Me & My Car: The Pagoda and the Phantom of a vintage car fan

Mr Tan Ah Ee stands between his 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom II (left) and 1967 Mercedes-Benz SL250 at his factory in Tuas.
Mr Tan Ah Ee stands between his 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom II (left) and 1967 Mercedes-Benz SL250 at his factory in Tuas.PHOTO: WONG KAI YI

SINGAPORE - A twist of a key in the ignition barrel breathes life into the engine of a dark blue, 1967 Mercedes-Benz SL250. The 2.5-litre, straight-six motor clears its throat with a large expulsion and settles into a baritone burble.

At his factory in Tuas where he stores his cars - there is not enough space at home - owner Tan Ah Ee, 66, positions the nearly 54-year-old car for this photoshoot with a practised air. The SL250 is commonly called the Pagoda because of the shape of its roof.

Closing the door of theMerc, Mr Tan moves on toget his other car - an enigmatic, silver-and-red 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom II - in position.

If pressing the "Engine Start" button in a modern car is akin to the simplicity of using an iPhone, then starting the 93-year-old Phantom II is like watching inventor Alexander Graham Bell make the first telephone call.

Levers and knobs on the steering wheel and dashboard for throttle position, carburettor mixture and ignition timing must be pulled at the right time and in the right position. If not, the car will stall.

Mr Tan's hands dance coolly over them, and the leviathan shudders to life with an exhaust sound reminiscent of a steam train.

Mr Tan, chairman and managing director of a manufacturing firm specialising in foam-packaging production, drives the SL250 more often. As the car is on a normal plate (the original set matching the car's model number), it can be driven as and when he likes.

The vintage-car aficionado inherited the SL250 from his brother in May 2007 as it was giving the latter problems. With his extensive connections to workshops that specialise in restoring old cars, Mr Tan soon got it running properly.

He has since forked out about $30,000 on repairs, most recentlyspending $3,000 on replacing the old, cracked canvas roof.

And that money has been spent wisely. The SL250 looks as fresh as a nearly six-decade-old car can be. Itscertificate of entitlement has been renewed for another 10 years till March 2030, and Mr Tan intends to drive it till then.

The Merc has attracted much attention from members at a golf club he frequents, and his regular mechanic revealed that the car has attracted a few offers from other customers. Mr Tan reckons the car is valued "around $200,000 to $300,000".

Turning his attention to the Rolls-Royce, his eyes light up. The storied Phantom II began life as a prototype codenamed 18EX in 1928. It underwent heavy testing in France and England, was withdrawn from development work in 1931, and finally overhauled before being put on sale.

It is powered by a mammoth 7.7-litre, straight-six engine, mated to a four-speed manual transmission, and produces about 120hp.

Mr Tan paid $250,000 for the car in August 1992, buying it in Perth, Australia from the estate of Sir Michael Robert Hamilton Holmes a Court, an Australian billionaire who died of a heart attack two years earlier.

He shipped the car to Singapore shortly after and registered it under the Vintage (Restricted) Vehicle Scheme. It is unmodified save for repairs to keep it running.

He has driven it for his daughter's wedding, but admits it is hard to drive - "almost like a lorry" because of the need to double-declutch the transmission. He has driven the car at Chingay parades too.

He has taken it to many vintage-car rallies - themost memorable one being the 1998 Louis Vuitton Classic China Run, where 50 cars went on a 1,300km drive from Dalian to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

"I still have two sleeping bags made by Louis Vuitton," Mr Tan says.

Along the way, the drum brakes on the Phantom II jammed. A mechanic who went on the trip managed to release them, but had no spare parts on hand, so Mr Tan had to stop on steep descents using just the handbrake. He acknowledges the Phantom II needs some restoration work.

Mr Tan is also a respected stamp collector in Singapore, owning several incredibly rare stamps worth millions of dollars.

But these days, he loves golf more. "I used to play with cars, but now that I'm getting older, I prefer to play golf," he laughs.

What's in the boot of the SL250?


The boot of the SL250 contains a spare tyre, a car cover, and many other items. PHOTO: WONG KAI YI

- Spare tyre

- Car cover

- Old headlamps which were recently replaced

- Old headlamp chrome trim pieces

- Original Mercedes-Benz car jack