Seventeen years of motoring journalism at the turn of the century
17 years ago
If you don’t count Renault, Samsung, SEAT, Skoda, FIAT and McLaren, our country practically has all the world’s significant brands. That’s quite an achievement from the turn of the century when all we had was a handful of volume AUV/LCV makers, popular Asian brand C-segment sedans and a sprinkling of prestige Eurobrands. It would be a great year if motor vehicle sales topped 100,000 vehicles. Then 9/11 happened and all bets were off.
Ironically, today, the new normal is 470,000 vehicles/annum, while the EDSA rush hour has expanded in coverage and duration from 4 hours to all day. All this wouldn’t have been possible without 2 epoch-making events; the excise tax reform of 2002 and the surge in Japan Domestic Market used SUV’s imported via Subic. Without these, we wouldn’t be scrambling to quadruple the amount of highway kilometers that have lagged behind for 40 years.
The Golden Age of motoring, the sequel
So it wouldn’t be a surprise if car nuts, petrol heads and motoring fans, who have motored on these islands for the past 50 years, treat the past decade and a half [much of it under the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo] as the Golden Age of Philippine Motoring. It even ushered the explosion of motorcycle tourism through the expanding network of National highways and Roro ports. The only other time when we were a car paradise was when another Macapagal was President and just like today our little car market had almost all the world’s brands running on our roads. With traffic clogging Escolta and Avenida, Cubao and Ayala’s Makati beckoned.
The turning point
The turning point in 2002 was a serendipitous confluence of disparate factors. The stampede to the Subic SUV imports was producing car registrations that totaled more than the entire legitimate auto industry could produce and import. A newbie at politics, a scion of one of the oldest politician families in the business was trying his hand as a government technocrat at the DTI. Still green and well supported by an expert DTI staff, Mr. Palengke, focused on the car industry, working hard to gain the first feather in his cap. With a crumbling national highway system, the very new but very brief Skyway, the work-in-progress STAR and the Lopez built Tipo-Subic tollway, infrastructure had nowhere to go but up from the rock broken bottom of worn out pavement on the NLEx and SLEx.
The Media challenge
To my mind the main but largely unknown catalyst of the great excise tax reform that reignited the Filipino’s passion for cars and motoring was triggered by a challenge to the then motoring media. The MoJos [motoring journalists], egoistic self-professed critics behind the wheel and even before the first after hours sup of brew, were tickled by Honda Phil’s marketing supremo Arnel Doria. Having challenged the media to hands-on motorsports, Mr. Doria’s next challenge was to make the MoJos move on from being just plain critics to critical thinkers. The thesis he laid before us; Why do 10-seat multi-purpose vehicles deserve a tax break?
For the tax authorities, the schedule of taxation of all other motor vehicles orbited around that core base line; 10-seat AUV local production must be encouraged by giving it the most advantage in tax reduction/incentives. This stymied variety and competition, until the Subic SUVs came to town. Thinking out of the box and challenging the status quo is not at all out of character for Honda. To the eyes of the all powerful Japanese MITI [Ministry of Trade and Industry] Honda was the lone wolf, or the black sheep as it chose to track its own future on 4 wheels, independent of the other MITI schackled and herded Japanese car makers. Honda, challenging the fundamental assumptions of our Nation’s AUV program and the whole auto excise taxation principles of the BIR was a given. To prove its point, Honda started local production of the 10-seat Honda CR-V.
The default target
By some convoluted manner, the surging sales of quality used SUVs from Subic were proving that the target market was the right one since the large extended Filipino family’s default/dream vehicle was the Mitsubishi Pajero and its ilk. And sell they did, despite dodgy conversions from right hand drive to left hand drive and out-of-sight structural corrosion. Add to this was the Economics background of the President, who believed that a “rising tide launches all ships”.
Grow auto sales, you grow the manufacturing sector, grow employment, increasing the tax take. By some enlightened chance, the normally stick-in-the-mud taxman, didn’t take long to concede that rising overall sales of all kinds of cars will more than make up for the tax cuts on non-AUV models. Fifteen years later, we can now reveal the other impetus to allow more car imports, legally. Luxury cars imported through the grey market were growing and BIR wanted a piece of the pie and not just helplessly look and watch all the theoretical tax revenue go away as grey market importers knew their way around Customs.
