The Agony And Ecstasy Of Restoring A Lamborghini Diablo In Thailand
Photography by StickyRide
I’ve been writing about my experience in Bangkok over the last few weeks since I was there a couple of months ago. I’d love to say that I’ve gotten most of them out and onto the internet, but their automotive culture is just so rich that I’ve only really just scratched the surface. Dino from Speedhunters and I were invited to Chayanin Debhakam’s home just outside of Bangkok where we were greeted by a truly impressive car collection. Not necessarily in size or scope but in that every single thing in this man’s garage had an incredibly intimate story behind it.
Once our schedules lined up, Chayanin and I sat down on a video chat to get the full story behind his incredible Lamborghini Diablo and the challenges associated with restoring an Italian Stallion in the Kingdom of Thailand.
Editor’s note at the end: An extremely gracious thank you to everyone I’ve been able to spend time with in Bangkok, I sincerely look forward to sharing more of your culture with the Petrolicious family.
Ted Gushue: Did you always know that you were going to be passionate about cars?
CD: Well, my parents were not at home that much when I was growing up because my dad was a Surgeon General in the Thai Army; and my mother was lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Basically, I was at home by myself and there were no other toys to play with that interested me. So I started messing about with cars when I was young.
TG: What kind of cars did your parents drive?
CD: My father was really into American cars, like Mercury and Buick. Both of them were into American cars, really. The reason for that is because my parents went to the States and my father did his internship in medicine over there. He was the first doctor that brought alergy treatments back to Thailand. During those days in Thailand, allergies were something that people just didn’t understand at all.
The first car I played with was a Fiat 124 that my uncle, my mother’s younger brother, used to race in. Once he stopped racing it, the car was given to my mother as a car to use at home, so I picked that car up to mess about with, start repairing. When mechanics came to my home to do services and all that I always helped them.
TG: When did you first start driving performance cars?
CD: Well, probably in the late ’80s I think, because that’s the first car, I was driving a Fiat at home without any driving license. Then I went to England when I was 13 and the first car I had in England was an Austin mini, then a 1989 3.2 Carrera Porsche convertible.
TG: Talk to me about the struggles of collecting cars in a country with such high tax import tax on automobiles and how that’s evolved over time.
CD: In those days, the government let old cars be imported. That was like 30 years ago. That’s when some performance second-hand cars were imported into the country. After that, the the new car tax increased to 300 percent or so. For me, I think old cars are more practical and more economical for us to buy. Our biggest problem with them is having parts for repairs at our disposal. Right now, second hand cars are not allowed to be imported into the country, unless you are a student who has been studying in a foreign country and have owned the car for more than two years.
You can then apply for a licence to import that car. You have to have proof of ownership and insurance to prove that you have owned that particular car to be able to import it. Then with the old cars, you get deductions in terms of the initial price. If it’s anything more than something like 20 years it comes down to 20 percent of the initial value. Then you have to pay 300% tax on top of that again.
TG: Let’s say you buy a 964 Porsche, lets say it’s $50,000 American dollars. If you’d bought it today at an auction what would you pay total to bring it into the country?
CD: First, you have to get the car and own it for two years. Then after that for a 964, a car of that age would be valued at approximately 30% of the initial sale price. But then the government checks current values of the car online, and whichever is higher is what the government bases the valuation on. Then you take that price and multiply it by 300. For a $50,000. car, you roughly multiply it by 3 and add that to the price. So you would be paying roughly $200,000.
TG: Incredible. Money aside, it must require so much more passion to go through so many obstacles to buy a car.
CD: It does. It logistically doesn’t make sense buying a used car or an antique car to import it back to Thailand. What Thai people do is they look and search for a car which is already in Thailand. The original purchaser of a 964 would have paid a lot of money for it brand new, but perhaps it was difficult for them to repair, and there were perhaps no shops or service centers to maintain the car, so perhaps they let it sit and are willing to let it go for much less than they paid, which is a better scenario for the buyer.
TG: You’ve owned many cars over the years. Have you always been very crafty in the way that you do this? How do you manage the exposure to unnecessary tax expense?
CD: I’ll use my Diablo as an example. The first thing we did was to conduct a study to identify how many Diablos were imported into the country new. We estimated that a Diablo is very difficult to maintain for most people, so those left in the country might be cheaper to purchase. For example, 25 years ago my Diablo would cost about 15 million Baht, which would have cost you roughly $430,000. That was 25 years ago. The car was sitting around Thailand and I bought it for about 10 million Baht which is $290,000.
Before anybody in Thailand buys an old car, especially for me, we have to do a study of the availability of parts, and ensuring that we can get access to all of the original manuals. It’s very important to me that if you’re going to restore a car you bring it back to its factory quality and to do that you have to do a lot of work beforehand. Otherwise, you can have a car project like I have had sometimes that lasts for 10 years and you are never finished. Dealers in Thailand are also terrible at keeping stock of old parts for cars they no longer sell, so they aren’t very helpful. They don’t even keep the old manuals and the mechanics don’t even have the ability to repair them. They prefer to work on new cars that they can hook up to a computer and send back to the manufacturer for diagnosis. Things are different over here.
TG: Are parts taxed at the same rate?
CD: No. Part tax is ranging about 40-50%.
TG: I wonder if you could actually buy all the pieces to a car and build it yourself cheaper than buying the actual car.
