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Wheels 2014

Wheels 2014

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Published by The Myanmar Times

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Published by: The Myanmar Times on Feb 17, 2014
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Myanmar Times
 Special Report – February 2014
Supplied/Bruno Leunen
HAT do the 96-year-old mother of Formula 1 celebrity  Alastair Caldwell, a James Bond-model Aston Martin and an ox-cart have in common? Along with vintage Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, they all featured in the last October’s Myanmar-Burma Road Classic, the country’s first-ever  vintage car rally.Twenty-seven cars toured Myanmar for 23 days, hitting major destinations like Bagan and Inle Lake, and even capital Nay Pyi Taw,  where the city’s wide streets were perfect for showing off the cars. But the route also wound through less frequently visited areas of the country, said Bruno Leunen, managing director of Belgium- based Destination Unlimited, which teamed with Inspiration Myanmar to coordinate the drive.“We go to areas that are remote  where there is no tourism, and this allows the interactions to be more natural and authentic and bring some returns to the community,” Mr Leunen said.“A rally gives the freedom to the people to go at the time they want, and to do the routing according to the book but at the pace they want,” he added. “So if they want to stop, meet the locals, take photos, eat lunch in a local restaurant, they are free to do it.“The people coming now are quite wealthy people,” he added,“to  be able to bring their cars here. They want [this freedom] or they  wouldn’t come. If it is a convoy, it is not interesting for them.”The next edition of the rally, scheduled for February 2015, is set to drop by even more isolated areas, including the only-recently liberalised roads to the Mogok ruby mines, he said.Mr Leunen credited the Myanmar government with being extremely cooperative and supportive, both in hosting the rally initially and in allowing it to return next year.“Even though the government  was a bit hesitant at the beginning  we showed them exactly what it was to [rally] and follow the road book,” he said.Mr Leunen said that the quality of roads in Myanmar had improved greatly over the past two years during the lead-up to the SEA Games, making the rally an easier ride for the vintage cars.He also pointed out that cars in both the pre-war and pre-1970 categories were actually designed to travel along bumpier and even unsealed roads. The bigger wheels of the pre-war Bentleys, for example, made travelling on the scenic red dirt roads of rural Myanmar much less of a challenge than you might expect. And two months before the event, dozens of gas stations opened across the country, hitting all the necessary points on the rally routes. That made their previous refuelling plan – to have a petrol tanker travel alongside the group – unnecessary.Still, Myanmar’s roads do offer certain challenges to vehicles of any age, said Daw Khaing Zani, managing director of Inspiration Myanmar, a travel company that works with Destination
 Nearly 30 classic cars criss-crossed Myanmar last October in a three-week drive unlike any other 
 Vintage hits the road
Unlimited to provide premium à la carte travel services to wealthy European travellers.“It is not an easy country to drive through because there is a lot of traffic from everywhere, not only the locals but the trucks, pigs, cows,  bicycles. You have to really watch out all the time,” she said.Daily briefing sessions were held  with the European visitors to teach them some of the more unfamiliar practices of driving in Asia – such as the benefits of the ubiquitous honking of car horns.“We have to tell them, ‘Even if  you think you can’t see another  vehicle, you must always honk your horn to let others know you are there,’” Daw Khaing Zani said.Mr Leunan added that some of the old cars don’t have a proper horn system, making rather an unfamiliar sound compared to the more commonplace vehicles they encountered on the journey.Each classic automobiles was shipped to Yangon one-and-a-half months prior to the rally from their countries of origin, and all necessary mechanical equipment and mechanics were brought along too from Europe.But while these antique models have long since disappeared from Myanmar’s roadways, Daw Khaing Zani said many of the mechanical problems encountered along the  way were easily fixed by the local mechanics, with nothing more than creative thinking and elbow grease.“They don’t require spare parts.  We had a car that had a suspension  weakness and it was able to be fixed by the local mechanic in Kalaw.” Ingenious use of a makeshift apparatus made from local piping got the car rolling smoothly once more.Putting these cars on the road again, the duo said, was a great cultural exchange opportunity for  visitors and locals alike.“Local old people [seeing the  vintage cars] are probably nostalgic  because they have seen these cars a long time ago,” Mr Leunen said.  When the cars go by, “They come and see, because there are not many of those cars left in the country.”
EW cars used to be rarer than gold in the golden land. After General Ne Win’s government nationalised industries in Burma in 1972 with the aim of creating a self-sufficient state, the only way to get a new car imported was through government connections or via exemptions issued to sailors travelling abroad. But neither was there a local auto industry either, so old cars were patched together and kept on the road in whatever ways possible. Some dated to the Second  World War or earlier.The situation changed somewhat in the late 1990s. Suzuki partnered  with the government to produce  Wagon R sedans and Viva 110 motorcycles in Myanmar. Then, in 2000, the Mandalay and Taunggyi industrial zones were given authorisation to produce 50  jeeps themselves per year, and the Monywa and Pakokku industrial zones were authorised to produce 30 each.Local manufacturers say it was the jump-start they’d been waiting for. With a huge vacuum in the car market, they’d seen the possibilities for sales, especially to those who  were rich enough to afford cars but not rich enough – or well-connected enough – to bring in foreign models. They’d been yearning for permission to build more cars at home, and at last they had it. It also helped that, in 2001, the government tightened the car import ban – except for those able to snag special licences – thus removing all competition for local producers.Producing an