Posted : 2014-05-11 16:27
Updated : 2014-05-11 16:42

Beauty of old cars

Classic car collector Baek Joong-gil poses next to Hyundai Motor's Pony, the first Korean mass-produced automobile in the 1970s.
/ Courtesy of Kum-ho Car Industry

Car enthusiast collects over 500 classic cars, plans to open museum

By Kim Tae-jong

The T-600 is a tricycle truck, which made its debut here in 1963. It was manufactured by Kia Industry, which changed its name to Kia Motors. It was loved by moving companies until the government banned its use for safety reasons in the late 1960s. It was designated as a Cultural Asset by the culture ministry in 2008.
The GM Cadillac was one of official cars that former President Park Chung-hee used during his term between 1963 and 1979.
This is the oldest surviving fire truck in Korea, which was designated as a Cultural Asset in 2008. A Japanese firm modified the 1933 model year Ford trucks into a fire engines. This model was taken into Korea during the Japanese colonial rule and used for 20 years.
The Sibal car is the first private car manufactured by a Korean firm in 1955. The word Sibal means "beginning" in Korea. It was later also used as a taxi in the 1950s.
Baek Joong-gil has loved cars since he was a child, but his interests are unlike those of most car enthusiasts.

Rather than collect new and fashionable cars, he searches for rare and old cars, which many people might consider junk.

"I just thought someone should keep old cars, as I realized that they are starting to disappear on the road," the 71-year-old said, recalling the time he started to collect vintage cars in the late 1960s.

"I thought that young children should have the chance to see cars that their fathers or grandfathers used to drive," he said.

Now, he owns about 500 vehicles, many of which he has restored to their original condition. His vehicle collection is parked temporarily on his land in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province, on which he plans to build an auto museum.

His collection includes very rare car models such as the Sibal, the first private car manufactured by a Korean firm; Hyundai Motor's Pony, the first Korean mass-produced automobile; the GM Cadillac that took former President Park Chung-hee to official events; and a Ford truck that was modified into a fire truck in the 1930s.

Some of the vehicles in his collection have been designated as "cultural assets" by the culture ministry. He has also donated some of his cars to a national museum.

Many of the vehicles in his collection are the only surviving records of the early days of the Korean auto industry.

The country's auto industry started in 1955, shortly after the Korean War ended, with the simple reassembling of engines and other parts from broken Jeeps used by the U.S. Army. In just five decades, Korea has become the world's fifth-largest auto manufacturing country.

But there is no big auto museum that chronicles the industry's history. Even the nation's major automakers do not have the early models that they produced, which has often drawn the criticism that they only focused on selling more cars and were not interested in preserving what they have gone through with customers here.

"It's a shame that we don't have an auto museum here, given the status of our auto industry," Baek said. "My dream is to open a museum and display my collection."

But he admitted that his hobby can be challenging and expensive. He said he has spent most of his income from a car parts business on buying and restoring old cars, and he can't simply stop.

"I don't know exactly why I'm so fascinated by old cars. But the whole idea of this machine consisting of a lot of parts and being able to run makes me thrilled. Also, it has become sort of my mission to show old cars to young folks," he said. "It is also very exciting to find a model that I've been looking for."

He said it takes a lot of time, effort and money to buy, restore and maintain old cars.

"It took me about five years to have a Sibal taxi," he said. "No one seemed to have one. But I searched and searched for months and finally found the last model. The problem was the owner didn't want to sell it to me. I had to persuade him for about four years."

When he can't find a specific model in Korea, he said he sometimes contacts foreign embassies in other countries to buy exported Korean cars.

Buying old cars is not the end, but just the beginning of a time, effort and money-consuming process. Most of the old cars are not in good condition, with most of their parts having become rusty. Baek searches for parts to restore them to as close to their original conditions as possible. He also spends a lot of money to secure empty spaces in which to park them.

"In the early days, it cost me a lot of money to simply keep them in a parking lot. I didn't have any empty land to park them, so I had to use a private parking lot," he said. "Actually, I collected over 600 vehicles, but after floods, I lost and had to dump about 100 cars."

But the car enthusiast has succeeded in turning his lifelong passion into a career.

He set up a classic car rental firm, Kum-ho Car Industry, and lends his collections to television drama producers and movie makers who film in Korea. Without his efforts, people would probably never see vintage cars in TV dramas or movies.

"In the beginning, I didn't think of running a business with my cars, but staff from television dramas and movies came to me and begged to borrow some of my cars, as I was the only one with classic cars," he said.

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