Nominally legal driving
It was in the Seventies, when my drives on public roads became legal. Before that I had a lot of seat time and I don't mean sitting in the front seat, throating vroom vroom sounds, sawing on the steering wheel like a motoring journalist 'winning' a slalom, with the key in the OFF position. There were a lot of unpaved farm backroads in the countryside where I would dust off the peasants and the produce of the season, hanging the tail out of grossly underpowered old cars; a 36hp 1960 Mercedes 180D, a 35hp 1951 VW 1200 Kombi panel van with a non-synchromesh 1st gear and a 1969 VW Kombi 1500. All had no air conditioning but at least it wouldn't cost an arm and a leg if I rolled over any of them. Mind you, with two of them deploying rear swing axles and the '69 using semi trailing arms, tail out or 180 degree turns were easy to provoke.
Steep learning curve
The beauty of learning speed in underpowered cars is one learns how to build, conserve and exploit momentum. Having no power brakes, nor power steering, one learned how to modulate pressure and response to get the kind of cornering and speed one wanted. Having no air conditioning, one can squeeze every ounce of power and just enjoy the scenery dusting by with some of it settling on one's eyebrows. My first foray with more than 100hp was a 1965 Ford Stake rear double tired truck with a huge straight six of an engine. The furious sound it made at over 100MPH on the dusty tracks was an unforgettable memory. So was the braking distance. To merit a car I could borrow regularly as 'mine', I had to appear and behave mature. With a mere 55bhp net for one and half tons, the 1968 Mercedes 200D/8 with four on the tree, looked and plodded mature enough. At least it had air conditioning and an FM radio that can receive ET's 99.5 RT. One good thing about Mercedes is that it took them close to a decade to radically change the 200D/8. 'My' car, didn't look too old next to the latest 200D's in the family garage. It served me well through College.
The joys of naiveté
Looked back with quaint sentimentalism, life on the street, with limited press freedom and away from rebel ambushes, the seven years of Martial Law Philippines was akin to prudish Franquista Spain, when the Generallisimo ruled. On the surface was a docile and naive populace entertained with lots of OPM [Original Pilipino Music] and traditional Vaudeville like Movie fare while enduring fuel rationing and various commodity shortages. Soft porn films with four-letter word titles elicited excited moral debate, the pinnacle of controversy for any issue that the censors allowed. The Miss Universe pageant held at the CCP-FAT [Cultural Center of the Philippines – Folk Arts Theater] complex, the Lettermen serenading Madame First lady in Tagalog and the Frazier-Ali 'Thrilla in Manila' made for headline news. We were building our first nuclear plant in Morong, Bataan. Nationalism was at all time high when our International image was burnished by an IMF [International Monetary Fund] conference in Manila, warranting the construction of several luxury hotels. Highway 54 was renamed Epifanio de los Santos Avenue where Architect Señor Trullench built and ran Madrid, one of the country's finest restaurants.
But others gave up on our home country. A number of friends emigrated to Australia leaving me with a treasure trove of cars to take care of; a 1969 BMW 2002, 1968 Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV and a 1974 Volvo 142 DL. Parts and maintenance was indeed a headache but nothing was impossible for Señor Gil Alcayde, my friendly neighborhood Mercedes Benz mechanic. An unusual custodianship came my way towards the 80s. A family friend shipping tycoon from Hong Kong had a son finish Dentistry school here and when he left, he bequeathed me his 1969 Mercedes 250, complete with street legal Hong Kong plates and right hand drive. In those days, Anacleto Lao in Divisoria was the go-to guy for Ditzler PPG factory formula acrylics and Koni shock absorbers. Thanks to Natural Resources Minister Jun Leido, Señor Alcayde and I were later to enjoy restoring various used car imports from Germany, reveling in the German brands that came with it: Dekra, Hoppecke or Varta batteries, Hirschmann electric antennas, Blaupunkt, Grundig or Becker radios, Continental or Semperit tires, Glasurit or Dr. Herbert's paints.
Curfew was lifted in September 1978 and Martial Law and the travel ban was officially out by 1979. As a prelude to the Eighties, the hotels were thumping to the latest Disco sounds as Saturday Night Fever and TGIF [Thank God its Friday] became an institution. Louie Ysmael introduced the Cote d' Azur-Studio 54 night life, the New York hustle and the song 'Native New Yorker'. Show bands like Kuh's 'Music and Magic' were rising in popularity. Illicit drag racing returned to public streets, with Shakey's Pizza parlors on Makati Avenue and Greenhills shopping center being the dragsters' watering hole in Makati and San Juan. Rallye Motorsports was revived under the Alcogas program thanks to Michael Keon's Gintong Alay national sports development program. Banawe, QC and Makati Auto Cycle were places where cars got 'dressed up'. More foreign publications were available. Hotel gift shops had the latest uncensored International Herald Tribune, the Economist and Financial Times. The German only Auto Motor und Sport enticed with pictures of the great Autobahn and flat out machines. So did a new Brit car magazine, Car, which was to be my favorite car magazine for all time. 1979 was also the year where I would earn a privilege to frequently travel to Europe and the US, renting cars and driving wherever my job takes me.
