FROM BANGKOK, WITH LOVE
As thousands converge on the Thai capital to celebrate Porsche’s 70th anniversary, we too head over to South-east Asia’s largest sports car fan gathering to understand why people go absolutely gaga over the fabled marque.
What is it with the obsession between boys and their toys? What is it that makes them go weak in the knees, when they spy the iconic shape of a Porsche 911 or catch the signature throaty roar of its boxer flat-six engine? At whose behest do they rouse at three in the morning to embark on a three-day, 2,000km pilgrimage in 40-year-old classics up the entire length of the Malay Peninsula – and then some – when dozens of direct flights would get them there anyway in just over two hours?
To even begin to comprehend this love for what is – on the face of it – a cold, mechanical object, I too make this overland journey,
participating in a press convoy of the latest 911 Carrera Ts and Panamera Sport Turismos, from Singapore to Bangkok. My destination: Sportscar Together Day at the Show DC Oasis Arena, an extravagant, free-to-enter, one-day-only carnival in July that unites thousands of fans – whether or not they are Porsche owners – with one goal in mind: to throw the carmaker its best birthday bash ever.
Here, more than 300 Porsche cars of all models and vintages arrive throughout the day. Some are driven in from around the neighbourhood. Others, like us, have traversed considerable distances from Malaysia and Singapore – including, from the island state, six air-cooled 911s that among them survived a flat battery, an overheated ignition coil and a recalcitrant bonnet that refused to stay shut.
LOVE STORY NO. 1: DR BILLY TAN
I meet sprightly and loquacious Dr Billy Tan at the event’s gala dinner on the terrace of Bangkok’s grande dame, the Mandarin Oriental, on the balmy night prior to the event. With a lager in his hand, he rattles off the who’s who (or, more accurately, the what’s what) of classic air-cooled Porsche 911s and 356s that still exist in Singapore – including their current owner, their production year and, sometimes, their individual histories. He lets on that he must have bought, restored and sold at least half a dozen such cars.
It would not be far from the truth to say that the eye surgeon has an analytical brain and deft hands that are as attuned to diagnosing and ridding an elderly patient of cataracts, as they are in systematically rebuilding jalopies into show-quality classic cars.
A self-taught mechanic, with skills honed through years of reading, googling and participating in specialist forums, he tells me that he ordered seats from the UK because those installed in his 911 were from the wrong era. And that he imported three 356s and then took years to restore them, so painstakingly, that he estimates that he can visually identify 80 per cent of the parts that make up the Porsche’s debut product, simply
“OLD CARS ARE GREAT WHEN THEY LOOK GOOD, FORGIVABLE IF THEY DON’T. BUT THEY MUST RUN WELL.” DR BILLY TAN ( ABOVE, RIGHT)
because he had all but memorised the parts catalogue during the process.
He drove up to Bangkok with his wife in his silver 1972 911 2.4E that first came into his possession in 2005. Of the other five cars in the classic convoy – all driven by his buddies – two had, at some point in the past, vehicular log cards that bore his name.
“It’s incestuous,” he says with a laugh. “The trouble with new cars for me, I always say, is that if you and I bought a new car and we put them next to each other, what’s there to talk about? They are spanking new and everything works beautifully. But old cars, you know, are great when they look good, forgivable if they don’t. But they must run well. Issues may arise, but if you can sort them out along the way and make the journey up here and back, it is really an accomplishment for both car and driver. Yet people are frightened of them.”
The inveterate car collector has, over the years, gradually converted his Yio Chu Kang semi-detached house into a motoring museum of sorts. The entire front yard was paved over and covered with awning, but, when his stash grew even larger, he installed double-deck car lifts. Despite actively offloading his cars – he has just turned 61, he says, and cannot afford to keep up the “hobby” – he still has, at last count, two Porsche 356s, a Porsche 924 Carrera GT, a Mercedes-Benz “Pagoda” 230SL, a Lotus Super Seven, a Fiat Abarth, an Austin-Healey 3000, a Volkswagen Beetle Cabriolet and a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Convertible. And he is currently restoring a 1963 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider.
