I’ve always loved cars, ever since I was 4 when I was given this little red pedal wonder.
A year later, I would trade it in for a junior-sized, two-wheeled bicycle that had a much further range. Anticipating Christmas, I would somehow interject into ANY conversation, the obvious suggestion that certainly a bicycle would be an appropriate gift. “Mom – but all the other kids have a bicycle !” My subtle pleas must have worked because my parents bought me my first bike from Kairuz on the Escolta.
It was great. My boundaries expanded from the immediate vicinity of our duplex on Remedios and out into the unknown… down Mabini, Harrison, M.H. del Pilar, Dakota and even a few blocks away to Dewey Boulevard. Wow ! What freedom !
But boys seem to hunger for the inevitable upgrade of transportation. So, strategically waiting a few Christmases later, I used another subtle tactic , “Dad – take a look at this AMF Roadmaster ! Isn’t it cool ? ” Hoping he would get the hint, I handed him a neatly scissored ad from the pages of Boy’s Life, proudly displaying the AMF Roadmaster Luxury Liner. Wow ! What a bike ! This was the Cadillac of two wheels.
Well, Dad was a generous man and indeed paid someone in America to buy and ship said bike. An interminable amount of time passed by as I waited each day for some word of the bike’s delivery. Unfortunately his friend, having no concept of bicycle eliteness, ordered the plain version of an AMF bicycle; ergo no battery operated horn, no light, just a stripped frame with balloon tires. I guess I was lucky it came with a bell that went “crngg, crngg”. Argh !
It was about 15 years ago when my wife traveled to Europe with her mother, leaving me ALONE with two weeks of kalokohan (mischievousness). So, I decided to decorate our garage ala a 1950s Drive-In to complement my boy’s toy, a beautifully restored 1961 Corvette. I added an old-styled booth, pinball machine, neon lights and then to top it off, I actually found a replica of that same AMF Roadmaster on eBay. I couldn’t believe it. With an excitement equaling that of a 9 year old, I bought it. Apparently bicycle technology has come a long way since then as it was the worst riding bicycle I had ever ridden plus seeing an old man riding that bike must have looked ridiculous ! So there it sits in the garage today, laughing at me but, hey – it looks good.
In the Fifties, imported U.S. cars were awfully expensive in Manila. Duty fees went through the roof – practically as much as the value of the car itself. Some of my very lucky friends had scooters. Lambrettas and Vespas, which I thought were by far the “coolest” ! Not having one of my own, I would look forward to the rare trip to Baguio and Burnham Park where one could rent scooters and drive the oval circuit around the park all day.
But could I get my own ? This time, Mom wouldn’t listen to any form of urging or hints. I had crossed the line because she thought, and quite rightly, I would kill myself. Having failed that, my thoughts turned to the family car.
But first, I would need a driver’s license. Big Problem – I was 13 and you had to be 18 to qualify. Let’s face it, I was a naïve, over-confident and daresay, overindulgent teenager but with the right connections, I acquired the license, apparently maturing 5 years rather quickly.
Hmmm….Our family car was a 1955 Chevrolet 4-door sedan, in Regal Turquoise with an Indian Ivory top, barely 3 years old. Oh she was a beauty alright ! But still not quite… “hip” enough ! On one of our trips to the States, I bought a set of lake plugs. These are straight pipes welded to the exhaust manifold that stick out the side of the car behind the front wheel. When you opened them up, it sounded like a dragster ! Adding accouterments of spinners attached to the hubcaps and a Chevy Impala logo stuck to the front hood made it just perfect ! , I was ready to run up to Mandaluyong and participate in impromptu drag races of other 1950s vintage cars with friends like Skip Haven, Bobby Paradies and Juaco Campbell.
Along with car racing, I somehow managed to talk the local Yamaha dealer to let me race their bikes. They must have been only 125cc and totally stripped down and modified with a small seat to lighten its load but there were a few of us skittering down the broad avenue, hell bent for leather, the two-cycle engines sounding like a bunch of angry gnats.
My friend, Rufy Virata remembers, “There was a mile long stretch of road that racing teams ran in front of the Meralco buildling. I remember I could hear the screaming engines while having lunch at home. I saw a few races and remember Pocholo Ramirez, “Dodo” Ayuyao, Dante Silverio and early days, saw Dodgie Laurel.”
Another friend, Butch Gaberman recalls, “We used to live in Wack Wack and they used to race mini Coopers on Sunday.”
