by Rogério Ferraresi • thanks to Hugo Vidal and Scout Group CarajásOriginally printed in Portugese in Classic Show magazine
In 1955, three young Scouts accepted an astounding challenge: going from São Paulo to Alaska with a Jeep, overcoming terrible climatic and geographical conditions.
Hugo Vidal, Charles Downey, and Jan Stekly were active members of the then-vibrant Carajás Scout Group in São Paulo.
The adventure began in 1954, when the trio were at a Carajás meeting. Hugo was informed that, for the first time in history, a jamboree (World Scouting event) would be held on the American continent in Niagara, Canada, from August 18-28, 1955. Fifteen colleagues from both the Carajás and other groups would fly there, but Hugo thought about travelling in a more challenging way: by road. After the meeting, he shared the idea with Downey and Stekly, who had imagined the same thing.
They decided to roll up their sleeves and design the trip which, being somewhat prickly, was dubbed “Operation Pineapple.” They concluded that they would spend a year of their lives, and would drop everything (work, study, family, or girlfriends), to attend the Jamboree VIII. They also started making a geographical survey and began fundraising. They didn’t have the money, much less the necessary vehicle, for Operation Pineapple.
Although born in Uruguay, Hugo Vidal came to Brazil as a child, which is why he considers himself a Brazilian. “I started my professional career at Ford and then tried a job at Willys, was inducted in 1954 into a dealership of the Agromotor brand, and was assistant manager there. It still exists on Ana Nery Street.”
Charles Downey was an Englishman, a native of Leeds, Yorkshire, who had come to Brazil at one year old. Jan Stekly was an engineering student from Brazilian, whose family had come from Czechoslovakia.
Hugo approached the director general of Agromotor, Dutchman J. B. Versteeg, and asked to be discharged, with the possibility of returning to his office within a year. Versteeg (whose grandson, Mark, is the current head of the Group Carajás) was surprised by the request and asked the reason. Learning the idea, he was thrilled. He also had been scouting and, in 1929, had participated in a jamboree in Birmingham, England, in which Lord Baden Powell, the founder of Scouting, was present.
Versteeg, on behalf of Agromotor, agreed to cede a Jeep CJ-3B (assembled in São Bernardo do Campo, SP), as a 4x4 was ideal for the trip. “It was still necessary, however, to get the money to cover expenses. So we put the plan on paper, had mimeograph copies made, and tried several multinational companies. No one helped us. They argued that funds were needed, but simply did not believe ‘in those three young men and their crazy idea.’”
They decided to seek the support of those who needed to establish a good image before the public, as well as promote their products in the media and increase their sales. This was the case of the nascent auto parts industry, which found many opponents in the ’50s. They decided to go Sindipeças, National Union of Industry and Related Parts For Cars, and were greeted by Ramiz Gattas, who in 2012 would have been competing for 100 years. Gattas, a man of vision who, through his work in the auto parts industry, had great importance in the implementation of the Brazilian automotive industry.
They celebrated an agreement: the Scouts would promote his initiatives on behalf of Brazil’s domestic industry, not only in Brazil, but also abroad. The CJ3B would be dismantled, as many American parts as possible replaced by Brazilian parts supplied by Sindipeças, promoters of the trip. The process would even include engine parts, the transmission, and the differential.
In parallel, they obtained support from the Brazilian branch of Willys, through Paul Quartim Barbosa. He would arrange the exchange of parts, technical assistance (revisions), and advice regarding the media (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television). Additionally, upon arriving in the U.S., the trio would go to company headquarters, and the CJ3B would be disassembled there for evaluation of national components. The Scouts would issue leaflets in Portuguese and English along the way.
They also had to make reports of every unsuccessful step, counting all the details, especially regarding the parts; and Sindipeças would be in charge of distributing the various Brazilian parts. They received the plates 8-57-22, and at Agromotor, installed a 60-liter tank for water, two extra 30-liter fuel tanks, a rear deposit for groceries, four tires, and two marsh steps.
Then the CJ3B was disassembled and painted green and yellow (Willys’ colors), and rebuilt with about 50% domestic parts, starting with bumpers (Valent Amortex), piston rings (Vibar Hastings), radiator (Bonani), filter oil (Irlemp), whip (Equiel), battery (Heliar), padding (Acyl), radio (Telespark), brakes (Gots), wheel hubs (Simetal), pistons (Cima), exhaust (Famor), canopy steel (Carraço), transmission gears (York), switches (Schenk), muffler (From May, Gallo & Co.), brake pads (Ferrodo Lonaflex), crankshaft (Angloamerica), springs (Fabrini), semi-axes (Cinpal), synchronizer rings (Esteves), and brake drums (MITEC Omega) made in Brazil.
“All these companies, combined, have given us a grant, in cash, of $2,000. And there was the financial support of the Royal Windsor brand of lubricants (represented by Agromotor). Moreover, after arriving in Canada, we decided to continue the journey to Alaska only then to return to Brazil,” Hugo remembered.
