Live at 65

At 150,000 new vehicle sales a year, admittedly picayune compared to the rest of ASEAN, we have a lively car market with at least a million eligible car shoppers a year and more than 20 plus brands at any one time vying for ad, promo and marketing attention. We have a wider choice of models and price ranges than any of our ASEAN motoring mates, Singapore and Brunei excepted.  Auto finance has become a big slice of any universal bank's loan portfolio. We now have three - CAMPI, AVID, PACCI - car maker/importer associations. Two biennial major auto shows and countless regional and city car shows. There is roughly one motorcycle for every dozen Filipinos and one four wheeled motor vehicle for every score. The latest car models arrive barely a month after global launch. Two major all weather racing circuits.  We have six major toll expressways, some of them world class and several more building. Countless new tourist destinations and roadside stops are geared for the food and lodging needs of the private car tourist. Even service stations have become destinations in themselves.

Manila - 1947

1947 - from the ruins

Sixty five years ago, Manila was rising from the ruins of World War Two. Escolta and Avenida Rizal were back to its pre-war 'peacetime' bustle. Taft Avenue, Pasay City and the bayside Dewey Boulevard were clawing back its former pre-war glamor. The MERALCO Tranvia trams were now gone, replaced by Auto Calesas; World War 2 surplus Jeeps with jitney rear passenger seating. It's been two years after the USAFFE victory in the Battle of Manila. Gen. Douglas MacArthur issued a decree shifting the Philippine Islands from Keep Left to Keep Right. The sheer numbers of US military vehicles on the road made it moot and academic. The Commonwealth's pre-war fleet of right hand drive private cars, confiscated by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942, disintegrated, victims of the 'scorched earth' policy of the retreating Japanese forces.

Clark Air Base

US Armed Forces to the rescue, again

Besides the World War 2 surplus jeeps and the few salvageable pre-war cars that were turned into jalopies, there was already a trickle of new arrivals of both new and used cars from the USA. But if one really wanted to be 'in' with the latest trends from 50's USA - the horsepower race, the annual model change, chrome, tail fins along with air conditioning, power windows, power steering, power brakes, Torqueflite/Hydramatic - the best recourse were the used cars of US servicemen in the US Bases. At that time there were many; Clark Air Base, Subic Naval Base, Poro Point, Sangley Point, Mactan, John Hay.

Going places?

In those days, travel by night was fraught with tales of highwaymen or Huks [HMB - Hukbo Magpapalaya ng Bayan communist rebels] lurking in ambush. The national network of highways was planned during the Commonwealth and not all were contiguous or even paved. Packing a piece, usually a .45 caliber, wearing Douglas MacArthur aviator Ray Bans and pleated khaki's, posing like a military officer was chic. River crossings on most highways were by 'Liberation' bailey bridges. On MacArthur Highway, there were numerous military and constabulary check points. But there were alternatives.

Manila Railroad

Take a bus or a train

The MRR or Manila Railroad served Tutuban, Manila to San Fernando, La Union to the North and as far as Legaspi in Albay in the South. Since the mountain section of the railroad through Asin Road never got built, going to Baguio City entailed a transfer from the MRR station in San Fernando, La Union, to buses run by Benguet Auto Line taking Naguilian Road to the BAL terminal, which today is a giant Caltex service station in the vicinity of the Victory Liner terminal. Dangwa Tranco with its open sided wood framed buses lorded it over Kennon Road. Provincial bus lines were already lucrative then with the La Mallorca-PamBusCo [Pampanga Bus Co.] popular in Central Luzon while BLTB [Batangas Laguna Tayabas Co.] was the bus line that dominated the Southern Tagalog region.

Dewey Boulevard

A Greater Manila (Area) ?

In those early post war years, Quezon City was the suburbs. For the middle class, moving out of Sampaloc and Malate to new subdivisions in Dona Hemady New Manila, Sta. Mesa Heights and Araneta Avenue was literally, figuratively and geographically moving up as Manila, being a swamp, went underwater during the rainy season. PhilAmLife homes and middle income housing was being planned beside North, West and South Triangle. Highway 54 was an ambitious but still incomplete ring road linking FEATI air strip in Grace Park, Caloocan City, through rice fields of Balintawak, Government Center of Quezon City and its four triangles, Araneta's Cubao, Ortigas's grazing land, Ayala's Nielsen air terminal and the Makati-Pasay boundary. Forbes Park just opened for sale, touting the concept of garden living in the town of Makati, Rizal. In those days, private car motorists thought nothing of leaving the office to go home for lunch and siesta, returning to the office afterwards. Parking was easy and traffic was light. For the new moneyed class, the promenade of vanity was Dewey Boulevard, now renamed Roxas Boulevard. Known for its beautiful sunset, the sunset strip doubled as cruise and some time drag strip where fancy cars were shown off at the best restaurants, hotels and night clubs.

