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BT_20161119_DRIVEFEATURE19-L_2605068.jpg
photography Yen Meng Jiin

BT_20161119_DRIVEFEATURE19-L_2605068.jpg
photography Yen Meng Jiin

BT_20161119_DRIVEFEATURE19-L_2605068.jpg
photography Yen Meng Jiin

BT_20161119_DRIVEFEATURE19-L_2605068.jpg
photography Yen Meng Jiin

Gonna Ride a Classic

How lifestyle entrepreneur Cynthia Chua's passion for vintage collectibles led to one expensive lesson.
Nov 19, 2016 5:50 AM

Everyone knows that lifestyle entrepreneur Cynthia Chua has excellent taste, but few are aware that it extends to cars as well.

In less than two decades, the founder of Singapore's Spa Esprit group has built a beauty and F&B empire across nine cities. At last count, there are a mind-boggling 100 outlets from London and New York, to Hong Kong and Shanghai.

That entails a lot of travelling, and on average, Ms Chua, 45, is out of Singapore for half the year. So what does she drive when she's home?

Most of the time, it's a macadamia brown Porsche 911 Cabriolet with a black roof. It is her daily drive because "I've always loved fast cars, and I've always loved convertibles''.

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The 911 is a long way from her first ride, a five-old-year Honda Civic sedan which her father bought for her when she was 19.

Back then, she was still in school and it would not be for seven more years before she would go on to start Spa Esprit in Holland Village.

Ever since then, she has been steadily opening a string of spas, waxing salons, coffee bars, cafes and restaurants. She even had a vintage boutique, which sold classic dresses and jewelry. "I love history,'' she explains simply.

The vintage boutique, which she has since closed, is in stark contrast with the rest of her very modern enterprises. But it was one she especially loved and which gave free rein to her passion and creativity. "You reconstruct the dresses, dissect and remodel them, and keep the gist of it by retaining the cut. But it is still vintage in its print and details like the zips.''

So it was no surprise that another classic collectible would be next on her list. Two years ago, she snapped up a white 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380 SLC. "A new Mercedes is a glossy brand, I can't associate with it. Whereas vintage is a novelty and I like the SLC's boxy, rectangular look.''

But after paying just S$30,000 for it, she soon discovered it was going to cost more. A lot more. "When I bought it, I didn't know the whole body was corroded, and that I was told, was the most difficult thing to fix.''

But more repairs were to follow. "I had to overhaul the engine for over S$40,000, just to get it going.'' That was not the end of it. "After that, bits and pieces kept falling apart. One day I opened the sun roof and it couldn't close.''

There were other problems that weren't resolved after a total repair bill of S$100,000. "The aircon doesn't quite work and I can't put the back window up.''

When it does get going, there are other bugbears. "Even with power steering, it's still three times heavier than a modern car!''

And although it's a relatively small coupe, she can't quite get used to its shape. "I scratched it going into a basement carpark because it's too wide and rectangular.''

She says all these led her to realise something very important. "A vintage car is not a vintage dress. You wear a dress and that's that. But if a car breaks down, you will be stranded by the road.''

Today, she still has her vintage auto, sort of - "I share it with my father''.

It may not be the perfect drive, but being the seasoned entrepreneur that she is, she says the whole classic car experience has left her with this lesson: "If you buy something for $30K, there's no free lunch.''

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