Of Rice and Men: Car Culture In The Philippines

After coming back from a long vacation in my old homeland of the Philippines a few months back I promised I'd write a post about car culture over there. It's a bit overdue thanks to the ongoing saga of my R32 as well as other stuff but finally here it is.

Most Filipinos are interested in cars to a certain degree and car culture over there actually bears a lot of similarities to here in the US because of the American influence from the years when the US controlled the country. People like certain brands, there are car clubs and car shows, and driving is seen as a vital and liberating privilege.

One of the main differences of course versus the US is an overwhelming emphasis on Japanese imports instead of American cars because Japan is much nearer geographically, plus the US car companies all pulled out of the country back in the '80s because of the political climate. 

The Philippines is a melting pot of cultures, including car culture.

You'll see everything from this crazy R32 drift car with sidepipe...

...(it's even left-hand drive converted!)...

...to the silly...

...to the indigenous...

...to the simple...

...to the OMGWTFBBQ!?!

The dominance of the Japanese is being heavily challenged now though because the American Big Three have all come back since the late '90s and Fords and Chevys are now a common sight with Chrysler products more rare but still not unheard of. You also get some brands that we don't get here in the US like French carmaker Peugeot who's recently begun trying to make inroads in the local market. And then there are the Chinese brands like Geely, Chery, and Foton – though the impression of their products in the Philippines is generally the same as what Hyundai and Kia used to have here in the US: better than catching Ebola but not by much. Isuzu and Suzuki may be dead and buried here in the States but they're very much alive and well in the Philippines where frugal transportation is more prized than here in the land of the Big Mac. And would you believe there's a Morgan dealership in the Philippines? Yeah, that stodgy British brand that still makes its cars out of dead trees has a sales office there; though I've never once seen a Morgan on Philippine roads so maybe it's just a front for a macaroon smuggling racket or something.
One of the local Peugeot dealerships - complete with handy dandy pronunciation guide

Your eyes don't fool you. That's a Morgan dealership with a Chinese-built MG in front - with the Union Jack on the roof.

You also have swanky dealerships for exotic and luxury brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Audi, BMW, and so on. Too bad the average Filipino can barely afford a decent car in the first place. And that's probably the one thing that most influences Philippine car culture – economics.

Pardon me, is this the Baller Building?

The Philippine economy may be healthy enough to rank 39th in the world, ahead of seemingly more well-off countries like Finland, Portugal, and Qatar, but the problem is that that money has to be split among a lot more people than in those places. So while there are some ultra-rich families and a decent middle class, the average Filipino earns much less than his equivalent counterpart here in the US – think one-sixth the income. The situation has improved over the years but it still has a long way to go before matching more developed countries.

Despite salaries that are a fraction of American wages, prices for complex manufactured goods like cars are pretty similar to US rates. Because of that the perception of cars is very different compared to here.

First of all, the car is still very much a status symbol. While here in the US we pretty much take having a car for granted nowadays and expensive cars are pretty common, in the Philippines having any sort of non-decrepit car shows you or your family are at least somewhat well off. For many Filipino males just having a car exponentially increases your “pogi points” - basically a guy's appeal to the fairer sex (which is usually assessed by the guys themselves so it's essentially bullshit). Materialistic as it may sound, the opposite sex pays a lot more attention to the car you drive than over here simply because it's an indicator you have a decent income in a country where lots of people still struggle for basic needs. Yup, in the Philippines cars do increase your ability to mate.

 A unique sporty car like this 240SX is a total sex machine in the Philippines

To paint the picture a bit clearer about how the perception of cars over there is different in terms of someone's personal wealth – a Toyota Camry is considered a luxury car there. Yes, a f*cking Camry is a luxury car – because when a new Mazda2 or a well-kept 5-year old 1.8 liter Civic is a BIG DEAL for the typical family even something as average as a new Camry can seem pretty bad-ass. Granted we're talking about a V6-powered, leather-swathed, fully-loaded Camry but it's still the same king of the beigemobiles we see over here. If you happen to drive something even fancier like a sports car or a big Mercedes, don't be surprised if people wonder if you're a celebrity, business tycoon, or drug dealer – or all three.

That's assuming you even drive your own vehicle. Because wages are so low most families with any means opt to hire a driver to schlep them around. Although I still drive from time to time when I'm back there even I leave most of it to the family driver because of the traffic in the big cities. City driving in the Philippines is just like driving in L.A. or New York, if those cities were inhabited exclusively by lawless maniacs auditioning for another Mad Max sequel. It's definitely not for the faint of heart.

It may seem like blasphemy for a gearhead to want to be driven around but I think you'd understand when traffic gets this bad.

And having a driver lets you enjoy the scenery...err...

