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Alfa Romeo Could Have Made a Mustang: Meet the FNM Onça
Car fans sometimes have wild dreams. Imagine a Volkswagen vehicle trying to compete with a Mercedes-Benz S-Class... Well, Ferdinand Pïech thought the Phaeton could do that. Think of something crazier, such as Alfa Romeo doing a Mustang. Is that conceivable?

Alfa Romeo Could Have Made a Mustang: Meet the FNM Onça

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Update: Ricardo Oppi helped us correct a few facts reported in the previous article. This text already reflects these changes.

You may think that belongs to a Marvel multiverse, but the truth is that it happened in Brazil in 1966, just a couple of years after the original car appeared. We will tell you the story of the FNM Onça. Ironically, Onça means Jaguar, in English, which adds another brand to this automotive salad.

If you check the pictures, you will say that this car is not really an Alfa Romeo, as the name would make evident. The story is not that simple. To understand it, you first have to be introduced to FNM (Fábrica Nacional de Motores, or National Engine Factory, in Portuguese).

This company was founded in 1942 by the dictator Getúlio Vargas. He also created Petrobras (the Brazilian state-owned oil company), CSN (Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional), and several other businesses that aimed to industrialize the country. At first, it produced Wright radial piston engines for airplanes, but the first ones to leave the factory did so only in 1946, when the Second World War was already over. It soon became clear that it would have to do something else to stay alive.

FNM then signed a deal with Isotta Fraschini in 1949 to produce its trucks in Brazil. In 1951, the Italian company went bankrupt, and FNM looked for another partner. In 1952, it signed a deal with Alfa Romeo, another state owned company at the time. Curiously, FNM also produced Alfa Romeo trucks.

It was only in 1960 that the first Alfa Romeo passenger car made under license by FNM appeared. It was called the FNM JK. Based on the Alfa Romeo 2000, it got its name from the Brazilian president at the time, Juscelino Kubitschek, who also presented the new Brazilian capital, Brasília, in the same year. In the Cuore Sportivo, what you find is not the Alfa Romeo badge, but that from FNM (above). Four years later, a military coup obliged the company to change the car’s name to FNM 2000.

By 1965, the company was not in good shape. Major Jorge Alberto Silveira Martins – FNM’s president at the time – decided it needed a local project to sell more and ordered a car with the best chances of success.

Rino Malzoni was contacted. He ran Lumimari, the company that had created the Puma, one of the most famous cars built in Brazil. Malzoni then asked the designer Anísio Campos for something similar to the Ford Mustang, which was selling like hotcakes.

The first prototype was rapidly developed. Hamílcar Barone, the chief engineer at FNM, faced an unexpected issue while testing it: the roof liner fell on his head at high speed. Thankfully, no one got hurt. The cause was that the air had invaded the roof liner through the hollow A-pillars. At high speed, the whole thing blew over Barone’s head. The (short-lived) production version fixed that.

The Brazilian company was so confident everything would go well that it officially presented the first Onça prototype at the 1966 São Paulo Motor Show and started selling it. However, FNM had an issue. Italian engineers working at FNM warned Alfa Romeo about the Onça and it wanted to test it before approving it. Realizing the Italian company would never give the Onça the green light, FNM just called the whole thing off. Four vehicles had already been sold and delivered, while the first white prototype was destroyed. The limited number was due to the extremely high price.

The Onça had a glass-fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) body built over the shortened FNM 2000’s platform. Malzoni would laminate a body and warn FNM that he needed a new platform. The automaker would then ship it to Matão, in São Paulo. FNM was located in Xerém, Rio de Janeiro.

The trip was of around 700 kilometers (435 miles). Malzoni would then install the body on the chassis and send the car back 700 km to FNM for the factory to install the interior, finish the car, and deliver it to customers. It was clearly not a cost-effective process from the very start.

While the 2000 had 2.72 meters (107.1 inches) of wheelbase, FNM’s Mustang-like coupe had only 2.50 m (98.4 in). The 22 centimeters (8.7 in) less in that measure made it a tail-happy rear-wheel-drive car, something the low weight helped to maximize. The Onça was 4.43 m (174.4 in) long, 1.67 m (65.8 in) wide, and 1.29 m (50.8 in) tall.

The engine was not produced by FNM: it came from Italy and presented way more power than that in the JK, which made only 94 hp (70 kW). Even the TIMB, a spicier version of the 2000, lacked that engine, as Ricardo Oppi told us.

