I remember a time in the early eighties when my mom bought a dual cab Isuzu KB pick up. The one with the porthole-type windows in the back. We were lucky to pick a color – it was white or off-white, the latter being the one they didn't wash. It was sixty thousand pesos and it had white hub caps. Although that vehicle served us faithfully and made up the best part of my formative driving years, that was the best our industry had to offer a family too small for a Hi ace, but who needed a little more versatility than a sedan. The absolute best. There was the Elf dual cab, but my parents took one look at it and agreed not to have anymore children.
Towards the end of the Marcos era, the average motorist had about as many choices as the First Lady's hair stylist. Our options really started drying up during the mid eighties, as political unrest and antiquated laws and taxes strangled the industry. And no segment was harder hit than the sports car scene. It got so bad that Mitsubishi had to fool the government by disguising their sports cars in family car bodies, like the ground-breaking, Bagets-busting, Mitsubishi Box Type Lancer GT. Funny how times have changed. Now every four door sedan is claiming to be a sports car. Back then you had to hide it.
Sports cars were considered a bad word. Alright, two bad words. This was mostly because President Marcos ruled that no car could be brought in unless it was manufactured here. And, until Sarao planned on coming up with a 2-door roadster, this meant that enthusiasts could only get their jollies from imported magazines or a friend of a friend who could get his hands on one of those valuable permits that allowed private importation. This is also why so many people befriended the Expats at ADB. Have you ever heard those foreigners saying, “Filipinos are the most hospitable in Asia.”If they only knew it was so we could buy their company car when they left.
It was a time of Knight Rider and Magnum PI, and the country was desperate for a two door hero. Mitsubishi was first to react and gave us the car to have during those days when it was still astig to make baston your jeans. The Mitsubishi Lamda was impossibly cool and very sexually appealing to anyone who wore unbuttoned silk shirts and at least 4 pounds of gold around his neck. A bit on the large side for a 2 door; it had crushed velour seating (in green, I think!) with a state of the art Citroen style, one spoke steering wheel. It had a long snout with radically designed taillights and indicator lamps on the B-pillar. It even had an in-built cassette player so you could bring your own music with you wherever you went. Imagine. Although contrary to popular belief, the mirror ball was an after-market accessory.
I think my editor may have had one. Ask him about it.
Mercedes accepted indent orders for the SL class; Toyota had the Starlet and the 1600, 5-speed, Corolla lift back that looked great on a set of fat 13s, but the eighties belonged to Mitsubishi, with their Galants, Lancers and the futuristic-looking Lamda. They really understood the Filipino's obsession with the automobile and they gave them exactly what they wanted. No bells and whistles. Just the facts, Ma'am. Just the facts. Well, except for the Lamda.
This gave them all the momentum they needed to break into the early nineties with enough credibility to sell a Kuliglig (a hand tractor) to a boy racer. They came out swinging, too, with the 2.0 liter Gti Galant – another one of those cars that you thought would template the entire decade of sportscars in the Philippines. It was quick; it looked great; it wore the right badge; it was more expensive than the common fare and it was an altogether serious performer. Until the Mazda Miata showed up. Thing is, I don't think the Miata was as popular then as it is right now, but with hindsight, I think it was perhaps the sports car that defined the genre. Not just locally. It was relatively cheap, fun, uncomplicated and was one of those simple inventions that brought so much joy without hurting anyone. Like popcorn.
It would soon come under pressure from the Germans though, as BMW, through the Alvarez family, brought in James Bond's company car – the radically new Z3 – to an eager public who were making up for lost time and buying into a whole new lifestyle. Porsche fought back with the Boxster. Alfa Romeo even threw a half-hearted punch at the market with its coupe and Spyder, and it seemed that the Europeans were gaining a lot of ground until Mitsubishi Eclipsed them all with a limited release of its latest two door entry, and then turned up the heat even further with the evo 4 & 5, which ate everyone up and started a frenzy again.
The nineties were becoming a good time to be a middle-class sports car lover in the Philippines. And nobody took greater advantage of this than Honda. Although the first Civics were never really meant to be sports cars, you couldn't convince the public of that. People stripped down their hatch backs and put K20 engines in them. One of the visionaries in Honda, Gabby Peren, probably figured that 'if you can't beat 'em, join em', and gave the country the new millennium's cult classic, the SiR, with a 160 horsepower, racing engine in it. This would become the benchmark.
Columbian Motors came up with the tarted up Mazda 323; GM started to offer the Subaru WRX; Mitsubishi had brought in a limited number of Evos 6, 7 and 8, while Nissan woke up from a deep sleep and launched the tail-happy Silvia and then the fabled 350Z, but mistakenly thought that they could charge whatever they wanted for it. People had more choices and although the 350Z was a global success, locally, it was creeping into Porsche territory.
BMW came in officially and gave us a string of high performance sport sedans to choose from, as well as the provocatively styled Z4 and the almighty M3. Mercedes upped the ante with the SL55 and SLK roadster, but those folks from PGA cars kept hammering away with an unprecedented selection of powerful Porsches, including the ball-breaking, 911 Turbo. Even Jaguar started bringing in their big cats, like the XK8. But you knew things were getting way out of hand when a very conservative Volvo came up with a sleeper, like the punchy little T4 and S60 T5. The Philippines was booming again. At least with choices.
But nobody made a statement as bold as Willy Soong when he opened the country's first Ferrari dealership. Although out of the ball park for most mere mortals without cabinet positions or public listed companies, the prancing horse was a symbol that the Philippines had finally arrived at the pinnacle. Next step, Bugatti; which coincidentally, had an aborted attempt at setting up shop here. Serious. I happen to work for one of the basket cases that came up with the idea. No, not Dong.
But as wonderful as it all was to have so many exotics, and as grateful as we all were for the choice, the classic two-door imported sports car was still considered a lavish and extravagant luxury. It was not enough to get just performance anymore, we wanted practicality to boot; and although our choices were getting better, the same couldn't be said of our roads, which is why the SiR remained the perfect formula and continued to shape the scene for the new millennium. Until Ford brought out the Lynx RS. Now it wouldn't be terribly fair to compare the 142 hp 2.0 to the high revving 160hp Honda, but the Black Centennial edition (especially) filled a void that was left behind by the Japanese manufacturers and still commands a high resale value and healthy respect from the tuner scene.
What a difference twenty years can make. Subaru no longer has to squat in the corner of a GM dealership – they have their own state-of-the-art, dedicated facility now in Greenhills that sells the fire breathing Forester turbo, (though I hear they sold out) the kidney-punching WRX Sti, and will even take your order for a group N version that will blow the doors off just about anything else on the road today. Hyundai offer a superb V6 sports coupe that will scare the pants off anyone that can get past the stigma of owning a Korean sports car. Maserati will be selling the charismatic and audacious Quattroporte with 400 hp on tap, for a cool 9.5M and there are even SUVs now with twice the horsepower that Magnum P1 ever had to dabble with in his 308GTS Ferrari.
We live in exciting times. It’s like we've gone from the First Lady's choice of hairstyles, to her choice of shoes. And it is only likely to get better. While each manufacturer continues to battle it out with each other in this horsepower race, the most powerful thing to come out of the last twenty years is the power of choice – and the Philippine STAR is very proud to have played such a large part in that.