Brief history of the industrial automotive industry in Spain (I)

But how did we get here? How did we go from a handcrafted construction at the beginning of the 20th century to producing almost three million vehicles a year nowadays? Let's take a look at a summary of the history of the automotive industry in Spain.

The origins

Five conditions are necessary for an automotive industry to appear:

  • Accessible raw materials
  • Efficient auxiliary industry
  • Adequate technology
  • Large investment of money
  • A market capable of absorbing production in large numbers.

These conditions were fully in place in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, so it is not surprising that the first mass automobile industry developed there. As Ford and GM were the first to mass produce, they were also the first to export in large numbers. These conditions existed in Europe, but to a lesser extent. For this reason, European nations protected their local automobile industry by levying tariffs on American cars, in an economy called import substitution.


In addition, several of these nations bet on one of their local manufacturers, the so-called national champions. These were Volkswagen in Germany, Leyland Motors in the United Kingdom, Renault in France and Fiat in Italy. The 1929 crisis hit American production hard, it went from a production of almost 5 million units in that year to 2.1 million in 1938, drastically reducing its exports.

In the case of sales in Spain, the percentage of imports from the USA went from half of the total in 1930 and 1931, to 10% in 1932 and 2% in 1933. Although the crash of 1929 also hit Europe, here the crisis was less severe. European manufacturers, protected by their governments and with less American competition, increased their productions and their exports were, as a percentage, higher than those of the USA. In this way, European manufacturers grew in those years. The major producers in order were the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany. Years later, the United Kingdom and Germany exchanged their position.


At the beginning of the 20th century, there were several artisan manufacturers in Spain, but none of them ended up building vehicles en masse. The only manufacturer capable of mass production was Hispano-Suiza, but it was not achieved. Of the five points we had proposed at the beginning, it fulfilled almost none. As far as raw materials were concerned, the only one we had was steel. Our ancillary industry was insufficient for the construction of automobiles and had to be created later. In terms of technology, the brand was able to contribute something, they were very well made vehicles, they even created an aviation engine of which 5,000 units were built, almost all of which were exported.

As for the economy, the Spanish economy was quite bad. Although it did not participate in the two world wars, it suffered a civil war, so after 1939 many things had to be started again. In 1940, the Spanish government reduced imports as much as possible for two reasons. The first was that it was battered and it was not desirable that the little money that there was in foreign currencies escaped. The other reason was political, they tried to create a patriotic, totally Spanish industry that did not depend on another country. These two measures led to the adoption of an import-substitution economy and to government intervention in industry considered important to the nation.

Although this intervention initially protected the local industry, it closed the door to machinery, components, techniques and technologies necessary for the construction of automobiles, which in the long run was detrimental to it. As for the market, neither the local nor the export market was sufficient. Firstly, the Hispano-Suiza brand specialised in luxury vehicles, which was not what was needed at the time. On the other hand, it opened so many fronts that it was not possible to specialise in anything or to manufacture in sufficient numbers.


It had a line of luxury cars, trucks, aircraft engines and military vehicles. There was the paradox that it did not produce as much as the market demanded, although there were only a few thousand, cancelling part of its orders in favour of other brands. It never really got close to a number that would make it profitable for several years in a row and make the leap to mass production. As for the truck section, it lacked a diesel engine, so it had no chance in the market. The same thing happened with aircraft engines, it was still with the internal combustion engine when other manufacturers were trying turbines. Since it was a defence-related company, the government took it over, creating the company ENASA in 1947, whose purpose was to build industrial vehicles, the future Pegaso.

First generation of our industry: the domestic market

From the 1950s onwards, several manufacturers started to set up in the country. I have separated the arrivals of the manufacturers into three generations according to the market they represent.

The first three brands to be mass produced were SEAT, Renault and Citröen.

SEAT was founded in 1950 and was the state bet through the National Institute of Industry (INI) to provide cars to the Spanish people, as did other European countries. The state's shareholding was 51%. A government requirement was that 90% of the components were to be manufactured in Spain, at a time when there was no auxiliary industry. It manufactured models under license from Fiat, even the name SEAT and its spelling were chosen to be as similar as possible to the licensee brand. The latter only held 6% of the company's capital when it was founded; in 1967 it became 36%.