The camp would have to send reports, buy groceries, clean and wash the Jeep, drive it (in two hour shifts), and keep contact with the public and the press. The finances would be with Charles, the photography with Jan, and Jeep maintenance with Hugo, who knew the Willys product well.
On April 2, 1955, Charles’ birthday, they went to the south of Brazil. In a few days they reached Chui and entered Uruguay, passing through Montevideo after reaching Buenos Aires, Argentina. Once there, they had already surpassed torrential rains and flooded roads, and it was necessary to remove all the mud accumulated on the CJ3B before heading to the Andes.
At 2,500 meters sea level (8,202 feet), driving in the rain and snow on roads slightly wider than the Jeep, the Scouts won the Andean challenge, showcasing their knowledge and the Willys 4x4 system. The 500-km route (311 miles) would take eight hours on normal roads, but it took three days to complete in the difficult terrain.
They arrived at Talca and Santiago de Chile in the end of May, and were greeted by local Boy Scouts. In Chile, they saw the Pacific Ocean, and then left Viña del Mar and reached the desert of Atacama. During the day they drove with the burning sun on Carraço’s roof, and driving the Jeep became almost unbearable. At night, the travelers suffered from almost zero-degree temperatures.
The next part of the passage was almost without water and gasoline, with roads of sandy dirt down to Antofagasta, the city where they camped. In Ascontan, still in Chile, they drove 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level on bad roads, and entered Chuquicamata, famous for its copper mines.
To prevent the frozen water from cracking the radiator and the engine block, they drained the CJ3B’s cooling system at night. By day, they replaced the water and entered Bolivian territory. Without highways (there were only trails), they arrived in the city of Ca-Quilt and attended a party with music and dancing.
On the recommendation of an Indian, they went to the dry lake (salar) of Uyuni, in the direction of a snowy peak, visible from 90 kilometers (56 miles) away. At one stretch a little water splashed on the distributor, whose wires were covered with fabric. When the salt water dried, it caused short-circuiting.
From De Uyuni and Oruro to La Paz, the Jeep did not exceed 30 km/h (19 mph), as it was necessary to use the 4x4.
The trio of Scouts was at 4,300 meters (14,108 feet) sea level, and because of the rarefied air, Hugo had to readjust in the Willys’ Carter carburetor. The CJ3B then advanced towards Lake Titicaca, taking its occupants to the church of Nossa Senhora de Copacabana. They decided to run continuously until they reached Peru and left for Lima on local paved roads. On June 22, they headed for the Ecuador border, driving there for 50 miles on dirt tracks to get to Quito.
“In Ecuador the weather was hot, windy, and there were clouds of sand which punished the body, so one side of the Jeep ended up with a matte painting, as if it had been sandblasted,” Hugo said. He had to grease the leaf springs with butter, margarine, and other products, edible or not.
The next step was to Bogota, Colombia. The CJ3B had to go through terrible mud flats, real traps for trucks. The Jeep towed several of them along the way, and finally reached the Colombian capital.
Between northern and southern Colombia, Panama geographical conditions do not permit (even today) the progress of “Operation Pineapple” by land. The trio was then informed that within 60 hours they would leave on a ship towards Cartagena to Panama. So in 51 hours, after 1,280 km (796 miles), they arrived at the port and asked for the ship. But haste was unnecessary: they were a day and a half late!
When docked in Colon, the Atlantic terminal of the Panama Canal, they were told that it wouldn’t be possible to go between Panama and Costa Rica. Fortunately, Pan American Airways (Pan Am) got the trio and their CJ3B in a Douglas DC-4 cargo aircraft at special prices. They removed the upper trunk and the rear side of the Jeep steps, and it shipped with only 2 inches of clearance below the aircraft’s roof.
Costa Rican Scouts welcomed them in San Jose, Costa Rica. Once, the CJ3B slipped down a mud-covered wooden bridge, down an embankment, and overturned. It came full circle and stopped “on foot.” The trio surveyed the damage: dents and bumps on the body. The Carraço’s hood prevented the three from leaving the car, despite it not having seat belts; it probably saved everyone’s lives.
The CJ3B then went to Managua, Nicaragua, where a Willys Jeep dealership fixed the paint and body. They continued toward Tegucigalpa (Honduras), San Salvador (El Salvador), and Guatemala, but there were no roads heading north. The solution was boarding the Jeep onto a train in Tapachula, on the Guatemalan border with Mexico. Hugo celebrated his birthday by making an eight-hour rail trip to reach the next highway.
On Mexican soil, the Scouts contacted the Mayan Indians, in multicolored clothing, through Oaxaca and Puebla. Soon they reached the country’s capital, Mexico City, which had three million inhabitants, great paved roads, and congested traffic.
After 1,500 km (932 miles) on August 11, they reached Laredo on the U.S. border. They then arrived in Texas, moved to paved roads, and headed north across Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
They arrived in Ontario only five days after leaving Mexico and three days before the opening of the VIII World Scout Jamboree. Lewiston crossed the bridge, about 20 km (12 miles) downstream of Niagara Falls, and came to the event’s location.
