Ten years after

Several years later, when I reached driving age and height, I got to drive a 190Dc. Being an early model, it had a front bench seat making it a true 6-seater. There was merit to the seat's initial stiffness as it did provide support for long stints in the car. The non-power assist steering taught a lesson that precise vehicle positioning needn't be dead feeling or arm wrestling heavy. The top hinged hydraulic clutch was light and linear. The brakes were reassuring, even if they were not powered. The easy feeling behind the controls give credit to balanced seating, seat height, padding and panorama glass, with the rear fender chrome fin tips acting as one's reversing guide. The doors clicked shut and never rattled. At speed, the weather sealing was so good that there was no wind whistle around the quarter lights and the panoramic windshield. I suppose the intrusive thrumming of the diesel engine is down to the deletion of the Merc's heating and ventilation matrix as the Mark IV under dash air con needed the space. Another 190D in the family was quieter as it had the air con blower mounted in the trunk with air flow funnels punched through the rear hat shelf, but this felt unnatural as the wind pounded your nape.

Mercedes-Benz 190Dc

The quaint 190Dc

The vertical strip odometer was most amusing. Below 20MPH, the rising strip would show yellow. As you approach 30 to 40MPH, 50 to 60km/h for European regulations speed limit in built-up areas, the speedo strip turns a zebra yellow and red. Beyond 40 MPH, it turns all red as the 190 can reach 95MPH on a clear downhill run. The compact VDO instrument cluster was bounded by red needle type thermometer, fuel tank, hand brake and oil pressure gauges, as the fourth quadrant had all the generator, high beam and indicator idiot lights. The fin tailed series had a very elegant VDO rectangular clock, all the rage in high end cars nowadays and even if the door and the bakelite dashboard trim – shades of today's piano black lacquer - had wide chrome moldings, Mercedes designed the safety padding to shield it from distracting glare.

Austere but clever

The trunk, floor and running boards were covered in ribbed dark grey rubber, while the ceiling was perforated vinyl, which looked like Elastoplast. The trunk was finished in matt black and had 2 receptacles for spare tires, one on each side. The fuel filler neck hid behind the hinged cover where the rear plate number is attached. The large ivory plastic steering wheel [ivory for sun-baked tropical markets, black for colder climes] contrasted with the dark hues of the padded dashboard, festooned with dainty rubber knobbed switches. In those days, instead of one key fits all, cars had ignition key, door key, glove box key, trunk and fuel filler key, with different sized and shaped heads. As a diesel, it had a dash glowplug heater and a pull-pre-heat, pull again to start plunger for starting.

Yet quite refined

Like all pre 1966 Mercs, the 190D had its turn signal lamp/park light clusters, semaphore style, on the front fender, near the A-pillar. The chrome stemmed side view mirrors were a must have option. The 190 rode like a limousine. When huge craters taken at speed it felt like the tires just ran over a garden hose. As for cornering, the lean angles were high, owing to the supple double wishbone front suspension but steering kick back, even on railway crossings, were well damped. NVH was well isolated by the car's monocoque frame over insulated sub-frames.

Mercedes-Benz 190Dc

Flexible platform pioneer

Petrol-heads today impressed by Volkswagen's MQB platform which could morph into anything from the humble VW Up to the massive Bentley Spur should know that Mercedes was a pioneer in flexible platforms in the W110 190c. Adding 145mm in front of the bulkhead and fitting a 2.2 liter twin carb six makes it the S-class 220Sb. Add more into the rear door, and it becomes the limousine W112 300SE, a notch below the stately W189 300 Adenauer limousine.

Underpowered but determined

Though the copper core air con worked great, the downside was that the York reciprocating piston freon compressor took up 5bhp of the OM621 engine's 55hp. That's why switching off the air con for long climbs or overtaking became a useful and calculated trick. Incidentally, the 190 did have local Motorsport pedigree as the Lee brothers of Universal Motors never failed to join the popular Shell Car Rally series that pitted the German car against Mini's, Beetles, V-8 Mustangs, Renault R-16s and even little 2-cylinder powered Honda's.

