Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sunday Lite: Rare cars I remember spotting when I was a young lad in Taiping - A Citroen, Saab, Rover & a Borgward

The clocktower in Taiping. I used to go for tuition classes in the building behind the clocktower back in the day. 

Taiping was a quaint little town where I grew up. It was a place where everything was peaceful and most of us teenagers would cycle from one end of town to the other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, these was a time where change was happening. Taiping may have been a small town then (slightly larger these days) but prior to this, from 1876 to 1937 it was Perak's state capital. This was also a time when tin mining was booming around the town.

After that, when the British moved the administrative capital to Ipoh, things became slower. But it was still an active place to be. Tin mine operators were still there. The rubber plantation people were also there. It was quite a place to be as even in the late 1970s there were still 'Mat Sallehs' in and around town. Some of these where in fact the estate mangers - remember, Harrisons & Crosfield (which became Golden Hope plantations) and Guthrie were British plantation companies and their managers were usually people from the UK. So there were actually remnants of the colonial days still going on strong back then. Even the government servants - teachers, hospital staff, bank officers, the D.O and other officers of the government would actually frequent the New Club or the Chinese Recreational Club or the Camp Club to play a round of golf, tennis, cards or sit around having a round of drinks. It was the good ol' days.

Anyway, it was because of this mix of expats and learned locals that Taiping actually had a heck of a lot of diversity back then. Even growing up in a small town like Taiping I actually saw cars that were quite rare even back then. I also saw the cars of the late HRH Sultan Idris of Perak when he visited Taiping. I remember a Rolls Royce Phantom at the Lake Gardens. It was huge. And ceremonial. It was a car meant for royalty, especially in that yellow and black two toned paintwork. My first sight of a Rolls Royce was actually one of the grandest. But this was something else. Taiping also had normal or regular cars which were actually rare and unique in Malaysia even back then in the late 1970s to early 1980s. I wonder if there are any of the cars I will mention below are still around.

The Citroen DS - There was one I always saw when I cycled around Assam Kumbang. This was a heck of a futuristic car even back then. Frog-like, and so different from all the 1960s and 1970s boxes then. Hydro pneumatic suspension made it super comfortable and its out of this world looks. It looked beautiful watching it gliding around town. The French made beautiful cars back then. They still do now. But not as unique as this.

"The DS is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive large sized car manufactured from 1955 to 1975 in sedan, wagon/estate and convertible body configurations. Italian sculptor and industrial designer Flaminio Bertoni and the French aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre styled and engineered the car. Paul Magès developed the hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension. The DS is noted for its aerodynamic, futuristic body design and innovative technology, the DS set new standards in ride quality, handling, and braking and was the first production car equipped with disc brakes" - wikipedia

Outside, it was a 1960s car with headlights that swivel following the direction you turn the steering wheel (very advanced as it has only been a few years since some cars have such headlights on them). Aside from that it had a futuristic interior with a single spoke steering wheel and that one incredible On-Off style brake 'button' instead of a pedal (yes, that round thing between the accelerator and the clutch is the brake pedal - pic above) Quite hard to modulate brake pressure if you know what I mean.

There was a Saab 96.... which was actually surprising. I spotted this car once parked close by the Taiping wet market. There were one or two new Saab 900s around town at the time. But there was somehow a lack of the 900's predecessor, the Saab 99 back then in Malaysia - I suppose there was a gap between official importers back then I think. So this 96 was rare as it was from the 1960s and there were not many Saabs from back then. Or actually any Saabs in Malaysia. It was from the mid-1960s as it had that egg crate front grille you see from the 96 above from 1965. The unique thing about this car was that it either had a 850cc 3 cylinder two stroke engine that made 40-42hp or a 1.5 liter V4 engine from 1967 to 1979. It was Front wheel drive and also had a very unique manual transmission either in 3 speed or 4 speed . 

