| The first
motor car was believed to have been imported by foreigner and to have
excited immediate interest among both Thai and foreign members of the
Bangkok community. Its make is not known but it was described in some
detail in correspondence between two of Thailand's most famous princes,
Somdej Chaopha Krom Phraya Narisranuwadtiwongse and Somdej Krom Phraya
In 1915, Prince Naris wrote in his
letter noted that the vehicle had a body like a steamroller set on solid
rubber tyres and topped off by a flat roof. A two-seater, it was fuelled
by petroleum oil and its headlights resembled gas lamps. As with most
early cars, its engine was sufficient to propel it at speed along level
ground but lacked the power to climb arched bridges.
Shortly after its arrival, the foreigner
sold his car to Field Marshal Chao Phraya Surasak Montri (Cherm Sang-Chooto)
who thus had the distinction of being the first Thai to inaugurate the
motor age in Thailand. He was a forward-looking man who, like many in
his family, was fascinated by mechanical devices and kept a close eye
on new inventions and technological advance, buying a wide variety of
new gadgets as they appeared on the market.
Field Marshal Chao Phraya Surasak Montri
In Prince Naris's letter recalled that when Chao
Phraya Surasak first purchased his car he was unable to drive it, primarily
because the shifting mechanism was a bit stiff. He therefore turned to
his mechanically-inclined brother, Phraya Anutoot(Kem Sang-Chooto) for
help. He was the first Thai Skilled at installing electrical wiring and
the first to work in England, who then became the first Thai to drive
a motor car in Thailand.
Chao Phraya Surasak's car had a long
life on Bangkok's streets but came to somewhat ignominious end. In 1928,
Prince Damrong asked Phraya Surasak for permission to display the car
in the new National Museum he was in the process of establishing.
Krom Luang Ratchaburi Direkridhi
Prince Surasak readily consented and
instructed Krom Luang Ratchaburi Direkridhi to take the car to the Corrections
Division for repairs. Unfortunately, Krom Luang Ratchaburi died before
the repairs were completed and some time lapsed before Prince Damrong
was able to follow up the matter. At the Corrections Division, he was
met first with consternation and then, once the workmen realized what
he was talking about, with rueful smiles. They led him to a corner where
in the dim light sat a heap of metal, the derelict skeleton of its former
glory that had been stripped by scrap mechants leaving behind virtually
nothing but a few unsalvageable pieces of rusting iron. In this manner
did the pioneer automobile end its days.
Thailand's Royal Family has always been
outward looking, seeking new knowledge in order to advance the country
and ensure it a place in the front ranks of progressive nations. Thailand's
kings were welcoming new scientific knowledge they knew would change
their lives for the better.
King Monkut (Rama IV) who reigned from 1815
to 1868 was an ardent astronomer whose study was filled with scientific
instruments and who corresponded regularly with learned men of Europe.
King Mongkut's son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who reigned from 1868
to 1910 and his many brothers were no less mechanically inclined. In
1884, the King commanded that electricity be installed to light the
palace and, in 1897, the city. In 1893, Danish engineers were commissioned
to install an electric tram system in Bangkok, 10 years before Cophenhangen
had an electric tram line of its own and was the first country in Asia
to have electric tram system.
The King also sent his dozens of sons and princes
into the industrial countries of the West to absorb their knowledge
and return to Thailand to impart it to others. In this way, Thailand
would later become one of the first countries to enter the Air Age.
Skilled in the air and on the sea, it is little wonder that Thais were
among the first to adopt the car enthusiastically, nor that princes
were at the forefront of the vehicular revolution in Thailand.
In 1904, a grand total of three cars were cruising
Bangkok's streets. Unfortunately, there is no record of their makes
or owners. In the same year, one of King Chulalongkorn's sons, Krom
Luang Ratchaburi Direkridhi, traveled to Paris for medical treatment.
While there, he ordered a Daimler-Benz, regarded as the epitome of automobile
excellence. He made his purchase from the German manufacturer's French
agent, M. Emile Jellinek whose daughter's name "Mercedes" would one
day replace "Daimler" to give the world the "Mercedes-Benz".
On his return to Thailand later in the year, the Prince
presented the car to King Chulalongkorn, making it the first of a long
line of superior automobiles owned by the Royal Family. The Prince graciously
consented to be its chauffeur. The King quickly grew to enjoy travelling
by motor car preferring its convenience and speed to that of horse-drawn
carriages. In his leisure moments, he would instruct Prince Ratchaburi
to take him and members of his family on long tours of the city. He
soon found his relatives clamouring to go with him at every opportunity,
more than could possibly fit into a single vehicle. He thereupon decided
to buy a second car.
Once again, Prince Ratchaburi chose a Mercede-Benz,
this time imported directly from Germany. The 1905 Mercedes he selected
was a four-cylinder 28HP model capable of speeds up to 73km/hr quite
considerable in those days. Painted in a bright red with the silver
gleam of chrome trim, it seemed the perfect vehicle to convey a Thai
monarch to his various appointments.
