The Washington Post
Monday, November 26, 2001; Page A21

Pulmonia Fever Flourishes On Streets of Pacific Coast Resort Town

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service


Their name means pneumonia, but they are the hottest thing in town.

Pulmonias are open-air taxis, little more than fiberglass go-carts powered by Volkswagen Bug engines. When they first arrived here 36 years ago, jealous drivers of
regular taxis warned their customers not to ride in the door-less, window-less vehicles because they would catch pneumonia. The name stuck.

"You come to Mazatlan with your kids, and you say, 'Do you want a taxi, or do you want a pulmonia?' Everybody wants a pulmonia," said Salvador Kelly Carrillo,
who makes pulmonias in this resort on Mexico's Pacific coast.

With 350 pulmonias putt-putting around town, Mazatlan's main waterfront shopping strip sometimes looks like a go-cart park at Disney World. Pink-legged tourists
off cruise ships pile into pulmonias to ride past tall palm trees and sandy beaches and through the narrow streets of Old Mazatlan.

But pulmonias are more than just a means of transportation in this port of 500,000 people. They have become a local trademark. Along the waterfront, Mazatlan has
monuments to its vast shrimp fishing fleet, Pacifico beer (which is brewed here), its famous deer herds -- and a bronze replica of a pulmonia.

There is even a monthly newspaper devoted entirely to pulmonia lore and current events, such as proposed increases in gasoline taxes, spats with taxi and bus
drivers' unions and the latest results from the pulmonia drivers' union baseball team. Pulmonias are treated almost lovingly; mechanics at the local pulmonia repair
shop make house calls.

People from all over Mexico bring their old Bugs to Mazatlan to sell them for parts for pulmonias. Mexico is the only country in the world where VW Bugs -- and the
new VW Beetles -- are made.

Fathers and sons have long traditions of driving pulmonias, and they toot cheerfully at each other in traffic passing the bikini shops and beer joints on Mazatlan's busy
commercial strip.

"It's fun, it's nice to be out in the air, you meet a lot of interesting people," said German Escobar Garcia, who has been a driver for 21 years and is an official in the
337-member drivers' union. "And it's better than going to the United States to be a laborer."

Escobar said his 16-year-old son thinks he might like to be a lawyer in Mazatlan, which is about 530 miles northwest of Mexico City in Sinaloa state. "But first," he
said, "he wants to work as a pulmonia driver."

Escobar said the pulmonia design and name have been registered with the federal patent office. He said the union has tried to introduce pulmonias in such other resort
cities as Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, but local transportation unions objected.

Mexican unions are powerful and blunt, and their objection to something usually ends all debate. In one town, when the Mazatlan folks brought in a pulmonia to show
around, members of the local transportation union torched it. But that didn't stop others from finding creative ways to mimic the successful formula.

Mazatlan also has about 230 "safaris," which are essentially pulmonias with little fiberglass doors. That design difference passed patent-law muster, and the safaris
were allowed in about 10 years ago.

But pulmonias have been the preferred means of local transportation, for tourists and locals alike, since Dec. 20, 1965, when the first fleet of 16 went into service.
Their history can be traced to a local businessman named Miguel Ramirez Urquijo, who bought three Cushman golf carts, hoping they might be a clever alternative to
the horse-drawn wooden carriages then in use as taxis.

Local bankers thought Ramirez was crazy and wouldn't give him a loan to buy more of the three-wheeled carts. So Ramirez traveled to the Cushman factory in
Nebraska and persuaded company officials to give him credits and loans to buy eight more.

In the late 1960s, there were 100 pulmonias on the roads. But the three-wheel design, fine for golf courses, was dangerously unstable for city traffic. A four-wheel
design was adopted, and in the early 1980s, the design changed again to incorporate the VW engine.

Pulmonias still are not the safest means of transportation. They buzz along nearly as fast as a car but have no seat belts. Police say there are about four minor
pulmonia accidents a month, but rarely anything serious.

Kelly Carrillo, standing in his pulmonia workshop surrounded by mechanics, welders and fiberglass craftsmen, with photos of the Virgin of Guadalupe and
bare-chested calendar girls on the walls, said pulmonias have a "magical" allure.

"They are Mazatlan," he said, patting the hood of a nearly finished pulmonia. "I love these cars."

                                               © 2001