their export. But sales to foreigners are rarely blocked unless a vehicle was owned by a historic figure or is otherwise unique.

The 1970s and '80s, peak years for sales to foreign collectors,


  • MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay-It's a fine day for hunting cachilas,By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff

Writer, May 13, 1998, Wednesday