Latin American men and women have been blazing a trail in the automotive world for well over a century, both figuratively and literally. While most of them may not be household names, they have all crossed finish lines no one could have predicted, and inspired future innovators.
From a glass-ceiling shattering businesswoman steering the car industry to an engineer bringing passenger cars to the people, their tales of passion, pride and grit are journeys worth celebrating.
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Juan Alberto Grieve: Engineering Mobility for the Masses
As the 20th century dawned in Peru, automobiles were not only a great luxury but strictly a foreign affair. Only the very wealthy could afford European imports and they were primarily suited for leisurely city driving. But Peruvian engineer Juan Alberto Grieve had a vision to invent a more democratized personal vehicle that could tackle Peru’s rugged rural terrain.
Having built South America’s first internal combustion engine in 1905 and forming Lima’s first auto club a year later, Grieve was well suited for his calling. In 1908, he introduced the first automobile designed and constructed on the continent (pictured above) – and sold it for half the price of a comparable European model. Sadly, his entrepreneurial spirit was crushed by Peru’s president, who thought cars should only be made in “advanced” countries. But the Grieve remains a historical touchstone in Latin America’s love for the automobile.
Tatiana Calderón: Racing to the Top
Colombian Tatiana Calderón hit the racing circuit in 2002 at the tender age of nine, born to a family of car dealers. Blowing through one of many stop signs to come on her career path, she went on to become the first female national go-kart champion in both the United States and Colombia. Since these early triumphs, this driver has never put anything in reverse. Her long list of accolades in the world of racing and test driving continues to grow, as does the makes and models she’s hired to pilot. In 2018, Calderón became the first Latina to officially drive a current Formula One car.
Patricia Salas-Pineda: Powering the Auto Industry
Patricia Salas-Pineda has been a trailblazer in all stages of her 30-year career in the automotive industry. She has also worked tirelessly to expand a Latin American presence at the top echelons of U.S. business. A native Californian with a law degree from UC Berkeley, in 1984 she joined the fledgling New United Motor Manufacturing company and helped build it into a $4.5 billion auto plant. She then became group vice-president and general counsel at Toyota North America and its highest-ranking Latina executive. Before retiring in 2016, she had spent three years heading up the Hispanic Business Strategy Group. Since then, she has served on numerous corporate boards championing Latin American voices in business and beyond.
Gregorio Ramirez Gonzalez: Inventing Made-in-Mexico
Mexican entrepreneur Gregorio Ramirez Gonzalez was born in 1913 to a family of very modest means. After having to end his studies at age 10, he worked at various jobs and eventually opened his own truck trailer shop in 1946. Ingeniously piecing together truck prototypes from scrapped U.S. military vehicles, he introduced a line of rugged heavy trucks. The venture went on to become Mexico’s first auto manufacturing company: Grupo Industrial Ramirez. This major group also produced the first Mexican-made pickups and vans. In 1961, it began making the Rural Ramirez, a small truck that was the country’s first vehicle without foreign parts. Over the years, many joint ventures were signed with giant automakers like General Motors, Ford and Nissan.
Luca Cafici: Reinventing How Cars Are Sold
Following in the footsteps of Latin American automotive innovators is Argentine entrepreneur Luca Cafici. In 2015, he co-founded tech startup InstaCarro in Sao Paolo, Brazil. It filled a need in the world’s third largest auto market to quickly match people selling used cars with dealers around the country. The digital marketplace has grown so popular – especially during the pandemic – that it now boasts cars can be sold in under an hour.
Ernesto Ancira Jr.: Speaking of Cars…
In 1972, Ernesto Ancira bought a Chevrolet dealership in San Antonio, Texas. In the decades since, he has grown Ancira Auto Group into a small empire that lays claim to multiple firsts in the United States: the first Hispanic dealership group, the first Spanish-speaking dealership and the first minority-owned dealership. It now has over 750 employees working at a chain of six locations selling 11 major car brands. Ernesto still sits at the helm while one of his five daughters, April Ancira, serves as vice president. The family enterprise is an inspiring story in more recent Latin American heritage.
Which of these automotive innovators were you most interested to learn about? Tell us in the comments.