Two days ago, the sky was pouring over Bangkok, the streets were steaming, the highways were flooded. The tuk-tuk drivers sought shelter under the bridges, the cookshops between Chinatown and the party district of Sukhumvit hid under tarpaulins. Not very good conditions in which to drive perfectly restored classics. Bangkok can turn into a tropical witch’s cauldron in a flash at this time of year. Rare cars are therefore now better off in the garage, well-protected from the hot monsoon air.
Well, unless your name is Kristy or Sayam Sethaputra – and you can’t keep your hands off the steering wheels of fantastically beautiful cars. The two stand in front of a veritable parade of classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles that would already pass for showpieces at European car shows – but are something of a miracle in faraway Thailand.
Kristy and Sayam, who is club president, pat their cars and stride from one to the other. The two call ten classics with a star their own. There is the bright blue 280 SL “Pagoda” from 1971. The 170 V, built in 1938. There is the 320 Cabriolet A, built in 1939. The cars gleam as if they had just received the final polish from the factory before their first delivery. Kristy, 47, says: “These, I’ll have you know, are all my darlings.”
Her husband Sayam, 56, looks visibly proud of his no less impressive fleet of vehicles. In front of him are – among others – a 280 SE Coupé from 1969, a 190 “Fintail” from the early 1960s and a 190 SL from 1957. The roadster is painted in Light Ivory and has gleaming chrome and a red interior. “Everything about the car is original,” says Sayam. The seats are finished in red MB-Tex, the chrome parts and the entire instrument panel are in first-day condition. Even the soft top is still in top condition.
The cars seem to float above things, decoupled from all epochal currents. The temptation to sit down on the spot in one of the dream cars and step on the accelerator is great, regardless of the scorching temperatures outside. Kristy and Sayam check the weather app. “The next few days will be nice,” she says. Blessings instead of rain. A spontaneous joyride is promptly convened. And off we go: an adventurous trip in a class of its own is in store – right into the heart of sizzling Bangkok. The two sit in their roadsters – she in the blue “Pagoda”, he in the 190 SL – and steer through Rattanakosin Island, Bangkok’s old town. The temple Wat Pho and the mint-green park of Sanam Luang pass by. Taxis honk, mopeds cut through the chaos. The two classics glide through the hot backdrop like time machines. The soundtrack: a guttural bubbling against the backdrop of buzzing Thailand. Kristy and Sayam enjoy the ride as if there is not much going on around them. They’ve seen this before: when people stop at the side of the road as if enchanted, when motorcyclists pull out their mobile phones at full speed to take photos of the time-honoured cars.
Kristy and Sayam navigate their gems through a candy-coloured Bangkok. The two are something of an automotive dream team. A duo fantastico when it comes to classics – and probably a unique constellation in the world. Kristy’s father had come to Thailand from the USA in the 1960s and collected Mercedes-Benz cars from an early age. Kristy drove to school in a 107 series, looked over her father’s shoulder as a teenager restoring historic cars. She never got rid of her soft spot for the classics with a star. Then she inherited her father’s entire collection. She met Sayam at a car show when she was 23. At the meeting, the two were the youngest participants. Sayam, also introduced to the world of classics by his father, was leaning next to his car, Kristy’s was parked just a few metres away. That’s how they got into conversation. And something like this must have happened: “What? You drive a Mercedes, too?” “Yes, for a long time.” “What? You have several more of these cars?” “Yes, for a long time.” “How come we are just meeting now?” “Good question!”
It was not flirting. More like a chemical reaction. They are both pretty sure about that. Three years later came the wedding. Kristy still remembers the honeymoon that took them to London and France: “We went looking for parts for our cars in Europe, and on the flight back there were chrome trims and cylinder head gaskets for the 280 SL roadster in my handbag.” Soon after, their two children Tyna and Ty were born. And their shared fondness for beautiful old cars also continued to grow.
Fifteen years ago, Sayam founded the Mercedes-Benz Club Thailand and has served as president ever since. As a management consultant and operator of a security company, he and Kristy have a lot to do. But the cars play first fiddle whenever possible.
On we go through Bangkok. Coconut stalls, markets full of people and skyscrapers pass by. Crossroads at their best. All this in front of the skyline of the metropolis with a population of twelve million– which spreads hypnotically in all directions.