Baptism of fire
Heady, exciting days ahead or so I thought, but that wasn’t my Baptism of fire. It was on the showroom floor of Willie Soong’s Jaguar dealership, in what was probably the country’s most expensive car showroom, G/F of the Enrique Zobel building on Buendia. Willie was launching the X-type, Jag’s (Ford) Mondeo based segment D entry. He was also preparing for the flying visit of his principal, Ford’s Jacques Nasser, the Philippine based Ford Fiera project manager in the past. Jacques was touring his kingdom’s latest annexations for PAG [Premium Automotive Group], namely Jaguar, Land Rover [from BMW], Volvo, Lincoln and Aston Martin. It should have been all uppity and charged but 2 big bangs in New York was to be the party pooper.
Doom and gloom
Esteemed journalist, Teddy Montelibano a close friend of Business World’s founder/publisher Raul Locsin was all doom and gloom. Half the world’s flights were grounded. One of Ford’s executives en route to the IAA [Frankfurt Motor show] survived a total wreck smash up on the Autobahn in a new Jaguar XJ. That was the day after 9/11. Willie too was getting cold feet, having committed much of his personal fortune to prop up Jaguar and now take in Land Rover [after BMW jettisoned it to Jacques], even as the market segment was barely recovering from the Asian Crisis of 1998. Me? This MoJo stint was just a pleasant sideline from my daily chores as Asst. Dean for the College of Business studies in JRU in Mandaluyong. Teddy was all ready to drop the automotive beat and go back to his roots and his first love; being a food critic.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasant sideline. Students ogled at the latest test drive cars delivered to me on the school parking lot. I had to double up on saddle time at the Polo Club bullring when product launches and out-of-town Press drives made dining and quaffing cause “collateral damage” to my health. These are the lengths the car industry went through to have us deliver to you as faithfully as possible, our independent impressions of what they do behind the scenes. Which landed me on a near empty United Airlines 747 bound for Detroit, while NYPD and NYFD were still scouring the debris of the fallen towers.
The dawn of a friendship
It was the dawn flight out of NAIA T1 that made a stopover at Nagoya, where it disgorges a genuine planeful of mostly Japanese businessmen reporting back to HQ. On our descent to Nagoya, a very friendly Filipino exec, with whom I shared a snack at the Manila biz class lounge pointed to me 2 Japan Self Defense F-16’s flanking our wing tips. “May escort tayo [we have escorts]” he intoned. The two fighter jets stayed with us until we approached the runway with landing gear down.
As we gathered our hand luggage, my new Filipino friend deplaned while I was just out to stretch my legs, he enquired “tuloy ka pa pala sa Detroit?” [continuing to Detroit?] to which I nodded. Then he told me that the 2 JDF F16’s were not there for our protection. It was practice for a new protocol – in case a commercial air liner has been hi-jacked with the intent to crash into a skyscraper, the jets that lined up have license to shoot us down. And with that sobering quip, Filipino exec strode into the baggage claim lane. He was from Toyota Phil. His name was Danny Isla.
Top Secret Proving Grounds
My mission to Detroit was to visit GM’s Proving grounds in Michigan and to drive 36 prototypes of GM researched and nurtured secret driving technologies for the future. There were no speed limits, but we had to strictly observe the schedule for the drives so that all the assembled international MoJos can get a crack at all the test cars/trucks. From Corvettes, Hummers, gigantic Silverado’s in all sizes to small FIAT’s, Suzuki’s and Opel’s, we tested hybrids, electrics, hydrogen driven, Natural gas, engines and transmissions and a manual without a clutch pedal.
Exercise in futility or gullibility?
The blustery winds from Canada were threatening to blow down our convention tent where all of GM’s skunk works genuises were arrayed for the Q & A. We were packed, and, judging from the prevailing TexMex aroma, around 70% were Latino’s from South of the Border. The 30% were mostly local journalists, by local meaning home grown Motown regulars like Road & Track, Automobile, Car & Driver and even Forbes, Fortune and Business Week. Curiously, the “locals” didn’t have much to ask as they were cozy and familiar with the GM engineers. But the Latino’s got their publishing bosses’ money’s worth as they drove the agenda with serious engineering questions.
Afterall was said and done, GM’s affable and dimunitive PR lady thanked us and then popped the bomb shell. Everything we drove and tested were press embargoed. To which the entire congregation laughed as if it was a joke. But it wasn’t. So there we were, deposited in Michigan at GM’s expense to be able to experience their secret toys but not to write about them, well, until it was close to reveal time.
