Friday, January 11, 2008

Vintage bonding

The annual vintage-car parade in Hua Hin reveals some extraordinary vehicles and some very surprising people

Published on December 29, 2007

Vintage bonding

The annual Hua Hin Vintage Car Parade is aimed to raise money for charity, and to celebrate His Majesty the King's 80th birthday.

Pulling into a garage halfway to Hua Hin, a huge 1950s Americano convertible - the type that still prowl the streets of Havana - lay mortally wounded. Wide, long, low-slung and with huge fins, it was leaking vital juices from every orifice. A great lake of dark liquid spread slowly from underneath the car in all directions.

The owners, who looked like the road crew from the Carabao band, seemed defeated. They just stood there, casting sad looks at their dying prize.

A couple of klicks up the road was an ancient Morris Minor that was moving so slowly there should have been a man walking in front of it carrying a red flag. Is this what happens when ancient cars leave their shelters, only for some to die by the road and others merely to limp along it? Mercifully, only the weakest.

Yet pulling into the Sofitel Hotel driveway was a sight to behold. Dozens of the rarest, most loved, buffed and polished vintage cars were on display in all their glory, having made the long trek from Bangkok on December 14.

The purpose? To take part in the annual Vintage Car Club Rally, to raise money for charity, and to celebrate His Majesty the King's 80th birthday. Hence there were 80 cars on parade. Okay, 79.

It was also an event to show off, meet old friends, bond with new ones and give these cherished beauties an outing. In that sense, the setting of the Sofitel Hotel, and vintage cars in the royal resort of Hua Hin are made for each other.

And what cars! In true "vintage" terms, the star of the show was a 1904 Darracq owned by the exotically named John Smith. Photographers, car owners, hotel guests and tourists swarmed over it, posed in front of it, all making cooing noises.

Smith - slim, mild-mannered and unruffled - had spent a great deal of time and money not only in restoring the car, but getting it out here in the first place. For one reason or another it's incredibly difficult to import vintage cars into Thailand. But somehow Smith managed it, and the Darracq quite rightly led the parade around town the following afternoon.

Like pet dogs and their masters who slowly come to resemble each other over the years, so too do car owners come to represent the vehicle they have spent so much energy restoring. The MG owners had flat caps, as did Smith.

A delightful university lecturer was as genteel as the ancient vehicle of which she'd made a replica and now drives around the campus. The more eccentric the car, the more interesting the owner.

I asked the charming 85-year-old owner of a well-cared-for Mercedes convertible, in which Tintin and Snowy would have looked entirely at home, to describe in one word his relationship with the car he had driven for 50 years.

"Son," he answered, while his real son smiled indulgently behind him. Would they mind if I sat in the back for the Saturday afternoon parade? "Please, be our guest."

"Its more expensive than keeping a mia noi," grinned an Austin Mini owner. "And much more rewarding. They don't answer back, either."

That's another thing about vintage-car owners. It's not like belonging to the Ferrari Club, with its hi-so crowd, flash money and hang-around models. Although there is undoubtedly money involved in keeping and owning a classic car, it goes deeper than that. The owners are proud but surprisingly humble.

It's because of the hundreds and indeed thousands of hours spent under the bonnet, in searching for parts through the various car clubs, the immense satisfaction and pride in finding something in a shed or a magazine or by word of mouth, and then later being able to wheel it out, start it up, and drive off down the dusty highway.

"Its all archaeology," said the ever-enthusiastic president of the Vintage Car Club of Thailand, Kwanchai Paphathong.

"It's hard to know just how many old cars are still to be found in Thailand. Many were shipped out from England and Europe in the 1930s. Just occasionally we'll get a call from a woman whose husband has died.

"One contacted us and said, 'There's an old wreck in the garage and I want to knock the garage down to build a garden. Can you come and have a look?' So we did. The wreck was a 1950s Lanchester. How much do you want? 'Oh, how about Bt40,000?' We had a treasure."

Then I spotted a 1973 Citroen, the type used by the French police. It has hydraulics that make the body go up and down. "Do you like it?" beamed the owner. "Absolutely, this is a nostalgic moment. This was the first car I was ever sick in."

Saturday morning and I awake to the sound of a car engine being turned over and over. A muffled Thai swear word rents the morning birdsong. Then it starts. A triumphant laugh.

By noon all the cars are assembled for the grand rally around Hua Hin. At 1pm Smith in his Darracq pulls levers, toots the horn and sets off. No, please stop, he is asked. There are more photos needed. And further delays in getting the cars in the right order. I walk over to Smith. "Will the car overheat?" "No, but I will." I walk over to my booked ride in the Mercedes only to be met by the son who apologises profusely.

"So sorry, Governor wants to come in this car. So sorry." I was going to suggest the Governor could sit on my knee, but thought better of it. The parade was moving off now, and I was car-less. And then, across the lawn I spotted a Morgan, with a nice young chap sitting at the wheel.

"Er, are you on your own?"


"Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all. Jump in."

A Morgan! There is a God.

That night under the stars there was the fancy-dress buffet at the Sofitel. Lots of Edwardiana and ruffles and well-dressed ladies. And inexplicably, someone dressed up as Dracula.

We couldn't place him. Was he the owner of the Armstrong Siddeley Hurricane? Or the Fiat 500, or maybe the 1955 Desoto Diplomat? I reckon it was the Chevrolet Stingray - a car with some real bite.

The Hua Hin Vintage Car Parade and Arts festival was organised by the Hua Hin Hoteliers' Club, led by the Sofitel Centara Grand Resort, the Vintage Car Club of Thailand, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Hua Hin Municipality and Hua Hin Market Village.

Roger Beaumont

The Nation

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