With a wider market and a bit more prosperity, the PCMP members, asked government to allow more variants and more models. Toyota's Corona gained the Macho machine 2-door hardtop and Station Wagon. Toyota also had a 2-door Corolla SR to add to the staple 4-door sedan. When the 1980 Corolla Liftback came out as the first local car with a 5-speed manual, I bought one with my own money. Mitsubishi had the 4 and 2 door Colt Lancer, Celeste coupe, 4 door, 2-door and wagon Galant, plus the 2-door Lambda. VW added the 2-door and 4-door Brasilia to its Brazilian Beetle. Renault was selling the R20 by then. GM gave up on the Torana and the succeeding Holden and began selling the Isuzu Gemini diesel and the 2-door Trooper. GM exploited German language TV adverts to hype Opel's Ascona, Manta and Rekord in an attempt to break into the high net-worth market. Ford likewise introduced the German made Granada to provide competition for the Toyota Crown. After selling Escort Brenda's and two generations of Cortina's, Ford shifted its Asian market car supplier to Mazda of Japan. The Ford Laser and the Telstar arrived in the market in 1982, proud of its cathodic dip rust proofing system which was to make cars last a little longer. After Ford enlarged the Fiera to include a diesel engine, Toyota launched their sleeker Tamaraw and the military only Mini-Cruiser, exported to the Italian Carabinieri. Datsun was running out of 200C's so the 180B came in to take its place. The Datsun pick up was introduced to a market that was only familiar with the Chevy LUV, Ford Courier and Toyota Hi-Lux. High fuel prices made small cars like Mitsubishi's Minica, the front wheel drive 8-speed Mirage and the rear wheel drive Toyota Starlet attractive. Outside of the PCMP, one could buy a Suzuki Fronte or Beaver if one wanted something really different.
The early Eighties
We finally got our first McDonald's on Morayta-CM Recto university belt Manila as Ferdinand E. Marcos was again elected as president in 1981. Pope John Paul II visited for the 1st time and the LRT-1 was built over Avenida Rizal and Taft Avenue. Minggoy's in Magallanes was doing a roaring trade. ZsaZsa, Gary, Randy and Cicada were packing Tavern on the Square. Larry J. Cruz was spreading his interpretation of the artiste's sidewalk cafe, Filipino style. But the next couple of years were to be turbulent for the FM administration. First was the Mexican Debt Crisis, then the Dewey Dee scandal that almost collapsed the Philippine Financial system. Then by 1983, soon after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, the Philippines defaulted on all its debts incurred since the IMF held its meeting in Manila's swank hotels in the mid-seventies. Business confidence collapsed as the Peso plunged from six to almost twenty to a dollar. One by one, car makers couldn't find the foreign exchange to import their CKD packs. Bank debt swallowed up the others. Delta Motors was foreclosed and supplies for the ever popular Toyotas was suddenly cut off. As Ford and GM abandoned the Philippines, Nissan came in. Along came their Stanza compact and the Pulsar 2-door hatch. By the end of the decade, Nissan would relaunch the Ford Fiera as the Nissan Bida. In 1986, a generation which grew up knowing only Marcos as president, woke up to a woman as their new 'People Power' president. Cory Aquino took over just as the country was descending into Civil War. After the initial euphoria died down, the country was in a worse mess than imagined.
One year into the Cory era, flying into Ninoy Aquino International Airport at night– the renamed Manila International Airport - Manila looked like blacked-out war-torn Beirut with only small pockets of street illumination. Coup plots and coup-pals filled the headlines. The Left was close to total takeover as strikes bedraggled both public and private institutions. Because of the debt defaults, there was no fresh money for both public and private investment. Infrastructure was crumbling, as even Buendia in the premier business city of Makati, was pock marked. Even the nation's two aging expressways, now reaching north to Sta. Inez and south to Calamba were not exempt from turmoil and decay as civic action groups got court orders ejecting the PNCC [Philippine National Construction Company] from collecting toll leading the enterprising to create make-shift exits through the fence. There was no confidence in the Economy. Not the most encouraging of environments to think about business. Is this the Price of Freedom? We should all be eating cake. Or discreetly escaping to an undiscovered island paradise called Boracay.
Hard times for the rich
Neither was the auto industry in the healthiest of conditions. New cars were a duopoly of the Nissan Stanza and Mitsubishi Lancer box-type, the only brands that stuck it out during the dark days of 1983 to 1987. Hitting 50,000 new car sales a year was a lofty ambition. 1984 Ford Lasers, Toyota Corona Silver Editions and Isuzu Gemini's were selling for 150% of their SRP when new, regardless of odometer reading. Despite comprising easily 45% of the cars on the road, Delta Motors' collapse meant new Toyotas had to be imported from unofficial sources. If one wanted something else, they could only purchase from Balikbayan personal imports or cast offs from end tour-of-duty US Bases Servicemen or home bound ADB foreign bankers. The populace complained that there were not enough buses to replace the defunct Metro Manila Transit Corp. EDSA, the avenue to freedom, was now the fiefdom of DOTC Sec. Orbos's Chocolate boys and their exclusive yellow lane. And later, abusive bus drivers on drugs.
