Chapter 13: Bus builders in Central America 1: Rosmo and Peņa

by John Veerkamp

Introduction

The transport industry of the Central American countries Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize, was greatly influenced by their tumultuous history. Apart from Belize, that only gained independence from the UK in 1981, the first half of the 20th century was one of mainly US influence, with much of the infrastructure, especially railways, being established by the US fruit companies. Most capital cities developed small tramway companies that disappeared in the 1950's. Buses were of US origin, ranging form truck based rural buses with local wooden bodywork to real transit buses in the major cities. Revolutions and civil war had a negative impact on most countries during the period 1970-1990, often bringing industrial development to a halt, and creating a move of rural populations to the cities, which grew rapidly. Public transport in most countries shifted to cooperatives for urban and rural transport, and municipal and many private companies disappeared. Long distance (international) transport is in the hands of a few private companies. This situation remained basically unchanged during the 1990s, in spite of new-found peace and a better investment climate.

The cooperatives bought, and still buy, the cheapest available buses, which are mainly secondhand US schoolbuses. Some countries, especially Nicaragua, received buses through foreign aid channels, creating a bit more of a variety. More recently modern South American buses have made some inroads (Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Scania with Caio, Marcopolo, BUS, El Detalle and Buscar bodywork). Also Mexican buses (Casa, Masa, Toluca, Eurocar) play a small role, while the Japanese supplied some buses through development aid. European chassis were used during the 1970's (Leyland, Bedford, Pegaso) and imported Spanish buses can still be found in small numbers. Long distance buses used to be secondhand US GM and MCI, with some Mexican Somex-Masa and Sultana, but nowadays the Marcopolo Viaggio and various Buscar models on Mercedes, Volvo and Scania chassis dominate this market, though Guatemalan companies still buy the secondhand US coaches. The most recent development is a marketing campaign by the Korean companies Asia, Kia and Hyundai with modern city buses and smaller coaches. Especially in Panama these have become accepted in interurban transport, while their marketing in Nicaragua and Honduras only started in 2000. Japanese and Korean midi and minibuses also play an increasingly important role.

The city of Guatemala tried to improve the transport ssytem by creating separate bus lanes for a high quality system in 1998, and bought 600 modern city buses (MASA from Mexico, Mercedes Benz -Caio from Brazil and articulated Volvo B58 -Ciferal, also from Brazil) in an overall red livery, that were distributed among the cooperatives. However, the scheme failed and the bus lanes are not used. The other cities have traditional systems. Panama City only uses US school buses, but other capitals use a mix of types. Managua, Nicaragua's capital, has the least developed system with very old buses, the majority of which are secondhand US school buses that have not even been repainted and remain schoolbus yellow.

Most buses have been imports, but a small number of local bodybuilders have developed over the years, while US builders have had local assembly plants. In Panama and Nicaragua local workshops still produce open wooden and metal bodies without windows for rural and market buses, but these can hardly be called bus building companies.

The best-known US bus builder with an assembly line in Central America is Blue Bird, with a long-established plant in Guatemala where bodies are mounted on chassis not found in the US, such as Hino. It seems that Ward also did some assembling in Guatemala through a local company called Inguaca, while Superior did the same in El Salvador, probably during the 1960-1970's, though this needs to be confirmed. Fact is that in El Salvador during the 1970s and 1980s many Superior buses could be seen on non-US chassis: Leyland, Isuzu, Ford UK and Mercedes Benz, and Guatemala had Ward model buses displaying the Inguaca name.

No bus builders are known to exist in Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize, though it is not impossible that some have existed. In Guatemala Rosmo is a large bus builder while Transam, a builder of trailers, constructed some buses during the 1990s but apparently withdrew rapidly from this market. El Salvador has a local bus builder called Peņa while some Dicasa buses were seen there during the 1980s, but their origin remains unclear. Costa Rica has several bus builders, the largest of which was Coopesa, a company also active in the aeroplane repair and maintenance business. The bus building division of Coopesa was sold to Young Motors from Korea around 1994 and the name changed to Mauco. Recently Mauco buses started to be sold as La Universal in El Salvador. Other Costa Rican bus builders are Explobus, Sanabria, and Campeon. Rosmo and Mauco are the two bus builders who have managed to sell their products on a regional basis.

In this chapter two companies will be presented: Rosmo and Peņa. The others will be presented later.

Rosmo

Italian immigrant Severino Rosmo Barrato already founded Rosmo in 1935 in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Initially the company built wooden bodywork on US schoolbus type chassis, but later metal bodies were built. Over the years Rosmo managed to build up a good reputation and became the major supplier of bus bodies in Guatemala and also exported to Central America, southern Mexico and some Caribbean islands. Up to the 1990's the Rosmo products were straightforward bus designs on conventional US schoolbus type chassis or various forward control chassis. Among the latter were Mercedes Benz, Pegaso, Bedford, DAF, Hino, IFA, Isuzu and Dina. During the 1990s Rosmo started building to more modern designs and included luxury coaches in its program, with air-conditioning, bar, toilet, video and all other amenities expected in long-distance coaches. Rosmo buses are appreciated for their quality, sturdiness and low price compared to the South American coaches. Lately Rosmo started naming its coaches: Mirage for the front-engine model, Concord for the rear engine model and Micro 2000 for the midibuses.

Peņa, FACAPE

Peņa is a long-established family owned company in Ilopango, El Salvador. For a long time their buses have been very inconspicuous, as they only built bodywork on truck chassis and kept the truck front. Many smaller buses were built on Mercedes Benz LP609, Isuzu and similar chassis. During the 1990's the company started building larger buses on Mercedes Benz truck chassis, both the conventional model and a forward control model. Many of the latter can be seen in El Salvador on interurban services, either with Peņa or Blue Bird bodywork. Recently Mr Peņa's son took over management and has further modernized the models. A large bus with a properly designed front end is now built, again on Mercedes Benz truck chassis. Older buses had no builder's plate at all or only a very large plate with "PEŅA" in the doorstep. Also, two "P" 's were sometimes placed at each side of the destination box above the windscreen. The newest buses have a small plate which shows the company's new name: FACAPE "Fabrica de Carrocerias Peņa" and its address. Total production is not very large, but the buses are well appreciated for their sturdiness. A few can be seen in Honduras, so some export has taken place and the company seems to be expanding.