Part of something big
The gratifying part of this job ; the wining and dining and the fine company it fostered, the gifting and the flattery– I would be lying if I say I did not enjoy that. We gladly paid back our hosts with our “expert” opinion on product features, engineering, marketing and brand managing. But the greater gratitude is for playing a part of something big and significant, something that affects and improves the Motoring world or the everyday life of the driving public. This is beyond the photo shoots, the destination drives, the track time on our ever increasing number of racing circuits and karting tracks, driving clinics, party raffles, junkets and so forth. Its being able to make a difference. Like the Excise Tax reform of 2002 and recently, fine tuning the tax rates and categories of TRAIN 1 which left unchallenged, would have killed the luxury car category with too high a tax leading to a huge drop in tax revenue and the rebirth of the grey market imports.
Genuine Artificial Intelligence
As for cars themselves, I do not find the march to autonomous driving and increasing influence of AI [artificial intelligence] Orwellian or even a conflict between Nanny State vs. Jeeves the Butler. When you get to Senior Citizenship, you’d welcome all those driving safety aids – lane change, blind spot, auto stop, adaptive cruise, programed parking, 360-degree view, auto lift tailgate - the days you don’t feel chirpy and alert. Besides it only turns Orwellian when the car makers omit the MANUAL OVERRIDE button one fine day you feel up to being totally in charge and juvenile. I hope that there is still life left in Diesel propulsion and Mazda’s Skyactiv combustion sorcery may prove to be its salvation. Meantime, I don’t mind hybrids, 48-volt electric motor assist implants in starters, axles, gearboxes, turbo’s and drive trains. After all, AMG and Alpina mods are meant to make cars faster and quicker, right?
Dealing with the Authorities
If it wasn’t about cars and then it can only be about driving. Having been responsible for the explosion in the number of cars on the road, we were also looking out for better roads and more of them. All through the years, we’ve had an open relationship, warts and all, with the law enforcing and traffic management authorities - the MMDA, the LTO, the LTFRB, DPWH, DoTR, etc. From random checkpoints to speeding dragnets. From shifting U-turns to No Right Turn on Red Signal. From Pink Fences and footbridges. Love/Hate? Carino brutal or tough love means that there still is a relationship.
We will always look back with gratitude as jobs well done whenever we benefit from the results of advising and/or lobbying for changes in the way roads are made, cared and managed. We turned around the initial bad-mouthing against the SCTEx to what is probably the most scenic tollway in the country today. We insisted, no doubt with a discreet nod from my Yale classmate, the then NEDA Secy. to the previous administration, that the only choice between Citra’s Skyway Stage 3 from Buendia to Balintawak and Metro Pac Tollways NLEx Karuhatan-Harbor Link-C3-Espana-Plaza Dilao Connector expressway over the PNR RROW was to build them both and not choose one over the other. We relentlessly muddled on for years to convince the authorities that the NLEx-SCTEx Maybiga/Dau toll barriers were no longer necessary for toll collection and keeping it was only a recipe for traffic disaster come the massive exodus to the provinces every long weekend.
We predicted eventual relief of South bound traffic once the whole of the NAIAx was open. And traffic can be eased if elevated Skyway exiting at Alabang elevated toll plaza was configured to pass through. With C-5 South Link being built, the true capacity of CAVITEx can be fully utilized. Plus, hundreds of carriageway, sign, luminairy location, off-ramp and shoulder alignment adjustments and upgrading of NLEx, particularly the last Balem to Sta. Inez section of the NLEx, including the proper rendering of Sta. Inez into a proper trumpet interchange. Our next work in progress is a complete all points access SCTEx-NLEx interchange. With the Kaybiang tunnel and the Ternate-Nasugbu highway, DPWH greatly relieved the traffic in upper Cavite and the Tagaytay-Nasugbu highway.
We are happy to note that LTO listened and are issuing bigger [closer in size to EU norm] rear only motorcycle plate numbers [with 2 rows of characters] as mandated by a law sponsored by Sen. Gordon. Lately, the PNP finally acted to end the weekly carnage of daredevil moto riders at Tanayburgring. Our constant badgering of the MMDA merited responses and adjustments to their pink fences, bollard walls, U-turn slots, dogbone rotundae, merging lanes, one way systems and part time left turn lanes. Our badgering Pampanga DPWH finally produced the desired road repair in Mabalacat which comically started erroneously by breaking up the roadway before the drainage canal was enlarged. Oooops!