After a few weeks of preparation, the car was presented
to the King. His Majesty stepped into it, took a short drive, and declared
himself pleased with it. He even gave it a name "Kaew Chakrapat", It
continued to give him satisfactory service for several years thereafter.
His Majesty was not the only one whose imagination
had been caught by the car craze. Others had contracted the fever for
the numbers of automobiles began increasing at a rapid rate. The local
motor car population had grown so large that the King felt a celebration
was warranted. Near the end of the rainy season, the Palace announced
that on Saturday, October 7, 1905, "by special command of His Majesty
the King, a motor car meet will be held, the first of its kind in Bangkok".
In all, 98 cars, including 12 cars that belonged to the Royal collections,
assembled at the Grand Palace where their owners were greeted by His
The question arises of where these early motorists
drove their vehicles. Until 1863, Bangkok had only dirt paths, trodden
(and probably firmly compacted) by elephants. In response to this problem,
King Mongkut in 1863 decreed the construction of New Road, the first
macadamized road in the city. It began at the palace wall, and ran 6.5
kilometers along the river to end at Tanon Tok and Bangkolem where many
foreign residents had their homes. Road building progressed little beyond
that in the next 30 years. By 1892, there were still only 12 kilometers
in all though some of the thoroughfares were over 20 meters wide and
were bordered by footpaths and drains.
Within 15 years, the situation was much improved,
spurred in large part by the introduction of the motor car. It would
be a decade before macadamized roads led out of the city and not until
1932 that the first bridge would be built to span the Chao Phraya River.
Long distance travel was also curtailed by the lack of petrol pumps
outside the city center. Despite that, they still purchased new cars.
In 1908, on the occasion of his 56th birthday, King
Chulalongkorn ordered motor cars as presents for his relatives and for
high-ranking government officials, the latter vehicles to be used in
government service. Once again, he called upon Prince Ratchaburi who
subsequently ordered 10 cars from France. As with those already in the
Royal Stables, His Majesty gave each new car a name, much in the manner
that white elephants considered symbols of the monarch's status and
wealth, were named and honoured. When one spoke of one of His Majesty's
cars, he mentioned only the name. Among the handsome names given to
the cars were: Kaew Chakrapat, Maneerattana, Tadmarut, Iyarapote, Kang-han,
Rachanuyanta, Sala saluay, Krasuaythong, Lamlongthap, Parpayon, Kolkambang,
With so many new additions to the Royal Collection, it became
necessary to train a host of new drivers. His Majesty selected the brightest
boys from ranks of his royal pages and gave instructions they were to
be trained. The role of instructor was, oddly, given to woman, Princess
Pim Rampai. Prince Ratchaburi's daughter. The Princess is one of the
best drivers in the Royal family.
In 1908, the Kingdom dressed up in its
finest to celebrate a unique occasion: King Chulalongkorn's 40th year
on the throne of Thailand then the longest reign in Thai history. Town
and building were specially lighted and decorated. Of course, there
had to be a car cavalcade as well. For the parade, each car owner decorated
his vehicle to resemble a mythical animal or hero.
HM King Chulalongkorn in his motor car
In 1909, King Chulalongkorn was obliged to decree
the first Motor Car Registration Act to go into effect the following
year. Owners were required to register their vehicles with the Ministry
of Interior and to pay fee.
Motor car registration during King Rama V
The opening of yet another car dealership,
sough to cash in on the hordes of eager buyers. A ride through town
would have taken one past shops sporting signs such as these:
G.R. Andre, situated at Sikak Pharayasri, the agent for
the Adam Opel of Ruesselsheim. Bangkok Trust Ltd., in Yanawa was the
agent for motor cars made by the Armstrong Siddeley, Silent Knight and
Fork and for the Star Store trucks and buses. The company maintained
Thailand's largest garage. Comptoir Francais du Siem, on Si Phya Road
handled a number of French makes. John M. Dunlop, was the agent for
the General Motors Company of America. S.A.B., on New Road sold Ble'riot
cars and had its own garage to repair. Siam Import Company, was the
agent for Napier cars, Peugeot was handled exclusively by Siam Forest
Trust Ltd (later changed to BaraWinsor) was the agent for the four-cylinder,
18HP Gagenau produced by Suddeutsche Automobil-Fabrik.
The Golden Age of Motoring in Thailand dates from
the period of HM King Prajadipok (Rama VII) who reign from 1926-1935.
During this period, a large number of cars were added to the Royal Collection.
The hallmark of the Collection is that only the finest models of the
great marques were bought. Among the collections were: Rolls-Royce,
Avions Voisin ,Delage, Hispano-Suiza, Hotchkiss, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa-Romeo,
Pierce-Arrow and Cadillac.
Today there are million of motor vehicles
in Thailand. With the generous support from the past generations that
a vital segment of Thailand's recent history has been kept alive and
thriving, and act for which all Thais should be grateful.