Few people know that auto racing started at the Sta. Ana racetrack in the mid-1950s where sportscar racer Dodjie Laurel and Bobby Smith frequented, among many others.
As a teen, Dodjie was one of my heroes. I think it was around 1960 when we were living in San Lorenzo Village that Dodjie had a place a few blocks from us. Being a neighbor, I would hang around his place and we’d chitchat about cars. He had a beautiful 1957 Corvette that I fell in love with.
He wouldn’t cave in to my begging to drive it but he did allow me to drive his racing go-kart all over the San Lorenzo and down Pasong Tamo. I remember it had two engines which pushed you out to 40 mph and on a kart about 6 inches off the ground, it was quite thrilling ! Mind you, I didn’t wear a helmet plus I was an idiot !
Dodgie was a charter member of the Cam Wreckers Club that promoted sportscar and Go-Kart racing in the Philippines. He used the Laurel private compound on Shaw Boulevard for the first Go-Kart races.
He was greatly admired and took the sport of racing seriously. Dodjie was the first two-time champion in the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, winning it consecutively in 1962 and 1963. Sadly, he was also the first fatality in the Macau Grand Prix when he had a horrific crash in the 1967 race.
Robert “Bobby” Smith was a 15 year old when he won his first race with the family Ford Panel around the Sta. Ana race track. He became the youngest original member of the Cam Wreckers, the Philippines’ oldest racing club. Sharing racing interests, he and Dodgie soon became fast friends.
In the 1970s, Bobby was asked by Formula 2 driver, Joey Bundalian, to oversee his pit crew during circuit races at what is now Ortigas Center. The pair won multiple victories over the superiorly backed Toyota and Ford teams. But perhaps what is least known is that he conceptualized and created the first Filipino car called the Juro in 1974.
Sadly, lung cancer claimed the life of this great racing icon in 2013 at the age of 75. [Thanks for the photos and story to Robert’s son, Richard Smith and wife Cristina Moricca]
Dodjie Laurel, Bobby Smith, Paco Ventura, Pocholo Ramirez, “Dodo” Ayuyao, Dante Silverio were some of the pioneers of auto racing in the Philippines.
The idea of a soapbox derby started out in 1933 when a Dayton, Ohio newspaperman happened to watch a bunch of kids racing their homemade contraptions down a hill. His idea turned into a multi-million dollar international marketing event. It was picked up the Chevrolet Motor Company as a sales promotion and eventually boys from all over the world eagerly joined the sport.
Soapbox derby racing was introduced in the Philippines in 1955 at Clark Air Base. The following year, under the sponsorship of the Better Boys Association, the first Philippine national soap box derby was held in Quezon City on Highway 54 (now EDSA) near Camp Murphy.
The races were held on an 800-foot course on Quezon Boulevard. The soapbox cars were towed up to a 15 feet elevated ramp and lined up three abreast. The huge crowd would cheer their favorites as the young lads with serious determination, aimed for the finish line. Another old friend, Rafael “Raffy” Prieto, won the championship in 1956. It was popular until the end of the 1960s when interest waned and the races were scrapped. But for a time, the soapbox derby was an exciting goal for many of the boys I ran around with.
The races were mostly held in the downhill part of Ortigas Avenue around the area where Medical City is now. The driver was Jesus Emmanuel Lopez, my cousin-in-law. [Source: Louie de Leon]
The Derby was co-sponsored by Goodyear and Northern Motors – Chevrolet. Boys from 11 through 15 were eligible and, to level the playing field, each entrant was given a kit with standard axles, wheels and instructions to build their own generic racer. But this was Manila where anything was possible. I’m pretty sure some ambitious fathers may have hired professional mechanics to modify these “home-made” rigs into Formula 1 racecars.
Car racing and touring started getting quite popular after I left in 1962. There was a lot of new construction around Makati and on through Quezon City so any new and virtually empty stretch of road was fare game.
Car clubs like the Manila Sports Car Club and Cam Wreckers were involved with well-attended exhibitions, the Manila Grand Prix, the Shell rallies and races around the city. The cars have gotten more sophisticated and expensive but the Filipinos’ love of the need for speed and a beautiful automobile still flows in their veins today.
Thanks for coming back to read more of my memories ! Here’s my car, a 1961 Corvette with 265 cu.in. engine, 2 four barrel carbs and 4 speed shift. I only take it out on sunny days and when I do, I feel like a kid again !
As always, I invite you to write your comments and share your stories below or email me directly at: Manilanostalgia@gmail.com