The factory was built in the free zone of Barcelona. In these early years, quantity prevailed over quality and even price. The first vehicle to be produced was the SEAT 1400, at the time a luxury saloon. SEAT's first great success, and still very well remembered today, was the 600, which appeared in 1957; in Italy it was presented earlier, in 1955. It was an all-rounder with a boot (front, of course) that shared space with the battery and spare wheel, but it still had room for the whole family and their luggage. It was the first car to which the Spanish middle class had access.

Its price was 65,000 pesetas at the beginning (about 14,000 euros today), an amount that could only be accessed with a lot of effort, some time later it dropped in price. The waiting list was of about six months and normally there were facilities to obtain the loan; and I say facilities of those years, and our grandparents would like to have the loans of our time. It was produced until 1973 and almost 800,000 units were manufactured. The 1400 was followed by the 1500, also a luxury saloon that was widely used as a taxi.

The success of the brand was always in the medium and small models. The 600 was followed by the 850, in the same style, but a little bigger and improving it as much as possible. In 1972 the 127 appeared. There was also a non-Fiat model based on the 850 with 127 looks, it was the 133. In the medium range the 124 appeared in 1968, which years later was replaced by the Ritmo. As for the upper mid-range, from the 1500 that we have already mentioned, we went on to the 132 and 131.

The next brand to be produced in Spain was Renault. In 1951 FASA Renault was founded, which started only with the assembly of cars in 1953, and went into full production in 1955. Renault's share was 15% at the beginning and in 1965 it reached 49.9%. The factory was built in Valladolid, as it was a central and well communicated area. The first model to be produced was the 4/4: 4 seats, 4 doors and 4 hp fiscal in France, with engine and rear propulsion. Then followed those known as the "Ini": Ondine, Dauphine, Gordini, which was followed by the R8, still a rear-wheel drive.

But again the car of the time is a utility car, Spain was not enough for more. In this case the car was the R4, and all forward, this model was introduced in France in 1961 and was produced in Spain from 1963 to 1992. Renault has been in Spain for so long that it doesn't seem foreign at all. This brand has been one of the most stable in the Spanish market without having major ups and downs, always being one of the best sellers, although its share has declined as more players appeared on the scene, as we shall see later. It has created three very important and very important sagas.

In the upper mid-range we can say that it started with the R6, followed by the R12, R18, R21 and Laguna. In the mid-range went from R8 to R7 (exclusive for Spain), R9/11, R19 and then Mégane. At the lower end we started with the R4 to move on to the R5, Supercinco and Clio until today. As for light industrials we can't forget the derivatives of the R4 and the Express. Renault has also had models at the top, however, they have not been so often. There are models that we have hardly seen in Spain, such as the R16, R20 and R30.

The one we saw the most was the R25, which was followed by the Safrane, although always sparsely. Renault has never been successful as a brand for saloon cars in Spain. Perhaps the large number of cheap Renaults on the street has meant that, even today, it is difficult to identify this brand with representative models. This has also happened worldwide with the rest of French brands, as we also saw on this page. On the other hand, Renault has been a reference in the B, C and D segments.

The third brand to arrive was Citroën, which revolutionised the light commercial vehicle market with the AZU van based on the 2CV; it was assembled in Vigo from 1959. Of course, the 2CV model (a very ingenious vehicle at the time) was also assembled in Spain until 1988. This model was designed for the rural environment, the premise of its design is that it should be a vehicle capable of carrying two people and a load of 50 kg in the trunk at 50 km / h on a country road without breaking a basket of eggs, as well as being simple and economical.

It is paradoxical that at the end of its years it was more used in the city than in the countryside. The brand was already known for its Traction Avant or better known as 11 Light, but it was the DS, which appeared in 1955, the exceptional car that put the brand at the forefront; its line and technology were very advanced for the time. However, the range was very polarized, Citröen had either a representative car or a car for farmers. In 1961 the Ami appeared, although it was not a great success, among other things because it was a derivative of the 2CV and was far behind the competition.