European invasion

While the Philippines was almost exclusively an American car market from 1905 to 1941, the post war years ushered in a new force in export sales: Europe. In an effort to recover from the ravages of the war, European countries were looking for economic growth by exporting cars all over the world. Owing to the very high price of fuel in Europe, they believed that their small engined cars would be a better fit for the similarly war ravaged former colonies in the Far East rather than the thirsty and heavy American cars. Meantime, in order to conserve precious US dollars, Government was already considering banning the import of fully built-up cars in favor of local assembly.


The Suez Canal War in 1956 marked the first Oil Crisis in the modern world. It caused a spike in international oil prices, cementing Europe and the rest of the world's belief in making small thrifty cars. Of course, energy rich and independent America was not going to change its profligate ways. In the Philippines, there was a an appreciable gap between the price of diesel and gasoline. One of the first brands to exploit diesel as propulsion for a family car was the Mercedes Benz 180D, which was already popular with taxi fleets and Police forces. At that time, Mercedes was touting its safety passenger cell concept and the comfort of its independent rear 'swing' axle. Previously imported from Germany, local assembly of Mercedes Benz in big volumes was only started by Universal Motors in 1961. As an early diesel, the noise and the shaking it generated was unsettling to the high income classes used to the silence of an American car.  But the thrifty 180D became the perfect vehicle to mount aftermarket air conditioning by Mark IV because it didn't overheat, unlike many imported cars with radiators unsuited for the tropics. Succeeding Mercedes's, the more refined 190D and 200D, carried on with this reputation.

Southern Motors Chevrolet

The American back door

European brands flourished during the 1953 term of President Ramon Magsaysay, the 1957-1961 term of President Garcia and through the 1961-1965 term of President Diosdado Macapagal, father of Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Interestingly, many of the European imports to the Philippines were from American owned auto making subsidiaries in Europe. Besides American favorites like Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac, General Motors, now distributed by the Yutivo brothers, brought in Vauxhall from Britain and Opel from Germany. Chrysler, besides their stateside Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto brands, imported Simca's from France and Rootes Group's Hillman Minx, Imp and Hunter from Britain. Ford, through Mantrade, not only brought its Fairlane, Galaxie 500 and Custom along with Mercury and Lincoln but also the Cortina from Britain and Taunus from Germany.

Citroen 2CV

Getting crowded

British Motor Corporation, Britain's equivalent of GM, brought in the Austin Cambridge diesel, Morris Oxford, MG 1100 and the Triumph Herald. FABAR motors were the official Mini importer. Iberian Motors, situated where Trinoma is now,  imported the Spanish made version of the Citroen 2CV and the equally absurd looking Ami 6. Demetrio Munoz, a pal of President Macapagal, imported Peugeot 403's and 404's in diesel and gas. Munoz were also the importers of the Borgward coupe, Henschel-Hanomag trucks and MAN buses, all from Germany. Domingo M. Guevara, another Macapagal friend, imported the Volkswagen Beetle and later set up DMG to assemble it in volume numbers. Ysmael Steel, started with FIAT's 1500 millecinquecento and the 600 Multipla and was gearing up for Alfa Romeo. Popular Architect and car connoisseur C. C. de Castro, imported Glas and Goggomobil cars from Germany and rebadged them as Castro. The Hahn family, BMW motorcycle distributors, were very cautious about bringing in BMW cars though. Renault, despite its unconventional styling, was touting its unusual engineering.

Dollar Crisis

Alas, with an exchange rate of two Pesos to one dollar, our economy was headed for disaster as our exports, mostly raw materials, lumber and minerals, were dear while our imports, which we had a lot of as we hardly manufactured anything, were cheap. At first the authorities tried Dollar allocations but when the rationing process was corrupted, a more severe ban on imports was put into effect. The government wanted to copy international practice of favoring car making so that employment in manufacturing would rise. This led to rules requiring local assembly. The economy was in such bad shape that the Central Bank was forced to devalue to four Pesos to one dollar, raising the price and cutting down the number of imported CBU's [completely built-up units].

Toyopet Corona

Early adapters

Still, there was no shortage of eager participants for local assembly. Yutivo was set up to assemble the Chevrolet Impala, Opel Rekord, Opel Kadett, Holden Kingswood and Vauxhall Victor 101. Universal Motors was doing a booming trade with Mercedes Benz's from 180D, 190D and 220Sb. Ysmael kept making FIAT 1500s. DMG, beside the VW Beetle, sold the tradback, squareback, fastback and kombi. Ford made LTD's, Cortinas and Escorts. Chrysler had the Dodge Coronet. American Motors, the Rambler Classic. Renault's spearhead was the front wheel drive R16 which initially couldn't be air conditioned until MacFrost persevered and got it right. This was about the time the Japanese appeared on the scene, when De La Merced and Silverio brought in the Toyopet, Toyota's first model for export. Francisco Motors of Francisco Jeepney fame, brought in the Mazda Familia. Other Japanese cars that arrived were Isuzu's Bellet. The Japanese cars had lots of features, optional or unavailable on European cars and thus quickly proved to be better value for money than the European cars.

Continue to Part Two