The Tour de Cebu Is The Best Tropical Rally You Haven’t Heard Of
Photography by Jenna Genio
The Philippines is an archipelago made up of more than 7,000 islands, and for the past couple of decades the nation has enjoyed relative peace, some global attention, and astounding progress… However, what goes largely under-appreciated is its people’s long-enduring love affair with motoring. Thanks in part to the Philippines’ strategic location in the Asia-Pacific plus its Westernized society, the Filipino population has a deep history in regional motorsports and a large population of gearheads from every generation.
Current conditions are characterized by growth; a booming middle class means more dealerships, more auto sales, and unfortunately more traffic. Corresponding with today’s yearning for the nostalgic authenticity of yesteryear, Filipino automotive enthusiasts have put up what’s now considered one of the best motorsport events the Philippines has to offer: Tour de Cebu. Participants leave their everyday commutes behind for a drive around the more remote areas of the country, away from the modern malaise of expansive urban development.
The event itself, Tour de Cebu, is an annual regularity rally (instead of focusing on who finishes the fastest, the rally rewards strict time-keeping and navigational accuracy), an event that draws all kinds of vintage car enthusiasts to the city. Avid drivers from all over the Philippines (and beyond, as international attendance is encouraged) initially congregate in Cebu City to board a ferry with their cars, embarking on a journey through the Visayan Islands for a 1,000km-long weekend drive.
The fourth installment of Tour de Cebu was held in October, and I returned to cover the event for my second time. Anyone wanting to check out the cars in one fell swoop would have had to arrive at the pier by dawn to see the entrants on display, awaiting their turn to board. Each vehicle enters the spotlight for its careful, trundling crawl over the hulking catamaran’s ramp. As a photographer, I’ve always loved this part.
The rolling car show had ended up as treasured cargo on the ferry, appearing in strong contrast to the crusty dockside equipment. Filtering between the machines were a mix of inquisitive bystanders, geeky aficionados, and jaded seafaring crewmen. Meanwhile, the thrum of old-school engines sporadically rose above the bayside white noise of seabirds and marine diesels.
That’s when I started taking mental notes of the cars that I’d be spending the next several days shooting… Porsche was represented in good numbers with a handful of curvaceous 356s and a variety of 911s, and I recognized returning regulars like the charming Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and the masculine Pontiac GTO—both donning sea foam hues.
Datsun fans were treated to a bunch of spirited 240Zs, while loyalists to German touring enjoyed older Bimmers and Benzes. I was fond of the ‘70s bromance between the Ford Escort Mk2 and Opel Kadett C compact coupes however—the two of them would stick together throughout the entire endeavor.
Some of the most beautiful cars were definitely the British felines, which included the elegantly elongated profiles of Jaguar E-Types and an XK-150 that hailed all the way from Singapore. Some examples of Italian performance were on parade as well, with owners of Alfa Romeos joining in with a 1750 GTV and a couple of Spiders.
There were a bunch of entrants that really surprised me as well. For one thing, someone decided to bring a 1963 C2 Split-Window Stingray; another team ran the curious Saab Sonnett III, a FWD car powered by a longitudinal Ford V4; there was a recent import of an authentic Austin-Healey 100M as well, while a stunning Lotus Eleven replica attracted a lot of oohs and ahhs.
If I had to personally decide on my favorite car of the lot, it’d have to be the flared 914 belonging to Jason Lemberg, the classic car guru who runs the Byrnes Motor Trust restoration facility in the Philippines. Jason knife-edged the crank of a 911SC 3.0L engine and put it into his 1975 914/6 before he upgraded to four-piston Brembo brakes and Koni suspension as well. A more aggressive look was achieved via 916-inspired ground effects, hinting more at the fact that his build now makes more than 300 horsepower at the wheels.
Not only is Tour de Cebu a tropical test of endurance for both man and machine, it’s also a dynamic adventure that crosses different types of terrain and provincial obstacles—carefree pedestrians, occasional sluggish trucks, underbone riders, and animal crossings from bovine to canine. The rally happens near the tail-end of the wet season too, when rain is pretty much guaranteed. This doesn’t discourage the breed that Tour de Cebu draws.
The weather adds another challenge to visibility and traction that is, funnily enough, more than welcome. However, switching constantly between an intermittent deluge and the searing heat of the sun warrants a certain level of preparedness all the same, and is not to be taken lightly.
This year, the exotic 1,000km extravaganza made its competitors drive more than 300km per day around the island of Bohol. The routes were replete with attractions that made for some good old road trip bliss, and once we climbed further upwards we were met with twisty, narrow roads over mountains bursting with shaded forests and dense jungles. Winding streets passed humble villages, while excited children waved by the roadside.
Tour de Cebu is a young event that’s been getting bigger every year, and the brains behind the event, from the Manila Sports Car Club (MSCC) and Cebu’s Performance and Classics Enthusiasts (PACE), had a clear mission from the get-go: to contribute to local car culture while allowing the Philippines to make another mark on the world; to showcase the talent of Filipino mechanics and craftsmen; to promote tourism as well as inter-island transportation; and to inspire more people to invest in making vintage cars roadworthy. In a world where most families shop for new crossovers full of electronic aids, a romantic experience like Tour de Cebu serves as a reinvigorating, dreamlike escape—providing retrospective respite for the other weary souls.