The Di Tella Magnette

The Di Tella family


Siam Di Tella was a large manufacturer of heavy machinery and home appliances, so they were quite well prepared to get into the automotive business. The first cars hit the road in 1961, being half-British/half-Argentine parts locally assembled.  But by 1962, almost everything was produced in their own Monte Chingolo factory. The leading model was the Di Tella 1500, internally and externally similar to the Riley 1500, featuring a 4-door sedan, a station wagon (Traveller) and a 2-door small pick-up (Argenta). All of them were fitted with the 1498 cc engine, single SU carb, and a 3-speed gearbox, with column stick shift. The prices were below their direct competitors, the Fiat 1500 and the Peugeot 404.


Immediately after its launch the Di Tella became a favorite cabby car. Being tough, large sized (for Argentine standards) and having an almost unbreakable engine, with a lower fuel consumption than American cars, it was the perfect option. But this happened to be a double edged sword; for most middle-class city drivers, owning a Di Tella was something like being cabbies themselves, so they will turn to the faster, lighter and more fashionable Fiats and Peugeots.


Besides, there was that impossible steering. It might not have a major drawback in the city, but it was highly inadequate for the road. The Argenta pick-up failed to catch the attention of the countrymen, who were not happy with the car handling at the fast-driving argie roads. And the Di Tella 1500 equipment was truly spartan compared to its rivals, which also benefit from more updated design. And last but not least, its own reliabilty conspired against sales; few cabbies would buy a new Di Tella after 3 or 4 years of use, when it could easily keep on running for a much longer period of time.


Trying to improve the car’s public image, Di Tella released the higher-priced Magnette 1622, with 4-speed gearbox, leather seats and some improved detailing. However, it did not succeed in changing the people’s perception of the brand name, and its selling figures were always quite modest.


In 1966 the license (not the factory) was sold to IKA Renault, manufacturer of the American Motors and Renault marques. They released the Morris Oxford and renamed the Magnette as MG, and after a while discontinued the basic, cheaper Di Tella 1500. This proved to be the worst possible decision, since sales plummeted. By the end of 1967, the venerable Britush design was definitely out of fashion, so, following a general update of the production line, IKA Renault ceased manufacturing Morris, Rileys and MG’s.


The 1973 oil crisis gave an unexpected hand to the old Di Tellas; since few cabbies were able to invest on new cars, most cities decided to extend working permissions for older taxicabs (at least in Buenos Aires a maximum of 15 years was allowed). By the end of the 70’s most Di Tellas were finally taken out from service.


Right now, there are still quite a few in the streets, but I’m sorry to say that most of them are in lousy condition. They do not have any significant collector’s value –maybe someday they will- and can only be seen in suburbia or small province towns. As far as I know there is only one vendor of spare parts in Buenos Aires, an elderly gentleman who is considering retiring, and it is doubtful that anyone would be willing to continue his business. Since most present day owners are not exactly wealthy, his prices are very affordable, making Di Tella’s restoration easier.