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24 Rare Photos of the Early Car Industry in the Philippines

The fascinating history of how cars arrived in the Philippines.
IMAGE Alex Castro
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An index of affluence for Filipino in the days of the American rule was the possession of an automobile. To this day, having a car—next to owning a house—continues to top the list of goals of every working Pinoy. The car industry of the Philippines has a rich history and owning an automobile has always been more than just a functional transportation invention; it is a status symbol, a statement of success to be driven and flaunted on the road.

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Baby, You Can Drive My Car: The Israels, Benito and Adrienne, try their new French-made car on an Alsatian road. The Israels were relatives of the Ullmans, part-Germans who settled in the Philippines as businessmen. Dated 1926.

This obsession with cars is reflected in the current number of vehicles that were registered in the Philippines in 2017, reaching an all-time high of over 10.4 million units. The history of cars has come a long way: it is inconceivable to think that less than century ago, in 1928, there were only 19,791 automobiles in our islands, mostly concentrated in our cities and major town centers where the majority of the good roads and thoroughfares were.

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Horseless Carriages: Automobiles along the shopping district, Calle Escolta. 1920s.

For all the years that Spain ruled the country, it had very little to show when it came to its public works records, so the history of the Philippines' car industry is foggy, to say the least, during this period. The task of road- and bridge-building was often undertaken by their missionaries. When the Americans took over, they were aghast at what the natives had to undergo to travel from one town to another. For example, a man living in a sitio some 100 miles from the city had to equip himself with three horses to reach Manila, and—due to extreme road conditions—he could not always be sure that he could reach the city on a living horse!


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Cruising Taft: One of the modern macadamized roads built during the American period is Calle Rizal (started in 1899), later renamed Taft Avenue. The avenue provided supreme driving pleasure for the motor enthusiast.

Eventually, the Americans, through the Bureau of Public Works, embarked on an extensive, national road-building that saw a dramatic increase in kilometrage of all classes of roads. By the end of the 1920s, over 12,000 kilometers of new roads had been added, speeding up the transport of goods and products to key markets, and spurring livelier economic activities. Thus, the car industry in the Philippines started: rich Filipinos began discovering, too, that these new highways were also the perfect avenues on which to display himself and his grand equipage—the automobile.

Nothing impacted the nation’s mobility, so much as the automobile—the rickety, sputtering, still-imperfect machine that arrived in the final years of the 20th century. German engineer Karl Benz is credited with developing the first motorcar in his workshop in 1885, which, in a test run, covered a distance of one kilometer at a speed of 15 kph.

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IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

A Ford You Can Afford: Ford Model T, 1914 model. The people’s car was so affordable, prices started at $400. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The building of a single car, however, took many months; it was left to American Henry Ford to find a way to shorten the process. This, he did, by introducing a conveyor-belt moving assembly line in 1913, that could put together an automobile in just 90 minutes, making the production of cars commercially viable and changing the car industry as a whole. The result of Ford’s breakthrough efforts was the introduction of the affordably priced Ford’s Model T—“a car for the multitude”—launching the era of popular motoring around the world.

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As an American-ruled territory, the introduction of the automobile to our islands was assured. For their modes of transport, Filipinos were used to riding animal-pulled vehicles—like the caruajes ( also known as rokabays, must-haves for prominent Filipinos), quiles, caretons, calesas, and, in the rural areas, the wheel-less, sled-like paragos.

Now, with the prospect of owning a modern motorized wonder realized, the Philippines' car industry thrived.

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Before the car was the Carromata: Mode of public transport before the advent of cars were horse-drawn carriages of all shapes and sizes called carromatas, calesas, caruajes and quiles.

The first automobile in the country was brought in by the famous “La Estrella del Norte,” a department store founded by the Levy Brothers that started as a watch and jewelry shop in Iloilo. In the early 1900s, the flourishing “La Estrella” opened a large branch along Escolta, and diversified its inventory of stocks to include bicycles, phonographs, moving picture machines—the first of their kind to be seen in the Philippines' car industry.

