Automania

Monaco GP this weekend

The annual parade of film stars, rock legends and the rich and powerful is on this weekend in the tiny principality of Monaco. The harbour will be wall to wall expensive yachts and the villa car parks will have all the Lambo’s, Ferrari’s and Maserati’s you would ever wish for.

Somewhere in the middle of all this excess wealth (me, jealous?) is a supposed motor race. I say ‘supposed’, because the circuit is now totally unsuitable for today’s F1 cars. Passing is impossible, and other than waiting for the guy in front to stick it in the wall, you can forget about passing, especially if your name is David Coulthard or Ralf Schumacher. Even if your name is Michael Schumacher, it’s still difficult!

Renault will have everything crossed for this one, as it will be important not to let Raikkonen in the McLaren Mercedes get in front during qualifying. Meanwhile, you can be sure that the gnomes in Bridgestone have been busy. Schumacher (M) is a past master at this circuit, so even though he will be one of the first out on the Saturday Qualifying, and on the slippery track, do not write him off. Ever!

The race begins at 7 p.m.


A “national” transport

Whilst it has been said that the national transport in Thailand is a 125 cc motorcycle, the ideal transport for a family of five; the most ubiquitous form of transport is the ‘song taew’ or baht bus. These converted pickups come in many guises all over Thailand, but all follow much of the same style. Two rows of seats in the back, and a roof. As a public ‘bus’ it works reasonable well, and other than the fact that there are ten times too many of them, the system is ok.

In the Philippines, the equivalent is the ‘Jeepney’, which has a much more interesting history than the ‘song taew’. The fascination of the Jeepney comes in the utilization of vehicles and engines that were already existing, and adapting them to the requirements of the time. Today’s Jeepneys are vehicles that can trace their roots, some 50 plus years later.

Most people are aware that the Jeepney was derived from the American Jeep, itself a most interesting development. These were not, as again popular ‘wisdom’ would suggest, designed by Willy’s, but were first designed and produced by Bantam Engineering in Detroit, the makers of the American Austin Seven, and the first batch of these ‘Scout Cars’ rolled off the assembly lines in 1940. The American government later had Willys and Ford also make these vehicles to the Bantam design. The name ‘Jeep’ came later, being a phonetic interpretation of G.P. (General Purpose) vehicle, and allegedly coined by a lady journalist when being shown the prototype, so never say that women writers don’t know anything about the motor industry!

When General MacArthur said “I shall return” he did not say anything about coming back to pick up the Jeeps that the US government had left in Manila in 1945, and in fairly short order, the ex-US Army military vehicles were plying the streets of Manila, and the enterprising new Filipino owners began using them as taxis, replacing the horse-drawn ‘calesas’, painting them in bright colours to alert passengers to the fact that this was a version of public transport. This was the beginning.

To protect the drivers and passengers from the sun, the Jeep grew a fixed roof. More seats became necessary to give these diminutive taxis some economies of scale. More bums on seats needed more seats for bums, and so the original six seater ‘auto-calesa’ began to grow appendages on the rear to get more people on board, until the much longer 16 seater PUJ’s (Public Utility Jeep) became commonplace.

As the Jeep began to mutate, it got its name of ‘Jeepney’. It was no longer a modified ex-WWII Jeep, but had become its own persona. It had also produced its own motor industry, manufacturing and assembling these now unique vehicles. Not only to manufacture, but to keep them running, there was now an attendant vehicle repair industry, and to satisfy the Filipino penchant for decoration and then some, there was a parallel industry making the elaborate accessories, such as the mandatory chrome-plated horses for the bonnets of the new vehicles.

It did not end there. With the Filipinos being the musicians of Asia, there needed to be a way of giving these Jeepneys some music on the run, and the auto-sound industry grew to encompass this important side of the Jeepney story as well. Several hundred decibels of distorted sound was the norm until a few years ago, but recent legislation in Metro Manila has turned the volume down of late.

So we have the Jeepney, still around in 2005, uniquely showing it origins from the Philippines, described best by Valerio Nofuente. At the front of the Jeepney, often right on top, is a plastic headdress verging on a crown, with names like Jeepney King, Queen Leah, Super-Star or one of the Jeepney body makers, such as Sarao Motors written on it. At night, this will be festooned with blinking lights, around some saint’s statue.

