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Cambodia’s New Car Industry

Car manufacturing has long been a source of national pride. Mercedes, Rolls Royce, and Ford each represent the personality and nationalism of their respective countries.

But why should developed nations, who already have so much, be the only ones to cash in on the economic and public relations benefits of producing a domestic automobile?

That is the question that Nhean Palet posed to his 19 year old daughter, Nhean Leak. The courageous high school student took her father’s question to heart, and set about designing a revolutionary new automobile. Less than a month later, without any formal training, or aid from outside experts, Nhean Leak presented her father with her innovative design, which would later be named after the ancient Khmer Empire and take to the roads as the Angkor II.

“I got ideas from TV and magazines.” Nhean Leak explained. “I would love to study automotive design, but no universities in Cambodia offer that major.” With a sly smile she asked if maybe someone in the west would give her a scholarship to study in America. “It was easier for me to design this car.” She said modestly. “Because I already had a little experience.”

Nhean Leak was referring to the Angkor I, the first car she designed for her father. The sporty little two-seater, which was powered with a 100 cc motorcycle engine, was only the second car ever to be built in Cambodia. The coup was extremely cute, with a removable roof, and front-wheel drive. Its top speed was only 60 KM/H, but its look and feel were reminiscent of a European economy sports car such as the French Twin Go or the British Mini. It is the perfect car for tooling around the busy streets of Phnom Penh, particularly on a sunny day. And of course, with such a small car, parking is never a problem.

But the Angkor II was to be the family’s pride and joy. The father and daughter team spent the next fifteen months gathering used auto parts and scrap metal to construct their new vehicle. But even getting materials was a struggle. Cambodia doesn’t have junk yards, because years of privation have made the Khmer people into experts of reusing and rebuilding. Scraps which we in the west would through away, as worthless, actually have great value to these artisans of necessity.

“The engine came from a Japanese car.” Explained Nhean Leak. “But my father doesn’t know which kind.”

Other than the motor, every single piece of equipment had to be made by hand, and most had never been part of a car before. “We made the red and yellow filters for the tail lights from water bottles.” She said with a smile. The simulated wood finish on the dashboard and steering wheel had an interesting history. “My father saw some wood, which he liked. So he imitated the wood finish by using a blow torch, to scorch some old plastic.”

In spite of being made from odds and ends, the two-plus-two Angkor II is quite luxurious. The three-piston, 650 cc auto features power windows, and a power convertible top. The seats are leather, with a built in massager. It’s nice to relieve the stress of commuting, with a gentle neck massage. Maybe you’d even take the long way home sometimes. The CD player is top of the line, with external speakers, mounted in the luggage space, which convert the attractive little car into a roving concert. This being Cambodia, the dashboard is also fitted with a karaoke machine, complete with microphone.

In studying businesses built by people in the developing nations of South East Asia, one will find that there is very little waste. Even the slightest, cheapest, or oldest piece of material can be reused. Consulting firms, expensive materials, business services, and proper replacement parts are all unknown. So, each Asian entrepreneur must learn to be self-sufficient. All of these facts combine with the price sensitivity of local consumers. The result is that entrepreneurs learn to operate without spending money. With Nhean Palet working as owner, boss, general manager, and head mechanic, there is no top-heavy management structure siphoning funds off of the company, or driving up prices. And, as the average Cambodian worker only demands $28 per month, car manufacture in Cambodia could be an extremely inexpensive business venture.

Nhean Palet tells me that he produced the Angkor I for under $1,000 US. The luxurious Angkor II cost less than $2,700 to build.

“People come in all the time, trying to buy my cars.” Says Nhean Palet. “Even the son of a very high ranking minister wanted to place an order. But I turned him away.”  He says that he is holding out for a foreign partner, who could put up the money to build a factory. “These cars are hand made.” He explains. “I put a lot of myself into each of them. And, it was a lot of work. I don’t want to do that for other people.”

“If we could open a factory it would mean a lot to the Khmer people.” Says Nhean Leak. “No one believes that Cambodian people could produce a car.”

But they have produced not one, but two cars.

We took the Angkor II out for a spin and a photo session, near Wat Phnom, the principle temple of Phnom Penh. Along the way, people laughed, smiled and waved. Through the open top, we could hear people exclaiming. “That car is Khmer! That car was made in Cambodia.”

After the photo shoot, a crowd gathered around the car, obviously both in awed by and proud of this revolutionary vehicle, which could someday become Cambodia’s best public relations tool. At a cry from the back of the crowd, they parted the way to allow a paraplegic to wheel himself up to the fantasy car for a closer look. “This is better than the Prime Minister’s car.” The man said, in a grave voice. “Because this car was made in Cambodia.”

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