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Vintage Jeeps Parade Through Colombia

February 7, 2006

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Hundreds of historic Willys jeeps on Tuesday rambled through the coffee-growing region of Colombia, a country long-enamored with the World War II-era vehicles, to set a world record for the longest jeep convoy.

The caravan coursed three miles through the streets of Armenia, 110 miles west of Bogota.

``It was a great trip, and not one vehicle broke down during the trip, which of course is no surprise,″ said an organizer, Juan Carlos Ospina.

An observer from Guinness World Records was brought in from Chile to measure what drivers hoped would be a new listing. Ospina said at least 300 vehicles participated.

Guinness officials were not available for comment.

The Andes mountains of Colombia may seem a strange place to find so many U.S.-built Willys. But the vehicle found a loving home in this South American country _ especially its mountainous coffee-growing region _ ever since Willys began arriving from an Ohio factory in the 1950s.

Tens of thousands of the aging vehicles are reportedly still alive and kicking in Colombia, and local company Willys of Colombia even produced new vehicles based on one of the most storied names in four-wheel-drive history.

The vintage jeeps are collectors items in the United States and other developed countries. But in Colombia, most of them are still workhorses, hauling thousands of pounds of coffee beans to market each day or being used as taxis _ up to 23 passengers at a time _ that traverse the country’s high mountains.

Standing next to his topless, cherry-red Willys prior to the event, Jose Alvaro Bonilla proudly expressed an undying devotion to his 1950 American original.

``For me, it’s a great car, with much power. It’s helped me in the tough times,″ he said.

Indeed, the Willys was hailed for its reliability during recovery efforts from a 1999 earthquake in Armenia that killed 1,170 people. The ubiquitous old jeep ferried aid workers, food and medicine to remote areas.

The coffee-region’s cult-like love for Willys culminates in an annual festival that draws enthusiasts from around Colombia. The main attraction is the ``jeepado″ at which crowds scream in delight as drivers compete to pilot the most overloaded jeep the farthest _ while doing a wheelie.

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