CD: No, because then the car is not registered. You have to go through a lot of tests and it’s not economical. In Thailand, it’s quite tough to build a car from parts. We have thought about this, trust me! [laughs]
TG: What was the restoration process like on your Diablo?
CD: This car, for example, the early Diablos, eight of them were imported to the country, I only could find two of them on the road. The rest were kept at the owner’s place, parked there in the garage not in running condition. A lot of them are not drivable because people got the wrong idea about modifications to the heating system. Usually, when a car is imported to Thailand it has air conditioning and heating, and usually a lot of people cut the heater system off the car. In these Diablos, that causes a heat build-up in the engine because it needs the water from the heater. There’s more water if you keep the heater system and it actually circulates better to get rid of the heat.
Thai drivers in the old days weren’t thinking when they took the heaters out and that causes many things afterwards because traffic is so bad here. Sometimes, you get stuck in traffic for hours and the car overheats. It actually ruins the cylinder head gasket. That’s where people just don’t really know how to solve the problem you find in older cars. A lot of old cars that I get are not working.
For the Diablo, I talked to the Lambo staff in the States. They carry a lot of old car parts and they are authorized dealers so they can access the factory inventory system and find out which supplies the factories sold a big bunch of parts to. That was great for me and increased the speed of the project enormously. This is a very rare scenario. Today the internet makes finding these parts much easier. Back when there was no internet and no Ebay made finding parts a lot more difficult.
TG: How often do people smuggle parts?
CD: They do, they do, but parts that are difficult to acquire are expensive and it’s quite dangerous to smuggle them in. It might be confiscated. You could be searching for that part for 6 months only to get it confiscated. I’d rather go the legitimate route.
TG: Do people ever drive their cars or ship them into other countries to get work done?
CD: I have heard that some people do that. We just haven’t managed to get the paperwork ready. For example, my brother’s daughter was in the UK and I imported my ’94 Speedster back from the UK. I was going to send it back to the factory to have it done at their Classic department. Only 14 of them were built with a right hand drive, so they’re rare. Porsche Classic is very expensive. For me at least, it was more economical to bring it back to Thailand and perform the restoration here.
TG: How long was your total process of restoring the Diablo?
CD: The first time around, I checked the engine and everything was okay. The compression was good, the leak test didn’t show any leaks, and the first round was about a year and a bit. It took fourteen to fifteen months to get it ready back to its original condition. Ordering the parts took the most amount of time. Then the rust was treated and all that and then they put it back together. The interior was taken off and put back to make it like the original. That didn’t take long because our part supplier, Lambostuff, was great.
After that, I felt that the engine was struggling with high temperatures. I was losing power in traffic, so I used a fibre-optic camera to identify the issue in the cylinder head. I tested it by driving it, because I really think that any car that I restore, the engine has to be near perfect. Just driving it is nothing for me. To be able to bring it back to its original horsepower and physical condition is my aim, really.
TG: When you finally got it in perfect running condition what was the feeling like? Was it a massive relief?
CD: It’s different. Sometimes when the car is not running well, I’m really focused on it. Driving it everyday, using up all my spare time. And in every condition: in traffic, no traffic, early mornings, weekends. I drive it a lot to find the symptoms, trying to diagnose it. Once it’s driving perfectly, then it generally sees less road time. I like to move on to the next project.
TG: What was the next project for you?
CD: The 308 GTB. Those two projects were alongside each other. Actually, I got my 308 GTB just before I finished my Diablo project. I was doing it alongside and the 308 GTB is something. Sourcing parts for Ferrari is something different. It takes so much more time.
It’s really difficult to be in touch with the experts well enough for them to actually help you. You have to be lucky to be able to get to them. For example, my younger cousin is the sole authorized dealer for Ferrari in Thailand. My company, Singha, sponsors their Formula 1 team, their Challenge series. They couldn’t even help me! So that’s how difficult it was for me to get parts. Can you imagine that? The factory system only goes back so many years, and this was before they built their Classiche program.
TG: Out of your collection what is the car that you enjoy driving the most?
CD: I have every one of the original Classic Minis. All those cars are amazing. They don’t have enormous horsepower, but the handling is great and it’s small. I get around town easily. Growing up the three marques in my head were Porsche, Ferrari, and Lamborghini. I’ve done my Lamborghini project, I’ve done my Ferrari project, now it’s time for my Porsche project, the 914.
TG: Oh really?
CD: Yeah, with the 3.2-litre engine in it. It’s a sleeper project. You don’t see much on the outside, it’s just original 914 seats; but everything inside from the chassis is being done properly: stiffening, suspension, 915 gearbox. 911 prices are just getting so out of control here in Thailand that this is going to be my daily Porsche and for long drives. The long hoods are just getting so out-of-control expensive that it made me focus my attention on the possibility of a really special 914.
TG: What else is in your collection currently?
CD: The big collection are my Minis because I have all the different models. Mini Van, Mini pick-up, Mini Travellers. I’ve collected Minis for a long time because my first car in the UK was a Mini. The parts are very expensive if you’re going into the original performance parts. Those are very expensive and I managed to collect them for 15 years now. I used to have more than 20 classic Minis in my collection. I sold a lot of them to a friend, who paid a fair price and which netted me a significant profit.
I tend to go to focus on cheap cars that need restoration that have the correct import documents. I’m not looking for a car that has been restored before, because it makes it more expensive and I have to restore it to my specifications anyhow so there’s no point. I’m looking for a clean car that hasn’t been touched. Those are the cars that I’m into.