That is not including his wife’s modern Porsche Boxster and his Mercedes-Benz E200 daily driver, nor the 1957 Porsche 356 and 1947 Cisitalia 202 SMM Spyder Nuvolari that he keeps in California and Italy respectively. The latter is a recent purchase, made specifically for his participation in the Mille Miglia earlier this year.
His fixation with classic car road trips started when he took a budget holiday in his Volkswagen Beetle to Kota Baru at the northern
tip of Malaysia as his reward for passing his medical exams. Since then, he has made countless drives in his various cars, to destinations like Kuantan (where all three of his Porsche 356s were driven in convoy for Porsche’s 60th anniversary), Ko Samui, Krabi and, now, Bangkok.
So strong is his love for classic car touring that when he bought a newer Porsche 911 – a 996-series twinturbo – and having made the drive to Phuket with the Porsche Club, he decided to sell it, just shy of 10 months of ownership, because he felt that the 310kmh car was too “sedate”.
“It is powerful but too civilised,” he explains. “The older one is more thrilling to drive.”
LOVE STORY NO. 2: SIHABUTR ‘TENN’ XOOMSAI
Under the blazing sun, with storm clouds approaching and threatening to rain on the parade, I stand on a piece of open tarmac, perhaps the size of two football fields, filled to the edges with Porsche cars. Some proudly wear a cake of dust and mud as testimony of the arduous distances they have conquered to be here. In sharp contrast, taking centre stage are two gleaming owner-supplied showcases: the “Supercar Circle” consisting of eight of the fastest Porsche cars of all time, and the “7 Generations of the 911” that follows the evolution of the iconic model through its 50-plus-year history.
Amid the cacophony of animated speech, raucous laughter and the attenuated music at the adjacent show stage, curious members of the public mingle with Porsche drivers while nibbling on street food dished out from the stalls sprinkled around the event area.
One of the highlights of Sportscar Together Day, this is “Das Treffen” – “The Meeting” in its native German – and is said to be the largest carpark meet for Porsche fans in South-east Asia. Deliberately kept casual with no set agenda, it is the brainchild of one Sihabutr Xoomsai, known as Tenn to his friends. An affable man fluent in
“THE BEST WAY TO ENJOY PORSCHE IS TO SHARE IT.” SIHABUTR ‘TENN’ XOOMSAI (BELOW, RIGHT)
both Thai and English, he tells me that he was inspired by the Porsche meets he had attended in the United States.
“There are various Porsche interest groups in Thailand, but we never had a real meet,” he shares. “Being a GT Porsche Magazine editor made it easier for me to get everyone to join and have some fun together. So, with the help of Porsche Club Thailand and Renndrive, we did our first Das Treffen. It was amazing. Lots of people came to show their support. We saw cars that we have never seen before. Old friends were reunited and new friendships were made. So it’s not really about the car as much as it’s about the people. It’s also for people who like the brand, but don’t have a chance to own one yet.”
Tenn’s fascination with Porsche began when he was little. Having always been a fan of the shape of the 911, his big break came when his dad’s friend came to their house in a brand new 964-series model, tossed him the keys and asked him to get them something to drink.
“I fell in love with the whole package. The feel, the sound, the way it handled,” he recalls. “The most important thing I learnt that day is that the best way to enjoy Porsche is to share it. Since then that is what I tried to do – to share my passion with my friends and fellow enthusiasts.”
He continues: “A friend of mine, who has a young son, brought him to the event for the first time. He was so happy because his son was so excited, and kept saying the word ‘Porsche’. He said, ‘Now I don’t have to worry about selling all my classic Porsches when I can’t drive them anymore; now they are the family heirlooms.’ That really put a smile on my face.”
LOVE STORY NO. 3: ACHIM STEJSKAL
With a face framed by black-rimmed glasses and a thick salt-and-pepper beard, Achim Stejskal looks every inch the museum director that he is. Caretaker of Porsche’s 985-million euro (S$1.5 billion) historical collection, he grew up just outside of Stuttgart, where the marque is based, playing Autoquartett (a German car-themed card game similar to “Go Fish”) and always wanting to rack up the Porsche cards.
