25 Cars Every Filipino Went Through and Loved
1| My father placed me barebutt on the gentle dome of our brand-new Beetle. It was a company car. Presumably, he had chosen it over car models for its warmth and its charm. It was tan-colored, the color of a human breast. Many years later he confessed that they had resorted to using my diapers to replace the stolen gas cap; we were that poor.
There were tears when things got better and he gave it up for a proper sedan because you never get over giving up your family Beetle. And then there was the time I saw a friend fleeing hers because the famously air-cooled rear engine—which her father had jury-rigged to take an airconditioning unit—had burst into fames. Tears again, but this time of great laughter.
2| It was the L-type Lancer we moved up to. If you grew up at around the same time I did, you know exactly what I mean when I call it the “L-type.” Pinoys have a great way with names. You probably also have an uncle (whether or not he was really your uncle) named Tito Baby. And he also probably had an L-type. Anyway, every Tito Baby I know had a Lancer L-type back in the day when he was taking his chikababes to Where Else? Disco. I guess they named it that because really there was nowhere else to go during those days. Anyway, they called it the L-type because its left brakelight came in the shape of the letter L. That’s it. They could have equally looked at the right brakelight and called it the J-Type. But now you can’t because they call the two-door Pajero that, and what the hell are you doing still driving your L-Type, Tito Baby? “Still picking up chicks.”
3| But what we never had, and that everybody wanted so much, was the Lancer box-type. People wanted it so much it was silly. This coincided with the days of the preppy—when everyone wanted to dress like everyone else so bad. Imagine an army of these sedans parked at your local Shakey’s. And if you had any remaining sense of originality you displayed it in your choice of aftermarket add-ons: spoilers, air dams, dashboard carpets, big-ass decals spelling out your monogram or even your whole name, all that great stuff. But, mind you, they were beautiful, and they were worth every minute of the nondescript ride. I remember one of my rich friends had a GSR—the box-type’s most desirable variant, and don’t bother asking me why or what it had over the others—and I rode shotgun with him to school every morning, a burst of pride spurting through my system every time those aftermarket carbs burned the rich air. I imagined I was just like everyone else, and I never knew it was such a great feeling.
4| Lancer lust was followed by craving for the new Toyota Corolla E90, especially the 16-valve model in liquid red. Among the first locally distributed cars to exhibit rounded corners and aerodynamic styling that brought it into the eve of the nineties, it proved Toyota could roll up its sleeves once more to show some sporty muscle—previously exhibited many years earlier with the Corona “macho machine,” which had a 2.0 liter 18R engine.
5| “Minekaniko ni Moniko ang makina ng Minica ni Monika.” That’s about all I know about the Minica, which is one of those cars I can vividly recall because I saw so many on the streets all the time when I was a kid, mystified about how many clowns could really fit in there, like I had once seen at a show at the Fiesta Carnival. Hundreds, probably. Maybe that’s why it was breaking down all the time, as the tongue twister suggested, because it only had a 359cc engine. Which leads to the other mystery: Why couldn’t they just spring for that extra 1 cc and call it an even 360?
6| Everyone has a pickup-loving period. The Chevy Luv was the one that popped my cherry. It looked like a sweetheart and had such a lovely name. The love was rekindled when I saw the Toyota Hi-Lux, about a decade later. But this time I knew I was looking at something pretty potent. It was not a vehicle as much as it was a Clint Eastwood movie—with a Clint Eastwood-driving-a-Chevy-Luv heart. Case in point: A friend’s dad liked to drive it while playing, ad nauseum, a voice performance of that religious nugget “Footprints in the sand.”
7| The Sakbayan—a portmanteau of “sasakyang bayan”—really was a repackaging of Volkswagen Australasia’s Country Buggy, a bastard child of two or three widely separate automobile concepts thought up by the car firm. In the Philippines the Sakbayan gained instant notoriety as the ride of choice for the Metrocom—which was another obsolete word mashup that we wish never happened but we must #neverforget.