Martial Law and the 1st Oil Crisis

Alas, it was not to be my fate to drive a 190D to Baguio when my turn to drive came in 1975. But I got something better; "my" Merc was a '72 200D with 4 on the floor and 10 more hp than the 190. This time, this car had a console so the air con was built-in. It was quieter, more comfortable and supposedly more environmentally friendly than the old 190. But it was also heavier so the Vmax on the flat was just up to 135km/h [84MPH] on the conventional, now metric circular speedo. What I gave up in speed and power vs. gas cars, I gained in thrift, as the 1st Oil Crisis made fuel prices and availability unpredictable. Even though the country was under Martial Law era, in-car entertainment was provided by Japanese branded AM/FM cassette radio, stuck in the console with the needle pointed to 99.5RT on the FM band. The 200D/8 had a bigger glass area too so the York air con compressor had its work cut out.

Car accessories, the novelty

Perhaps it was also because the choice of cars was severely limited by the PCMP, that the mid-seventies also saw an explosion in after market car accessories from high end European brands like Campagnolo, Fiamm, Weber, Cibie, SEV Marchal and Paddy Hopkirk, mostly sold by FCC. To make up for the inadequate illumination on Philippine roads, my Merc was fitted with Bosch far distance halogen lamps.

Plan around the curfew

Sticking to the script, Rochester Greenhills was the new point of departure. A 0400hrs depart was not possible as the 0100hrs to 0400hrs curfew was still being enforced by the Metrocom, who had a check point just past the White Plains turn off on EDSA. Still, 0430hrs on the road was reasonable enough to breeze through the traffic lights of Santolan, P. Tuazon, then the diversion through Cubao as the Cubao-Aurora underpass was being built, New York, Kamuning/Kamias and East Ave.

North Diversion Road

The North Diversion Road

It was straight forward till we reach the Balintawak clover leaf where the eight year old North Diversion Road was an on ramp away. This early, there was already some fast lane competition as the diesel buses of Victory Liner, Philippine Rabbit and Baliwag Transit were capable of going over 120km/h. But the swiftest cars on the North Diversion Road, specially at odd times like these, were the Ford Custom sedans of the USAF special service shuttle between Manila and Clark Air Base. The Filipino drivers of these US Base sedans knew how to fly.

Time saver

Whatever time I lost waiting for the Metrocom checkpoints to pack up, was more than made up by the Diversion Road as there was no more need to pass my stinking hometown of Meycauayan. Over the concrete dual carriageway, I settled for the 135km/h which was all the 200D can give. Still I was already paying toll at Tabang terminus plaza of the NDR, 35 minutes after leaving Greenhills.

Progress means crowding

Ten years after, the MacArthur highway has become busier. Not only were the shoulders a bit more crowded, progress meant more people in the province could afford motorcycles, tricycles, mongrel jeeps and mini-buses. So even when it was still dark, speeds through the still sleeping towns were a lot more cautious. Nevertheless, the wide open spaces in between the towns could still afford flat out driving. MacArthur's pavement has drastically improved with a repave of asphaltic concrete by Nam Kwang, a Korean contractor. Moreover, there was wide deployment of international traffic signs now, as the quaint Commonwealth era concrete signs were becoming a rarity.

More overtaking needed

As the sun started to hover over the horizon, the pace of local activity also picked up. Ten years hence, I still had to deal with the major handicap of a diesel powered car of that era; weak overtaking power. Thankfully, overtaking became less frequent once we cleared Balibago/Clark Field in Angeles and it was again pedal to the metal from here to Bamban, Capas, San Miguel and then Tarlac City, where the lean-to roadside eateries of five years ago are now full blown restaurants with air con and parking for buses. For us determined on the benchmark journey time, it's flat out party time from hereon to Pangasinan.

The Philippine Constabulary

As day breaks, we had to keep a watchful eye for the khaki and red PC highway patrol cars. They are usually well equipped with imported American state trooper type Ford V-8 police interceptors fitted with telescoping red lights. Some have VASCAR speed radar, the kind used by the California Highway Patrol to shadow suspects going over the speed limit. But since the PC, like all government agencies were saving fuel because of the ongoing Oil Crisis, the PC Highway Patrol cruisers and mounted cops were content to park near the wide radiused curves, keeping an eye out for drivers who overtake on a double yellow line. That was no temptation to us, what with our car's 60 hp, net of working air con.

