When they first appeared in the 1920s, colectivos were small buses built out of smaller vehicle chassis (cars, vans, etc.) and, later, out of truck chassis (1950–1990, by Mercedes-Benz Argentina). Colectivos used to be built on top of units not specifically designed for the transportation of people and were decorated with unique hand painted "graphics" (fileteado) that gave each unit a distinct flavor and added a colorful touch to Buenos Aires' streets.
Their evolution and size growth was steady and they kept their own picturesque style until 1990, when the urban fleet was modernized with real bus units (with motors in the back) and much of the charm was lost.
Together with football, urban landmarks (like the Buenos Aires Obelisk) and tango, the colectivo was, until the 1990s, one of the big tourist draws of Buenos Aires. Because of its golden times the colectivo is loved by the citizens of Buenos Aires. A colectivo historian concluded after his extensive study:
''The colectivo is considered a source of pride for the national ego (identity), the same one that makes an Argentinian proud that his countrymen invented the birome (ballpoint pen) and dulce de leche, and that his city's avenues include the longest in the world (Rivadavia Avenue) as well as the widest (9 de Julio Avenue)
In the 1900s Argentina was the "Granary of the World", one of the largest world food producers and exporters, and a wealthy country. The streets of prosperous Buenos Aires (with 2 million inhabitants) soon filled with cars. Commercial relations with the United Kingdom (mainly trade in meat and grain), also brought a myriad of investors and enterprises in the early years of the century, including Latin America's first metro system, cars, trains, tramways, taxis and public buses.
But in 1929 the Great Depression hit, and the local cab owners attempted a radical change. They modified their taxi units, widening the back seats to allow more than one passenger per trip, and established pre-defined itineraries and stops, at a lower price per passenger. Every day, the drivers deliberately challenged the "real" public buses and electrical tramways, parking near them at the busiest stations and driving close to them during the day to pick up their passengers. Soon people started to prefer these colectivos and the original buses and tramways became part of history. Thus the original Argentine colectivo was born. With time, these routes were formalized and owners of individual units grouped into líneas (lines) that operated a particular route. Since several lines often shared avenues and roads, companies began to adopt different colors to distinguish their units and not depend only on their assigned numbers (up to 3 digits) because they were often hard to see in the crowded streets. The Line 60 had it's beginnings in this era and, with it, a legend was born.
Popular demand in the 1930s propelled the size of the colectivo from five to up to a dozen seats but the picturesque external chassis designs remained in the original styles, which were kept until the 1970s and 1980s (by which time the units had twenty seats).
After World War II and during the 1950s, Argentine industry started to develop again but the country's public transport system was inadequate for the new era: practically no modernization had taken place since the early years, and the train system was inadequate to meet the rising demands of the population.
Mercedes-Benz then took up this novel idea and ran with it, forever shaping the history of the colectivos. In 1951 the then Daimler-Benz AG set up in Argentina its first factories outside Germany: one in the town of San Martín, near Buenos Aires, and another in González Catán.
Mercedes released updated local colectivo based on modified L 3500 truck chassis – LO 3500, OP 3500, LO 311, LO 312, LO 911– with a separately manufactured body fitted at a later stage by different coach builders. In less than a decade the output was 6,500 units a year. In 1963 Mercedes built the 10,000nd colectivo (model LO 312), and continued with other models, such as L 1112 (120 HP), LA 1112 (traction in all wheels) and the L 1114. Due to the family relationship with the truck, the Mercedes-Benz Colectivos had a diesel engine with power transmitted to the rear axle by a five-speed constant-mesh gearbox.
All the lines progressively adopted these units and, between 1950 and 1990, all the colectivos on the street eventually became Mercedes-Benz models, the most successful bus in its day and age.
In 1987 "El Detalle", one of the bus body suppliers of Mercedes-Benz, started competing with its former chassis provider, investing in low price and modern urban buses, with cheaper Deutz engines. That same year model OA-101 was launched. This model was rear-engined and had pneumatic suspension, allowing for smoother rides and more inside space.