8| There have been many jeepney makers, but Sarao was the iconic brand for the King of the Road. It was custom-designed, hand-built, and in sunnier days festooned with swept-back antennae, springing horses, the names of the driver’s children, entire Bible passages, and sideboard art ripped of from the pages of Metal Hurlant—with lots of room to spare for the grandchildren’s names, because the jeepney was an heirloom, family enterprise, and status symbol all in one. They stuck a truck engine under the hood to carry all those passengers—up to 27, according to the word on the streets —and all that extra metal sheeting.
I have a friend whose foot actually got run over by one of these things in the wild, and because they also drive so slow by the curb it actually had time to back up from on top of his foot when he screamed. Another friend would wait hours by the curb for the infamous “Black Stallion,” a particular ride that played only arena rock, but only in slow tempo, and only at full volume. We never found out how many Black Stallions ran the Marikina-Cubao route, but there must have been more than a few—my mother actually once rode one. She complained about the music and the driver politely shouted at he (only because the music was so loud), telling her to get of if she didn’t like it. If you’ve never ridden a Sarao, you should be taken out and have your toes run over—or worse, be forced to drive one.
9| The Nissan Sentra—which from the front looked exactly like its hatchback sister the Nissan California—which is why we also called it the “Minsan Sentra”—was in my opinion one of the most underrated cars of the eighties. Solidly built and a pleasure to drive, it also looked sprightly and ready for that impromptu trip to Tagaytay for that all-important “group study session.” I remember a friend who loved his California so much and drove like it was a sports car, driver’s seat reclined so that you wondered if he saw anything, pulled almost all the way back so you couldn’t sit behind him in the backseat. This is why I take no blame for riding shotgun and distracting him with conversation on that day we rear-ended a sixteen-wheeler.
10| Dear Mitsubishi Colt, so Pinto-like in your demeanor, so emblematic of the age when cars came in colors like beige and violet, and so touchingly remembered for the time you sustained an entire family of four as they waited patiently in the college parking lot for their eldest child to emerge from her classes and leap into your overprotective embrace. We hardly knew you, yet we felt we did. Also because you started that whole confusion about names: There was the Colt Galant and the Colt Lancer, so where did you stand? In the parking lot, that’s where: all day, and all night, if necessary.
11| The trusty Kia Pride was the heir to the Volkswagen Beetle as the next “people’s car.” And indeed it was. We found that we could fit our entire progressive rock band—we called ourselves Aftermath, but announcers back in the nineties liked to call us “the Aftermath band”—in there, including two guitars, bass, multiple effects boxes, and an unpaid roadie whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten. And we still had room for our entire Rush cassette catalogue, which as Rush fans know, can take up quite a bit of space. There was one time we rode it to a gig and found out there was too much space, mainly because we had left all our equipment in the rehearsal studio.
12| What about the Ford Escort (the European version, of course), that favorite of weekend racers and racy weekenders? You spruced it up by stripping it down, until all you had were candy colors, bright stripes, and burnt rubber. We had a neighbor who drove one and made sure everyone knew it at three in the morning, making the parents pissed and the kids jealous. And then all of a sudden it all stopped, which made us sad because he might have died in his Escort.
13| There was a time when every taxi in the country was an Isuzu Gemini. It was diesel powered and virtually indestructible. It’s interesting to note that the Gemini has shared its genes with other car brands all over the world, among them Buick, Opel Holden, Pontiac, and Chevrolet. But perhaps a more interesting fact is that the Gemini shared some of its genes, thanks to that great stamp-and-badge-and-factory mash-up of the nineties, with the Honda Civic, a car that will never—allegedly, by some arcane agreement between Honda Philippines and its customers—become a taxi.
14| Discounting the jeepney, no other four-wheeler has made a bigger impact on the everyday Filipino than the Tamaraw FX. It made commuting safer and more convenient, it created a multitude of entrepreneurs and defined a whole new transport segment all on its own. The first “Asian Utility Vehicle” gave rise to a number of copycats among its competitors, but it beat them all by spawning powerfully positioned offspring, the most important of which is the Toyota Innova, which has sped away (well, gone as fast as it could) from its roots as a public utility transport and become the chase car of choice for bodyguards and heavies, as well as actual VIPs who eschew grand entrances, or wish to keep their arms cache close at hand, or just prefer an all-around trustworthy vehicle.
