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Driving Down Memory Lane

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Automobiles are intertwined with Singapore’s history as a regional port of call. As a crown colony of the British Empire, the city-state was introduced to and enjoyed the first fruits of technological advancements of each epoch, cars included.

‘Horse’ without the horsepowerThe first car to ever ply the roads of Singapore arrived in August 1896, having been imported by German retailers known as the Katz Brothers. Marketed as a  ‘horseless carriage’, automobiles were quickly adopted by the affluent, who would drive alongside other more traditional modes of transport such as rickshaws.

Shortly before the turn of the century, the Katz Brothers, being agents for Benz and Cie (yes, the same company that would become the modern Mercedes-Benz), introduced a new automobile called the Motor Velociped which was sold at S$1,600 (S$56,000 at today’s prices). The price tag was reportedly critiqued as being “somewhat high”.

Daring to go the distance
By the time the early 20th century rolled around in 1906, Singapore saw its first female driver in Mrs G.M. Dare. As vehicular registration came into force the same year, Dare’s car, a 10 horsepower (hp) vehicle nicknamed Ichiban (Japanese for ‘number one’), had the number plate, S-1, being the first car to be locally registered! In another first, Mrs Dare also taught a local named Hassan bin Mohamed how to drive. Hassan would then go on to become the first licensed Malay chauffeur in our country.

Ford enters the chat
A year after the famous Ford Model T was launched, the American car maker entered the Singapore market in 1909 with its line of automobiles that were consistently advertised as efficient and affordable. These selling points would remain a strong part of the brand’s marketing even a decade after World War II!

So popular were Ford cars in Singapore that the company even built a car factory in Bukit Timah during 1941 – at the start of a global conflict. Interestingly, it was to be the site where British forces surrendered to the invading Japanese Imperial Army a year after its completion.

Today, the Ford factory still stands and was gazetted a national monument in 2006.

Japanese cars drive inIn the 1960s Japan would once again invade Singapore, this time with its well-engineered and reliable cars.

Many of these cars would belong to brands that remain household names to this day, from Datsun and Nissan, two of the earliest Japanese brands to break into Singapore, to Toyota a little more than a decade later in 1975. So taken in was the Singaporean public by these cars that by the end of 1970, 50% of the automobiles sold locally were of Japanese make!

Even taxis were not spared the great Japanese wave. Older Singaporeans will remember the Toyota Crown being the model of choice for Comfort taxis during the 1980s.

The Dendrobium, Singapore’s first foray into supercars
Fast forward to 2017, Singapore showcased the first locally designed electric supercar, The Dendrobium, inspired by the name given to a genus of orchids during the Geneva Motor Show.

A result of a collaboration between Vanda Electrics and UK-based Williams Advanced Engineering, the supercar would have had a 1,800 hp electric powertrain wrapped within a carbon-fibre body that weighed 1,750 kg and packed 1,475 pound-feet of torque. Would have had, because the supercar was never made as production was stalled due to Brexit complications and further by the selling off of Williams Advanced Engineering.

Despite this unfortunate setback, Singapore may yet one day realise its dreams of producing its first supercar.

The EV revolution
Even if we don’t have our own electric supercar yet, there is no doubt that electric vehicles are growing in popularity here. Tesla delivered its first cars – the Model 2 – to customers in early 2021. Since then, the numbers have shot up, with BYD having surpassed the American icon to become the best-selling EV registered in Singapore.

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