Between the visor and the windshield is usually a plastic strip on which is written the route, such as “Quiapo-Espana Extension,” or “Cubao-Quezon Boulevard.” On the windshield are the last few years accumulation of Land Transportation Commission stickers, stickers from universities or from pilgrimages to Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage at Antipolo.

Between the bonnet and the windshield is another bit of space that is usually dedicated to the name of the jeep - the name of a child, grandchild or the owner, like “Inang Petang,” “Noel-Rowena” - in large letters.

The bonnet is the special repository for the Jeepney decorator. Here is at least one chrome horse in memory of the horse drawn calesa. Along with the horses is usually a forest of other decorations including aerials, mirrors and numerous parking lights.

The grille can be copied from Ford, Toyota or Mercedes Benz or made of steel bars in the image of the original Jeeps, and will normally also have much decorative work in the way of more lights. Even the bumper is another item to carry more art-work as well as the number plate.

The side of the Jeepney will carry painted rocket ships, Star Wars or Buck Rogers; jet fighters like those of the Philippine Air Force’s Blue Diamonds, planets in orbit, bursts of flame, landscapes, and girls names.

The steps have more slogans and welcoming signs such as Watch Your Steps, Halina Baby (Let’s Go, Baby), or Welcome Chicks or even Walang Sabit (The Driver Is Unattached), or Wanted Wife 35-25-35.

The interior may include an altar, with its image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, or of the Suffering Christ. With fervour and ritual, the driver hangs a garland of sampaguita or everlasting flowers near this altar (sometimes on the rearview mirror), an offering somewhat pagan in spirit, since in return God is expected to help him earn the day’s bread.

Stuck to the windshield beside the cassette player-recorder are stickers and printed inscription that carry instructions such as Magbayad ng maaga nang di maabala (Pay early so as not to cause delays); Barya po lamang sa umaga (Only change please, in the morning); and to remind passengers of the honour system of fare collection, God knows Hudas (Judas) not pay.

While the international auto manufacturers may build more practical people movers, a minibus (or a song taew) does not have the mystique that is possessed by a Jeepney. Over 50 years of tradition has been incorporated in today’s Jeepney, something the minibus cannot claim. As is often quoted, there are horses for courses, and the Jeepney keeps his chrome plated and on the bonnet!


A little Monaco history

Since 1929, the Monaco GP has always run through the streets of Monte Carlo. It is a slow circuit, demanding on both car and driver. The presence of kerbs and walls leaves little room for even small mistakes.

One of the men behind the original race was Louis Chiron, who last drove at Monaco in 1955, when he was placed sixth and, at 55 years and 276 days, was the oldest driver to start a World Championship Grand Prix (so there’s hope for me yet!). Chiron continued as Clerk of the Course up to his death in 1979.

There have been small changes to the circuit over the years, but it has retained its essence and frequently provides some of the more spectacular crashes in the calendar. Two drivers have managed to finish up in the Monte Carlo harbour. Alberto Ascari in 1955 and Paul Hawkins in 1965 - in neither case was the driver badly hurt. There was a third excursion in the harbour, in the movie Grand Prix, when Pete Aron (James Garner) dunked his Jordan-BRM.


Some cars for sale!

One of the biggest problems in buying second hand cars anywhere is getting a ‘real’ history on the vehicle. Just by chance, three owners contacted me in the last week to say they had their cars for sale, normally driven by their wives. Two of these people I know personally, and the cars likewise, and they are both excellent vehicles.

The first is a five year old Cefiro, bronze in colour with around 80k only on the clock. Full service history done through Nissan and no major bingles. Drives like new as the advert would say (and it does) and 550,000 baht is the asking price on this one.

The second is an Audi A80. It’s a 1994 auto sedan with a 2 litre engine which has just been completely overhauled by the Audi dealer in Chonburi. It has new tyres and is in very good condition. Ideal 2nd car for her indoors. Price 225,000 baht ONO.

If you are interested in either of these, contact me and I can put you in touch with the owners - however, no dealers and no dreamers, please.

The third car is an interesting old classic, and I have been invited to come and drive it. After I manage to do this, I will feature this car too.


Autotrivia Quiz

Last week, I mentioned that the MG octagon with the letters MG inside have been part of the history of MG, but the first models did not have it. I asked what year did MG’s first appear with the octagonal radiator badge? The answer was 1928 with the Mk IV 14/40 model.

So to this week. What company was the first to sell over 1,000,000 cars in 12 months, in the world?

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!