Although asking him which car among his 500-odd stock he loves the most is akin to pressing a parent to single out a favourite child, Stejskal admits that the obscure Porsche “904” Carrera GTS, a lightweight motorsports car from the mid-1960s, would be his pick. It is unique, he says, nothing like what Porsche has done before or ever since. “But I also love the others,” he quickly adds.
Over at the main stage at Show DC Oasis Arena, where a starstudded line-up of celebrity Thai singers and disc jockeys belt out live music to entertain the flocks of attendees, it is instead the two cars flanking the platform that hold court: the legendary 959 ParisDakar, a technology demonstrator that earned its stripes at one of the world’s toughest rallies, completing the famous 13,800km desert course with a one-two victory in 1986; and the 919 Hybrid, which won multiple victories at the World Endurance Championship, including four wins
“THE MISSION IS TO KEEP ALL THE CLASSIC PORSCHE CARS ALIVE.” ACHIM STEJSKAL (FAR LEFT)
and five podiums in the 2017 season.
Stejskal is the man in charge of the loan of those two groundbreaking models to the event. Each car costs 10,000 euros to be flown here and requires dedicated teams to handle all the nitty gritty, from the Customs paperwork to physical prep work, such as draining all the fluids pre-flight and topping them back up again at the destination.
“It was quite an operation,” he confesses. “But this is what we want to do. A lot of companies run a museum and only show the cars as static displays. But this is not what we are. We are Porsche. And you know that 75 per cent of all Porsche car ever produced is still running. We want to show it to the people that especially cars like these are ready to use. Just get in and drive.”
Porsche is also one of a handful of manufacturers that maintains a department to support classic cars and their owners. Up to 150,000 different parts are warehoused. Some are new old-stock parts, but others are reproduced. For example, spares for the 356’s drum brakes have long been exhausted, but Porsche has developed new ones using the measurements from the 1960s.
He declares: “The mission is to keep all the classic Porsche cars alive. This is our obligation to help all the customers and fans to even drive their cars within the next 70 years at least.”
AND THE STORY CONTINUES…
My personal first encounter with the Porsche badge was more than 20 years ago, when my eldest brother bought a used 911 “964” Carrera 4, which he then traded for a 911 “993” Turbo. Living in the same home then, I recall the daily routine. At around 6pm, his german shepherd dogs would suddenly awaken from their late afternoon slumber and rush to the gate, barking furiously, their acute hearing picking up the sound – far away enough to yet be audible to the human ear – of his approaching vehicle. His pets, it seems, share his same taste in cars.
I am reminded of this fond memory as I sit snugly ensconced in the bucket seats of the 911 Carrera T, piloting the latest in a legendary line of sports cars that I was too young to be insured to drive two decades ago. With a thousand kilometres down and another thousand to go, I am somewhere north of the MalaysianThai border. The cabin percolates with the engine’s guttural soundtrack as I whizz past smoky motorcycles and trucks filled to the brim with durian. Stripped of extraneous weight and soundproofing, the “Touring” variant of the 911 range morphs into a personal extension. Like an exoskeleton, it reacts reassuringly to my every input – steering, throttle, gear paddles, brakes – with immediate feedback, whether it is a change in course or an increase in tempo.
It is the ultimate expression of freedom, of agility; an enabler of wanderlust, as if one were riding a steed, with no particular destination in mind. Sharing the high moments of the road trip over Thai iced tea at one of the rest stops with fellow journalists, I too begin to understand how these machines could, in effect, possess the ability to emote, to tell stories and… to get you to fall in love.
PAST AND PRESENT The press convoy, comprising two 911 Carrera Ts and two Panamera Sport Turismos (right), makes its way from Singapore to Bangkok to unite with its air-cooled forebears (above).
SPECTACULARSHOWCASES The 959 Paris-Dakar (above) is one of two historical cars shipped from the museum in Germany; Porsche owners supply their own cars to form the Supercar Circle (right).