"An unusual feature of the Saab drivetrain was a 'freewheel' (overrunning clutch). This allowed the transmission to run faster than the engine, such as when decelerating, or descending a long hill. Although such freewheels had been provided in other cars before as an economy measure, they were required in the Saab because of the limited lubrication in the two-stroke engine. A petroil-lubricated two-stroke requires lubrication according to its speed, but provides this lubrication according to the amount of its throttle opening. Where the engine operates at high RPM and low throttle (such as when coasting down a long hill), the lubrication provided may be inadequate. With the freewheel, a coasting engine could reduce its speed to idling, thus requiring only the small lubrication available from the closed, coasting, throttle. In certain higher-performance models and in later two-stroke models, direct injection of oil into the engine from a separate reservoir allowed lubrication to be a function of engine RPM and rendered mixing of oil with gasoline unnecessary."

Back in the late 1970s a front wheel drive car was totally weird as everyone had a rear wheel drive Ford, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and even a Datsun 120y. And it was also funny round, if you compared to the boxy late '60s and 1970s. It also had a long lifespan - 1960 to 1980. Amazing. Check out this 1979 model above. It somehow looked contemporary. Yet, Swedish-ly different. And today, Saab has now gone extinct.

I also had a friend whose uncle drove a Rover 2000TC series 1 P6 (1963-1973) as his daily driver. I think his was one from 1972, the year I was born. This was in the 1980s. By then this car was already a good  thirteen years old. It was white like in the photo above and looked like nothing common on the roads. I think it wasn't common even in Ipoh or Kuala Lumpur in the late 1970s. There was a newer Rover SD1 2600 also. But this was actually more common in the late '70s.

The 2000TC had a de Dion tube suspension at the rear (very Alfa Romeo & Aston Martin type sporting suspension), four-wheel disc brakes (inboard on the rear like an Alfa Romeo Alfetta), and a fully synchromesh transmission (this was THOSE days lah, a manual with a synchro was a big deal). The monocoque chassis (again rare in the early 1960s) featured non-stressed panels bolted to a unit frame, inspired by the Citroën DS. The 2000TC had a 2.0l 4 cylinder engine that made 104hp from an Single Overhead Valve setup (again, a big deal back then). Somehow, Rover was innovative back then. I think it ended with the SD1 but that is a tale for another time.

And then I think this must have been the rarest of them all - the German made Borgward Isabella. This was a car which was produced from 1954 to 1962 when the Borgward company went bust. I remember my dad telling me about the brand and the car when one passed by. It was so rare that I don't think I saw it ever again. I do wonder if any Bogward cars in Malaysia that are still alive and kicking these days. I do know that the brand has been resurrected by a member of the Borgward family and they are targeting the Chinese car market as first priority. But the Isabella had such a nice name for a car didn't it?

"The advertised launch price of DM 7,265 was higher than that of competitor family sedans from Opel and Ford, but significantly less than Mercedes Benz was asking for their 180 model. In view of the car's spacious cabin and impressive performance, the pricing was perceived as very competitive. A road test at launch reported a maximum speed of 130 km/h and fuel consumption of 8.4 l/100 km.The testers described the modern structure of the car in some detail: they particularly liked the wide cabin with its large windows, and they commended the effectiveness of the brakes.[9] The inclusion of a cigarette lighter and a clock also attracted favourable mention. Unlike the Mercedes 180 however, (and unlike its predecessor) the Isabella was only delivered with two-doors."

"The Isabella was constructed without a separate chassis, applying the monocoque technique which during the 1950s was becoming the norm. the car was designed with a modern ponton, three-box design. The Isabella featured a swing axle at the back and had coil spring suspension on all four wheels. The four-cylinder 1493 cc engine had a claimed power output of 60 bhp (45 kW), and was connected by means of a then innovative hydraulic clutch to the four speed full synchromesh gear box. Gear changes were effected by means of a column mounted lever." -wikipedia

Ah. Back in the day. Things were much simpler back then. 

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