Readers' Submissions

I Lub My Car



It’s a funny thing, the automobile. Ever since its inception just over a hundred years ago, it’s always been quite high on everyone’s wish list. And why not? As it increased in popularity, more and more road networks sprang up, eventually overtaking the railways as the preferred means of transport. A personal magic chariot, with the freedom of movement these days that were only dreamed of when they first showed up. All you need today is a GPS, and off you go into the wild, blue yonder. Why bother with all those bits of paper called maps? All the infrastructure – petrol stations, drive-in restaurants, guesthouses – are found at regular intervals on any major road.

Everyone wants one. For different reasons.

I remember the first car I ever drove. It was a tiny old Fiat coupe with a 750cc engine in the back, and came with suicide doors (the doors were hinged at the back and opened from the front, so you could lose the door if it accidentally unlatched while driving). This fact, however, was appreciated at work if the guys saw me dropping off any female staff in the car park… What I also liked was the fact that it was actually a four-seater, and the front seats were fully reclining…

The car would get washed on a regular basis, and I’d be poking around in the engine compartment or elsewhere looking for things to fix (or improve) – in fact the car became a bit of a fixture – it was the girlfriends that came and went. I eventually moved on to newer and better, but you always remember the first…

It’s not much different in Thailand.

I remember driving around Bangkok with an old Thai friend years ago in a clapped out old Volkswagen beetle. Even though it was showing it’s age, he would dote on it and was forever tinkering with the engine. To his credit, it never broke down even once in those horrendous traffic jams. And when he had to go overseas to work, he wouldn’t let anyone else drive it (His son was a little too young at the time, but was beginning to show a little TOO much interest in it) so he’d chain and padlock the chassis to a pillar in the garage, and just for peace of mind, remove the rotor from the distributor… I don’t know why, but ‘Herbie’ chained to a pillar and wearing a chastity belt somehow springs to mind (it was a rear-engined car too).

A motor vehicle is one of the few things the Thais will throw money at. If you have attended any of the local car shows, it’s literally shoulder-to-shoulder. It is also the time of year when the car salespeople do the biggest amount of sales on new cars. It’s also funny to note, they’d rather take a five-year loan on a new car, than buy something second-hand that is affordable. This comes down to two things, or a combination thereof:

– did the previous owner(s) have any accident, causing fatalities with the car? Maybe the ghosts are still around. Or,

– I want to have the privilege of driving around in the latest model on red plates. Even if it happens to be the cheapest model in the range.

A note on red plates. These are dealership licence plates, and are supposed to be issued to the dealership for the purpose of ferrying the car from one place to another before ownership is actually transferred to the buyer. The problem is, so many new cars are registered every day that the system cannot cope, so the buyer is allowed to drive around for a couple of days with these plates until the official plates can be issued. The buyers like the attention they get, as everyone else around knows the car is brand spanking new. There is a catch, however.

By law, these plates may only be utilised in daylight hours, between six a.m. to six p.m. Everybody ‘knows’ this. Especially the police. So those people who insist on driving at night are pushing their luck at trying not to contribute to the kitty of the policeman’s year-end ball.

A quick note on the other plate colours. A white plate with black numerals would indicate a privately-registered passenger vehicle. Goods vehicles have green numerals on a white background, while another sub-category would be blue numerals on a white background, where the pickup can officially carry passengers but needs to have extra seats fitted, and the rear bed covered. Taxis have black numerals on a yellow background.

The most popular form of vehicle is the pickup truck. This is mainly because of the tax structure, as they would be classified as goods vehicles and can cost up to thirty percent less than a similarly powered passenger vehicle. You can also carry fourteen of your wife’s relatives in the back in the blazing sun (or driving rain) and not feel too guilty about it. Diesel is also cheaper than petrol, so it is the preferred mode of transport. Aftermarket accessory shops brim with add-ons for this particular market.

The next step up (at least where day-to-day transport is the main criteria) are the lower end Japanese car models. These are popular in the city; and depending on how they are decked out, you will have a good idea as to the driving habits / skills of the owner.

Those with flashy sports rims, fat exhaust, lowered suspension and dark tinted windows are usually the boy racers. Expect them to zoom in and out without signalling, and try to go as fast as possible in gridlocked traffic. At least you can hear them coming.

If you see a car with ten soft toys on the rear window shelf blocking the view, it’s usually a younger lady driver (Typical secretary or accountant) who’ll drive in the slow lane, drift into the middle, then back again, all the time without signalling and having one ear glued to a cell phone. A row of ‘Hello Kitty’ stickers dotting every window is another giveaway.
SUV drivers are the same throughout the world, the more expensive the make and model, usually the worse the driving etiquette.

Drivers of most European brands seem to have the most road courtesy, with the exception of BMW and Mercedes drivers. This is because these two brands are considered the premium brands here, so to hell with all the rest of you who can’t afford one of these.

Taxi, minibus and bus drivers can all be lumped together. Being public transport, the vehicle does not belong to them so they can drive like bats out of hell.

Not everyone buys a car for pure transport. Some do it for show. For example, an up-and-coming businessman bought a spanking new Mercedes to park in front of his house. He couldn’t drive it, nor did he need to. But he felt that if it was not there, people would think that his business was going down the drain. It reflects the attitude of, ‘the bigger the gold chain round my neck is, the better off than you I am’ in certain circles.

Another friend bought a second-hand Pajero that supposedly was owned by one of these types. After two weeks with the car, he agreed that it had to have been just sitting and not going anywhere for a couple of years. All the upholstery was mouldy right through. Half of the things on the engine didn’t work well. Sure, there was practically no mileage on it, but because it hadn’t been used it had basically become a lump of rust.

The one thing about car owners here is, they tend to fastidiously keep their cars looking good. Lots of accessories, spotless interiors, top-of-the-line stereo systems. It’s all for show. Very, very few bother with regular maintenance; Japanese cars are bought because they have a high resale value no matter the running condition of the car.

European brands are not popular as most locals feel they are expensive to maintain, and have poor resale value. Those who do buy these makes typically can afford them, and usually maintain them well, even though they go through the same trend of getting the latest model after a while.

There’s nothing more coveted than the allure of a red plate…

Stickman's thoughts:

The local car market has many nuances about it that are quite different from the West….I must write about cars again soon.