The La Estrella car was acquired by a medical doctor of note, Dr. Juan Miciano, a UST physician. The automobile was a French-made Richard-Brasie, that came all the way from the Paris car manufacturing plant founded by Charles-Henri Brasier and partner Georges Richard. In those days, on average, it took a little over three months to ship an automobile from Europe or the U.S., to Manila.

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La Estrella Auto Place: Dealer of Essex, Hudson, and spectacular Dodge cars. 1929.

Though extremely expensive (over P3,000 or roughly $1,540) in the first decade of the 20th century, the Philippines' burgeoning car industry found ready buyers, mostly from Manila’s elite set, like Don Benito Legarda who bought a Renault in 1904.

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The car industry in the Philippines was changed when efficiency in automobile manufacturing brought prices down significantly, and vehicles were soon being snapped up through easy installment plans. Vaudeville star dancer Lucy Martin even bought a Chevrolet while performing here in Manila in the late 1920s. Other favorite cars included the Blackhawk, a lower-priced companion car to the Safety Stutz, the speedy Hupmobile, and Chrysler’s De Soto.

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Chevy Runs Deep: Lucy Martin, a popular vaudeville dancer who performed in Manila, drove a Chevrolet during her stay in the islands. Late 1920s.

After “La Estrella,” Erlanger and Galinger, a well-known brokerage firm, began selling motor vehicles, as well. In 1902, the U.S.-made Locomobile was offered for sale by the company, only the second car brand to be made available in the country. The car industry in the Philippines continued to grow. Soon, more brands came into the market: Oldsmobile, named after founder and pioneer auto maker Ransom Eli Olds, made its first appearance in Manila in 1906.

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Drive Now, Pay Later: Car prices for different models of Chevrolet and Pontiac, from 1929.

1907 marked another milestone in the Philippine car industry with the establishment of the first commercial automobile imports in the Philippines by Russian-born American, Emil Bachrach, who came to the country in 1901 to look for his fortune. His early enterprises included a watch shop, a credit company, and a furniture business that proved to be very successful.

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Bachrach and Roll: The first commercial automobile imports company was the Bachrach Motor Co., founded by Emil Bachrach. 1940 ad.

The visionary, in anticipation of the growth of the automotive industry, opened a new company, Bachrach Motors, and snagged the lucrative Ford Motor franchise. Thus, that same year, the very popular Model T was launched in the Philippines. It later added Nash, Packard, Chalmers, Cadillac, and Willys Overland in its roster of vehicle brands. Bachrach Motors remained in business for long, fruitful years—supplemented with a Garage and Taxicab Co. and the Rapid Transit Co., the first bus line of Manila. After Bachrach died in 1937, the operations was continued by his family. The company shut down in the mid-1960s, but it is forever ingrained in the history of the Philippines' car industry.

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1929 Bachrach Motor Co. ad for Durant Trucks and Nash Cars.

The advent of the automobile—that noisy, but irresistible symbol of 20th-century progress—did not banish the horse overnight. But many Filipinos began transforming their livery stables into spacious garages for their modern vehicles. The plazas of Manila became the convergence points of caruajes, calesas, and now, the automobiles. But in bustling Escolta, touted as Manila’s Fifth Avenue, the spanking new automobile reigned supreme. Daily, Iberian señoritas, well-heeled families, and their uniformed chauffeurs, all church-bound to Tondo, Sampaloc, and Sta. Cruz  passed by the busy, cosmopolitan street.

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Convergence Point: Plaza Goiti (now Plaza Lacson) was a busy meeting point of vehicles—from calesas, streetcars, and automobiles. 1920s.

The demand for automobiles spurred the growth of the car industry and revolutionized commercial transportation. As a result, entrepreneurs cashed in on the auto boom by going into dealerships (the history of car dealerships is another story) in Manila and beyond. The 1920s and 1930s ushered in the golden age of Philippine motoring, with international automotive models appearing on our new city avenues and boulevards.

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Macondray and Co. was a dealer of De Soto cars; French Motor Co. was the sole agent for the Graham Sedan 1928.

