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Driving Singapore

LIGHTER AND SMALLER: In the '70s, consumers started to appreciate the virtues of Japanese cars, which were lighter with smaller and more efficient engines.


IT was once derided as a "biscuit tin", but today the Japanese car is embraced by the ordinary motorist for its economy and reliability, so much so that Singapore's two most popular models currently are Japanese makes. But 50 years ago, as Singapore became independent, it couldn't have been more different.

Back then, there was hardly a Japanese-made car on independent Singapore's roads. The models in the 1960s were all from the western hemisphere. They were mainly British and American, as well as German, French and Italian.

Marques such as Morris and Austin, Hillman and Chevrolet, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, even Cadillac and Pontiac. Fiat, Citroen and Land Rover - brands that are present here today - were also on the road then. In the 1960s, the wealthy were already acquainted with the three-pointed star on Mercedes-Benz cars. But status was also closely associated with the Jaguar and Humber marques, especially among the Anglophiles.

While the most popular car today is the Toyota Corolla Altis, 1965's top model - based on anecdotal evidence - could be a tie between the Mini Minor and the Volkswagen Beetle.

"The Volkswagen was trendy with good torque. It was popular among yuppies, even before the term was invented," recalls BY Tan, a retired motor executive. "The Mini was a favourite among boy racers who were fans of the Grand Prix."

He added that because of the Grand Prix, which was staged on the Old Upper Thomson Road circuit in the 1960s, cars such as the Ford Escort and Ford Cortina were also popular with this group of motorists.

In terms of price, the VW was more expensive at about S$5,000, while the Mini, or Morris Minor as it was commonly known, was slightly over S$4,000. For terms of reference, consider that a three-room HDB flat then could be purchased for just S$6,000.

Little wonder then that the population of private cars in 1965 was below 105,000. Compare that with today's figure of just under 590,000.

The main gripe today is mostly car prices. With a progressive Additional Registration Fee structure that ranges from 100 per cent to 180 per cent depending on Open Market Value, excise duty of 20 per cent, plus a variable Certificate of Entitlement, Singapore is the most expensive place in the world to buy a car. The ARF used to be even higher. From 1983 to 1990, ARF was a flat 175 per cent.

Curiously though, the proportion of private cars to the total vehicle population has not changed much in five decades. According to the Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS), cars made up 54 per cent of all vehicles in 1965, against 61 per cent now.

Some of them in the past were even made in the republic. In 1967, the government opened the door to vehicle assembly and several makes started rolling out of factory doors here - Ford, Morris, Austin, Renault, Vauxhall, Chevrolet, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. The last two were assembled by Cycle & Carriage.

A tyre factory by Bridgestone, which was opened two years earlier, supported the local motor industry.

But that came to an end in August 1980 when tariff protection for locally assembled cars and scooters was withdrawn as part of the government's high-wage policy to facilitate the upgrading of industries.

With no more preferential treatment for car assembly and a 45 per cent customs duty imposed on locally assembled vehicles, three car assembly plants and the aforementioned tyre factory folded.

But in a dramatic reflection of how society has changed over 50 years, the two-wheeler's importance has diminished. AAS says motorcycles and scooters accounted for 32 per cent of vehicles in 1965, versus 15 per cent today.

Where you buy your car today is also very different from in the '60s. From the mid-60s to mid-80s, the car showrooms were all on Orchard Road. There were two sites - beside the old CK Tang department store for Champion Motors, the Volkswagen dealer; and on both sides of the road at MacDonald House, where Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota were located.

The relocation to today's Leng Kee Road motor belt started in the early 1970s. Before the car companies moved in, a hill behind Leng Kee Road was a cemetery. At the other end was the famous Thye Hong biscuit factory, which today still bears the same name as an industrial building. And the Hock Lee Bus Company - better known for bus riot infamy - had its depot on neighbouring Alexandra Road.

In the '70s, consumers started to appreciate the virtues of Japanese cars. With the arrival of the oil crisis of 1973, many Singaporeans realised they couldn't afford to drive their gas guzzlers anymore.

The Japanese models, on the other hand, were lighter with smaller and more efficient engines. These Eastern cars also introduced a hitherto unknown motoring concept - reliability. Until then, it was perfectly acceptable for cars to leak engine oil and fail to start on some mornings.

According to AAS, Japanese car brands began gaining prominence in the 1980s and strongly occupied the market during the 1990s.

"The Japanese brands started to bring in more car models from the 1980s onwards as compared to the 1960s," says an AAS spokesman. "There was also an increase in the number of Japanese brands being established."

For example, in 1965, Japanese brands such as Subaru and Suzuki were not present in the private car market yet and only appeared in the 1970s.

On the other hand, popular brands in 1965 such as Austin and Morris gradually reduced their number of new models imported, adds the AAS spokesman.

So why have the Japanese brands managed to dominate the car market over the decades? And why, among the Western brands, have only the Germans continued to increase market share?

Tastes may have changed, and trends such as safety and design may have influenced car buying behaviour. But if there is one or two things that will endure for the next 50 years, it should be reliability and branding. What's unlikely to change quickly is also Singaporeans' love for their cars - notwithstanding efforts to encourage the use of public transport.