The fellow Americans and Canadians (and 66 scouts from other nations who arrived by plane) were impressed by the incredible story. The green and yellow CJ3B was the major attraction in Niagara-on-the-Lake, arousing curiosity in the 11,000 scouts in attendance. The travelers won two moose antlers from Canadian colleagues and told their experiences several times. They still had time to spread Brazilian folklore and sang some of their popular songs, such as “Muie yield” and “John Bully.”
After the jamboree, the trio went to the U.S. The destination was the Willys headquarters in Toledo, Ohio. They conducted a rigorous evaluation of the mechanical components of the vehicle, coming to the conclusion that the wear was normal (thanks in part to maintenance performed by Hugo) – Brazilian parts were absolutely trustworthy and as good as the original, American-made ones.
As in the other countries (except Argentina), several newspapers and TV channels interviewed the trio. Meanwhile, the Willys CJ-3B staff made some improvements in the windshield, heating, and radiator protector, also adding antifreeze. The Scouts participated in a question-and-answer contest on TV and won a cash prize, and received the money promised by Royal Windsor.
They visited the Warn factory, which produced the free-wheeling Jeep system. Seeing an opportunity, Hugo decided to manufacture the system in Brazil. Talking to Warn executives, he obtained the license to manufacture and redesign the device.
They headed to Chicago and crossed into Canada, going through Winnipeg and Edmonton on their way to Dawson Creek, kilometer zero of the Alaska Highway. The route of 2,000 km (1,243 miles) was built in six months in 1941, during World War II when Japan occupied two Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea.
With temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero, they crossed the border on November 11, heading to the air base where they would remain until the 20th; afterward, they returned to drive the CJ3B toward the Circle City. However, accumulated snow reached 2 meters (6.6 feet) tall, making it impossible. They visited the Eskimo village of Bethel, on the coast of the Bering Sea, and Kwethluk. There was a Boy Scout troop and a Moravian mission there; the place could only reached by airplane and dog sledding.
Thanks to the U.S. Air Force, they reached Circle City, 12 km (7.456 miles) inside the Arctic Circle. In Anchorage, they stayed with 253 companions (some only 10 years old) and conducted emergency drills in an ambient temperature of 27 degrees below zero.
They got into the Jeep and returned to Brazil. After 73,000 kilometers (45,360.097 miles), they arrived in São Paulo on April 14, 1956.
They were greeted with honors by Quadros, then governor of São Paulo. “He was very curious, was keen to get into the Jeep, and like a child, was pressing all the control buttons of the CJ-3B,” Hugo said. The Jeep had used several tailpipes and eleven tires, but except for a shock absorber (whose rod bent after a jump given by CJ3B), no Brazilian part was replaced.
The total expense recorded for the trip was Cr $320,000 (US$641 today), a figure far below the actual costs, due to services and lodging provided free because of the nature of the achievement.
After Operation Pineapple, the Jeep’s plate 8-57-22 was returned to Agromotor to be used in the campaign for selling Willys.
Charles took over the management of an electronics company, and Jan joined the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. They are no longer with us, unlike Hugo, who brought Warn patents to Brazil, and founded Accessories Vehicles and Engines (AVM) in 1957.
“I used to joke that the acronym also meant ‘Go Now Even,’” he said, smiling, a young 78-year-old interviewee who remembers AVM with great pride and affection. “I got the license without paying for it because we had no resources for that, but the company was deployed in a short time, and I became a Willys supplier. Then AVM got bigger, and soon we were selling 85% of our production to the foreign market. I was in business until 2007, when I finally decided to leave the company.”
As a souvenir of “Operation Pineapple,” Hugo has an album of newspaper clippings at his home – leaflets and photos — and two other interesting items. The first is a wooden base plate with the number 8-57-22 CJ3B, while the other is a wheel of the Jeep itself with the green and yellow paint worn by the incredible journey. Goodyear painted the inscription “S. Paul - Alaska - S. Paul” and “04/02/55 - 73,000 km - 4/14/56” on the side nearly 60 years ago.
Currently Hugo aims to find the Jeep used in Operation Pineapple. “I investigated the car’s history after the sale, but then I lost track of it. I know I had the engine number and body 4J-86619/57438-15279 chassis-B. Moreover, I am also looking for a Carraço hood – the same type we used on it.” If someone can help Hugo with his search, get in touch through Classic Show.
Operation Pineapple, though little known to the majority, was a great milestone in the history of Scouting worldwide, and was an incredible testament to the quality of their parts – something very important in a time when people doubted the viability of a 100% domestic auto industry.
A similar journey was the Richardson Pan-American Expedition, undertaken 14 years earlier in a Plymouth (see Plymouth Bulletin story). Also see Willys-Overland and Kaiser Jeep in Brazil.
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