Bias ply tires only
Even the rich didn't have it easy. Those who wanted a Mercedes instead of a used Toyota Cressida, would have to fall in line for the depleting stock of Commercial Motors 'brand new' 1984 vintage W123 models, which came only in one color - German taxi ivory - along with bias ply 80 series tires, hub caps, no power steering, 4-speed manual and fry-under-the-sun black brittle vinyl seats. Oh, tint and double knit seat covers cost extra. Unless one was connected to the importers of used cars, the other queue to fall in line for were the used but more recent model Mercedes's of ADB's bankers.
None but the brave
In 1988, brave and loyal Toyota dared return, this time partnered with Metrobank. Introducing three revolutionary car concepts: the 16 valve engine, the MPV in the form of the Lite Ace and much later, the SUV-look AUV in the Tamaraw FX. Toyota's age old rivalries with Mitsubishi and Nissan reignited as the two were quick to counter with their 16-valve Lancer/Galant and Sentra/Maxima. Meantime the L300 reigned supreme as the van for all seasons while the Pajero soared to cult status. While in an empty field along EDSA, where rosaries stopped tanks in 1986, BF Steel was erecting Robinson's Galleria. Hopeful for a brighter future, the word 'mega' became the 'in' word from planned malls to pop stars.
Centennial decade, Asian century
As a parting gift of President Cory Aquino, EDSA and Roxas boulevard got a new set of long delayed flyovers. After the decade of coups d' etat, there was hope in the centennial decade as a prelude to the 21st century which Asia was claiming as its own. But things were not to get better. Power outages ushered in the 90s and Johnny Tan's Denyo silent generators was a household name among the rich. The 1990 earthquake almost killed Baguio City, one of the most endearing motoring destinations in Luzon. The Pinatubo eruption hastened the exit of the US Bases and for several years, threatened to destroy several major cities in Central Luzon. For 7 years traveling to the North during the rainy season was dependent on Lahar warnings. Abacan, Gumain and Porac were standard geographic vocabulary for those fearing the rush of pyroclastic flow.
Vanette, Pride, Feroza and California
Nissan's Vanette became a hot selling item. The Sentra morphed a station wagon variant called the California. Nissan also started mating automatic transmissions with 16 valve engines making them popular. The Maxima gave way to the Bluebird and later, the Altima. The Nissan Patrol was one very pricey Jeep. Nissan's Power pick up, the predecessor of the Frontier, was a distant number one over Francisco Motors' Mazda B220 in 2nd place. Suzuki started augmenting its Beaver with the Vitara and the Esteem. Kia introduced its Pride and Ceres. Daihatsu introduced the Hi-Jet, Charade and the Feroza.
People's car to Porsches
With the creation of the People's car category in the PCMP/CDP [Car Development Program], Honda, after being kept out for fifteen years, was finally allowed to break into the oligopoly of the established car assemblers. Replaced with the MVDP [Motor Vehicle Development Program], more car makers entered the fray. Isuzu, with its eye on the AUV market, returned as a truck maker. Multi-brand conglomerates became the rage and new names like Peter & Paul Rodriguez, Jose Ch. Alvarez and Elena Lim were to be reckoned with veteran automotive families like the Lee's and the Francisco's. Current model Mazda, Subaru, BMW, Volvo, VW, Proton, Tata, Audi, FIAT, Hyundai, Chevrolet, GM, Porsche, Ssangyong, Daewoo, IVECO, Alfa Romeo and Renault sprouted in glossy multi-brand showrooms. Car events became major productions. High net worth customers of Porsche were treated to all expenses paid drives in race tracks abroad. Previously, with low volume sales, new car registrations in the NCR [national capital region] couldn't exhaust the 'N' and 'P' license plate prefix, but by now, the 'T' prefix was running out.
Hope in BOT
Green shoots of a brighter future were laid in the new BOT [Build Operate Transfer] law. So was the admission that the PCMP was a failure, replaced by the CDP. The BOT law made power generation a lucrative business. Liberalization led to the highly competitive telecom market we have today. The BOT also spurred Citra of Indonesia to propose the Skyway and for United Engineers of Malaysia to begin the Coastal Expressway. The STAR [Southern Tagalog Arterial Road] tollway to Batangas City international port was declared feasible and so was the Tipo Expressway, a vital road that made Subic more prosperous than it could ever be than if it just remained as a Disneyesque memorial to a vintage US Navy Base where STOP signs really meant Stop. Tagaytay Highlands was to be the new Palace in the Sky. With BOT, private enterprise got into building the LRT-4 on EDSA which was to be renamed the MRT. With construction of the MRT and the congestion it caused came the odd-even ban which was later modified to the number coding ban. Trucks were also banned from EDSA signaling a new traffic pattern of heavy truck traffic at night, birth pangs of a 24 hour urban society.