Driving the Dream: David Works Garage

The love of classic cars transports David to his past and is the fuel of his life. Clara Lock details David’s undying love for classic cars.


Words and images by Clara Lock


Peer into David Chan’s classic car workshop and it might take a moment or two to spot him. He soon emerges from behind the bonnet of a dusty blue Mini Cooper, screwdriver still in hand, picking his way through a maze of cars and clutter. His fingernails are grime-caked and his blue jeans are faded with wear, but the 68-year-old is living his dream.


It is a dream he has harboured since he was 12 – growing up around cars, in the auto agency his grandfather started. Eastern Auto, which opened its doors in 1921, first brought in Citroen cars before it branched out into sportier brands like Lotus, Aston Martin and DKW Auto Union, now known as Audi.


When his grandfather eventually retired, David’s father and uncle took over the family business. At 12, David would spend his afternoons hanging around the Cantonese-speaking mechanics in the workshop, learning basic maintenance works such as repairing brakes and changing engine oil.


“I knew all about cars long before I could drive them,” he said. David was just a boy, but these four-wheeled beauties had made their impression.

It is also a dream that did not come easy. Fresh out of his O-Levels (then known as Senior Cambridge exams), the then teenage David harboured hopes of studying automobile engineering abroad.


“I thought my father and grandfather had the finances,” he said ruefully.


They hadn’t. The company folded over the next three years, and David, the middle child and only son of three children, put his dream on hold. He became a teacher, spending the next 19 years teaching history and geography.

Need for Speed


But the key had been turned in the ignition, and David’s desire for motoring purred like the hum of an engine left idle. When his father gave him his first car (an Austin Healey Sprite) at 18, David floored the accelerator and never looked back.


He would satiate his need for speed at the local races like the Singapore Grand Prix. It was held every Easter at the race circuit along Thompson Road and Upper Thompson Road and was preceded two weeks earlier by the quarter-mile Thompson sprint for locals to test their cars – as well as to drum up hype for the event.


Despite his father’s disapproval, David would race the Thompson circuit or the Gap Hill Climb, which took place along South Buona Vista Road, pitting himself against other boys in their second-hand sports cars or saloon cars. Although only an amateur, he was once featured as a promising young upstart in Fanfare magazine, a popular entertainment rag at that time.


Those years cemented his desire to spend his life around cars, David said, who learnt how to modify cars so he could race better, “In order to be competitive, you have to know the parts,” he said. “My interest in race cars, performance engines – that is my place in the automobile trade.”


Becoming His Own Boss

He eventually took the plunge and left teaching to start his own workshop – a niche that he continues to serve to this day. “I didn’t just want to be a mechanic; I wanted to be around sports cars, the circuits, the race tracks.”

His career change was not without risk – by then, David was already a father of two young children – but it was a dream he had waited too long to fulfil.


“I wanted to create my ideal lifestyle; set up the ideal garage where I could come in every morning and enjoy being around the things I love,” he said.


At the time, his clientele comprised mainly expatriates working in the oil industry, who came to him to upgrade or repair their sports cars. David worked out of a rented private house in Bedok, where his son and daughter grew up in a world similar to his own childhood.

It was an era where “after school” meant play, not tuition, and David made sure his kids, Brian and Jacqueline, got the full childhood experience. “They climbed fruit trees, pulled earthworms out of the ground, and helped me with the cars,” he said, adding: “It was an ideal place to raise kids.” So ideal was the influence that, once Brian had completed his National Service, he decided to join his father in the garage.


Today, the duo runs the workshop together, with the 40-year-old Brian doing much of the tinkering, while David oversees the refurbishing process of the classic cars. Many of these cars belong to young men in their 20s and 30s, some of whom have studied overseas and are drawn to classic designs such as the old Mini Cooper.


The work is slow and tedious – part of a new paint job involves scraping off the old paint by hand, a labour-intensive process that even some paint shops shun. When customers want a refurbishment, David himself uses a heat-gun to remove the paint, often working late into the night with a fan trained on him to diffuse the toxic fumes.


It is backbreaking work, but David does not mind. Neither does he want to service modern cars, despite a quicker turnaround and easier work. He never sees the cars in his workshop as classics. For him, they are just cars he has known all his life.


“As the world moved on, I did not. These are the cars from my youth, and I always want to be around them,” the self-confessed old soul said, who counts Cliff Richard among his favourite singers and still uses a Nokia phone so old it does not have a coloured screen.


When he looks around his garage, he is still transported back to the prime of his life – a heady time of youth, tea dances and parties, all coupled with the adrenaline rush of navigating a tight bend, or overtaking another racer by a hair’s breadth.


“I actually never moved on from that era,” David said. And in his head, he is content on staying put there.


Originally posted on irememberSG here