Road to Riches
For those with a passion for cars, nothing raises the heart rate more than a classic - and Hong Kong has more than its fair share, writes Neil Western.
TEN YEARS AGO I BOUGHT A Jaguar I had coveted since childhood. I loved its sleek but powerful shape, its grand image and the fact it represented a feat of once-great British engineering.
The car was a 1977 Sovereign and seemed like a bargain at HK$5,000. Its dark blue paintwork, walnut dash and leather interior were in mint condition. 'Treat her gently and she'll serve you well,' the man who sold her to me sagely said. 'She's like a mistress - moments of pleasure but a lot of heartache.'
Six weeks later I gave her away. Twelve parking tickets and three expensive repair bills from a garage where the mechanics looked under the bonnet with perplexed expressions, as if examining a jet engine, taught me the hard way that owning a classic car is a heavy and costly responsibility. The affair ended, but my love remains. One day I will possess another, hopefully an XJ6.
It's hard to describe the emotions a car can stir. What is a hunk of metal to some is a work of art to others. 'A relationship between a man and his car is very personal,' says Ana Boulter, ex-presenter of BBC Television's Top Gear motoring programme who lives in Hong Kong.
She recalls a revealing moment when British pop star Jay Kay, aka Jamiroquai, was asked by the show's celebrity host Jeremy Clarkson if he could borrow the singer's Ferrari Enzo. 'Yeah, if I can borrow your daughter, because it amounts to the same thing,' retorted Kay, whose multimillion-pound collection of cars includes several Ferraris, a Lamborghini Diablo and an Aston Martin.
Such passion has made classic cars of all eras among the most sought-after collectibles in the world and Hong Kong's wealthy residents are among the keenest fanatics, owning more Ferraris and Rolls-Royces per capita than almost anywhere else in the world. Many buyers will happily drop millions for a Bugatti Veyron to take for a joyride on the coastal roads of Sai Kung, Lantau or Shek O.
'The appeal is to own your dream car, be it one you saw on the streets as a kid, something your family owned when you were young, or some racing hero on television,' says Carl Yuen, a collector and committee member of the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong. 'Or it's just something that looks and feels completely different to modern motoring, with a soul and character that computers are unable to incorporate even with the latest design technology,' adds the 32-year-old barrister, who owns a 1982 BMW 323i, the car his father once used for the school run, and test drives up to 30 classic cars a year as a freelance motoring journalist.
'It is not for attracting attention, showing off how much you are worth or impressing the opposite sex,' says Darryl Mak, a 29-year-old banker whose collection includes a revolutionary Honda NSX 1990 super car and a BMW E368S M Coupe 2001. 'I would say that cars are able to pick me up from the 'real world' and transport me to a 'better' place where I am able to drown out my worries and problems and be reminded of different points, people and events in my life.'
Like Mak, who as a toddler remembered car marques more easily than names of family members, Yuen's passion started young. 'It sounds more like a Marvel comics story, but I was suffering from a temperature when still in kindergarten and nothing eased my fever as quickly as a copy of the 1978 VW Golf GTI brochure,' he says. By the time he was seven he took to the wheel. 'It was a Toyota Crown taxi and the driver worked the pedals with me steering on his lap - on private roads, of course.'
The classic car club has more than 500 members, mostly male and aged mid-30s and above, who own more than 700 cars between them that take part in regular rallies. Yuen reckons the most unusual car in the collection is a 1955 BMW Isetta, a yellow and orange 'egg that rolls on little doughnuts' with a single door that opens to the front. The club's most famous member is Sir Michael Kadoorie, chairman of CLP holdings and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels group. He counts a Bugatti Type 57, a 1932 Phantom II Thrupp & Maberly, a 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K and a 1920s Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost among his collection. Last December he unveiled an early 20th-century Phantom II, bought and restored for a sum rumoured to exceed US$20 million.
With the value of some classic cars soaring, particularly those that are especially rare or with strong provenance, they can occasionally make a good investment. This spring, a Lotus 25 F1 car once driven by Britain's 1950s motor racing legend Jim Clark sold for almost GBP500,000 (HK$8 million) at an auction at Cheltenham Racecourse. Moments later the national record was bettered when a buyer paid more than GBP500,000 for a 1929 Grand Prix-winning Alfa Romeo.
'Most late 1970s models have reached rock-bottom prices as they're caught between 'classic' and 'old-banger' status,' says Yuen. 'Mid-1980s Japanese car prices are rising, with younger audiences bidding for their childhood memories, but I couldn't put an investment value on what stirs your emotions.'
'You could make a lot of money with the right buy, or you could open a can of worms,' says Ian Foster, a club member and managing director of Architecture and Urban Design Firm. 'If you are not genuinely interested in cars keep away, you will be 'stung'.'
Foster says the joy of buying a new rare vehicle is usually followed by a reality check. 'There's elation, then it hits how much this thing will cost to repair and maintain,' says Foster, 43, who counts three 1981 DeLoreans, a 1973 E-Type Jaguar, a 1956 Bedford Fire Engine, a Mitsubishi Race Car and a Sinclair C5 among his collection.
'Owning classic cars is not for the faint-hearted,' cautions Yuen. 'Importing can be troublesome, with strict emissions and safety checks to pass, plus import tax. Upkeep can vary, but a full restoration of an old car can run into millions.'
Difficulty finding parts and the cost of shipping them to Hong Kong is a problem, while Hong Kong's hot and humid weather attacks chassis and bodies a lot harder.
'At least we don't have cold winters with salt on our roads,' says Yuen. 'Things could be much worse.'
Foster says another problem is 'a lack of mechanics with the patience and expertise to work on older cars, though there are some'.
Another is a diminishing number of decent roads to drive on. 'Over the years I have seen the transport engineers gradually destroy our beautiful country roads, such as Castle Peak Road, and create boring motorways in their place,' says Foster, who usually cruises the Shek O and Sai Kung roads mid-week and Route Twisk 'for a gorgeous mountain road'. Like many local drivers, he often heads to China, such as the mountain roads in Shaanxi province, to push his vehicles to the limit.
'Hong Kong roads are fantastic,' says Daryl Ng, a 29-year-old real-estate developer. 'There's a mixture of high-speed highways, and tight mountain roads, as well as beautiful seaside drives along the coast,' says Ng, who rates the smooth asphalt, light traffic and beautiful scenery of the south Lantau coastal road from Mui Wo to Tong Fuk as his favourite.
He has a number of Benz and BMW cars from the 1960s to 1990s in his collection. 'The feeling of driving an old car without the modern electronics is like operating an old Leica camera. There is the satisfaction of the precise, mechanical feeling, and an appreciation of the engineering,' he says.
Foster has proposed a classic auto-cycle museum to the government and is looking at Fanling Magistrates Court as a possible venue.
Yuen wants the government to adopt Britain's MOT-exemption policy and reduce road tax for classic cars.
'These cars are driven less and cause less pollution than daily commuters. And seeing an old car amid the anonymous 'econoboxes' of today's traffic always brings a smile to Joe Public. So we should be entitled to cheaper petrol too.'
That is probably wishful thinking.
But all car fanatics like to dream.
In Ng's case it is a 1961 Mercedes-Benz 300d 'Adenauer', or the 1957 Ferrari 410 Superamerica - 'both in piano black please'.