Levy Hermanos, for example, spun off the Estrella Auto Palace from its main “La Estrella” store in Escolta. The car dealership on Gandara St. offered the spectacular Dodge Super 6, Essex, and Hudson models in 1929. At the shop's peak, it carried 21 different car and truck brands, which, at that time, showed the fast growth of the car industry. Estrella Auto Palace operated fully until the 1950s.

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Blackhawk, named after an Indian chief, was one of the most promoted cars in the Philippines in 1929. It was manufactured by the Stutz Motor Car Company in Indianapolis from 1929 to 1930.

Luneta Motor Co., in Plaza San Luis, was another famous go-to place for prestige brands like Chrysler-Plymouth, which came on sale in the mid-1920s. In 1937, the company mounted car shows that demonstrated the strength and durability of the car. In 1955, Luneta Motor Co. also undertook distributorship of jeepney bodies made by Francisco Body Builders (soon to become Francisco Motors Corp.), which was then appointed to assemble Ford Consul and Thames trucks for the premier auto dealer, that was in business until the 1960s.

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Luneta Motor Co. was one of the biggest and most popular car dealers in the country, with a big showroom in Escolta. It was known for its posh Chrysler-Plymouth automobiles. 1938.

Along Malecon Drive is located the Manila Trading and Supply Co. (the future Mantrade), which began as a dealer of various branded productsoffice machines (Remington typewriter), rubber materials (United States Rubber), and later, automobiles by Ford. In 1920, it focused exclusively on being a Ford dealer, and pre-war branches were put up all over the country, including a showroom in Escolta. Through the history of cars in the Philippines, Ford has maintained a solid presence.

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Ford Cars by Mantrade: Manila Trading and Supply Co. was into office equipment and rubber products before selling cars. It is now called Nissan-Mantrade. Hupmobile, a very popular car model, as advertised by Parsons Hardware Co. 1929 ads.

It reorganized after the war and put up an assembly plant in 1955. The American-owned company went on to sell Ford brands, like Cortina, Thames, Transit, and Taunus. In the 1960s, ownership was transferred to a group of Filipino businessmen, and continued to lead the way in car dealership. Today, after over 100 years of car history, it is still in operation, known by its new name, Nissan Mantrade.

There were a dozen or so other dealers and authorized auto distributors scattered around the city: Macondray & Co., located in Hidalgo, Quiapo with branches in Iloilo and Cebu, specialized in De Soto; Pacific Commercial Co. (Plaza Sta. Cruz), distributor of General Motors and all Chevrolet models; Pacific Motors, distributors of Pontiac, Oakland, Cadillac, and La Salle; Manila Motor Co. Inc., in Ongpin (with branches in Baguio and Bacolod); French Motor Co. (Rizal Avenue), Parsons Hardware Co., sales agent of the Hupmobile; and Automotive Sales Co. (along Pinpin St.), which sold Buick automobiles.

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Pacific Motors, dealer of Pontiac—“the car you’ll be proud to own”; Pacific Commercial, dealer of Chevrolet Six, 1929 ad.

The Philippine car industry continued and expanded. With the arrival of automobiles came the rise of gas and service stations. Fuel companies like Shell (through the Asiatic Fuel Co.) and Associated Oil Co. were already around by then, and expanded their product line to include motorcar fuels and oils. Standard Oil. Co, of New York was also supplying filling stations with Socony oil and lubricants.

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Fill'er Up: Print ad for Shell Fuels and Motor Oil, from the Asiatic Petroleum Co. (P.I.) Ltd., and Associated Gasolineand Cycol Motor Oil, from Associated Oil co. 1930s  ad.

Maintenance and auto supplies shop, like the Motor Service Co., Inc, offered tires, tubes, replacement parts, and accessories through its Central Auto Supply branch along Azcarraga Street.

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Service with a Smile: A 1920s ad of the Motor Service Co., supplier of car accessories and genuine replacement parts.

