Restoring a rustbucket

TV host Steven Chia is restoring his 1971 Mercedes 200, which had been corroded by rust.
TV host Steven Chia is restoring his 1971 Mercedes 200, which had been corroded by rust.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Oxidation does not colour TV host Steven Chia's feelings for his 1971 Mercedes 200

A broomstick may be an odd thing to find in a car's boot, but there is a good reason why Steven Chia, the affable host of current affairs TV programme Talking Point, carries one around.

The steering column-mounted gearshift on his trusty 1971 Mercedes 200 sometimes gets jammed in second gear. The solution, as Chia has discovered in his 17 years as the car's owner, is to lift the bonnet and prod the gear linkage with a stick to set it free.

In fact, the contents of the boot are testament to the car's many foibles. Apart from that broomstick, there are jumper cables to deal with a flat battery, a big bottle of water in case of overheating, a tool box for basic repairs and a breakdown triangle.

Mr Chia, 43, is sanguine about these occasional troubles, which he treats as par for the course when living with a car older than himself. He is nothing if not loyal, having used this car as his daily drive since it was handed down to him by a kindly uncle in 1998, shortly after he returned from university in Vancouver.

Over the years, he has become pretty handy at dealing with the car's gremlins. In wet weather, electrical problems sometimes surface, such as the indicators or radio acting up. These are likely due to the car's ancient wiring and can be waited out - once the car dries, everything comes back to life.

And the engine has a tendency to overheat in traffic jams, but this can be mitigated by switching off the air-conditioning.


  • • Broomstick

    • Jumper cables

    • Bottle of water

    • Toolbox

"This car has actually helped me slow down my pace of life," Chia says. "Simply because it's not a car that's suitable for rushing around.

"When I worked the early morning shift, the drive to work at 4.30am was awesome. The empty roads, the cool breeze... I'd drive with the window down and play some jazz on the stereo. It was a great way to start my day."

That said, the car has been in the workshop for the past three months, to deal with the one problem that will not go away - rust. In recent years, Chia found that the floorboards, sills, bulkheads and body panels had all started to corrode badly. When it rains, the car is as watertight as a wicker basket.

Water would drip into the footwells and onto Chia's shoes. It would also collect in the boot, soaking the contents.

And mould grew on the rooflining because of the constant dampness. It got to the point that, rather alarmingly, Chia resorted to enlarging the existing rustholes in the floorboard just to let the water drain out.

So, the Merc is now undergoing a complete stripdown and rebuild, with the corroded chassis areas being cut out and replaced with new metalwork.

Parts for a 44-year-old car are understandably hard to come by, but Chia spent countless hours online scouring forums and specialist sites for used or re-manufactured components.

When the restoration is completed, the car will have four new doors, new rubber seals and trim all round, and shiny new chrome strips along its flanks, along with a pristine white paint job.

Chia, who is driving an old Subaru Forester now, is looking forward to the day he gets his beloved Merc back, hopefully as good as new. He will continue to use it daily and revel in its roomy cabin, retro style and the appreciative glances he and the car draw wherever they go.

So, if you happen to see someone standing at the roadside by an old white Merc, broomstick in hand, that would be Chia. Or maybe not, if the restoration project goes well.

•The writer is a regular contributor to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2015, with the headline 'Me And My Car Restoring a rustbucket'. Print Edition | Subscribe