As Europe commemorates the centennial of World War I, the War to end all wars, over here, we remember the promise of “I shall return” fulfilled as Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded into Leyte's shores seventy years ago.
But then, who would have thought that that three years after the Leyte landings, the Philippine Islands, the only American colony that conformed to Far East norm of the metric system and right-hand drive would find its roads swarming with thousands of left-hand drive USAFFE jeeps, cars and trucks? Thus common sense dictated the countrywide shift to left hand drive by 1947. But that's for the history books. Our story is about what may well be one of the last relics that dates back from the pre-war colonial era, fondly called “Peacetime”.
The new hegemon
A hundred years ago, the First World War ushered the rapid assumption of the USA as a global superpower. As a colony tethered to the American hyper economy, the our newly minted Commonwealth spurred the rise of the Philippine middle class. Buoyed by a one to one USDollar-Peso exchange rate and protected in the mid-Thirties by the Smoot-Hawley Act's high tariff walls after the Great Depression, Manila's US level of standard of living, was the envy of the imperial colonies of the Far East. David Burnham's Manila and the Rizal memorial coliseum, south of the Pasig, was turning out to be an Art Deco showcase while mansions sprouted up in suburban Malate, Ermita and bayside Pasay. Getting around by tramcar was as American as pineapple pie, while the MRR or Manila Railroad made daily commutes from nearby Bulacan to Grace Park, Avenida Rizal or Tutuban a cinch.
Pharmacy to tannery
It was a time when hard work was rewarded by prosperity. Marcos and Pacencia Hermoso were no strangers to both. As a licensed pharmacist, Marcos parlayed his chemist skills into his late father's tannery in Meycauayan, Bulacan. As orders grew and consumer choice expanded in 1920, Marcos Hermoso S.A. tweaked the tannery's product line as sales from his Nueva St. store in Binondo, Chinatown grew.
Road or rail?
Getting to Nueva from his new suburban Mediterranean style home at Pantoc [Malhacan today] street, was just a short hop from the Meycauayan MRR station. But if he fancied taking the chauffeur driven car, there, beside the railroad tracks, was the new Highway 3 [today's MacArthur highway] bypassing the narrow 2-calesa wide Spanish era Camino Real.
Motor head since
Though he never learned how to drive, Marcos fancied automobiles. Starting with a few cheap Fords, he worked his way up to Buick, Dodge Brothers, Studebaker, Hudson and simultaneously owned several LaSalles. Getting on in years, Marcos realized his weak lungs were to abbreviate the amount of time he could provide for his family. After all, he was preparing his eldest son for further studies in chemical engineering in Cincinnati, Ohio and his second son was working hard to be a lawyer.
No pretensions to ambitions
To reward himself, he fancied a 1938 Cadillac Model 60 from the port area importers, Mary Bacrat. He thought that the Peerless and Pierce Arrows of the Negros sugar barons was way too high for his station in life. Ditto for the Packards of the Doctors and Lawyers that wafted on the leafy US state named streets of Malate.
Trips to cooler climes
The limousine configuration and pullman rear doors of the Model 60 suited him fine, as he wanted to increase the frequency of his long weekend jaunts up to Taal Vista Lodge on the new Highway one [today's Quirino-Aguinaldo Highway] or to the Pines Hotel in Baguio City. Owning vacation home lots in Tagaytay were next on his horizon as the Buck estate and the vicinity of Mendez, where Royal Tagaytay stands today beckoned. Pacencia, was partial to a vacation home-lot in Bokawkan, just down the hill from the Easter School in Baguio City. His prized Cadillac was to serve him well for a few more years as he tried to live a normal life despite the onset of TB.
After the “Day of Infamy”
Dec 7, 1941; the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese invasion in World War 2 brought an end of the Philippine Islands' American Utopia. In a space of a few months, the entire nation was subjugated by the Japanese Imperial Army. As a war economy, all civilian motor vehicles were dragooned into the war effort. Cars became property to the Imperial Army and since Japan was embargoed by the Western oil companies, scarce fuel was distilled from bio mass and engine modifications were applied to burn charcoal.
Confiscation and the war effort
The tanning industry was vital to the war effort and the new masters, Japanese tanning magnates, wasted no time in taking over the Meycauayan tanneries. Owner/entrepreneur/operators, like Marcos, my paternal grandfather, were forced to work under Japanese supervision while their families were virtual hostages at home under guard by the Imperial Army. The Studebaker, the Buick, the Fords and the LaSalles were confiscated in no time. But what about Marcos's prized Cadillac?
Early on, Marcos supposed that the simulataneous bombing of Clark and Iba Field by the Japanese air force was a prelude to a quick Japanese victory. So he and Pacencia and a couple of loyal employees devised a plan; they were to “mothball” the Cadillac to protect it from corrosion and then hide it in the riverside Marcos Hermoso tannery. But how do you hide a 2 and half ton limousine?
