Romi Made Brazil’s First Car. Now It Exports to Over 60 Countries

    The history of Indústrias Romi S.A. is intertwined with the history of the machinery sector. Through the company’s history it is also possible to bring up the last 76 years of the Brazilian history.

    The company’s founder, Américo Emí­lio Romi, son of Italian immigrants, was one of the visionaries who saw into the distance. Romi was born from a small car repair garage, in 1930, in the city of Santa Bárbara D’Oeste, in the interior of the state of São Paulo.

    But Emí­lio’s adventure stated a little before that, in Italy, to where he moved with his parents as an adolescent. In Milan, while he studied Electronics, he was drafted to fight in the First World War.

    Already married, he decided to try his luck in his land of birth. He returned to Brazil and installed himself in São Paulo, where he gave his first signs of daring and opened the first 24-hour mechanic shop on Paulista Avenue.

    This was in 1924. And it was due to the 1924 revolution that he lost his shop. His site was strategic and soldiers started using it as a base. After one more attempt, this time in the Ipiranga neighborhood, where he was ripped off by his partner, he decided to move to the interior.

    After a series of jobs and business attempts, he finally set roots in the city of Santa Bárbara. As there was an American colony in the region, made up of people escaping the American Civil War, he noticed that there was demand for agricultural machinery and started producing ploughs and other products. He changed his company’s name to "Máquinas Agrí­colas Romi Ltda" (Romi Agricultural Machinery).

    Many years before the Brazilian alcohol program (Proálcool), Emí­lio Romi joined forces with an engineer who had been experimenting with petrol and alcohol mixtures. This was in 1932. The Constitutional Revolution made petrol, which was imported, hard to find.

    That is where the idea of creating new fuel arose. Together, they created a fuel called "autolina", and started trading the new product in five and ten liter bottles. The problem was that production was limited and lack of trust great. For this reason, as soon as the war finished, autolina stopped being produced.

    The company made its final radical change in the 1940s. Once again due to a war. With the Second World War, Romi almost went broke. Steel was lacking on the market and fuel started being controlled by the government.

    The share of steel to which Emí­lio was entitled only guaranteed operation of his foundry for two days. It was then that one of his sons suggested the change in area of operation: production of lathes.

    To make the idea possible, they disassembled one of the lathes used at the factory, made some modifications and improvements and developed the first Romi lathe, baptized Imor (Romi backwards).

    This was in 1941. In 1944, they were already exporting to Argentina. From then on, the business boomed and the company from Santa Bárbara consolidated itself as a large producer of tooling machinery.

    Ostrich Eggs

    The company was consolidated. But Emí­lio Romi continued brainstorming. In 1956, Romi launched nothing less than the first Brazilian car, the Romi-Isetta, which became very popular in the country.

    The car was developed in partnership with a carmaker from Milan. Here, the Italian car was produced by Romi, with 70% of its parts made in the country. The car, which was tiny, was very successful.

    It was given many nicknames, like bola de futebol de fenemê (truck’s soccer ball), "ostrich egg", "ball frog" and also "open up cause I want to see" (the car door was on the front). Romi-Isetta was shown on popular television program Alô Doçura and in a Brazilian movie.

    It was a very simple car. Made out of just 6,000 parts, it weighed 330 kilograms, was 1.35 meter tall and 2.25 meters long. The car had two front wheels and one back wheel, and the distance between them was just 50 centimeters.

    The vehicle was petrol powered and the petrol tank had a capacity for 13 liters. The car had five gears, four forwards and one reverse, and it could reach 85 kilometers per hour. In all, 3,000 vehicles were sold to the market.

    However, just three years after it entered production, in 1959, the Romi-Isetta stopped being produced. It was no longer worth it. It no longer fit in a series of benefits that the government gave to the auto industry, but only to larger vehicles, four-seaters.

    In the Romi-Isetta, you could fit a maximum of three people, tightly. In 2006 the car had its 50th anniversary. In September, the company celebrated the date in Santa Bárbara with exhibitions and talks about its famous creation. Many of the "little eggs", run by collectors, even drove around the city.

    The year of 1959 was also marked by Emí­lio’s death. The company started being run by his sons, the second generation. In 1962, the organization’s name was changed to Indústrias Romi S.A. Ten years later, in 1972, it became an open capital organization.

    In the following year, Romi released the first Brazilian NC (Numeric Control) Lathe. Finally, in the 1980s, they opened a sales branch in the United States, eyeing the growth of exports.

    Nowadays, run by the third generation of Romis, the company has 2,500 employees and exports to over 60 countries. In 2005, revenues totaled R$ 507 million (US$ 236 million). Not bad for a company that grew from a mechanic’s garage in the 1930s.

