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Muhammad Built my Hotrod
Boxing Legend, Civil Rights Activist, Brazilian Car Company Owner
When you think celebrities and cars, you might think manufacturer endorsements and advertisements, or dealerships; Muhammad Ali is probably the last person who comes to mind.
Yes, that Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend and civil rights activist. You might be surprised to learn he once owned a Brazilian automobile manufacturer.
How does a celebrity like Muhammad come to own a Brazilian car company?
Glad you asked. We need to cover a little history first. Though Ford made Model T's in Sao Paulo starting in 1919, it wasn't until the 1950s that Brazil became serious about automobile manufacturing. The government began making efforts to industrialize the economy. They encouraged domestic car production by applying taxes of up to a 100% on imported vehicles, even banning imported vehicles for a period of time. To get around this, General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen eventually set up factories there.
Meanwhile, the government's initiative spawned dozens of quirky car companies. Companies like DKW Malzoni. DKW was a German manufacturer from the original four auto union companies, which went on to become the Audi we know today. Malzoni was a Brazilian businessman and lawyer. The Brazilian arm of DKW was called DKW Vermag - they focused on producing cars for Brazil's middle-class.
A Star is Born
Malzoni began building competition cars based on DKW's three cylinder, two stroke engine. The original steel body proved too heavy and was switched to fiberglass.
The DKW Malzoni debuted in 1964 and won at Interlagos that same year.
After winning, the car became quite popular and Malzoni couldn't handle production demand. He started Luminari Company with some investors to keep up. Production started at around 35 cars per year and quickly ramped up to over 100.
In 1966, Luminari was renamed Puma. The Puma was named Brazil's most beautiful car by Quatro Rodas magazine, who had none other than Nuccio Bertone on the panel.
So far so good. However, in 1967, Volkswagen purchased DKW and halted all manufacturing of DKW parts. With no chassis or motor, Puma had to overhaul their design.
The new design was built around the air-cooled Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
For the first time in the history of the known world, a front-engine, front-wheel drive car became a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive car.
Throughout the 1970's and 80's, completed cars were exported to Canada, and the US got a "kit car" version. US buyers purchased the car without the front suspension, transaxle, engine, or wheels and tires. You could buy the components from a distributor, or source them yourself from a salvage yard.
Tough times hit the Brazilin economy during this period. Stagnation, inflation and crisis didn't spare Puma. They declared bankruptcy, and were sold twice, once in 1985, and again in 1986.
This set the stage for Muhammad Ali. Production rights had been sold to Araucaria vehicles. But a Puma representative in Texas, Kevin Haines, kept the flame alive. Haines happened to be friends with Ali, and convinced the boxer to invest.
Muhammad Ali went all-in. He traveled down to Brazil and went on to form Ali Vehicle Industry. The new venture began development of the Ali Stinger, based on the Puma GT.
Plans were made to sell in North America, Europe, and Saudi Arabia.
To enter the Saudi Arabian market, Ali teamed up with Mohammad Al-Fassi. And here's where things rapidly went downhill.
Mohammad Al-Fassi was a Moroccan-turned Saudi businessman and self-proclaimed Sheikh related to the Saudi Royal family by marriage. Al-Fassi arranged to import 400 special editions of the Puma convertible under the Puma Al-Fassi badge. The cars would be imported from Brazil and modified to European car standards.
Turns out AI-Fassi picked the wrong team in the first Gulf War. He was put under house arrest and his assets were seized. This unfortunate series of events was a crushing blow to Ali, who'd already invested $36 million in the deal.
Muhammad Ali was forced to transfer production rights to Alpha Metals. This blow, along with Brazil lifting the ban on imported vehicles, was the straw that broke Puma's back. The venture came to an end in 1995. AI-Fassi passed away on Christmas Eve, 2002. Papers labeled him an "Arab sheikh notorious for his wild behavior and extravagant lifestyle. He was only 50.
Quite a story. You'd think this would be the end of Puma.
You'd be wrong. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Puma resurrected itself in 2013 under the name Puma Automobiles in South Africa. They unveiled the Puma GT 2.4 Luminary in 2017.
The reincarnated company also made a $1.1 million dollar car called the Youabian Puma. Which is probably the ugliest car you will ever see at any price.
If you speak Brazilian Portuguese, you’ll enjoy this documentary style video.