The Pan-American Highway isn't a particularly challenging road to negotiate. Not like it used to be, anyhow. It's paved these days, but it remains really, really long. It runs 19,000 miles between Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern tip of South America, and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the Arctic Circle. On its way north (or south, depending upon where you’re headed), it passes through Buenos Aires, where Héctor Argiró grew up.
"When I was a child, I asked my father where the Pan-American Highway ended, and he told me Alaska," he said. "So I began to look at maps and follow the routes with my finger, and I found that I liked maps."
Argiró ended up becoming a cartographer, making maps of oil and gas pipelines all over the Americas. It was a good career, but throughout it all he had a nagging itch. Ever since he had asked his father about the Pan-American Highway, he wanted to travel it from one end to the other. Nearly a quarter of a century later, he began planning his trip.
Even before he began mapping out the journey of a lifetime, he bought the car he would eventually use—a white 1969 Torino 380 coupé he calls Balboa. It's not the Ford Torino you may be picturing. Nor is it one of the boxy Ford Falcons that were once ubiquitous in Argentina. The Torino is about as uniquely Argentinian as any vehicle ever made—built by Industrias Kaiser Argentina S.A. (IKA), a subsidiary of Kaiser Corporation set up in cooperation with the Argentine government in 1955 to manufacture Jeeps, licensed Renaults and Fiats and other foreign vehicles for the domestic market.
At the time, Argentina’s motoring public was awash in fragile European economy cars, so IKA licensed the AMC Rambler Classic to build in Argentina. Not stopping at a mere repro of an American model, IKA combined elements of the Rambler Classic and Rambler American, hiring Pininfarina to design the car's distinctive bodywork. The idea was to create a car that was rugged enough for use on Argentina's sometimes challenging road surfaces, but styled with a European flair more appropriate to Argentine aesthetic sensibilities. The result is something that looks a bit like muscle car-era Americana, but in a sleeker, more polished wrapper.
Powered by an innovative-for-the-time overhead cam inline-six engine, the luxurious-for-Argentina IKA Torino hit showrooms in 1966. It was an instant success in Latin America. Juan Manuel Fangio—the famous Formula 1 driver—owned one, and it also seemed to be popular among communist autocrats and banana republic dictators. Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev, and Muammar Gaddafi all owned Torinos.
When he was growing up, one of Argiró's uncles had a white '70 four-door Torino 300S, and another of his uncles owned a white '75 TS coupé. Argiró bought his '69 coupé (also white) in 2006, taking three years to restore it and get it in shape for the mother of all road trips. He had bought it for less than $200 U.S., and it needed plenty of work, including engine, brakes, steering, and paint. It has comfortable seats and pillarless window openings, but there's no air conditioning. Argiró said he preferred mechanical simplicity to gadgetry so that he'd have fewer repairs to make once he got underway.
So it begins
Argiró had lined up a few sponsors and saved up money for the epic voyage, and hit the road in November 2016. He pointed the car south and drove to Ushuaia first, then back up through Chile before stopping again in Buenos Aires. His plan was to be in Alaska by June 2017. But as any traveler (or home mechanic) knows, things always take longer than they do. His route also wasn't exclusive to the actual Pan-American Highway. There were plenty of deviations and meanderings along the way.
"When I planned the trip, it was going to be seven months, but by then I was only in Brazil, so I changed my thinking," he said. "This trip is for enjoyment, it's not a race. I have an idea where I'm going, but it changes every day."
To make ends meet, Argiró leaned on sponsorships (tires, gasoline, oil, garage services), and by selling "El Mundo en Torino" merchandise on the road. His father sold merch back home in Argentina. He also benefited from the kindness of strangers—a bed here, a meal there, some help from a back alley tire shop over yonder.
He made his way through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia before putting his car on a container at Cartagena (on the Caribbean seacoast) and having it shipped to Panama. As of yet, there's still no road across the Darién Gap, a 66-mile expanse of dense jungle that is the only gap in the Pan-American Highway. From Panama, he headed up through Central America, visiting Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize on his way to Mexico.
"I spent five months in Mexico—Yucatán to Sonora, diagonally," he said. "I went to the jungle, I went to the desert. I saw a lot of Mexico."
Welcome to America
By May 23 of this year, he was at the port of entry between Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, ready to cross into the United States. He had already visited 18 countries and traveled more than 34,000 miles. Regarding the old Argentine car and the scruffy 46-year-old behind the wheel, first one Customs and Border Protection agent, then another, then another scratched his head in bewilderment.
"The officers didn't believe that I drove from Argentina to the U.S. in and old car," Argiró said. "I talked with five or six officers."
But after an hour spent answering questions and filling out paperwork, he was on his way again. That hadn't even been the longest immigration delay he had faced. The toughest one was between Colombia and Panama, which took several days due to concern from both countries about narco trafficking.
I met Argiró in early June, at a car show on the main drag in Williams, Arizona, on Route 66 near the Grand Canyon. He's not allowed to sell branded T-shirts and mugs and such in the U.S. (his visa forbids it) but he can offer them for free, and he can accept donations. At events like these, he can spread the word and meet potential supporters of his trip.
As of early July, Argiró was making his way through California, connecting with Argentine social groups and car aficionados on his way toward Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Canada and, finally, Alaska.
"I hope to be in Alaska the last week in August," he said, expressing a desire to be clear of Alaska and Canada by the time the weather turns cold.
From there he hopes to see Montréal, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. as he descends the Atlantic seaboard toward Florida throughout autumn. His original plan was to put the car on a boat in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and ship it home, but he's met a bunch of people since leaving Argentina and wants to see the Sunshine State on his way to visit some friends who live in Texas.
For now, the plan is to load the car into a container in Veracruz and have it shipped to Europe. The journey continues, when and where it stops is anyone’s guess. Argiró is keeping his options open.