“The engine number’s first letters were AR (Alfa Romeo), not FNM, as those produced in Brazil. This engine was supposed to be on the TIMB, but FNM never used it in that product. It was a much stronger 2-liter engine, with 129 hp (96 kW) thanks to more compression and two Solex 50 carburetors.”

If you are wondering who’s Oppi, he is the man that rebuilt/restored two of the only four Onças ever delivered to customers. Last July 20, he celebrated 20 years of finding the very first Onça. A fifth one, built by a FNM engineer with one of the laminated bodies, was not official and ended up destroyed in a crash shortly after being manufactured. The white prototype never reached customer's hands, but it helps the count reach six Onças ever produced.

As a classic car restorer, Oppi always keeps an eye on unique vehicles such as a 1927 Fiat 509A that never got a license plate. One of his strategies for finding rare cars was to ask for the help of street sweepers. Two of them used to have lunch at Oppi’s shop, where they could heat the meal they brought from home. One day, one of them told him that “a glass-fiber Alfa Romeo” was rotting in a house relatively close.

Oppi had no idea what they were talking about, but he always checked their tips. It required persistence: he had to ask the owner three times to see the vehicle. When he was finally allowed to have a look at it, Oppi realized what he had found.

The car restorer ended up buying two cars in the same yard: the FNM and a Moldex, another really rare Brazilian vehicle. However, it was the Onça that required more attention: its chassis was buried 40 cm (15.8 in) on the ground and was rotten, which meant the car could break in half if Oppi and his team were not cautious enough to take it to the shop.

The method they followed was to dig all around the car and put ropes around the front of the vehicle to make it move. Luckily, he managed to get the Onça in one piece to be restored, but the restoration process demanded him to cut the body in the A-pillar to separate it from the rotten platform without damages.

Oppi then bought a used JK as a donor car to recreate a trustworthy structure. The FRP body also required a lot of attention. While it looked red, the car restorer discovered that it was actually olive green. The original color was then used to repaint the car.

Whenever the restorer bought a new vehicle, he called car collectors that could become “investors” in the restoration process, as Oppi likes to call them. The Onça had three of them, making it take more time than it usually would.

The first collector really wanted the car but had to give up on the project. He then sold it to another car collector and so forth until the Onça found its right benefactor, which eventually got the car in 2007. It now belongs to a museum. Make sure you check all the pictures of the restoration process in our gallery above.

The Second Onça

At that time, the word of an Onça had already spread, and one of Oppi’s investors told him he wanted one. In 2008, Oppi was told that there was one parked in a reserved place and in great condition.

After talking to the investor, Oppi got the authorization to try to buy that car. He then spoke with the owner and told him of a car collector that wanted his rare Onça. After hearing how much Oppi was authorized to offer, the car owner gave him the car keys and said he wanted him to restore his FNM instead. Oppi left with a frustrated investor and another job to handle.

With the experience and the information he had gathered from the first Onça, the work on the second one was much more manageable. Apart from a broken “Cuore Sportivo," front bumpers, interior, a new paint job, and some corrosion, the car was soon good to go.

The original color was metallic red, but the owner asked Oppi to paint it with a Ferrari red. The car restorer kept a sample of the initial paint job (just in case) and gave the car the appearance it now has. It was with this Onça that Oppi learned how it (mis)behaved.

“One day, I took it for a drive, and it hit 230 km/h (on the odometer) in a straight line. It was really fast, but curves made you miss home. The plastic body has tiny steel wires and no structure to cope with the chassis’s twist, which makes it bends a lot.”

The car restorer told us funny situations at the wheel that must have looked terrifying when they actually happened.

“In a curve to the right, the left door opened. While I was trying to close it, the right door opened. I then decided to tie them with a rope. That was when the rear window popped out. Depending on how hard I took the bends, I could wave goodbye to the ones watching me through the gap that appeared between the roof and the windscreen…”

Oppi then learned that that Onça was in good condition because his owner was too scared of it to really drive it. After it was finally restored, the Onça won multiple prizes in classic car shows in Brazil and got back to its owner’s garage. It eventually goes out for a quick spin and gets back to where it is really safe: a parking spot.

A third Onça is now in a locked museum that belonged to Roberto Nasser, a respected Brazilian car journalist that died in 2018. The final one that is still alive – a silver-painted unit – is well guarded, in excellent shape, and very few people know where it is. Oppi has plenty of “investors” willing to buy any of them, even if just to exhibit them somewhere.

Just like the animal that gives it a name, the Onça may look like a Mustang, but it is a dangerous endangered feline. Apart from these pictures, chances are you’ll never see one “in the flesh.”

 
 
 
 
 

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