Asia's Century on Wheels

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America may be the land of the automobile, but Asia too has gotten behind the wheel in the past 50 years. Carmaking lent muscle to Japan's remarkable postwar recovery, and across the region, the proliferation of shiny new vehicles has stood as a reflection of rising fortunes. Here are seven vehicles that have re-mapped the region's roads: THE AMBASSADORFew cars so clearly telegraph their country of origin as the venerable, lumpy Ambassador--independent India's chariot-of-choice for most of the past half-century. Based on the 1948 Morris Oxford--and stubbornly unchanged except for some cosmetic modifications over the years--the car affectionately known as the Amby has long been blasted as an icon of all that was wrong with Nehru's inward-looking and inefficient industrial policies. But over time the beast developed something of a following. Spacious and sturdy, with a comfortable backseat and compliant rear suspension, Ambassadors are well-suited to India's decrepit roads. With tougher environmental and safety legislation, however, their days may be numbered. TOYOTA COROLLAIts predecessor, the Corona, may have put Japan on the map as a global auto power, but the Corolla kept it there. Since introducing the tiny sedan in the early 1960s, Toyota has sold 20 million in Japan alone and another 20 million overseas. Despite a recent facelift that gave the car a funky, bug-eyed profile, it has never turned heads. But that very blandness has helped the Corolla cross borders, too: the car is now manufactured in dozens of countries and, from 2002, it will be Toyota's first car made in China--the ultimate mass car for what could one day be the ultimate mass market. ISUZU PICKUPNothing spoke to the pre-crisis boom in Thailand's fortunes as eloquently as the fleet of trucks plying Bangkok's smoggy streets and dusty, up-country roads. Newly rich Thais were smitten by the cheap running costs and all-around usefulness of diesel-powered, one-ton pickups: until last year, in fact, Thailand was the second-biggest pickup truck market in the world. Many would argue that the popularity of two pickups, by Isuzu and Toyota, sparked the series of big investments that turned Thailand into the Detroit of the East. The Isuzu alone claimed 18% of all sales, most of them ordered with extended cabs for dual use as haulers of people and goods, and now stands as a rugged icon in Southeast Asia's automotive landscape.PROTON WIRAWell before his Multimedia Super Corridor, Malaysia's ambitious Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pegged automobiles as one way to catapult his economy to the next level of development. Despite early sniggers (and with generous government assistance), his national car program eventually turned out the Proton Wira, a Corolla-sized model cloned from the Mitsubishi Lancer/Colt series of the early 1990s. About 85% of Wira production has been sold domestically. Yet the car remains among the 10 most popular in Asia, with more than 220,000 units sold between 1996 and '98. JEEPNEYAs much a national car as the Ambassador or the Proton, the jeepney has grown into a symbol of the Philippines--a vehicle as colorful and adaptable as the country itself. Jeepneys trace their roots back to the 1940s, when the U.S. Army left behind a number of Jeeps following the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation. These military vehicles had no real back seats, since the rear section was most often used to lug supplies or mount a machine gun. Ingenious Filipinos stretched the Jeep bodies to three or four times the original length and installed padded seats along each side. Before long, drivers began to individualize their steeds with fancy paint jobs and stainless-steel trim--to the point where the vehicles' origins have been almost entirely obscured. HONDA 50 SUPER CUBThose who can't afford to drive, ride. And across much of Southeast Asia and China, where the primary form of urban transport is by motorized two-wheeler, the name Honda has become a veritable synonym for motorcycle. When Soichiro Honda visited Europe in 1956 with his partner Takeo Fujisawa, they searched West German motorcycle showrooms for a gap in the market between the Lambretta scooter and larger, more powerful bikes. They hit upon a new type of commuter bike, the 50 Super Cub. Fujisawa was so confident it would be a hit that he set up an assembly plant--at the time the biggest bike factory in the world--in Suzuka, Japan to make 30,000 of them every month. By 1960 Honda was exporting 165,000 motorcycles a year. The 50 Super Cub was the mainstay of that business, and nearly four decades and 26 million sales later, it's still being produced in 11 countries. TUK-TUKA fixture on Bangkok's crowded streets is the tuk-tuk, an open-sided three-wheeler powered by a smoke-belching motorcycle engine and often decorated with lights, mirrors, and jaunty tinsel. As a cheap and flexible mode of transport, three-wheelers have spread to South Asia as well (though in a stubbier, yellow-and-black incarnation). Desperate to curb pollution Thailand is experimenting with electric tuk-tuks, and in some Indian cities, the contraptions have been banned from central districts.