Mr Khoo is a lively man, despite being 89 years old. He’s experienced his home town transforming from a trade centre into a booming tiger economy. And he can tell many a story about it, too. For most of his life – 62 years to be precise – his family has owned a cream-coloured Mercedes-Benz which has accompanied them through all of the various changes that have taken place around them: initially, his father drove the vehicle, then for several years he drove it himself and meanwhile, his son now also drives the car. Before being able to take a ride back in time, Khoo Yeow Khim wants to show his visitors the new face of Singapore. Time to get out, then change to another mode of transport before climbing high up into the sky.
The bustle and the shoppers with all their many bags stay well and truly on the ground while the lift shoots almost 200 metres into the air. When the doors open on the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands Resort, visitors have the whole city-state at their feet. At sunset, it makes for an amazing panoramic view: on one side is the sea, where tankers and freight vessels wait to enter the port, flashing like glow-worms; on the other, huge trees are illuminated by a light show in the Gardens by the Bay park.
Further away, the Fountain of Wealth bubbles incessantly. The wealth for which it stands has led to skyscrapers of immense proportions growing high into the clouds. As night starts to fall, they almost magically become showcases of dark and light, in turn transforming the streets around them into pulsating veins and arteries. The next morning, Khoo Yeow Khim invites us to join him on a journey through time into historical Singapore. To avoid the traffic, he sets off early in the morning in the direction of Chinatown, passing through the old colonial centre as he goes.
“Here you can see the Raffles Hotel from the nineteenth century,” says Khoo Yeow Khim and as we pass, he points to the whitewashed legend from colonial times. “It is named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded the first British settlement in Singapore.” On the other side of the brackish Singapore River, where the broad boulevards tighten up into narrow streets, Mr Khoo’s face looks blissful: the quarter with its thin shop-houses and their colourful façades shining in the morning sun is where he used to live. He was born in Stanley Street and, like many traders of Chinese descent, his father ran the food store just around the corner in South Canal Road: “It was the beating heart of the town.”
“Other boys were out catching spiders and climbing trees – but for me, cars were much more interesting,” he explains, recalling his childhood. So it is quite logical then that he studied automotive engineering in England and later worked for thirty years in customer service at the Cycle & Carriage Mercedes-Benz importer. More than twenty different models bearing the three-pointed star have stood in the Khoo family’s garage over the decades. Currently, there are four in Singapore and four in London: classics, young classics and current models. But the old love started with the 220 model from 1955. “At the time, the nicest taxis in Singapore came from Germany. The first Mercedes-Benz with self-supporting body in ‘Ponton’ shape, the 180 model from the W 120 series, was an immediate hit in the town.”
It offered lots of space inside and taxi drivers loved the low fuel consumption of the diesel version. Khoo Yeow Khim saw the larger 220 model with six cylinders and 2.2 litres displacement as the perfect car for his father, who was a rice trader. He even convinced him to invest a further 90 dollars on top of the purchase price of 11,950 Malaya and British Borneo dollars – the currency of the then British Crown Colonies – in order to have the vehicle equipped with fine whitewall tyres.
“The Ponton wasn’t just the prized possession of my father, but it was also my baby: from day one I looked after the car,” explains Khoo Yeow Khim. The neighbours soon got used to the hustle and bustle in front of our house at all hours of the day – the car had to be carefully washed before every journey. When Khoo married in 1967, the Ponton was the natural choice as the wedding car. “I was lucky – the weather was good,” his wife Irene Kuok says jokingly. “When rain was forecast, our dates always ended immediately: the car had to be put back into the garage.”
The “Grand Ponton” has become a family heirloom. Upon his father’s death in 1984, Khoo Yeow Khim inherited the precious Mercedes. Today, it is the family’s third generation which looks after the vehicle – his 46-year-old son Khoo Kay Hong. The car is a true gem and with just 90,000 miles on the clock, it’s only just about been run in. What’s more, it also drove him and his fiancée Ran to their wedding, and even the family’s fourth generation in the form of his daughter Vera, born in 2015, has developed a true affection towards the old Mercedes-Benz. The car is laden with personal history, and so lending it to other couples for weddings doesn’t come into question for the Khoo family: the automobile stays in the family – partly also because it has a mind of its own and sometimes doesn’t start if outsiders try to turn the key.
Khoo Yeow Khim’s car is quite probably the last of its kind in Singapore – and it makes for a very expensive hobby. Just as with any other vehicle, he requires an official entitlement to drive the historic Mercedes-Benz. This needs to be renewed every ten years and meanwhile costs upwards of 48,000 Singapore dollars – corresponding to almost 32,000 euros. And that doesn’t include vehicle tax, insurance and road-use fees. Deregistering the aged saloon and leaving it parked in a garage is also not an option – this is forbidden in Singapore.
It would technically be possible to register the vehicle as a classic and pay just ten percent of the entitlement fee. However, the flip side of that would be that it could then only be used for 45 days of the year, which could work out fine. But classic cars get issued with a new red-and-yellow striped registration plate. “No way – I’m not changing anything,” says Khoo Yeow Khim. “That might bring bad luck.” The current registration number, which has been on the vehicle for 62 years, is “S 96.” “S” stands for Singapore, and “96” is an extremely desirable combination of two Chinese lucky numbers.
Mercedes-Benz 220/220 S/220 SE W180/ W 128 (1954 - 1959)