Vintage car collector Chia Quee Khee says every classic tells a story

You could say that every classic car in retired lawyer Chia Quee Khee's collection tells a story.

There is the 1949 MG Y-T that was his wedding car when he married his wife, Dorothy, in 1976. For the family's many driving holidays in Malaysia, he drove a maroon fintail 1963 Mercedes- Benz 220S. Then, there is the 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood which he bought in Sydney without test-driving it.

The father of four says of the enormous Cadillac: "I've used the car for two of my children's weddings. If you sit in the car with wedding ribbons, you are more important than the President. Everywhere you go, people will whistle and give you the thumbs-up, and shout."

How he acquired the Cadillac is a story in itself. He was in Melbourne in 2003 to attend his second daughter's graduation from RMIT University when he chanced upon a Cadillac-for-sale advertisement in a car magazine.

The owner was in Sydney. "The next morning, I flew to Sydney. The guy had five, six Cadillacs, and three of them Fleetwoods. He said, 'If you buy three, I give you a discount'," Mr Chia recalls with a laugh.

 

He wanted just one - a shiny red model. But on the day the car was to be shipped, the seller called to say that the bonnet was not working properly and suggested he took another car - a white one. "I said I hadn't even tested the other car. He said it's in good condition... so I took it," Mr Chia says.

In January 2004, the car arrived in Singapore. The next month, he drove the Cadillac to take part in the Chingay procession.

"Jackie Chan the actor was the guest of honour, with then President SR Nathan. Jackie Chan sat in a lorry with a platform, but his manager and friends sat in my car, with the top down," he recounts.

To his pleasant surprise, the car drove like a dream. But the classic machine that sparked his love affair with historic carriages was the MG.

The former deputy public prosecutor (1969-72) remembers clearly that the year was 1971 when a colleague asked him to go with him during lunch to check out the car that was advertised for sale.

He ended up buying the MG for a then princely sum of $1,200. "That was my first 'mistress'," he says with a laugh.

On his wedding day, the "mistress" was the star of the show.

"We dressed it up with lots of ribbons. My brother-in-law was the driver and we had two flower girls at the back." The wedding "procession" was from his home in Changi to the main road "near the prison", before the wedding party switched to a Jaguar XJ, which he had borrowed from a client. "We couldn't use it all the way because it didn't have air-con and was too hot," Mr Chia says.

When he and his wife started a family, they spent many happy days driving to Malaysia in the Mercedes-Benz 220S, which he bought from "the second wife of Chia Boon Unn, who was then the boss of Cycle & Carriage".

"When my children were young, I used to take them on drives to Malaysia. And there'd be eight of us in the car - me, my wife, four children, two maids.

"The car could take all of us because the front seat is a bench seat. It has plenty of room. All my children grew up with that car, so it has a lot of memories for me."

On one memorable journey, the linkage between the gear lever and gearbox broke when the family was in Pahang. "With the help of my children, we used rafia string to tie the linkage and got the car going again," he recalls. They made it back to Singapore without a hitch.

Today, his collection includes the MG, the Mercedes 220S, the Cadillac Fleetwood, a 1972 Alfa Romeo 2000GTV which he bought in 1981, and a rare 1961 Mercedes-Benz 190SL he acquired last year.

Among the cars he has bought and sold were a 1932 Alfa Romeo, which he drove in an Italian vintage car rally called Mille Miglia in 1997, and a 1960 Jaguar Sport XK150 which he drove 1,500km from Renmin Square in Dalian to Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1998.

In one leg of the 1,600km Mille Miglia, a young woman in a tight skirt stood by a country road and "swivelled her hips and twirled her scarf at us".

"Any hopes that she would do more than that were unfulfilled," Mr Chia says with a chuckle.

In a more serious tone, he says that some of his cars "seem to have a life of their own".

Several years ago, the radiator in the Mercedes-Benz 220S sprang a leak when he was driving from his late mother- in-law's house in Yishun back to his house in Katong. "But I could still drive," he recalls. "When I reached the front gate, the engine exploded, and there was smoke coming out of the engine bay. I couldn't start it.

"I pushed it into the garage, left it there for two weeks, did nothing. And then after two weeks, I started the car and the car went back to normal."

So, which is his favourite car?

"I like different cars for different reasons," he replies. "Some I like for the engine, like the Alfa 2000GTV. It's got a fantastic engine and gearbox.

"Some I like for the shape, like the Mercedes-Benz 190SL."

The car that gives him the most driving pleasure is the Alfa Romeo, especially for long hauls.

"It doesn't like traffic lights, it doesn't like congestion, it doesn't like city driving," Mr Chia says. "But once on the expressway, it's very nice. The roadholding is good, the compression is good, the torque is fantastic. and it's very nimble. So if I go to Malaysia, that is my first choice."

Long drives are a thing of the past though. "The machines are tired and I'm tired," he says with a grin.

These days, he starts them up once a week and takes them out on short runs in the neighbourhood to keep them in shape. Most of the time, though, he keeps them clean, does minor maintenance work on them and just looks at them - perhaps reminiscing of the good old times spent with each of them.

Well aware that taking care of his cars will be challenging as the years go by, he says with a sigh: "Maintaining them will get harder and costlier, and letting go of them won't be easy either."

This story was part of a package on car collectors that first appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, under the headline "Car crazy".