New bypass roads

Ten years is indeed a long time as increased traffic, increased people and vehicular population has increased economic activity, which now necessitated building diversion roads past municipal halls of the formerly sleepy towns of Gerona and Paniqui, Tarlac. We make up for lost time by gunning it all the way through Moncada, then on to Rosales, Pangasinan. It was between the cane fields here where I registered one of my most favored memories of driving in the Philippines.

The country's first "fun run"?

Somewhere past Moncada, I saw bright lights heading towards me in my rear view mirror. In a matter of seconds, I was overtaken by a silver VW Scirocco, and right behind him, riding the VW's rear bumper, was a VW-Porsche 914. The two flew by me as if I was parked. But the greater surprise came a few seconds later; a big silver hunk of a car, passed me, doing easily 160km/h. It turned out be my cousin's 1952 Mercedes 220S, a 110hp twin Solex carbed six cylinder limousine that looked like the garden variety 180D taxi. This trio of German cars were perhaps the country's first "fun run"?

Busy market towns now

At Urdaneta, traffic by the market dropped to snail's paced. Again, it only meant more time to make up from Urdaneta through Binalonan, Pozzorubio, Sison, and finally the ritual solitary fuel and toilet stop at Rosario, La Union before mounting Kennon Road.

The locals' antipathy to lowlanders

It was still summer vacation time as we entered Baguio City. To help Baguio's police to cope, Makati's Mayor Yabut lent the City of Pines a couple of his well trained lady traffic cops. Rumor had it that it was also a way of subtly telling the local Police not to show off and behave anal to the lowlander tourists. Get a quarter inch of your bumper over the many Zebra crossings in front of the downtown Market, and you get a ticket for obstruction. Regular lowlander visitors to Baguio, like us, learned to appease the natives; if the cop wears neat long sleeved khakis, a stoic expression and just about made it to minimum Constable height, beware, he's a local. Either give him a wide berth or greet him with a courteous Good Morning/Afternoon. And don't expect a response. So with the traffic and all, we sat down to a prepared breakfast at Bokawkan at 830AM, 4 hours to be exact. Exchanging "when did you arrive" and "when are you going down" with friends at Baguio Country Club, Hyatt Terraces Hotel and the Casino at Pines Hotel can wait.

Baguio Country Club

Home bound with reluctance

And the way back? Once in Baguio, one would love to stay as long as possible, leaving as late as possible, even if all those new expressways have further congested Baguio. That's why the way back home usually averages an hour or an hour and a half longer. There's also a strong resistance to open the car windows to let in the steamy lowland Luzon air, until one gets home or if the traffic is really bad, an obligatory stop for food adds to the time elapsed.


The future of the 4 hour benchmark

What the 4 hour benchmark shows us is that with progress, we have to keep moving apace just to keep travel times from worsening. Vehicle and traveller population have easily multiplied 10 times from 50 years ago and there's certainly more in store for the future. In order for us to even keep to this 4-hour Manila-Baguio benchmark means that within the next ten years, the C-6 expressway linking to NLEx, the North Luzon East Expressway, the Central Luzon Expressway, the Plaridel-Cabanatuan bypass expressway and whatever replaces North Rail, etc. have to all be up and running so that traffic bound for the north eastern side of Luzon will no longer crowd into the NLEx-SCTEx-TPLEx main northern route.

But government can still make it quicker

Yes, 50 years ago, at the right time of day in the week, one can drive the northern half of Pampanga and the whole of Tarlac and Pangasinan at speeds that would guarantee speeding tickets on today's LIDAR enforced speed limits on NLEx, SCTEx and TPLEx. In the meantime, there are a couple of things the government can do to speed up traffic on this NLEx-SCTEx-TPLEx axis without the need to raise the speed limit from 100km/h to 160km/h, though 120 or 130 is more in keeping with international practice. That is to mandate interoperability of electronic toll collection systems like Easy Trip and E-PASS on all three expressways now that NLEx and SCTEx toll collection is being inetgrated eliminating the toll paying queues at SCTEx Mabalacat and NLEx Dau – thanks largely to Sen. Drilon. The more things change, the more, the 4 hour benchmark matters.