From commercial and business use, the Philippine car industry evolved and automobiles soon became “personal transportation” for private owners, as more of the latest models came in, all equipped for thrill and speed (early cars could not even top 30 mph in the 1900s). Young men from affluent families took their cars out for joyrides and pleasure trips along Dewey, Avenida, and Escolta, while making a statement in their streamlined motor on wheels. Spanking-new Studebakers, Roosevelts, and Cadillacs lined the streets of Manila, competing for space and attention.

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Three Men and a Car: Three Filipino dandies take their large car of unknown make to Baguio. 1936.

A maximum speed limit of eight miles per hour was set within Manila in 1920, which was oftentimes violated by reckless drivers. By then, there were already 8,000 automobiles plying the city roads at all hours.

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Mercury Rising: A student shows off his new Mercury, a premium car produced by Ford Motor Co. Late 1940s photo

The number of accidents continued to mount however. The most common traffic violation was overspeeding. A 1933 newspaper account observed: “Our motorists have developed a mania for speed, resulting in the inevitable consequence of suffering from accidents and the tragedy of either death or injury of the passengers of the car.” Other reasons included not having the right of way, wrong passing, and not making signals when turning.

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The Accidental Tourist: The consequence of driving too fast. The driver punctured a tire, swerved in to a ditch, and lost control of his car. 1938 photo.

But one man’s car crashes can be another man’s livelihood. Another boost to the car industry in the Philippines, motor shop repairs were soon being set up, and enjoyed good business, as in the case of the Manila Motor Works. In 1928, Pedro Reyes, a former mechanic of Pacific Commercial Co., and a shop superintendent of Teal Motor Co., founded his Talleres de Automobiles along Avenida, and grew it to become the nation’s most progressive and reliable auto body repair shop and truck body builder until the 1950s.

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Talleres de Automobiles, or Manila Motor Works, an early auto repair and service shop founded by former mechanic Pedro Reyes in 1928. Photo from Progress Magazine, 1958.

But while the country's car industry connoted freedom, what the early Filipino driver of the 1900s could never know was that, even as more roads, bridges, and highways were built, and more cars rolled into our islands, the capital city, given its design and limits, would one day be bursting at the seams with a burgeoning post-war population and the continuous migration of people to Manila from the provinces.

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By the 1950s, traffic was becoming a concern as public buses, private cars, and the new king of the road—jeepneys—vied for space on the road. Today, the car that accelerated our commercial progress is the same machine being blamed for the slowdown of business activities.

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Avenida Madness: Bumper-to-bumper traffic along Avenida Rizal, with calesas and automobiles jockeying for position on the four-lane avenue.

Still, it could not be denied that the automobile allowed a man his physical freedom never thought possible. Where before, an islander’s only world was his water-locked town or rural folks could only visualize the sights and sounds of a city, looking at the car industry of the Philippines, one will note that the automobile has given him the power to travel like the wind, to extend the boundaries of his experience, to feel the emotions of many regions and many cultures, in effect, to explore his Filipino-ness.

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Worth The Trip: Members of a family make a stopover at Kennon Road in their spacious late-'40s model Oldsmobile. The postwar years saw more Filipinos owning cars and making more trips to other parts of the country, boosting domestic tourism. Photo from 1957.

SOURCES:

Various 1929 Graphic Magazine issues:

“A Bit of Transportation History”. 30 Oct. 1929, p. 8

“Traveling Like the Wind”. 25 Sep. 1929, p. 14

“Evolution of the Automobile”,30 Oct. 1929, p. 10

“Lure of the Highway”, 6 Nov. 1929, p. 44.

“Motor Car Accidents”, The Sunday Tribune Magazine, 23 April 1933. p. 8

Reader’s Digest, “The Origins of Everyday Things”, Reader’s Digest Association Ltd., 1998., p.

Kraus, Michael. Kraus Vera, Family Album for Americans, Ridge Press Inc. 1961, published by Grossett and Dunlap. Pp. 231-247.

Ragoon, Richard Wilhelm, “How much were cars in PH back in the day?”.posted 9 Feb. 2018

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