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Classic Car spotting off the North-South Highway

By Rigval on 23 Sep 2010

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Ever since the North-South Highway in Malaysia opened (officially) in 1994 almost everyone started using it in order to travel the whole length of Malaysia. The highway, also known as the PLUS Highway, has to date acted as the backbone of all Peninsular Malaysia road travel as it stretches all the way from Johor Bahru in the South and to Bukit Kayu Hitam at the North. This has enabled a lot of motorists to travel all the way from Johor/Singapore all the way to Thailand in around 8 hours or so instead of something like double the amount. However, while most have forgotten the old and trusty Federal Route 1 I have not, and off the beaten track is where we can see some gems along the way up North.

I recently happened to be in and around Bagan Serai, Perak during the recent Eid ul Fitr (or 'Hari Raya Aidil Fitri' in Malay) celebrations. This is a small town located at the Northen end of Perak and about 45minutes from Penang, a favourite holiday destination for some of you readers. If you took the North South Highway, you would have to exit at the Kamunting/Taiping Utara exit and turn left (into Route 1) after making payment at the toll booth. A short 20 or so minute drive and you would end up in the small town of Bagan Serai.

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There is actually nothing much to see actually as it is a quaint small town. You would notice that the surrounding area is filled with padi fields, behind coconut trees and traditional Malay houses (most still built on stilts). The roads are lined on either sides with man made water channels or canals. These canals are quite a sight throughout the drive and lines Route 1 all the way from Simpang, Taiping all the way to Parit Buntar, located at the border of Perak and Penang.

The roads around here are full of undulations and sometimes, pot holed as the soil is soft due to the water (and canals). So if you intend to drive up North and intend to use this old road, it would be wise to keep an eye out and travel at a sensible speed while doing so as aside from potholes or the undulating road, villages may pop out from junctions and houses that line the road. But you do get good scenery and the drive isn't boring or monotonous like how you feel on the highway.

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In fact, this road trip I took consisted of yours truly exiting the Highway after Tanjung Malim and using the old road most of the way to get to this small town. And the traffic was even less than expected. With overtaking lanes (pictured above) in most sections of the route these days and the scenic Malaysian countryside, things on the old route was even more interesting and travel was faster than expected. There were curves and bends, interesting houses and small towns that will grab your attention instead of a long, straight, empty (most of the time) highway that we're so used to traveling on during trips in and around Malaysia.

Now let me get to a car related gem of this article, aside from the stupendous drive that is. In that small town there is a used car dealership. I suppose business must be slow as the dealership's fencing was covered with creepers, vines and tall grass. I also happen to know that the business is still running as a few months ago I happened to pass by on the way to Penang and there was an Alfa 145 then and now there were two more cars in the compound.

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This time there were a few classic cars around. This was amazing. A small town in the middle of Malaysia had some motoring gems on display (and for sale). The first was a Suzuki Jimny hardtop that predated the SJ410. This little Suzy looked like a mini Willys Jeep. You don't see a 1970s Jimny in pretty good condition these days. I suppose it is still powered by its diminutive 1.0liter engine. Quite a surprising little machine. Not a serious off road machine, but it must have spent lots of its time in the rubber and oil palm plantations in Perak before this.

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The second was a pretty good conditioned first generation Mazda MX5 Miata in aftermarket yellow paint and rims. As most of us know, the Miata is one of the best traditional British sports car never made by the British. It was that good. Handled and felt like a modern day original Lotus Elan from the 1960s. The Miata was a car so totally loved by British motoring journalists as it handled well and brought the word fun back into affordable open top motoring. Seeing one here in a small town is pretty unusual, as most never leave the larger Malaysian towns due to demand there. The only sports or classic cars that we usually see in smaller towns like these are the older, more traditional MGBs, older Mercedes Benzes or quirky British and Italian cars from the 1960s and 1970s.

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This brings me to the best car on sale in that dealership in the middle of nowhere. A 1950/60s Fiat 500. This cute little car that is revered by most people as a design and style icon. This little car is pretty rare almost everywhere in Malaysia and in this region. I suppose there are only a handful of surviving examples running around and this little fella here is one of them. A two cylinder 479/599cc engine powers it and it somehow can manage to carry four people (including the driver). Most are aware that this car was recently revived in the 500 Nuova form we see today. Although it is a much larger car than what it was. Something like the BMW Mini of today.

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This is what most of us miss out when we travel off the beaten track. The opportunity to spot a few hidden gems. Sights like these are almost never to be found on the highways.

Malaysia, travel, motoring and 4 more...

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Written by Rigval
Born in 1972. Married with a kid. Loves B-road drives and have driven cars from the 1950s to date.

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