In the late spring of 2004, my company CEO despatched me to the city of Chihuahua, Mexico – to deal with a quality issue that had doggedly bugged the production line of our customer, Honeywell Mexico.
It was a long, circuitous journey, flying via Newark, then to El Paso, and finally to Chihuahua — taking more than 30 hours.
Fixing the so-called quality bug was a piece of taco for me, as I found out the factory had a laissez-faire management and, tended to pass the buck and their bugs to the suppliers.
With the job done, there was plenty of time and the Mexican amigos took me for a tour of the city. And guess what, I realized that It’s A Bug’s World after all. Everywhere, on every street, every nook and corner, there was the VW Beetle, of every age and vintage.
Can you glam up a Beetle ? Apparently, it could be and was successfully done in the early 1950s.
Volkswagon engaged the Italian design house Ghia, and German coachbuilder Karmann to create the eye-catching VW Karmann Ghia, and started production in 1955. (up to 1974 in Germany). But the engine was still the venerable rear-mounted flat-four-boxer, air-cooled powerplant that drove all the Beetles. (Later versions had more powerful engines)
My first encounter with one specimen was in the mid-60s – it was all-white, owned and driven by a lady dentist who worked at the Butterworth District Hospital. (She used to do up the many ‘potholes’ on my teeth when I was a kid).
Sleekness and glamour notwithstanding, the signature “chug-a-chug” sound of the Beetle engine was unmistakable. A close look at the badge verified the car’s bugsy heritage.
As I was in the bath tub this morning, an old memory flashed by. Yea, I recalled seeing a very cute, stubby motorcar in my early primary school days.
It was a 2-seater, with a convertible top (at that time, I thought it was funny that the car had no roof) and the driver seemed to be yanking a stick that was stuck to the steering wheel (I did not know that was called a ‘column shift’ gear stalk).
The other interesting feature was that it had the spare wheel mounted prominently (almost ornamentally) at the back. Last but not least, the other four regular wheels were half-hidden by the body panels.
Even at that tender age, I had mischievously thought the car looked like a bath tub on wheels.
I later learned it was called Nash Metropolitan.
It is now unimaginable for anyone buying a car – new or preloved – that it would come without an airconditioner built-in. Yet, up to the very late 70s, airconditioning was an optional item.
And so, my very first full-size car (a 2-yr old Mazda 323 Hatchback) did not have one. After sweating it out for a couple of months, and with my hair blown into a bird’s nest after each ride (windows had to be down), I decided enough was enough.
A trip to a workshop, and about RM1,400 poorer, ah ha, got me a brand new Sanden kit installed, with the blower/evaporator unit mounted under the dashboard. Cool ! Wow, “to chill it out” had taken on a new wonderful literal meaning.
The first stop after that was to go over to my GF’s home and pick her up in cool comfort.
In the late ‘70s and through the ‘80s when the industrialization process was taking off in Malaysia, motor cars became a telling symbol of “I have arrived”.
This old fogey remembers many young-blooded hotshots would proudly roar in and out of town in saloons that had been “macho-transformed”….with sports rims, extra-wide tyres, throaty-exhausts…and invariably one or several sets of halogen fog lamps in front !
Never mind that a fog in Malaysia is as rare as a blue moon, these lamps emitted a piercing yellow beam that was quite menacing and even hazardous to oncoming traffic. I guess the idea was to tell the lesser beings in the oncoming vehicles, “look, tai kor (大哥, ‘big brother’) is here”.
I believe such lamps might have been outlawed, as in recent years I have hardly seen any vehicle with these mounted.
It was my first “proper” car after driving a couple of junks that were not not much younger than I – the Mazda 323 Hatchback. The two-box design was all the rave in the late 70s/early 80s, and I thought it would put the “unexciting” me into the chic league!
It claimed to be miserly on fuel, with 40mpg, but I soon found out that Mazda had simply put a gearbox that was in overdrive. If one went around corners at below 20mph on 3rd gear, the whole car would shudder. I had to insert pieces of sponge here and there to overcome the vibrations.
Many sweet memories though. It was the car in which I took my first girlfriend for a date, … and drove with her all over Malaysia,…until we got married. Gave it to my sister, when we migrated to Singapore.
It was in the mid-1960s and one of my first experiential encounters of the 4-wheel kind was with a small family saloon called Ford Prefect.
It belonged to a family friend and, on several occasions, my dad borrowed it to take us on trips from Butterworth to a small town in Kedah state. Along the way, we would pull up by the roadside to watch the aircraft at the RAAF airbase.
I clearly remember that it had a manual gearshift with only 3 forward speeds, when a “4-on-the-floor” was standard at that time.
With hindsight, I now think this 3-speeder Prefect was the perfect solution to Penang drivers’ notorious tendency to drive at crawl speeds, regardless of traffic conditions. (When I got a 5-speeder to drive later in life, I seldom got past no.4)