Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Paulo Alcazaren, Gov.ph, DMG, Mike Sabarre | posted October 10, 2012 17:53
1968 to the early seventies
The Spirit of '68
With the good times rolling, word got around where good restaurants and highway stops were to be found. On the road to Baguio, there was Jack's, beside a gas station complex at the Monumento Circle in Caloocan. Jack's was popular for its Salisbury steak, which was a big hamburger, with fried egg on a sizzling plate with dollops of sweet Baguio strawberry jam on the side. For a Sunday drive to the suburbs, there was Open Steak House, tucked away in Zamboanga cul de sac by West Avenue, QC. They popularized the complete sizzling steak dinner, from soup to coffee and dessert. Cholesterol was in no way a clear and present danger. 1968 was about the time that BOI [Board of Investments] was drafting the PCMP. The Progressive Car Manufacturing Program's aim was to make a completely Filipino made car. To do this, imported CBU's were to be taxed prohibitively and later, banned. Only a few select car brands and limited variants were to be assembled, so that the car makers achieve Economies of Scale. Almost all car assemblers present then were supposed to submit plans to localize their cars in stages and to introduce a car for the masses, the first AUV [Asian Utility Vehicle]. Meantime, the Shell Car Rally series, eagerly participated by all of the European and Japanese brands, was in full swing, welcoming the rare or occasional Ford Mustang private entry or two.
Roads, rice and bridges
1968 was also year 3 of the term of the popular Ferdinand E. Marcos, the president who was delivering on his campaign promise of Rice, Roads and Bridges. The country's first 2 toll expressways, the North Diversion Road from Balintawak to Tabang and the South Diversion Road from Magallanes to Muntinglupa were opened to the public. Our country proudly had expressways then when Mother Spain, under El Caudillo Francisco Franco, had none. With the North Diversion Road, motorists coming back to Manila on Easter Sunday no longer had to get stuck in the long traffic jams in Bocaue, Marilao, Meycauayan and Valenzuela, all in Bulacan. The Senate introduced a law requiring all cars to have a pair of 3" x 12" yellow reflective stickers in front and same sized red ones in the back, to the joy of reflective sticker manufacturers. 1968 also saw the exchange rate reach 6.00 Pesos to the Dollar. It also coincided with the introduction of Mercedes's 200D/8 and 280S, the most successful Mercedes Benz models made and sold by Universal Motors.
1968 was the year I discovered Road & Track, the venerable monthly US car magazine, along with 2 bi-weekly British magazines. In those days, Autocar and Motor were big format sized magazines, with limited color covers and newsprint black and white pages. Alongside the new born interest in cars was a fascination with the revisited and more nuanced [sans propaganda] view of the Second World War as colorfully and expertly portrayed in the weekly colored magazine printed by Purnell, simply entitled 'The History of the Second World War'. This appetite for periodicals was catered to by the magazine racks of Tropical Hut at the original site along Quezon Avenue when it still had a service road lined with plump buri palms. Naturally, the other kind of appetite for an after school mid-afternoon snack of Tropical Hut's famous Hamburger was also satisfied.
Bush jackets and Barong Tagalogs, with twin vents a la Pierre Cardin, were in as Marcos won a 2ndterm in 1969. But it wasn't going to be a peaceful flower power revolution as turmoil and a general breakdown of law and order ensued when the alliance of Maoists, activist Filipino students and Labor Unions began aping the 1968 revolt in France that forced President Charles de Gaulle to resign. With the state in danger of disintegration and fears of descending to the same fate as Vietnam, Martial Law was declared on September 21, 1972. The country was put under curfew from 0100AM to 0400AM. The press was muzzled and the legislature padlocked. Any known opposition was 'invited' and herded into Stockade. The Executive branch took over lawmaking and many of the laws under debate in Congress and Senate in previous years were approved and executed.
Martial Law imposed a travel ban to save on dwindling foreign exchange. Because of this, all roads led to Baguio City, the 'in' vacation spot for summer. Makati's then Mayor Nemesio Yabut even sent Makati's female police to help untangle traffic that Baguio has never seen. Pines Hotel was bustling and the new Hyatt Terraces Hotel, a duplicate of earthquake prone San Francisco's Embarcadero Hyatt, introduced a casino to compete with Pines Hotel's. Watching President Marcos' tee-off in front of the Baguio Country Club Verandah on Holy Wednesday was a rumor mill event as the chattering classes kept second guessing his state of health. Rock concerts, Juan de la Cruz band and the Circus Band followed their fans to the City of Pines. The Caesar's Salad of Mario's on Lower Session Road was to queue for. Manila's beautiful and well-connected set and their rare beautiful cars, mostly imported Mercedes's with ribbed wrap around taillights, were for all to see. Curfew was suspended for long holidays like Holy Week but the party set got used to stay-ins rather than risk getting caught at the Metrocom check points.
The PCMP reality
The PCMP became a reality. This curtailed the choices of the car buying public. Chrysler's entry was the Dodge Colt. Toyota, the Corona. GM chose the Holden Torana. DMG, naturally went with the VW Beetle. Ford, with its first Escort. An indigenous utility vehicle as basic personal transport was required. These were the beginnings of the AUV. Through the years, the PCMP gave birth to Ford's Fiera, GM's Harabas, Mitsubishi's Cimarron, DMG's Trakbayan and Sakbayan. Much later, Francisco Motors offered the Mazda based FMC Pinoy, while Toyota introduced the Tamaraw. Isuzu's KC20 took over when GM's Harabas flopped. Renault showed a Rodeo AUV, based on the platform of the ancient R4. Universal Motors in the meantime was allowed to keep making Mercedes's while they nurtured a new Japanese entry; the Datsun 200 Cedric.
