Tuesday, June 10, 2014

When Cars Flew To Mallorca

They staged the second Summer Tour of the Island at the weekend. Fifty classic cars took part and among them was the car that transformed Spain. The SEAT 600. Spain's economic boom of the 1960s was a miracle of tourism, but it also owed much to the SEAT, a car that was cheap enough to be in the reach of many Spaniards and to also become an export success. It may have been no more than a Fiat 600 with a different name, but it was Spain's Fiat; the Spanish economic miracle was powered by a 633cc engine.

Unplanned-for symbiosis it was, but the motor industry, i.e. primarily the 600, piggy-backed on the tourism industry. Car hire went into overdrive. In Mallorca this meant the expansion of existing companies and the creation of new ones. For example, Autos Roig, centred on Cala d'Or, which had started life in 1953 when Rafael Roig acquired a Citroen B10 taxi, moved into car rental, featuring the by-then ubiquitous SEAT. In Alcúdia, a farmer from Llubi, Jaume Vanrell, bought a plot on the front line in the port; the 600 was prominent in the original small fleet of vehicles.

Images of transport are among the most powerful in sparking off nostalgia for the early, innocent and uncomplicated days of mass tourism and in highlighting how things have all changed totally. The SEAT 600 is thus accorded the status of a classic, which for nostalgia's sake it is, but it was from a time when tourist car hire wasn't quite as innocent and uncomplicated as one might like to remember; especially not if it broke down on a mountain incline or was hired out under Ts & Cs that were rather less than fully i-dotted and t-crossed.

Tourism, and it's an obvious thing to say, is a function of mobility. As I pointed out yesterday, the impulse behind infrastructure for mobility within Mallorca that was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, i.e. roads, largely came from tourism, and it was tourism which brought with it the need for means of being mobile. Bus coaches, acquired at the end of the 1920s, were required for taking tourists on excursions, while there were also ways in which tourists could get around on their own or in small groups. Hence, the vehicle-hire sector was born.

Before that inter-war road development there were hire cars. In 1914 the first regulation of prices was introduced. The setting of tariffs and other conditions drew on experience with the mode of vehicle hire which had existed before the motor car, namely the horse-drawn carriage. It had been so subject to abuse and malpractice that in 1906 measures were taken to regulate the hire of carriages, and by 1908 all carriages had to display their tariffs. 

The need for mobility brought with it some curiosities and the outright weird. Nothing was weirder than the giant mobile balneario bathing machines from the late nineteenth century and so from a time when the taking of waters as opposed to swimming was why anyone would go to the seaside. Less weird but curious nonetheless was something which, in Mallorcan terms, has its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Though car hire had existed for fifty years before 1964 and despite the emergence of agencies such as Roig and Vanrell, the availability of cars for hire was strictly limited. As a sector, car hire was in its infancy, and so, in 1964, something curious landed at Palma's Son Sant Joan airport. It was an Aviaco ATL Carvair, a flying car ferry.

The Carvair (standing for Car Via Air) was the brainchild of Freddie Laker. Flying car ferries already existed, but Laker, through his company Aviation Traders, created a new model which was capable of carrying five cars plus 25 passengers, which was an improvement on the three cars and 20 passengers that the old Bristol Freighter plane could hold. The Carvair was an adapted DC-4, and Aviaco, a Spanish airline which existed between 1948 and 1999, saw its potential in bringing tourists with their cars from the mainland and from Nimes in the south of France.

As things turned out, the routes from Barcelona, Valencia and Nimes to Palma lasted only until 1968. They were costly to operate and so not particularly profitable, the capacity was of course low and, as importantly, the island's car-hire sector moved on at rapid speed, as did sea ferry services, thus making the flying car ferry redundant.

While the Carvair proved to be a shortlived oddity in the history of Mallorca's tourism mobility, the SEAT 600 went from strength to strength until it ceased production in 1973. But there is one other curious part to the Carvair's story, one that involved SEAT. It was also used to export 600s.

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