Like in anything, there are its frustrations. We failed to convince San Miguel Infra to retain the E-PASS DSRC tag for ETC [electronic toll collection] rather shift to the still buggy RFID. Even Metro Pac Tollways have troubles caused by RFID. We failed to push the bill filed by then Congressmen Mark Cojuangco and Jack Enrile that would have raised the national tollway speed limit to 130.0km/h. We failed to convince the DPWH to proceed with converting the Plaridel-Nueva Ecija bypass highway to a proper limited access tollway, with a PPP O&M. We couldn’t help DPWH push the clearing for the rest of RROW for NLEx segment 8 to link Mindanao Avenue to Luzon Ave. and Commonwealth. We failed to convince the LTO that instead of making unique dimensions for our plate numbers, adopt the EU default size of 120 x 520mm so as to save on custom made metal blanks and to fully exploit the space for 8 or even 9 characters as the current 7 character plates will be exhausted in the next 6 or 7 years. And to change the font thickness to be more legible, as it is in the 1st batch of plates that [made in India] have the better font size and thickness.
Oh we scored our own “own goals”. In support for an expanded local new car market, the government chose the strictest possible interpretation of E.O. 150. That, and an absolute ban on registration of Subic imports, spelled the end of Subic. The same no registration and ban on the import of used cars was used against the Port Irene imports of Cagayan. A pity as the RHD to LHD conversions was so much better and Port Irene had well cared for JDM homologated European cars to boot.
But E.O. 150 hit vintage car aficionados, legitimate car restorers and resto/mods [restoration/modification specialists] pretty hard as parts donor cars from abroad could no longer be imported. Clark’s Freeport status has made it a magnet for car restoration companies who bring in vintage clunkers to be restored and finished to Concour d’e elegance condition but can only be re-exported back to country of origin. This punished local groups like Mercedes Benz restorers who have been focusing on sourcing donor cars from South Africa and Namibia just as sources from ex Communist East Europe and the Levant dried up. We look in envy at all those nice restorations in Clark, that we cannot legally own and drive in our own country.
We failed to convince the LTFRB that 150,000 Grab and Uber drivers were the main driver [pun intended] for greater competition to offer the most courteous of rented rides and this does not translate to EDSA bumping up to another 150,000 vehicles to over max. capacity. We were not able to convince them that the 150,000 Ubers did not mean 150,000 cars simultaneously on the road as the greatest convenience Uber provided was to keep the car owners from driving their car everyday and thus clogging up the system.
At today’s 30,000 ceiling, TNVS nowadays isn’t the Godsend royal transport experience that it was when Uber was around. We could not make LTFRB see that their myopic pedantic view of ride sharing was rubbing salt to the wounds of the suffering commuter and transport provider. Also similar to the experience since 1989, Imperial Manila still doesn’t see the huge cost advantage of Francis Yuseco’s home grown RBT [Rapid Bus Transit] updated with DOST’s latest road trains.
Well at least the gents of Panay Island saw the advantages of no foreign exchange rate risk, 1/30th the cost of LRT’s and up-and-running in one fourth the time. A timely and cost effective replacement of the long gone Panay railway system, Panay will soon have a working mass transit system in the same time it took to negotiate and initiate the postponed Cebu BRT or the Metro Manila Subway.
We are still waiting for the authorities to ride the trend of walled segregated traffic lanes between pedal 2-wheelers and motorized 2-wheelers. Waiting to imitate ASEAN countries and London transport who provide a motorcycle holding box at traffic light junctions just before the yellow box, to allow the quicker accelerating motos to lead the charge when the light turns green.
From all kinds of iterations from Day 1, we’ve constantly given our ten cents worth of modifications for the UVRRP or coding from varying window hours, exempting areas at intermodal transit terminals [just like NAIA] and proposed congestion charging by E-PASS tags [simpler than London’s or Singapore’s] combined with odd-even prohibitions based on calendar date. We are still waiting for the spread of genuine MVIS, the revised practical exam [a revised version by yours truly was recently posted], a different approach to the Left led “Resistance” vs. Jeepney Modernization, broader and deeper application of no-contact traffic violation ticketing using the growing network of CCTV’s, drones and positive ID plate number recognition.