Mercedes-Benz responded the following year with the rear-engined OH-1314 but that was considered "the death of the Colectivo, certainly the end of an era.
In 1989 the last truck based Colectivos on classic Mercedes-Benz chassis LO-1114 were mounted. Production had been discontinued the previous year.
During the 1990s, some companies found it cheaper to switch to single colored units, and a flurry of mergers and foldings changed the way the colectivos look.
Nowadays, only the three-digit numbering survives from the traditional old "líneas", fileteado is rare and scarce, the filigranas were lost, and some of the classic big details, like the panoramic mirrors close to the driver's head, simply disappeared.
After 1995 automatic ticket machines added added safety to journeys since the drivers did not have to sell tickets and drive at the same time.
As of 2005, Mercedes-Benz units account only for about half of the buses in the city of Buenos Aires and its surroundings, with units built in Buenos Aires (La Favorita, Eivar, CND, CEAP, Ugarte, etc) and in Brazil (Marcopolo, CAIO and others). The other half are El Detalle units and others like Scania, Volvo, Dimex and Zanello.
Most older units have been retired from service in Buenos Aires, as they are considered too dangerous and noisy for use in the fast-paced city. They were disposed of or sent to smaller cities all over the country. Colectivos are usually retired of only when they are too damaged to be repaired, some of them have “resuscitated” as fine motorhomes.
Decorators used many colorful combinations over the units' external body, helping identify each one of the líneas. These eventually evolved into "corporate colors", meaning that when on occasion two or more lines were bought by the same company, units of different lines were painted in the same colors. Until the 1990s, the fileteado was kept nonetheless in spirit with the uniqueness of each individual bus.
Fileteado was defined as: "art on wheels": full of colored ornaments and symmetries completed with poetic phrases, sayings and aphorisms, both humorous or roguish, emotional or philosophical. The colectivos were where this art found its best "canvas". Long, wide mirrors placed around the driver seat often had winding drawings and motifs that usually portrayed the driver's preferences in football, religion and tango. The outside of the units was also painted with fileteado details, flower motifs, national flags, and football team flags. It was also very common to see phrases written down in complex fonts, usually in the back. These phrases were often ingenious puns or rhymes and became part of Argentine folklore. A simple example of a very common phrase is: Lo mejor que hizo la vieja es el pibe que maneja ("The best thing my old woman did was the lad who's driving").
The units with a larger budget had more details added around the driver's seat. These usually came in the form of lights of exotic colors or seat covers with wool and fringes or even leather. It was very common to see the gear-stick full of hanging knickknacks and the casing where the tickets and coins were stored covered with motifs.
The colectivo bus operations of Buenos Aires, Argentina, provide a premium-quality bus service that attracts exceptionally high ridership with virtually no public financial support and only receive subsidized petrol in order to keep fares low.
With very affordable ticket prices and extensive routes, usually not further than four blocks from folks residences, the colectivo is by far the preferred mode of transportation around the city and their frequency makes them equal to the subway systems of other cities, but on wheels, however, they cover a far wider area than the subway system. "Porteños" have a love-hate relationship with the colectivo. On one side, they tend to be very crowded in rush hour and are a haven for pickpockets and petty thieves. Beggars and itinerant salesmen hawk on board. On the other hand, they are a loved necessity in the city and a convenient and cheap way to get around. Most colectivos in big cities of Argentina do not have a fixed timetable, but run from four to several per hour, depending on the bus line and time of the day.
Section boundaries are fixed at about 3 km from each other (less so near the city center), so that a 4-kilometer ride may sometimes require to pay the second rate.
Some lines operate a number of "diferencial" buses, with no standing room and other amenities, at a higher price.
These fares are good for one ride. There is no transfer scheme across lines, or between the bus and the underground.
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