Home to more than 500 vehicular oddities, the Jesada Technik Museum, in rural Thailand, is a quirky tribute to transportation.Text and pictures by Mark Sharp
Salaya, an hour by train from Bangkok, is a leafy rural town far from the political unrest gripping the Thai capital. Its small train station is surrounded by fields, dotted with the occasional dwelling. The largest building in town serves as a university campus and training hotel.
Thirty minutes away by taxi from Salaya, amid farmland and the odd coconut tree, two old steam locomotives stand by the side of the road, the first indication that you are approaching a unique tourist attraction.
The road then passes a hangar sheltering vintage coaches and double-decker buses. Military planes, helicopters and a fire engine are parked on the tarmac in front. The next 30 metres should be taken slowly because it’s easy to miss the entrance to the Jesada Technik Museum – if you happen to overlook the small green single-propeller plane parked outside, that is.
Inside the gateway, a restored penny-farthing and a hobby horse – types of bicycle that date back to the 19th century – share a small court-yard with a 1920s coal-powered Ford Model A and a brightly coloured Philippine Jeepney.
These are a taste of what’s to come in the vast hangar beyond, where an eclectic collection of more than 500 vehicular oddities awaits. Most of the exhibits are cars but there’s nothing too fancy on show at Jesada Technik; it’s Ferrari-free and lacks Lamborghinis. Rather, it’s a collection of motors rarely seen nowadays, although many were mass-produced in their heyday. Some are largely forgotten gems; many would have been rotting on a scrap heap had they not found a home here.
“I have loved cars and machinery since I was a child,” Jesada says, through an interpreter. “For my business, I went abroad on inspection tours several times in European and other countries. During breaks, I visited a lot of nice museums, especially in Germany. I thought about having a car museum in Thailand, so I started to collect.”
Jesada bought his first exhibit in 1999, he says, after a friend in Geneva, Switzerland, sent him a Christie’s auction catalogue. The back page featured a photo of a Messerschmitt KR200, a German microcar built in 1955. He was immediately smitten by the tiny, frog-faced vehicle and successfully bid about 500,000 baht to claim it. Originally an aircraft manufacturer, Messerschmitt was banned from making planes after the second world war, so began producing microcars – also called bubble cars – instead. They were small and cheap to run, so became popular in economically crippled post-war Germany.
Jesada became fascinated by the design of microcars and his collection has grown to include BMW Isettas, Heinkels, Trojans and Bond Bugs. The businessman says he now has about 300 of them, many at the museum – which opened in 2007 – and others on display at his Bangkok offices or in storage.
The bubble cars parked in rows at each side of the main aisle in all the bright colours of a packet of M&Ms, are the museum’s star attractions. There are three-wheelers and four-wheelers, with side or front doors that open sideways or downwards. Some have a front door fixed to the steering column, requiring the driver to pull the wheel to close himself in. There are single-seaters and two-seaters, and, in the case of the Velorex, which was made in Czechoslovakia, ones that have a leather body wrapped around a metal frame.
The joy of Jesada Technik lies in its eccentricity and informality. There is no discernable order to the layout of the museum; there are no signposts, no protection ropes, no “do not touch” warnings. Many of the vehicles are unlocked and visitors can sit inside them. It’s a wonderland escape; the car world’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Other curiosities here include first-generation Volkswagen Beetles, rear-engined 130H and 170H Mercedes-Benzes from the 1930s and a vintage Russian Gaz, with a leaping-deer bonnet ornament. Turn around and there’s a gull-wing DeLorean DMC-12, the time machine from the 1980s movie Back to the Future. Behind that is a Lincoln stretch limousine. Swivel 45 degrees to see an American Checker Yellow Cab. There’s even a monowheel, a single, spokeless wheel driven from a seat in the centre.
Artur Bohnert, a German who lives in Chiang Mai and helps Jesada build his collection, points to a pair of Amphicars from the 60s, each of which has two propellers under the rear bumper.
“They are very slow in the water and very slow on the land,” he says, of the German amphibious vehicle.
He indicates several dull-looking Trabants, which were in production in East Germany and until 1991, and were regarded as one of the world’s worst cars. Made from plastic and fibreglass – not cardboard, as is widely believed – they were notoriously polluting and unreliable, yet there was a long waiting list to own one.
“You could wait seven years for delivery and if you didn’t specifically order it with a steering wheel, it would arrive without one. So that meant another wait once you ordered the steering wheel,” Bohnert says.
Exhibits at Jesada Technik include scores of antique bicycles and motorbikes – including Vespas and Lambrettas – crammed together as if in a bustling bike shed. Also here are tuk-tuks, rickshaws, helicopters, hovercraft, petrol pumps and children’s toys. The museum even acquired a Soviet-era submarine, to be moored in a nearby canal, but it sank in the North Sea, off Denmark, en route to Thailand.
Plenty of the cars are in working condition, Jesada says, having been painstakingly restored. But not all; in another hangar, wrecks await their turn for restoration. Pigeons flutter in the rafters, splattering their corrosive droppings on the clapped-out vehicles below. Rows of rusty old bicycles are steadily being eaten away by the tropical climate.
“Almost half of the collection is on the waiting list to be restored,” says Jesada, who explains why his museum is in the middle of nowhere. The land was owned by his mother-in-law, he says, and he bought it from her once his business took off.
“It is only a temporary one. I plan to build a new museum nearby, next to the river, in a 64,000 square metre area.”
The permanent museum will be split into three sections – land, sea and air – and there will be a driving demonstration space.
It would be difficult to open a museum in the capital, says Jesada, because land there is too expensive.
“Anyway, we show [vehicles] in Bangkok many times a year. We have been organising classic-car parades on auspicious occasions like the king’s and queen’s birthdays since 2010, and a car show on each National Children’s Day since 2009.”
Education has become an important aspect of Jesada Technik’s work. Schoolchildren regularly make the trip out to Salaya, and Jesada hopes they are inspired by the designs they see here. Perhaps their imaginations take flight when they board Jesada Airways; children are given mock boarding passes for the experience of sitting in a plane.
Entry to the museum is free and all operational costs come out of Jesada’s pocket. Donations and rental fees for vehicles used in advertising and filmmaking benefit the museum’s foundation, which supports poor students and charities, he says.
When it’s time to leave, a certain irony sinks in. Following an afternoon of looking over so many types of transport, it’s very difficult to get a ride away from the museum; no taxis ply the roads of the Thai countryside and no public buses pass.
Eventually, for a price, the keeper of a roadside stall opposite the museum entrance offers me a lift on his motorbike back to Salaya.
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