From ferries to island roads in classic sports cars

When you’re entrenched in the Philippine car community, something special happens during the ‘-ber months’. If you’re on social media, your feeds get bombarded with trending photos of classic cars in the dozens taken on sweeping provincial roads against the backdrop of rustic farmlands and coastal vistas. The name of the event resounds through the grapevine: Tour de Cebu (TdC).

As a motoring photographer it aroused some jealousy in me. The magic was happening a stone’s throw away — less than an hour of flight time; I wanted a piece of it. With some planning, a lastminute partial sponsorship by Manila Sports Car Club (MSCC), and a bit of a miracle, I found myself on a 4 AM flight from Manila straight into the thick of things... And Tour de Cebu was everything I expected it to be and more.

Tour de Cebu 2016

This year’s Tour de Cebu took 33 or so participants and their precious cargo from Cebu via ‘RO-RO’ (Roll-On Roll-Off ferry) to the network of winding roads that littered the Bohol landscape. The event was what’s considered a regularity rally, where accuracy is the goal as opposed to speed. Participants get demerits for arriving at checkpoints too slow - and even more for arriving too fast.

“We call it a touristic rally. Having said that, we are competitive because we follow Sampaguita Rally guidelines — on time all the time. We have a professional motorsport management team running our technical. I always like to say that TdC is your fantasy of how you want it to be,” Chris Tio provided some clarification. The IT entrepreneur is also co-founder of the Performance and Classics Enthusiasts (PACE) group of Cebu as well as current classic car editor of C! Magazine.

Tour de Cebu 2016

At the end of the day, TdC is what you make of it. There were teams like the father-and-son duo of Jaime and Steven Flor in the Datsun 240Z, who casually stopped to take photos and relished the fun of getting lost. Then there were guys like Martin Aguilar in the minuscule Toyota Sports 800, who anally annotated maps with notes, suggested average speeds, and calculations. Shotgunning with him for one leg gave me a taste of co-driver navigation responsibilities as he dumped his notes onto my lap and put me on stopwatch duties. The rest of the weekend, he did all by his lonesome. His effort and knowledge of rules yielded fruit as Marty got the championship trophy in the end.

Participant numbers were capped at 40 due to logistics. Since Tour de Cebu is predominantly a PACE event, their club members get first dibs on slots. MSCC gets second priority. “MSCC members understand classic cars and we don’t have to explain much to them. They come prepared and they know what they’re doing. For the remaining slots we become stricter for eligibility. We have to brief the visitors, screen them, check their cars… We have to make sure of character and driving reference,” Chris explained.

Tour de Cebu 2016

I took the renowned furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue aside for a bit and had him explain to me the spirit of PACE (of which he’s also co-founder) and Tour de Cebu. What makes the TdC participants a different breed — much like the Clubman historic racers back in Manila? “PACE was formed because we love to drive. We were different because we founded a club as a group of enthusiasts who really drove; we drove everywhere. It was important to us that you had to drive. These cars were meant to be driven — meant to be enjoyed, right?” Kenneth insisted, and then paused thoughtfully. “Whatever tickles your fancy. Some people like to store cars and keep them like paintings, but we use them the way they were intended.”

“I like all things that are pure. We live in a world where we’re desensitized. With a push of a button, we’re spoiled. People don’t know how things work anymore. With classic cars, it’s simple. You’re surrounded by metal and leather; you have your essential gauges and not too much electronics. That’s what I love,” said Kenneth with a pinch of bittersweetness.

Tour de Cebu 2016

“Most of these cars you see weren’t bought; they were built. A lot of people restore their cars for display. What we’re trying to do here is we want to bring back the cars to their glory. In order to do TdC you don’t want to have a car that just looks great but can’t run… Bring cars to show standard and at the same time mechanically functional,” Chris added. “In car shows and museums, there are static displays. These are rolling. I’m jealous in a way of some of the people in Bohol that are sitting there and everybody is ‘woom woom woom’, hearing the engines roaring, seeing the E-Type which is beautiful at speed… That little Sports 800 in that gorgeous color scheme… We’re trying to highlight the skills of restoration. The more we do these things, the more we need mechanics — the more we look for them and train them. The more mechanics we have, the more people restore. It’s a good cycle.”