We continue to advocate the proper and uniform distinction between emergency vehicles by choosing an appropriate siren and distinct melody for police cars, ambulances, rescue/fire brigade and BJMP prisoner transport. Ditto for panels of high visibility luminous graphics that can officially and uniformly identify/distinguish Police cars, ambulance and rescue/fire brigade from mobile advertising.
Even baby steps to encourage motorists to self-police the little things that matter – like headlight aim. We’ve proposed that the oil companies sponsor forecourts with oil change bays to provide a calibrated template on one of their blank walls, where motorists can adjust their headlight aim for free, just like oil and water. Or better yet, to require all motor repair shops to have a well maintained and properly adjusted headlight beam setter, all for a reasonable charge so we can minimize the danger of headlight glare and start a campaign to get those headlights aim right. Then there is our long standing proposal to Baguio’s City fathers to minimize diesel fumes and idling at long traffic queues by making Lower Session Road one way downhill and loop the one way traffic via Harrison to go uphill back to Upper Session Road.
The past decade and some has been a tollway and railway dream come true. Starting with the Cebu-Cordoba bridge and expressway, the main islands of the Visayas and North Mindanao will be getting their cross-straits bridges too. An all road inter-island jaunt across the 3 main island groups of the country will soon be a possibility. So while they are at it, why not a Cavite-to-Bataan bridge, sort of like New York Verrazano Narrows bridge. And with it, a circumferential Manila Bayshore expressway.
As my favorite Calabazon destinations get their expressways i.e. CALAx to CBex [Cavite-Batangas-Expwy] from Silang to Nasugbu and STAR extension to Tagaytay via Tanauan-Talisay, up north, TPLEx starts its march northward to Pagudpud with another 50kms of expwy from Rosario to San Juan, La Union. So, why not a landslide free expressway from Sison to Baguio City in the shadow of scenic Kennon? The path to take would be on the Bued River itself, the way some Alpine expressways are built in the Basque province, China and Switzerland. Top it off with a major PPP for Baguio’s circumferential tollway not only to keep transit truck traffic away from CBD but to also make it easier to get to Bobby Ongpin’s Baguio Highlands. Going by road is still less nail biting than a helicopter ride through dense fog.
There is still a lot to do, a lot to expect and a lot to contribute to. I dread to think of some new fangled restrictions the authorities are thinking of which usually end up worsening the “ber” season traffic that it meant to alleviate. The recent brouhaha on the forgotten need for LTO approval and payment of modification fees resulted in the formation of a TWG [technical working group] proves that the importance of effectively communicating to the public – via advance reminders, warning dry-runs before launching dragnets and apprehension - and that I-am-the-law-bully-biy attitudes are not welcome in Imperial Manila.
But for the meantime, I will have to wait as I take a leave to spend some time away from this, my cherished subject matter, in order to tackle matters that I have postponed for too long. Still, you can expect to hear from me from time to time, whenever the opportunity [or provocation] arises and as I always used to say, whenever tempted to conclude hastily or jump to conjecture, and so that you do not think I will be gone never to be heard from, I say, not so fast….
P.S. What many car mad Filipinos call the best job in the world was also an opportunity to meet a lot of people, gazillions of them, taking several gB of the contacts memory of a standard smartphone. For space’s sake, we list the first responders to my first year of action 2001. Roll Credits.
Froy Dytangquin and Arlan Reyes of Mitsubishi. Ariel de Jesus of Toyota (now head of Wurth Philippines). Tintin Reyes of Honda (now based in New Zealand). Timmy Naval of Isuzu (now with VW Philippines). Dodi Ganac and Chut Velasquez of Kia. Nicky Mariano of GM (also headed Motorimage Pilipinas and Aston Martin Philippines). Tonette Lee of Pilipinas Nissan. Beth Lee of UMC Nissan. Albert Arcilla and Lyn Buena of Volvo (the two now also head The Covenant Car Company Corporation, Inc.).
Maricar Parco of Ford (now with BMW). Jun Pe and Felix Ang of CATS Mercedes Benz. Spencer Yu (now with BMW) and Robert Coyuito, Jr. of PGA Porsche. Arvie Fugoso of Suzuki (now with Motor Image Pilipinas, Subaru). Mark Gilbert of BMW A.G (retired). Of course, Wellington Soong of Jaguar (Soong has since parted ways with Jaguar-Land Rover, he is currently chairman and president of Autostrada Motore). Pocholo and Kookie Ramirez. And finally, Armin Amio of Business World.