The first mid-size model to sell well was the Citroën GS, a very aerodynamic two-volume with boxer engine and hydropneumatic suspension. With this model, the brand had its most balanced range. Starting with the representative vehicles we see that the DS was replaced by the CX, in the style of the GS but larger, more powerful and luxurious. After the GS came the GSA and then the BX. In the small ones we can say that the 2CV was not replaced, the LN/LNA appeared, which later became the Visa and this in turn, in 1984, in the industrial C15, which filled the niche of the old vans based on the 2CV.

Despite the great packaging of the top models, this brand is remembered for its economic vehicles. Like Renault, the memory of the 2CV is so strong that it is difficult to associate these brands with a luxury saloon nowadays.

More factories were opened with other brands during those years, but they have not reached our days. In 1966 the company Automóviles de Turismo Hispano Ingleses (AUTHI) was founded and established its headquarters in Arazuri and the production plant in Landaben, all in Navarra. Hardly anyone remembers that the Mini was also made in Spain. The problem with sales was that its first versions were very luxurious, had wooden interiors and leather seats as well as engines between 1 and 1.3 litres, practically twice as much as the competition at a time when economical cars were needed; moreover, reliability was not good.

Interestingly, what was a problem at the time is now what defines the MINI: small size, great luxury and great touring qualities. This company was taken over by Leyland in 1969, and finally closed in 1976, and the plant was taken over by SEAT. BMW took full control of MINI in the late 1990s, and we know the story. Further south, in Jaén, the Santana factory was created in 1956, where Land Rover SUVs were built; few were sold in quantity, but it was consolidated in its sector.

Other brands that were being built at that time were Dodge and Simca

Both brought by Eduardo Barreiros in his (poisoned) joint-venture with Chrysler, to which he agreed when he had liquidity problems in 1963. In the case of the Dodge they were very expensive vehicles that had little outlet in Spain, it was not what was needed at that time. In the case of the Simca they were vehicles of French origin of the middle class. The models manufactured in the factory of Villaverde were the Simca 1000, four doors all back, and the 1200, five doors traction and front engine. Simca passed through the Spanish market without glory. Both brands were produced until 1977. In 1978, Peugeot bought the failed joint-venture of Chrysler with other European brands, disappearing Simca.

That's how we arrived in 1972, in short, with three car manufacturing companies: SEAT (national champion of the government), Renault and Citroën. At last a valid auxiliary and component industry was generated. On the other hand, the government's support for its national champions, a car manufacturer (SEAT) and a commercial vehicle manufacturer (Pegaso), put the private sector at a disadvantage. The models that represent that year are the SEAT 127, Renault 5 and Citroën 2CV.

Second generation: with Ford, Opel and Volkswagen we entered Europe.

Pablo has told us very well about the importance of Ford's arrival in Spain, both for the car industry and the industry and economy in general. But how did it get here? Car production had reached its peak in Spain, because it had two very strong conditioning factors. As we said before, since 1964 the Government demanded that 90% of the components had to be manufactured in Spain, so the parent companies could not sell many components here. On the other hand, and perhaps encouraged by the previous point, these parent companies did not allow the export of what was manufactured in Spain, as they would compete with their original production.

In addition to all this, the Spanish car market, although not complete, had reached a fairly advanced level, so there was no longer a need for so many cars. At that time Henry Ford II arrived with a proposal to the Ministry of Industry. He mainly asked for the quota of national components to be reduced to 50% and, as compensation, they committed themselves to export a minimum of 66% of the production. In this way they would continue to produce components in Spain and begin to export in earnest, which was very necessary because of the devaluation of the currency.

In 1972 the Ford decrees were signed, you know how the story goes in Almussafes. I only add a couple of details, the Ford Fiesta at the beginning was a stranger, we did not know if it was American or German, the first to buy it were reckless or revolutionaries, given the lack of knowledge of the brand in Spain. The second point is that, like SEAT, Renault and, to a lesser extent, Citroën, created new brand customers. Many of the Fiesta buyers were very happy with the car and repeated brand with other models. It was very common to move from the Fiesta to the Escort (now has another meaning that word) and from this to the Sierra. In 1976 the first model came out of the factory.

