Argentine death squad cars try for new image

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - Thirty years ago in Argentina the sight of a dark green Ford Falcon driving slowly past was a spine-chilling intimidation that made some Argentines consider going into exile.

Two Ford Falcons car are exhibited by members of the Falcon Club in Buenos Aires, April 28, 2007. Thirty years ago in Argentina the sight of a dark green Ford Falcon driving slowly past was a spine-chilling intimidation that made some Argentines consider going to exile. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

Death squads drove Falcons during the 1976-1983 military regime, forced people into the cars and hauled them off for questioning -- or worse -- during a dark era when an estimated 11,000 to 30,000 leftists and bystanders were killed.

These days the Falcon’s sinister reputation is being overhauled by fans who see the best selling car in Argentina’s history in a different light: a glorious local tradition.

“It’s not the Falcon’s fault. The police probably just needed a car that didn’t break down, so they got Falcons,” said Alejandro Hernandez, a 35-year-old carpenter and member of the Friends of the Falcon club.

Thousands of sturdy Falcons -- a roomy four-door sedan sold here from 1962 to 1991 -- still rumble through the streets of Argentina, where close to half a million were made.

Not only the secret police and dictators used the reliable cars. Falcons were popular with taxi drivers, and many Argentines remember their grandfather’s or their father’s Falcon as the archetypal family car.

“In Argentina we have classics like the tango, mate (tea), soccer and the Falcon. It’s a national lifestyle. It’s as Argentine as the gaucho,” Hernandez said.

But isn’t a Ford a quintessentially American car? The Friends of the Falcon club says not really: of 3,542 parts in an Argentine Falcon only 26 were imported.

Hernandez and dozens of other Falcon lovers gather monthly in a park to show off their restored classics.

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The men sip mate tea out of gourds and greet each other the Argentine way, with a kiss on the cheek, as their wives spread picnics under the trees.

“I want to be buried in it,” says 34-year-old Daniel Beatico, a locksmith, caressing his impeccable Tahiti-Coral-colored ‘73 Futura Falcon.

The gleaming engine is clean enough to eat off.

“I was born at home and my father always had a Falcon, he took it to work and it went through the mud taking the whole family out to the countryside,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez got his hair cut to find work and walked to his girlfriend’s house to save bus fare during four years of saving to buy his first Falcon, a coddled 1973 that barely leaves the garage.

He and his wife have a 1980 Falcon for everyday use.

“My daughter has never ridden in any car but a Falcon,” he boasts.

Not all Falcons are babied. Out on the streets every day are working Falcons, splotched with primer and topped with dented roof racks. At night they trundle along, uninsured, with broken headlamps.

“You see plenty of rusted old Falcons that are still running. People make them last. Even if you don’t change the oil, it’ll still start every morning,” said Luciano Sacson, 23, a factory machine operator, and Falcon club member.

Rusty or shiny, there is no changing the creepy sensation Falcons give many Argentines.

“They are a symbol of repression,” said Miriam Lewin, a 49-year-old journalist who was kidnapped in a Falcon in the 1970s and forced into the trunk of another Falcon when she was moved from one political detention center to another.

“I’m surprised there are people who appreciate them now ... It still gives me a distasteful feeling when I see one.”