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The gears of history

Vintage vehicles in Indochina give Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club a history lesson.

Two dark blue Citroen Traction models at the Hanoi Hotel Metropole.

Two dark blue Citroen Traction models at the Hanoi Hotel Metropole.

Besides being an integral part of the national heritage, old motors are also intrinsically entwined with the history of a nation. More so in countries that in their path to independence, underwent lengthy internal conflicts, regional wars, as well a struggles against distant foes.

A case in point is Indochina, nowadays an area comprising Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which I recently visited. For many years, in these countries old motors and motor cycles – the latter are extremely popular – were mainly to be seen in presidential compounds, and museums of the military, the police or public security sectors. Given their turbulent history, the communist rule, and the economy, one would not have expected the situation to be otherwise.

However, after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, communism in Indochina started to change from its dictatorial and oppressive stance. Although officially red, these three countries began to openly flirt with capitalism, and now open market policies and private business drives are encouraged. This development has created an atmosphere in which some successful entrepreneurs, as well as a few well heeled individuals infected with the old motors fever, can now own and enjoy classic cars.

Vroom in Vietnam

A light blue Russian motorcycle with sidecar at the Hanoi Military Museum.A light blue Russian motorcycle with sidecar at the Hanoi Military Museum.

The country, with around 90 million population, declared unilateral independence in 1945 after nearly 100 years of French rule. This was finally agreed to at the 1954 Geneva Conference, which resulted in a communist north and a catholic south. For many years, the US propped up the south, fighting a bloody war against the north and the Viet Cong. After heavy military losses, the US diplomatically bowed out of the region following the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Two years later the communists took over the south, reunifying the whole country.

The leader of the anti-French and US campaigns was Ho Chi Minh, and Vietnam is peppered with museums in his honour. In the Presidential Palace compound in the capital, Hanoi, there is a small garage in which Ho kept three cars. Russia – a staunch supporter of the north – gave him a 1953 black ZIS-101 saloon, a four-seater bulletproof car, with limited production, and reserved for leaders.

A grey Peugeot 404.A grey Peugeot 404.

Another Soviet car is a 1955 light green grey GAZ-M20 Podebo, suitable for long trips. There is also a grey Peugeot 404, given to the leader by Vietnamese living in France.

At the Hanoi Military Museum, one finds a number of military vehicles. Of special interest is a 1940 American half truck given to the French troops in their campaign against the Vietnamese.

In Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and capital of the south, there are a number of classic cars at the city museum that were harnessed by the Viet Cong to ferry VIPs, soldiers, the wounded, weapons and food. A 1940 black Citroen Traction takes pride of place at the museum entrance. In a shed at the back, there is a 1951 Simca 9 Aronde, a 1949 white and grey Lambro, an Italian three-wheel cargo carrier based on the Lambretta scooter, and a 1955 light blue Renault Juva Quatre wagon. There is also a 1959 metallic blue Peugeot 403, as well as a 1960 sky blue Ford Taunus.

At intervals, one spots a classic on the road or in some upmarket niche

At the Revolution-Independence Palace, there is a historic vehicle, a 1960 US Jeep model M151A2, which was used to carry South Vietnamese President Duang van Minh to broadcast the south’s surrender to the north on April 30, 1975. A short distance away, there is one of the presidential cars, a 1965 white, fin-tailed Mercedes Benz 200 W110.

On an individual basis, entrepreneur Tran Quang Hung has a number of old cars in his restaurant’s grounds in Hanoi. These include a 1959 Citroen Ami 6, a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle, a 1966 Simca, two 1950 Citroen Traction; and a Soviet GAZ bus. Outside the capital’s old Hotel Metropole, opened in 1901, a 1945 dark blue Citroen Traction sits next to a younger model, a similarly coloured 1956 Traction. In the grounds of the Ly restaurant in Ho Chi Minh city, another two 1945 two-tone maroon and cream Traction stand in the company of an early black Citroen 2CV.

Two out of three Vietnamese own a motorcycle, and this long relationship with the two-wheeler is reflected in old models kept for posterity. At the Hanoi Police Museum, the central attraction is a 1970 light blue Russian police motorcycle with sidecar. The Museum of People’s Public Security displays a 1959 Honda 50 model and a 1966 Honda Federal. At the Da Nang Museum, there is a 1950 red and yellow Goebel Sachs moped. The Ho Chi Minh City Museum has a 1970 light blue Vespa and a 1968 grey and white Suzuki, used by the Viet Cong, in impeccable condition. Under the awning of the wide facade of the Viet Village restaurant in the same city, two revered relics from 1957, a metallic light blue, French Motocomfort Mobylette Model AV78, and a black, German Sachs Gritzer Brummi, make passersby stop right in their tracks!