Tour de Cebu 2016

The TdC guys are the opposite of weak. In fact they’re quite quick! Rain or shine, coupe or convertible, they drove for three days (October 14-16) straight, averaging 300 kilometers a day. It was a constant challenge of endurance for both human and machine. The routes were long, exhilaratingly twisty, and went through some short sections of unpaved roadwork. Patience was tested amidst carefree locals on small bikes and scooters; careful maneuvering around sluggish trucks and annoying buses was warranted once in a while. Island life aside, it’s the Philippines after all. But the manifest rewards were apparent; swaths of mountain roads were revealed for the taking with significant stretches clear and safe enough to eat into some lane — to find and follow the line. The views were breathtaking — the air, clean and cool on the skin. The smell of damp jungle washed us clean of city grime and urban woes.

Shooting wasn’t easy either. I was grateful to ride with seriously formidable drivers who turned our support vehicles into effective chase cars. I spent most of those days sitting outside windows, squinting my eyes against the wind and holding onto the grab handles. I lost way too much sleep that weekend and went home with the flu. I voluntarily braved the rain like some of the others and always returned to BE Grand Resort (official venue partner) utterly exhausted — unable to comprehend the level of fatigue the drivers themselves were experiencing. I watched many of them take calls from work during the whole thing, impressed by the fact that most of them had to return to their jobs immediately after the event. They had adrenaline, caffeine, and joy on their side. As we were all fueled by passion and intoxicated by novelty, all of it became quite surreal… A dream.

Tour de Cebu 2016

How long can this reverie stay this good? The guys from PACE have been feeling the effects of economic development. The promise of opportunity and relief from poverty beckons in the provinces, away from Metro Manila’s fiasco. The downsides are overburdened infrastructure and increasing traffic. Enthusiasts in Visayas can island hop with their cars for road variety, as well as take to the mountain passes for refuge. Some of these guys sit on the Regional Development Council and I remember listening to them lament at the dinner table; on an island, there’s little hope for a solution to traffic congestion. At least there were the mountains… Yes. They could always drive into the mountains or run away to the next island for reprieve. You can climb the hill as fast as you can, but when will the rest of the growing population’s demands catch up to you? I couldn’t help but get a sense that this wasn’t just a historic rally, but also a race against the price of progress… And they’re winning, in style.

Organizing Tour de Cebu was an amazing undertaking. The folks behind it went through great lengths to communicate with local governments. The islanders too seemed like they were alerted beforehand, which increased safety on public roads while garnering a lot of welcome attention. The coordination between marshals and law enforcement was laudable; cheerful crowds even greeted the participants at some checkpoints. Proud officials shook hands and gave speeches.

“We hope to turn it into an international event. Tour de Cebu was meant to showcase the beauty of the Visayan islands. The highways are getting modernized. In fact, the more we use these RO-RO’s and publicize them, we hope to encourage modern ferries to come on board. We’re also calling investors to our maritime transport system,” Chris divulged.

Tour de Cebu 2016

They weren’t just highlighting their islands as driving destinations, I saw firsthand what they were doing for the future of automotive enthusiasm. I read it in the faces of the children joining in the revelry and waving by the roadside — getting beautiful machines etched into their minds. I wonder now how many of them will grow up having the elegant lines and rumbling engine notes persist, burrowing into their aspirations — and if a handful will look back and cite one of the Tour de Cebu’s as the very moment they decided what their dream car was going to be.

Tour de Cebu was organized by PACE, MSCC, and Tradeshow International Inc. The official venues were BE Grand Resort, Bohol and SM Seaside City, Cebu. The event was sponsored by Petron, Sun Life, Nissan Cebu, Liqui Moly, Chateau de Busay, Johnny Air Plus, 103.5 Retro Cebu, Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp., Cinco Auto Two Service Inc., Nice Day! Carwash, and Nature’s Spring.

Video courtesy of Dennis Bersales