A few years later, and with democracy, General Motors also sought an agreement with similar conditions. It established its factory in Figueruelas, Zaragoza, instead of Cadiz or Ferrol, which was where the Government was asking for. For that reason GM lost much of the aid. It started to produce the Opel Corsa in 1983; yet another brand to Spain starting from the bottom. Again there were brand customers starting with the Corsa and then going through the whole range. The next model was the Kadett, a model with a very modern look because of that aerodynamic line. For us it was new, although it was really the fifth series.

I remember from those years the very slim Corsa 1.0 and the Kadett GSI, which in 1988 was fitted with a 16-valve cylinder head, a solution rarely seen at that time. The successor to the Kadett was the Astra. Above it we saw the Ascona and soon it was changed by the Vectra, with its Calibra coupe. There was also a performance saloon that worked well, the Omega. It had many versions, including one prepared by Lotus. It has been the only generalist brand that has been competition for Mercedes, by size it reached the W123, W124 and by price the 190 (W201). Today the Insignia, despite being the successor to the Vectra, is of a similar size to the Omega, but does not take its place. The Insignia's replacement is just around the corner.

In these years Peugeot also enters after buying Citroën, which chained several failures (commercial, not technological) followed by its uneven range. Precisely the most original French manufacturer was bought by the most conservative, this made it lose much of its identity that is trying to recover today with the DS brand. The purchases of the brands absorbed by Chrysler and Citroën itself left Peugeot in the red. From this brand we got the 505 and, to a lesser extent the 604, and the 205, a utility car that left those numbers in the black.

The latter generated the same problem as other cars myth, the replacement is very difficult, which made his successor, the 206, appeared very late. During these years still had import quota in Spain, then came the 405 and 605. From this time I rescue the 205 GTX which was the biggest competitor of the Supercinco, also GTX. One step up we had the Copa Turbo and the rarest to see 205 GTI.

Citroën, now part of PSA, specialized in economy models, no longer successful in the E-segment. The CX was replaced very late by the misunderstood XM and then by the also scarce C6. The GS was upgraded to the GSA and then the BX was created halfway between the C and D. Its successor, the Xantia, was already a full-fledged D-segment car and was replaced by the C5, the last Citroën to use hydropneumatic suspension. The ZX appeared in the C-segment in 1991.

What happened to SEAT? The opening up of the market didn't sit well with SEAT. Until then it had been the government's darling. In 1977, shortly after the oil crisis and only a year after the arrival of the Fiesta, SEAT made losses for the first time. In 1981, Fiat put the money needed to make SEAT profitable again at more than 750 million euros - adjusting for inflation. This company thought it was too much and left SEAT in the lurch, with INI buying back its shares. It seems that it later regretted leaving Spain and bought Pegaso (industrial vehicles) to integrate them into its IVECO brand.

SEAT began to look for another partner while manufacturing modified Fiat models (Ronda, Malaga, Marbella) and other models of its own with Porsche engines, the first Ibiza. There were two possible partners, Toyota and Volkswagen. We know that it was Volkswagen who finally bought SEAT in 1986, but what would have happened if Toyota had been the partner?

From 1982 onwards SEAT was the importer of Volkswagen and Audi, brands that were not very well known in Spain at that time. Years later Volkswagen invested a lot of money in the new Martorell factory, which opened in 1993, although it was another year of crisis in general and in particular for SEAT. The Landaben factory, originally owned by AUTHISA and bought by SEAT, went on to produce Volkswagen models. The models that come to mind are many, on SEAT's side the Ibiza II and from then on, the Toledo, and the illusion of seeing a brand being reborn.

I remind you that Volkswagen didn't officially sell in Spain since the mid-sixties. All the models were very strange to us. The VW Polo and Passat/Santana were spartan, not very aesthetic, but very tough. And a Golf GTI (the first one to arrive was the II) that was out of this world, besides having a 113 hp 1.8 naturally aspirated engine, could be fitted with every conceivable equipment, even ABS. Volkswagen no longer created brand customers starting with the smallest model, it created them from any model. Audi also began to appear, large and, strangely, front-wheel drive. They were hard to pigeonhole at the time.

Continue reading in Brief history of the industrial automotive industry in Spain (II).



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