Pretty Paradox

On Thong Lor Road, a street that is considered one of Bangkok’s more upscale shopping and nightlife districts, I regularly see a Hummer parked in front of a particular clothing shop. Never mind that the only vehicle more poorly suited for the crowded streets of Bangkok is a dump truck, this Hummer catches my attention because it is bright pink.

While I don’t care much for Hummers, I do appreciate that this one defies expectations, a big brawny car in a color more often associated with femininity and softness. Of course, here in Thailand, those sort of cultural presumptions are often knocked on their ear.


Ancient Truck

When I travel around Bangkok, I almost always have my camera out and ready because it seems inevitable that something interesting will cross my path. The other day it was this ancient pickup truck, parts of which looked like they were held together with bubble gum and baling twine.


Perhaps the driver was checking out that Toyota next to him? And check out the texture on that front fender – how many times has that been tapped back into shape with a hammer?


Nissan Figaro Catches Tawn’s Eye

As our Nissan Cefiro passes eleven years old, Tawn and I keep thinking about a replacement car.  In his mind, the perfect car would be something unique and stylish, maybe a classic instead of a new model.  A few Sundays back, he announced that he wanted to visit a used car dealer on Vibhawadi Road near the old Don Meuang Airport as he had spotted a cute car there and wanted to know what it was.  Turns out, it was a Nissan Figaro.


The Figaro was a limited-edition retro car released by Nissan in 1989 only in Japan.  Some 20,000 were made.  It was built by Nissan’s special projects group known as the Pike Factory.  The car is a popular one for collectors, especially in the UK.


The used car dealer had a half-dozen units in stock.  They specialize in importing classic cars and refurbishing them for resale.  They choose only low mileage (about 55,000 km on average, about 35,000 miles) cars that have never been in accidents.


The cars are then completely gutted and rebuilt.  Engines, air conditioning, and all other systems are thoroughly overhauled and the interior is reupholstered.  They are very thorough and invited us to walk through their garage so we could see the work in progress.


The result is spectacular, lovingly restored.  Before I went back and did some research, I didn’t understand that the car was actually 21 years old and thought it was a more recent model intentionally made extremely retro. 

Datsun Fairlady 1960

It turns out that the design of the Figaro echoes the Datsun Fairlady from the early 1960s.  Beautiful car in the sporty color scheme, isn’t it?  (Picture from Wikipedia)


Ventilation system (including air conditioning) is appropriately retro and refreshingly manual.  Nice to have actual levers rather than buttons.


The stereo system (notice the cracked laminate on the dials) features a CD player, something that was quite cutting edge in 1989.  And a cassette player for you cats who aren’t up to date with the latest technology!  Sorry, no MP3 input.


The Figaro was also an open roof style convertible.  Completely and utterly impractical in Thailand but really cute and the best way for me to sit up straight in the driver’s seat.


The car was originally offered in just four colors – Topaz Mist, Emerald Green, Pale Aqua, and Lapis Grey – but the restorers offer a few additional colors including the pink you see here. 

My assessment of the car?  Well, totally and utterly impractical but very, very cute.  If we wanted a second car to drive for weekend getaways at the beach, this would be it.  Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be any room for a suitcase or overnight bag, but we could drive to the beach and then drive back the next day wearing the same clothes.

So how much for this beauty of a rebuild?  900,000 baht (US$30,000) for a 21-year old car.  Now, cars in Thailand are more expensive than in the US, but to give you a bit of a comparison, I could buy a top of the line Nissan March, a contemporary (and larger) version of this car, for less than 570,000 baht.  And I think the March is a cute car, too.

So I guess we’ll put this on the “Sunday afternoon daydream” list!


The dealer is also restoring a Nissan S-Cargo, another 1989 release from Nissan’s Pike Factory. Inspired by the French Citroën 2CV camionette (small truck), the name was a double entendre meaning both “small cargo” and “escargot”.  Clever, huh? 


The dealer also has one more product from the Pike Factory: the Nissan Pao.  Released at the same time as the Figaro and S-Cargo, the Pao was also retro-inspired and had amazing fuel economy: 51 mpg (5.5 L/100 km) in the city and 79 mpg (3.4 L/100 km).  Prius-like mileage almost two decades before the Prius.


My first two cars

After writing a few days ago about the first car I learned to drive, that rusty old 1968 Ford Fairlane, I looked at the calendar yesterday and noticed that it was the anniversary of my first and only new car purchase.  But before I finally scraped up enough to buy the new car in 1994, my first car was actually a 1981 Mazda 626 coupe.


This isn’t the actual car – mine was a light blue – but it is the same model and year.  I bought my Mazda about a week before I moved from the Bay Area down to Riverside to start studying, right at the beginning of 1990.  Previously, I had shared the Fairlane and a 1971 Mercury station wagon with my parents and younger sister and there was no way I was going to be able to live in Los Angeles without a car of my own.