entire vehicle from scratch was beyond the capabilities of Myanmar’s factories, however, so except for the body shell – which give the vehicles a unique visual appearance and set them apart from those made elsewhere – most of the inside parts for the so-called new local cars were purchased internationally and imported. Gear boxes, engines, front and rear axles, steering wheels – 35% of the “local” cars consisted of parts shipped in from outside. And news reports at the time said seized shipments of illegally imported car parts would be sold to local manufacturers at low prices.Since the body was handmade in Myanmar, though, mass production  was impossible. Vehicles were sold in advance: You placed an order and, three to four months later – possibly longer, depending on what factory you bought from – your car  was finished. And in the meantime, during the waiting period, you could proudly say, “I ordered a jeep to be produced at the zone.” Because jeeps they were, not sedans or vans. But once a steady flow of production was in place, in 2003 the industrial zone started producing made-to-order light trucks as well, which were suited for industrial use.In retrospect, comparing the cost of a whole vehicle imported from outside the country and the cost of the spare parts needed to build a locally made vehicle, the zone prices were still too expensive. Depending on shape, size and which zone it came from, in the early days of production a Myanmar-made automobile could cost anywhere from K3.5 million to K8-10 million. That’s roughly $3500 to $10,000 at today’s exchange rate – well beyond the average worker’s salary. For producers, though, it was a lucrative industry.In the early years at the Mandalay industrial zone, three or four companies were producing only three to five vehicles a year. But within five years, 30 companies  were producing thousands of cars annually, with companies like Dagon and Shan Star becoming icons of the road. According to a “sensitive” report issued in March 2008 by the  American Embassy and currently hosted online by Wikileaks, in 2007 “more than 400 small and medium-sized companies in Burma produce[d] ‘new’ unbranded jeeps and light trucks with used parts imported from Japan, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia”. The same report states that 150,000 vehicles  were made that year, with the military alone buying up to 40 percent of them. The real purpose of at-home manufacturing, the author of the unsigned report suggests, may have been to provide the armed forces with less expensive vehicles than those imported from overseas.But the jeeps weren’t as reliable as those from abroad. And nor  were everyone who sold them. Taking parts from non-licensed cars and putting them in a local car; stamping a foreign brand on the  body of a Japanese-made Liteace – these were just two of many tricks used by some companies to increase revenue. Still, analysts said at the time that the local car market was proving steady. and advised that imports of spare parts should be done in advance until parts of  better quality could be made here. But they also warned that when the time came that foreign-made cars could again be imported, the local car production industry might quickly find itself out of business.That’s exactly what happened. In October 2011 the ban on imports  was lifted: New cars could again be imported by private citizens with a licence. And licences were no longer rare: A trade-in program was set up, in which 20-to-40-year-old  vehicles could be surrendered for scrap in exchange for the right to  buy a newer foreign-made vehicle.The policy swept many old and unsafe cars off the road. But it also swept away the hopes of those in the local manufacturing industry.  Without a protectionist import  ban in place, their businesses were sunk.“The business has stopped,” says U Myint Swe, from Man Star car factory in Mandalay’s industrial zone. The chance to import more prestigious foreign brands has  wiped out the public’s interest in locally assembled cars, he says, and pushed many out of the industry. “Some factory owners changed to opening showrooms of foreign imported cars.”U Ko Ko Oo, who formerly met success with the Okay car brand, is among those would won’t be producing jeeps anymore. They don’t really qualify as new cars anyway, he says.“Jeeps are fixed with the Japanese parts. Although it seems fine parts-wise, because of the cutting and fitting of the body they should be listed as used cars.”Today, zone-made jeeps in good condition still fetch upward of K5 million. They’re meant to last over a decade, as most are used for rough  work only, and many owners are looking to trade them in if possible. For those with the money, the tradition of keeping an old car on the road indefinitely seems to  be waning. As a character on a recent South Korean soap opera said, “The car we are using is even three years old now, and we should exchange it.” It seems Myanmar drivers are thinking the same way too.
When the government’s car substitution program began in September 2011, allowing people to trade in old cars for a licence to purchase a  newer one, it transformed the look of Myanmar’s roads in one punch. But it also wiped out a once-thriving industry of local car production
Local car manufacturers left in the dust
Workers assemble vehicles in Mandalay’s industrial zone in 2007,the golden era of local car production.
Photo: Phyo Wai Kyaw
Current used car prices
Toyota Belta140-145$14,214-$14,7212008 X-Grade130-135$13,198-$13,7062007 G-Grade160$16,2442010 X-GradeToyota Probox120-135$12,183-$13,7062007 F-GradeToyota Vitz105-115$10,660-$11,6762007Honda Fit145$14,7212008 L-Smart155$15,7362011105$10,6602008Toyota Wish240-230$24,366-$23,3512003Toyota Surf (Diesel)340$34,5181999285$28,9341998ToyotaLandCruiser(Diesel)550$55,8381998Suzuki Swift115$116762006-2007160$162442010-20131 lakh = K100,000; US$1 = K985
Hanthawaddy car market as of February 15, 2014
Imported used cars are displayed for sale at a car lot in South Okkalapa township in Yangon.More than two years after the government’s car import system came into effect,about 200,000 vehicles have been imported,most of them destined for the streets of Yangon where they’ve resulted in heavy traffic jams.But with thousands of automobiles still parked in car yards across the city,and several thousand more idling at Thilawa port near Thanlyin,market sources complain that sales have come to almost a complete stop,with car prices remaining relatively unchanged over the past six months.
Photo: Boothee

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