How to hide a Cadillac
At about that time, Marcos was exporting dried glue stock and reject sole leather to Turkey. But the war killed all export shipments and stuck with tons of unserved orders, the staff doggedly built a box sarcophagus over the Cadillac and buried it with the unsold stuff creating a pile as big as the warehouse. It was providential too that it was the kind of stuff that would not interest the Japanese overlords. For the entire four years of Japanese occupation, the Cadillac sat there, hidden and undiscovered, from the invaders.
More left than right
When General Douglas MacArthur returned, the retreating Japanese Army adopted a “scorched earth” policy, destroying anything that can be of use if captured by the enemy. This included the aristocracy's prized luxury cars which was in their possession. The unintended result of this is that most of the Philippine motoring fleet's right hand drive cars dwindled to near oblivion, while, in the meantime, the roads were swarming with left hand drive Jeeps and trucks of the victorious American forces.
1938 Model 60
The 1938 Cadillac Model 60 was the last of Detroit's pontoon fender cars with stand up “bullseye” headlights. The Model 60's style was heavily influenced by streamlining or what passed for aerodynamic styling during the Art Deco era. It had a bustle back tail, 2 very wide jump seats in a middle row stowed under the floor and a sofa like rear seat with its own tube type radio. There was a telephone hand set in the back that allowed the master to talk to the chauffeur. While the rear passengers had plush mohair upholstery, the chauffeur sat on a leather bench just ahead of a retractable glass partition bulkhead between driver and passengers. This garden variety Model 60 was powered by a 120hp flat head V-8 that ran on regular gas. The Model 60 could be had with V-12 and V-16 engines even long after the Great Depression. Typical of cars of that era, the electrical was 6-volt. Exhaust pipes and mufflers were encased in asbestos and broad running boards extended behind a pair of front fender mount spare tire covers. Both front and rear windshields safety glass were split in the middle. Painted black and despite its height, it struck an elongated yet imposing visage, towering over mere sedans and coupes of the era.
Film fans may recognize the Cadillac's 1940 successor in Francis Ford Coppola's “the Godfather”. A similar looking Model 75 was parked in front of Don Vito Corleone's GENCO olive oil imports store when he was gunned down by hit men. The same Cadillac ferried Michael Corleone to a meeting with corrupt Police captain McCluskey and Sollozo, the upstart Mafia don, in an Italian restaurant in the Bronx.
Transhow at the QUAD
After Liberation, the Cadillac resumed normal domestic duties ferrying the widowed Pacencia to the office and the rest of her family to daily mass. With a dearth of limousines post war, the government requested the family to include the Cadillac on standby for the inaugural parade of President Roxas in 1946. Sometime in the late 50's, the Cadillac had a cameo role in a local movie produced by Premier Productions, then owned by Marcos's half-sister. It was driven by a newbie actor by the name of Joseph Estrada who had to pretend to drive the car into a ditch for the opening scene. The last road trip of the Cadillac was from Meycauayan, to a stop over in New Manila, heading for a public display at the first Transhow in the Quad car park, Makati in 1974.
Drive like a F-150
Before putting the car into its final storage in 1976, I had a chance to drive the Cadillac. Climbing into the the driver's seat was eased by those wide running boards. Up to that day doors opened and closed with a vault like click and since they were well counterweighted, they were not even heavy. It had no power steering but steering wasn't unbearably heavy and neither was the steering feel detached or isolated. The large steering wheel is positioned close to the chest and with such a wide diameter, your hand grip aligns with the shoulder. The high driving seat felt as natural as sitting behind a desk.
Not that difficult
Being a right hand drive car, shifting the 3 speed column mounted gear lever with the left hand didn't take much effort. The pendant clutch was not even that heavy. Though the brakes were not power assisted, they worked well, provided you remind yourself that you are driving what amounts to be a heavily laden truck and hence your braking distances need to be more generous. Restoring the brakes at that time was not difficult as the local auto supply had the correct brake kits for the slave cylinders of all four brake drums. Tires were truck size.
With a tall driving position, it wasn't claustrophobic at all. The ride was limousine like indeed and it didn't feel floaty, unlike a 1971 Cadillac. The only rattle I could hear was from the 1964 era Rizal centenary plate number that was loosely screwed on. With such a large and well isolated chassis, the car rode quietly on the coarse concrete of what was the MacArthur highway then. Give it the gas and you actually hear a slight throaty roar from what looked like a Stromberg carburetor while the asbestos wrapped exhaust bellowed a muted V-8 waffle.
Escaping the floods
By the early 21st Century, Meycauayan suffered the same sinking fate of Malabon. Marcos Hermoso's old mansion and riverside tannery had to be abandoned due to tidal flooding. And so the unrestored right hand drive Cadillac now resides in its new home in a warehouse in Sta. Maria, Bulacan, a mute witness to the hopes and dreams of Peacetime, the birth of the middle class, the upheavals and travails of war and occupation and a movie extra. But its most cherished role was the quiet dispatch of daily domestic chores becoming of a loyal servant and family member.