I bought the car with a little help from my parents, from a guy who lived two blocks over.  It was a stick-shift and I hadn’t driven one before so my father did the test driving and I had to learn to master the manual transmission in the few days before I left for LA!

My father, who is a pretty handy mechanic, inspected the car and we brought it down to the automobile club for them to do a used car inspection, too.  It looked like it was in good shape and so we bought it for something like $2,500.  What I ended up buying was a lemon and to this day it has left a sour taste in my mouth for used cars, even though I rationally understand that they are generally a good value.

Over the next four and a half years I kept sinking money into the Mazda, which set me back probably a year or more in my eventual purchase of my first new car.


I purchased my Honda Civic DX on June 30, 1994 at the Sunnyvale Honda dealership.  Three months earlier I had graduated from university, I had been working at the same job for seven years already so credit was not a problem, and I had managed to save up a decent down-payment.  My choice of a four-dour was practical: I often drove people around.  I also decided to stick with a manual transmission, something that had grown on me.

It was a wonderful car that got great gas mileage.  I lived in Los Angeles and then San Diego in the years after buying the car before eventually moving back to the Bay Area, and I tracked the mileage meticulously.  On one of my trips from LA to San Francisco I actually got about 50 miles per gallon, thanks to careful driving and a good tailwind.

I kept the car as I moved into San Francisco proper in 1998, getting a street permit and fighting for the limited number of parking spots, trying to remember each morning where I had parked the night before.  Eventually, after Tawn moved to SF and bought a car, I decided maybe I could live without one.  For six months I made it a point to not drive all week, parking far away from the house in an area without daily parking restrictions.  I would take the car out on the weekend to clean it and run the engine, but found I could get around on transit just fine, even when I had classes to train in the South Bay or Oakland.

In the autumn of 2001 (I think – it might have been 2002?) I finally put the car up for sale, selling it to a man from Belmont so his daughter could have her first car.  We met at a rest stop off Highway 280, he inspected it and agreed to my price.  I had kept detailed records of all the maintenance, oil changes, etc. so it was an easy sale.  We signed the paperwork there, I handed over the keys to his daughter, and the man drove me back to my house.  He took the above picture for me, the only one I have of my Honda.

To this day I sometimes see the same model car driving around and think how much I would enjoy having another one. It was a great car.


The Rusty 1968 Ford Fairlane

Few stories so well epitomize my childhood than that of my first car, a rusted out 1968 Ford Fairlane.  To be fair, it wasn’t truly my first car as my parents retained ownership of it.  But it was the car I spent my entire childhood in, the car in which I learned to drive.


This was the first brand-new car my father ever bought.  Everything else was a used car.  It was metallic blue with a vinyl top, a “California edition” of the car, similar in appearance to the photo above except the color.  Like pretty much all cars of the day it had a powerful V8, no air conditioning, Philco AM radio.

I remember that this car got scorching hot in the summer, back in the days before those cardboard foldable sun shades.  (Thinking about it, I remember that the first time I ever saw those sun shades was in 1987 in the parking lot of Disneyland.)  We would get in the car and the vinyl seats would be so hot we had to put beach towels on them, towels we kept in the car all summer long just for that purpose.  Of course the metal seat belts were much too hot to wear at first so we had to wait a few minutes with the vents blowing before we could buckle up without branding ourselves!


Back in those days, metallic paint wasn’t terribly stable and a black vinyl roof wasn’t ideal for sunny California.  Despite my father’s meticulous care and weekly hand-washing, the paint began to chip and the roof started to crack.  By the time I learned to drive in it around 1985, large splotches of undercoat were showing through.  A minor rear-ending after I got my license resulted in a missing high-beam light.  A few years later a piece of the metallic side trim broke off.

Inside, the blue vinyl ceiling’s glue came undone and hung, canopy-like, from beam to beam.  As the stitching came undone, my father used chopsticks to help hold up the ceiling, leading friends to call it the Chopstick Car.


My sister posing on her graduation day with the Chopstick Car.

Something about the transmission was fiddly and by the time I learned to drive, you had to reach over the wheel with your left hand, holding the gear lever just to the left of “Park” and turn the ignition key with your right hand, all the while gently pumping the gas with your foot.  If you pumped too much, you would flood the engine and had to wait a few minutes before trying again.

The car was symbolic of several things: my father’s thrift – he liked the car because unlike the “new fangled” cars that had computerized components, he could get under the hood and do most repair work himself – as well as my parent’s lessons to me and my sister on sufficiency.  The car wasn’t pretty.  It was actually the ugliest car in our high school’s parking lot by far.  But it was good enough to get us where we were going and we didn’t have to pay for anything other than the fuel for the tank.


In 1994, when the car was 26 years old, my parents were in the process of selling their house and packing for their move back to my father’s new job in Indianapolis.  Just a few days before moving, by complete coincidence, a man driving through the neighborhood stopped and asked if they were interested in selling the car.  This solved the problem of what they should do about moving it to Indy.  If I recall, the agreed-upon price was something like 50 dollars, cash.