    Anba – www.anba.com.br

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    • Show Comments (3)

    • Rick

      Some may have been imported prior to 1957, because I saw one first in Long Beach California and we moved to Santa Maria in the summer of 1957. In those days the only cities with significant foreign cars were L.A. and NYC. Some guy bought a new one and drove it to Sunday School and we rode it around and just shook our heads and laughed like crazy. Gas was 20 cents a gallon, the average car weighed two tons and here you are going to drive around in a tiny car with the door in front? Lukewarm response? More like incredulous. As with the Messerschmitt. In the church parking lot we had rods, customs, drag strip refugees…and one BMW Isetta. It took a lot of guts to drive one of those things in L.A. even in those days. I felt safer driving my gokart on the streets of Paramount.

    • Ricardo

      1 Brazilian car?
      The Isetta was incubated in the post-war economy of Europe. After the war, many people did not have the money to afford large automobiles and instead moved about on scooters and motorcycles. Renzo Rivolta, who made Iso S.p.A. refrigeradors in Milan, Italy, entered the market at this time with a line of scooters, motorcycles, and three wheeled trucks. After some success with these vehicles, he decided to move into the automobile business.

      Designed and developed during 1952-1953, Iso presented the first Isetta (literally, little Iso) at the 1953 Turin Motor Show. Looking like the result of a high speed collision between a refrigerator, a scooter, and an airplane at a Lawrence Welk show (champagne bubbles, get it?), the Iso Isetta was only 4.5 ft wide and 7.5 ft long. The car had a single door at the front, rear wheels that were only 19 in. apart, and gas mileage of over 50 miles per gallon. The two-cylinder, two-stroke engine allowed a top speed of 45 mph and could propell the Isetta to 30 mph in 36 seconds. Iso began production in Italy and in Belgium for domestic sales and limited export.

      Iso entered four or five Isettas into the storied Mille Miglia (1,000 mile) race of 1954. The Isetta finished 1, 2 and 3 on the index of performance. BMW scouts witnessed the impressive showing of the little car. At the time, BMW was producing the 502 and the 507: cars that few Germans could afford to buy in the post-war economy. Therefore, the company was on the lookout for an inexpensive economy car, and the Isetta fit the bill. Iso licensed the car to BMW in 1955.

      Iso also licensed the car to Isetta Automobiles of Brazil and the cars manufactured there for five years beginning in 1956 were christened Romi-Isetta. These Brazilian Isettas kept the Iso design and used Iso engines until 1958, when they switched to the BMW 300 cc engines. In addition, Iso licensed the car to VELAM in France. The car was also built by Iso in Spain and Belgium.

      BMW made the Isetta its own. They redesigned the powerplant around a more reliable BMW one-cylinder, four-stroke, 247 cc motorcycle engine with 13 hp. Although the major elements of the Italian design remained intact, BMW re-engineered much of the car, so much so that none of the parts between a BMW Isetta Moto Coupe and an Iso Isetta interchange. The first BMW Isetta appeared in April, 1955. BMW introduced the restyled Isetta Moto Coupe DeLuxe (sliding-window Isetta) in October 1956 with the larger 298 cc motor for export. Legend has it that BMW would not be here today if not for the success of the little Isetta.

      Under license from BMW, Isetta of Great Britain also began producing cars (the sliding-window variety) at Brighton in 1957 with selected domestic parts. The Isetta was initially not popular in Great Britain until a three-wheeled version was introduced. The three-wheeled version was taxed at a much lower rate than the four-wheeled version. Isetta of Great Britain continued to produce four-wheeled Isettas, but only for export to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. BMW began exporting Isettas to the U.S. (to a lukewarm response) in 1957. Overall, the Isetta was successful enough to encourage BMW to produce the 600, which shared the Isetta’s front door and a motorcycle engine (600 cc) and the more car-like 700 (also powered by a motorcycle engine).

      Due to competition from faster and more car-like mini-cars (specifically the BMC Mini), BMW stopped production of the Isetta in 1962. Isetta of Great Britain also stopped production of the little cars but continued to produce Isetta engines until 1964. Romi-Isetta in Brazil continued to manufacture the original Italian Isetta until 1959 and produced spare parts until 1961..

      Thanks to BMW, the Isetta was the most successful of the bubble cars. BMW built 136,367 Isettas. Isetta of Britain produced about 30,000 cars. Romi-Isetta manufactured about 3,000 of which an estimated 200 remain. Velam produced about 5,000 cars. Iso itself only made about 1,000 Isettas. Of the cars made by BMW, about 8,500 were exported to the U.S. of which it is estimated 1,000 still survive.

      In 1980, there was a brief attempt to bring the Isetta back into production as the ‘Diaseta.’ The Diaseta was the Isetta with several minor modifications

      Note: Research on this car has been problematic. Different articles offer different dates and oftentimes contradicting information. For example, one states that Isettas were not produced in Belgium. Another says they were. One says Romi-Isettas were produced until 1961, another states Romi produced them for a few years after BMW stopped production. If you have any information or any problems with the above writeup, please contact me via email.

    • Rick

      I think if you look under the rear of the car you will see two tires for a total of four. The rear ones are close together. My neighbor, a collector, has one and I just saw it last week on a truck going to some event. This car was marketed in the USA as an Isetta-BMW.

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