The two stop in front of a cookshop in Ekkamai District in the evening. Steaming pots, bubbling tin pans. Rice sacks and spice bags stand in the corners, neon lights glow under stuttering fans. A completely normal snack bar, one would think. And that would be completely wrong. The crooked street restaurant Wattana Panich has existed for 110 years, is one of the top food locations in Asia and has already been awarded a Michelin star twice. Typical Bangkok. A city like a bag of tricks. Inscrutable. Magical. Next stop at a noodle shop: Kristy and Sayam choose noodles and beef stew. And have lots to say. The topic at the table: cars! How Kristy’s father used to desperately want a “Pagoda” with a gearshift system – a definite rarity in Asia. The father searched for years and worldwide. In vain. Then one day, he and Kristy were walking down the street behind their house and saw a car parked at an abandoned petrol station. Not just any car: it was exactly the “Pagoda” they were looking for, built in 1971 – and with gears! The owner was willing to sell, on one condition: one million baht, cash, and that very evening. Kristy remembers: “Three exciting hours later, we picked up the jewel.”
They found another car near Buenos Aires after ten years of detective work: the elegant 320 Cabriolet A. The car needed a total refurbishment – but was irresistible. They had the cabriolet shipped to Los Angeles, then to Germany. Via detours and neatly dismantled, the classic finally came to Thailand. Sayam: “It’s a real project, but we still have a lot of work to do on it. Will the car really drive on the roads again one day?” The two look into each other’s eyes. “Of course!” she says. “And then there will be a gigantic party!”
The next morning. Kristy and Sayam have already spread the word through the grapevine: a few friends want to join us with their cars and go for a ride as well. In front of a boutique hotel stands its operator Montri Jitjaruk, 64, who owns four classic Mercedes, including a 500 SEL in gold. His two daughters are also there, Frayya, 20, and Fairy, 26. In Thailand, too, the passion for classic cars has long since been passed on to the younger generation and it is considered highly chic to drive an old car as a young person. And an old Mercedes-Benz is the top of the line.
Sayam’s nephew Seth, 27, also joins them. He also drives a “Pagoda”, studied law and actually wanted to work as a lawyer in Bangkok. But Seth quit, preferring to open a paint shop for classic cars. Friends and club members are now his customers. And Seth’s life motto comes from the heart: “I’d rather paint dreamy cars than sit in front of dust-dry paragraphs!”
And then this gentleman turns the corner. He sits in a copper-coloured 280 SE Coupé from 1969, although strictly speaking he comes with no less than three drop-dead gorgeous cars. Two more cars are also involved, and the gentleman jumps from one to the other. May I introduce: a black 300 SL “Gullwing” and a 300 SL roadster in the colour Ivory. Years built: 1954 and 1957. The cars look like hallucinations come true. A Streetcar Named Desire. And on the white cushions, in turquoise ankle boots, with a cowboy belt and yellow striped jacket, he sits: probably one of Thailand’s most enigmatic and well-known personalities. His name: Sawasdi Horrungruang, 82.
His parents had once come to Thailand from China – and things took off for their son. Mister Horrungruang became a steel tycoon, a real estate mogul, a successful multi-entrepreneur who even helped build Thailand’s Silicone Valley. When asked how many cars he owns, he answers with a smile: “Around 160, all classics, including at least 20 Mercedes-Benz.” Sixty of his cars are always ready for use, he says, and 40 drivers and mechanics look after them.
Sawasdi Horrungruang climbs into his flashy coupé and hits the gas. He is a grand seigneur of joie de vivre. The classics continue to navigate through Bangkok. Past the Democracy Monument, through the colourful Khaosan. They continue along Dinso Road, where Bangkok’s first official Mercedes-Benz dealership opened in the 1950s. The special relationship between Stuttgart and Thailand, however, began long before: the first vehicle with the star was delivered to the King of Siam in 1904.
Kristy, Sayam and the others cruise on. On and over the Rama VIII Bridge, a mighty cable-stayed bridge that crosses the Chao Phraya River. Then China Town comes into view. Neon signs flash, people scurry in front of shops and street stalls with pans full of sizzling delicacies.
Another highlight follows in the evening, this time literally. The cars are parked low down in front of the 250-metre-high State Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Asia. On the 54th floor, blue illuminated stairs lead even higher. Then you step outside, walk over glass to an open lounge, situated in the middle of the sky above Bangkok.
In the Sky Bar of the Lebua Hotel, you sit under palm trees and enjoy the sound of water features babbling in the background while smooth jazz fills the air. A dozen more club members have arrived. There are cool drinks as the sun goes purple over the city. Bangkok now resembles an ocean of sparkling jewels, while in the sky the night firmament spreads out like a fine crackle. Kristy, Sayam and all the others, however, once again only know one big theme that unites them all: not the twinkling stars on the firmament, but the ones on the road!