...yes, the scenery...this is what I meant!

Yep, scenery. The Philippines is very pretty away from the madhouse of the cities.

A lot of younger males and females view driving as a point of pride though. It's often seen as a rite of passage and because having a car is a big deal people love to individualize their vehicles. It's rare to see two cars that are exactly alike – even common models – because usually they'll have aftermarket wheels, stickers, enough chrome accessories to empty all the Pep Boys in the USA, or whatever other gewgaw their owner's taste (or lack of it) finds appealing. Usually the customization is just aesthetic – true performance mods are relatively uncommon and are usually limited to simple stuff like exhausts and intakes because of the costs involved.

Rice is a staple food in the Philippines and unfortunately it's a staple in the car culture too. Because Filipinos love to have a unique and flashy car even the car manufacturers offer models that are pre-riced. Witness this Mugen CR-Z that is the same as a regular CR-Z except it has a body kit imbued with 100% extra Fast-and-the-Furious-ness.

Dunno why but "lipstick on a pig" keeps coming to mind...

And if stickers gave you more horsepower, Filipinos would have all the drag-racing records in the world now. "Decalcomanic" isn't a real word but it sure describes the sticker-obsessed Filipino.

Even the exhaust tip has stickers - what is this I don't even...

Although most cars suffer from a bad case of rice, thankfully there are also a lot of more tastefully modded cars like this Honda Jazz (Fit here in the US) and Mitsubishi Lancer.

A little over the top by some standards but still better put together than most.

Just an average Lancer but relatively nicely modded.

Just like the US nowadays you'll see a lot of SUVs and pickups wandering the streets but unlike here where people usually buy them strictly for their image, in the Philippines there's also a heaping helping of practicality to the choice. Roads can get pretty bad from lack of maintenance so the meatier tires are useful while the higher ground clearance helps a lot when the typhoons come and make Katrina-ravaged New Orleans look like a neighborhood pool party. Over here your neighbor has a Hummer probably only because he wants to feel better about his small weenus - in the Philippines, it's because he has a small weenus AND because it's safer for taking the kids to school in the rainy season than a Zodiac RIB.

THAT is a knock-off Humvee - it may even have been made by the same "artisans" that made the jeepney going the other way lol.
Most people though prefer to buy SUVs that are not cheap replicas of clunky military hardware, like our family's Mitsubishi Montero Sport.

Even trucks can't escape the rice. Overdoing it like this is pretty common sadly.

What you won't see a lot of in the Philippines are well-preserved old cars. Most people don't want the hassle of maintaining an older car or the perception that comes with it that you can't afford a nice new one. There's a growing subculture though of people interested in older cars so occasionally you do see them, like this nicely-maintained '80's Lancer that I found.

Found this very well-kept Lancer in Banawe - the car accessory capital of Manila...

...along with this amusing Piaggio Ape.

Despite all these differences one thing the Filipino gearhead shares with his brethren in other countries is passion. Even with a lot more limited budget Filipinos are just as proud of their babies as anyone else. While I was back there in July I met the publisher of Power Wheels, one of the local car mags, and for three straight hours we talked about cars (with about 30 minutes of girls, firearms, and motorcycles mixed in) just like any other pair of car enthusiasts would. During that time he showed me one of his babies, an electric blue 1977 Mitsubishi Celeste – known as the Plymouth Fire Arrow over here in the US. He had just gotten it recently and the previous owner had put on some questionable mods but it was a beloved car from his childhood, as it was for me. My dad, who I inherited my gearhead genes from once owned an apple green version of this same car and all of my family still have a soft spot for the Celeste. We've even toyed with the idea of tracking my dad's old one down again. 

A neglected classic in the process of restoration...like my Skyline :)

In any case, there I was in an apartment tower's parking garage giving a fellow petrolhead's project car a good once over, just like I've done in the US with any number of other cars of all origins and state of repair. Even thousands of miles apart, some things just don't change.

 I hope you enjoyed this little look into another country's car culture. Feel free to leave comments on foreign lands you may have visited and I'll try to share some more writing and pictures after future travels.


Here are some more photos that didn't quite fit in the article:

The Philippines has some great driving roads like this one in the north.

This is another example from near the capital Manila.

Some roads get pretty horrible though thanks to the heavy rains.

Tourists often get driven around in tour vans like this Toyota Hiace

Or you can opt for something more local like this tricycle...

...or be like this chap and go totally native by riding on the back of a traditional jeepney.

Public transport is usually gaily decorated. Emphasis on gaily.
A typical auto accessories store in Banawe...

Source of your typical ricemobile like this one...

Or this ketchup-and-mustard monstrosity.

Thankfully some people have a measure of restraint.


  1. Thank you for your share about the different country's auto culture. It is interesting.


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