15| The Innova’s low-key presence and reliability has made it so common and that it bores me to write another word about it.
16| As its name suggests, it’s almost every workingman’s duty to own a Honda Civic—and then drive it at least 200,000 kilometers before trading it in for the newer model. Surprisingly, you’d still get a good price for it. Because, as mentioned, it’s almost every workingman’s duty to own a Honda Civic.
17| “It’s always better to buy entry-level luxury than top-level anything else,” someone once told me. That he was saying this from the cockpit of his new Mercedes Benz C-Class did put some credibility into his statement. I must say the figure the modern C-Class cuts does bear a lot of that fine pedigree that many have said you can’t get with just any old expensive car. And there was a chick beside him in there and she smelled good and life really seemed to be on his side and he drove off, just like that.
18| Face it—if you don’t already have one, you’ve always dreamed of owning a BMW, and for a long time the 3 was the easiest one to get. Forget all the debates and decisions about body types, buying preowned or just going full-on fuck-it with the sport options—you want the 3, in whatever shape or form. I know so because a friend of mine nearly went damn broke making the payments on one and never let it go, no matter what. He’s rich now, and he just called me to say “fuck you” from his new 3.
19| The Mitsubishi Pajero was really the first SUV in the Philippines—and by SUV we mean “widely available big status symbol car that everyone wants.” Early owners found that they could magically shift lanes more easily because smaller vehicles just moved out of the way. It was big and beautiful and built to last, and there was enough room inside for interesting stuff: altimeters, pitch meters, even flashlights for moments requiring EVA.
20| The next big SUV follow-up—in this writer’s pedestrian opinion—was the Ford Expedition. Most owners I know have never really taken their Expedition on a real expedition, though if they ever did it wouldn’t really feel like one, thanks to the mind-blowingly pillow-like ride of this now-classic SUV. Perhaps the name takes its cue from the word “expedite”—because your rush hour ride really does get expedited when you’re driving it.
21| Feared and revered, the Nissan Patrol once was the muscle car of choice for government officials—and those who tried to pass themselves offas such—around the time of Erap’s regime. But despite the obnoxious Centennial door stickers it was a real performer, packing real power, and superior style that never really needed much updating.
22| The Hyundai Starex holds a special place in my heart because I once watched four straight seasons of Friends in it while my friends—seriously—and I were stranded in a seaside town that had no rooms to let. For 20 straight hours it was our couch and our lampshade, it was our Central Perk and our Manhattan apartment. And everything was all right. Because, you know, we were on a break. (Laughter.)
23| Everybody who’s been to a movie or TV commercial set knows that the L-300 is the unofficial official car of the production industry. They probably made trillions of these rugged, hardworking breadboxes, and I’ve probably ridden in hundreds, and in various configurations: I’ve ridden shotgun with my hand permanently perched on that handle above the door, hogged entire bench seats to take bouncy naps, balanced my ass on that hump right behind the front passenger seat, and even taken that vile folding jumpseat. But come to think of it, I’ve never ever taken the driver’s seat.
24| I’m just putting the Club Wagon in here because, having grown up a poor boy in bourgeois company, everyone’s mom owned one of these things. Riding up to Baguio in it was like living the dream for me—and most certainly a living nightmare for the one who paid for the gas. To my mind, it also holds the distinction of being the original artista car, and its modern iteration, the E-150, holds the honor of vehicle most sighted driving up the John Hay Manor driveway. But it probably sticks in my memory most because everyone’s mom, for some weird reason, called it the Club “Waygon.” WTF?
25| We need to talk about the CR-V. Really, after years of dominating the purposely awkward Compact Crossover SUV market, what do you stand for? No, really, what do you stand for? “Compact Recreational Vehicle?” “Comfortable Runabout Vehicle?” “Civic Recreational Vehicle?” Who the fuck knows or cares? I own one and I love it. It has the face of a bulldog and takes orders from me like a pug. A pretty fast pug that you can plug an iPod into.
An earlier version of this list was published in Esquire's May 2012 issue.