The first PCMP cars, besides poor quality steel and inadequate rust proofing, were not really primitive cars. GM's 1973 Holden Torana was popular in bright yellow, a color that was to gain a new and subversive meaning ten years later. Instead of an Australian iron block straight six, the Torana had Opel's tappety 1.9-liter cam-in-head tin plate rocker cover iron block four. The local Torana had the Opel's 4-speed manual, complete with lift-ring to engage reverse. It had a prow nose, inset sealed beam headlights and a rear that was styled like a hatchback, although it was a regular trunk. With a sloping roof like a Ford Pinto and 3-cubed taillights atop the chrome bumper like an Impala, rear seat space was limited. Throne type front seats with built in head rests imposed rear seat claustrophobia. It had new fangled MacPherson strut suspension in front, a solid rear axle in the back. The steering was the kind that refused any kind of self centering after executing a turn. The thirsty engine was prone to overheating with the air con on. The Torana was a living lesson on NVH; noise vibration harshness. But the body stampings were quite substantial, and although it eventually rusted, it didn't rust as quickly as the other PCMP cars. In those days, it was a must to bring your new car right away to Ziebart so you can at least buy some time before perforation sets in.
The Colt was actually a rebadged Mitsubishi as Chrysler, a partner in Mitsubishi, took care of export sales of Mitsubishi branding them as Colts. It was, beside the Renault 16, the first of the wedge profile cars, giving importance to aerodynamics. It was quite a well balanced and well engineered design by an Italian studio and the instrument cluster had its 3-dials sunken under convex clear plastic to keep away glare. It had quite a modern crossflow aluminum head overhead cam engine, the first of the Saturn family of Mitsubishi engines. It was light on its feet and handled decently. Little appreciated then, Mitsubishi paid more than cursory attention to spring and damper matching, unlike most Japanese cars with stiff springs and shock absorbers that go limp on the rebound.
If the Colt is a Japanese engineering marvel in disguise, the Toyota Corona was the archetypal definition of a Japanese car: light, easy to drive, thrifty, solid, utterly reliable and superb value for money. Its shape aped the clichéd Coca-Cola bottle shape of the era and was adorned with unsubtle Japanese filigree detail as if to impress and photograph well in the brochures. Its 12R OHV engine wasn't as state of the art as a Saturn engine, but it was refined, quiet and unburstable. The standard Ten radio worked, the Denso air con beat any big car air con anytime of day and it never overheated. The Corona had carpets while other brands costing 4 times more had only rubber mats. The vinyl seats were comfy. The clutch and the four on the floor were light and so was the steering. It was easy to drive. Basic transportation didn't look basic at all. To keep rust at bay, Toyotas had plastic fender liners and mud guards as standard. It was a sales leader from the beginning.
As prices of German 1302 and 1303 Super Beetles rose with the rise of the German DM [Deutsche Mark], DMG shifted CKD [completely knocked down] pack suppliers to VW do Brasil. The Brazil beetle was a mix of parts of Beetles from 1965 to 1969, but it was nevertheless, pure VW Beetle driving experience. The Beetle was the only German volume car available locally and it was still unique in its day; alloy horizontally opposed four, rear engine, air cooled, rear wheel drive, torsion bar fully independent suspension all around. It was next to impossible to air condition and those who persevered lost some 15% of the 1500's already meager output. But it was still a fun car to drive as the steering felt direct and rear semi-trailing arms can give you a thrill in a sharp turn at the risk of accidentally pointing 180 degrees from intended direction. It was a bit tight and came only in 2-doors, but it was solidly engineered and was not prone to rusting. It used to be a thrifty car when the competition were all large American sedans, but the Japanese already had them beat in thrift by now. Unfortunately, the Brazil sourced engines came with carb jets for 'rich' mixtures for Brazilian Alcogas, a result of the series of Oil Shocks that hit the world in the 70s. This made the Beetle far thirstier than the Japanese competition.
Not only did the Escort wean the Filipino public away from the notion of American cars as big gas guzzlers, it also showed that the American giants, through savvy marketing, can compete with the Japanese at their own game. Underneath the metal, it was a cost cutter's dream come true. The Coke bottle waist line reduced the visual height of the car and wide radius curves with creased indentations improved its torsional rigidity. Glass area was kept to a minimum to reduce weight as glass also cost more than stamped steel per square area. The metal dashboard was a straight forward ledge with a pod for the gauges. This added to the car's rigidity while keeping instrument upgrades simple. Seats were scaled down to give the appearance of plenty of leg room. The mountings were kept low to keep backrest volumes and shapes economical. The rear tail lights were deliberately made small to give flesh to the rump, and this looked good with European regulation elongated license plates. Slim chrome bumpers succeeded in giving the face and rear focal accent. The Kent engine was as old as the Ford Anglia's. The transmission, just as old. It had solid rear axles and leaf springs in the rear, but so did the Japanese competition. Some drivers couldn't get used to the rack & pinion and front steering geometry but it wasn't as dead as the Torana's. It wasn't remarkably thrifty, much less refined. The rack and pinion steering couldn't sustain the punishment of our poorly paved roads. But it had it fans, because, undeniably, it was fun to trash the car. And trash was where it was headed sooner rather than later. To its credit, the Escort's fame in rallying cajoled Toyota to take up the challenge, starting a long fought motorsports rivalry between Ford's Arthur Tuason and the Ramirez-Silverio tandem of Toyota. The Escort was not any less value for money vis-a-vis the Japanese but the Japanese brands tended to be holistically consistent in their level of modernity, unlike the Escort that tried to conceal proven but vintage technology.