A Goebel-Sachs motorcycle at the Da Nang Museum.A Goebel-Sachs motorcycle at the Da Nang Museum.

Classics in Cambodia

While also being a target of French and American influence and intervention, the country’s worst nightmare occurred in the 1970s, when the communist Khmer Rouge took over. They threw Cambodia back to Year Zero, abolishing education, religion, culture, private property, money, the rule of law – the population was forced out of towns into the countryside to work in the fields. In less than four years before the regime was overthrown, out of the then population of eight million, more than one in four Cambodians was killed or died from hardship, malnutrition or disease.

At the War Remnants Museum in Siem Reap – which with its magnificent Angkor Wat temples is the jewel in the crown of Cambodia – I was shown a 1950s GMC military truck used by the Khmer Rouge. The vehicle was given a nut and bolt restoration prior to being harnessed by Angelina Jolie in her 2017 film of those dark years entitled First They Killed My Father. The actress-producer also turned to local collector Ing Samath to harness some of his old cars, including a1934 Citroen Traction, in her film.

In the capital, Phnom Penh, a number of old motors, including a Rolls-Royce and a Chevrolet Camaro, are kept in a section of the Royal Palace. Although some parts of it are opened to visitors, the vehicle area is unfortunately not for public consumption. Down south in Sihanoukville, a number of classic cars take pride of place in a showroom at the upmarket Jewelry Boutique. They include, among others, a 1966 white Cadillac De Ville, a Ford GT, an AC Cobra, a Mercedes SLR, and a Soviet Gaz-21.

Motorcycles are also commonplace in Cambodia, and at intervals, one spots a classic on the road or in some upmarket niche. In the garden of the White Mansion boutique hotel in Phnom Penh, there is a 1969 black Chinese Chang Jiang 750 M1S, while the centre piece in the hotel reception area is a 1962 white Vespa/Piaggio 160 GS.

Laos is more

A country with a population of seven million, Laos was also dragged into the French and American network, besides having its own internal problems with the Pathet Lao rebels. Outside the Museum of Public Security in the capital, Vientiane, there is a 1972, yellow with blue stripes Fiat 1600, used by the police. Three old motorcycles keep it company – a 1940s black Honda with sidecar; a 1962 dark blue Honda; and a 1969 Russian light blue motorcycle with a blue and white sidecar.

Across the road, in the grounds of the Army Military Museum, is a 1940s US Jeep known as the Desert Lion, captured by Laotian forces from the South Vietnamese in 1971. Of special interest is a large Russian 211-131 truck, used as a mobile garage to work on broken vehicles on roads in the northern provinces. Inside there are many Russian and Chinese trucks and ambulances used by the army in their campaigns. In the parking area of the Kua Lao restaurant in the centre of Vientiane, there is a 1975, white Jaguar saloon, whose owner claims is the first Jaguar imported in Laos.

In conclusion, it can be said that on one hand, given its size and compared to the West, Indochina does not possess a significant classic car scene. On the other hand, considering its history and hostilities – on Vietnam alone, the US dropped five and a half million tons of bombs and eighty million litres of defoliants, including the deadly Agent Orange/Dioxin, between 1961 and 1971 – the fact that there are still old motors left, generating an emerging and ever evolving interest, is already a major achievement in itself.

At the offices of the Saigon Times in Ho Chi Minh City, I talked to journalist Voung Anh Le Thi about old cars in Indochina. She said that the majority prefer modern cars. But following an easing of communist rigidity, an improvement in the standard of living, and a growing nostalgia for past vehicles, more and more enthusiasts are joining the old motors movement.

There are no formal clubs with headquarters in these countries, but collectors do get together, like the Saigon Classic Car Club, organising events and meetings through Facebook.

The going is not easy. Not only are old cars difficult to find locally, but also to import. To combat pollution, Vietnam, for example, has a law prohibiting imports of vehicles older than five years. Similarly, Cambodia is considering a ban on imports of cars older than ten years. Such restrictions have led determined aficionados to bypass the law, by importing classic cars in parts, then assembling them on arrival. History has shown that the people of Indochina have proven themselves to be resolute, resilient, and resourceful. With such proven credentials, the future of old motors in that part of the world has a guaranteed positive outcome.

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