Around the world in a vintage car

Heidi Hetzer, a veteran rally driver, is on
a globetrotting mission
Owners of vintage cars and bikes are a car community who are not only car crazy but they stick together with a strong bond.  I’m familiar with their car talk and passion for the timeless beauty of vintage vehicles because I often join members of the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR) for their exciting estate runs.  They also use their vehicles to raise funds at charity events but last weekend, when I got a call from MSVCR Southern Region representative, E. S. Luke, it was for something else.  He told me about Heidi Hetzer, a 77-year old rally driver from Berlin who is driving her 1930 Hudson Great Eight classic around the world and asked if I would like to meet her?
I met Heidi at One-Stop Classic &
Sports Garage in Johor Baru
It took me a moment to grasp what he was saying but my answer was an outright Yes!  I had a thousand questions at the tip of my tongue but held it down as Luke told me that she was en route to Singapore and had a longer stopover in Johor Baru because her car was in the garage.  The motoring fraternity in Malaysia and Singapore is familiar with the adventure that Hetzer embarked on from Berlin since last July and MSVCR members are monitoring her journey as she travelled south from Thailand to Penang.  

When I met them at One-Stop Classic & Sports Garage, Hetzer had her face inside the open car bonnet deep in discussion about the engine with mechanic, Pirakash S. Maniam, and she seems relieved that her car is ready for the road again.

MSVCR Central Region members, Surjit Singh and Danny Liew, who escorted Hetzer from Kuala Lumpur to JB, encouraged Luke to take Hetzer away from the garage for a break because she was understandably, rather stressed about her car, she affectionately calls Hudo.  

Heidi Hetzer standing on her beloved Hudo at the
flag-off from Berlin in July 2014
This female rally driver is after all, a trained mechanic who is no stranger to cars and motorbikes because she has scored more than 150 victories in her illustrious career.  As Luke and I took Hetzer out, she told me in heavily German-accented English, “It takes half an hour to convince a man mechanic,” with a shrug and added, “A woman always have to prove that she’s a mechanic.”

Her Inspiration

“My father brought me up to be modern,” said Hetzer and explained how her father, entrepreneur Siegfried Hetzer, gave her pocket money to pay her own way and not let boyfriends pay for her.  She learnt early in life, to be independent and adopted the philosophy that “women don’t owe men anything.”  

Hetzer aims to replicate the journey by Clarenore Stinnes,
the first woman to circumnavigate the world, 1927 - 1929
Hetzer recalls looking at her father’s photos and journals when she was about age 5 and how excited and inspired she was by the tales he told about his adventures in Egypt and Majorca.  The sight of her father riding a motorcycle, with his wife seated in the sidecar in their 1929 photos, left a lasting impression on her. 

Hetzer learned to ride the motorcycle when she was 14 and competed in her first race at the tender age of 16 on a NSU Lambretta motor scooter.  She was shy but undeterred even though she was the only girl in the class for mechanics.  In the early 60s she worked at a Chevrolet dealership in the US before returning to work at her father’s Opel dealership in Berlin.  She eventually took over the family business on his demise in 1969.

Hetzer and Hudo with friends from MSVCR and Pirakash,
the mechanic, at One-Stop Classic & Sports Garage, JB
She started to take part in international car rallies in the 70s and completed dozens including the Monte Carlo Rally, the Dusseldorf-Shanghai Rally, the Carrera Pan-Americana in Mexico and the Tour d’Europe in 1989.  Then she began to collect old cars and proudly told me that she paid for them herself.  She used to have 25 vintage cars but now has 13 – all of them convertibles.  Two years ago, she bought Hudo, a 1930 8-cylinder Hudson Great Eight classic and started to prepare for her adventure of a lifetime.

Hetzer greatly admired Clarenore Stinnes, the first woman to circumnavigate the world driving an Adler Standard 6 from 1927 to 1929 and she aims to replicate her journey around the world.  In July 2014 she was flagged off from Berlin and plans to complete her 2-year adventure in June 2016.  

Hetzer with more friends from MSVCR at Straits
View Hotel JB, before she left for Singapore
After leaving JB, Hudo will be packed in a container and shipped from Singapore to Perth where Hetzer will continue her adventure across Australia before leaving to drive through New Zealand.  The car will then be shipped to California where she will traverse the US and head to South America before going to Africa and finally to Spain, France and back home to Berlin.

Temporary Setbacks                                        

After six months on the road, Hetzer, a mother to two adult children and four grandchildren (with one on the way), often missed home.  But when she experienced help from others and offered help to others during her travels, she didn’t feel so sad.  She stays in touch with her daughter, Marla, with regular updates and told me she couldn’t help getting emotional when her grandchild said, “Oma Heidi, I’d like to hug you!  Why are you so far away?”

Hetzer atop Hudo on a flatbed truck, being towed to
Jesada Technik Museum, Bangkok, Thailand
From the onset Hetzer was left stranded when her 65-year old good friend and rally driver co-pilot had to pull out of the project due to doctor’s orders.  This left the position vacant but she soon received more than 150 applicants and finally a 25-year old photographer who only held a motorcycle license, was picked.  “That way, he won’t take hold of the wheel!” she said.  

But four days into the trip, they parted ways.  Rally drivers know that it’s not easy to find a suitable companion so Hetzer had two other companions before she continued alone from Bukhara in Uzbekistan and in Laos, she was joined by a son of a Berlin friend who lives in Vientiane, for 32 days. 

Some countries like Iran, Azerbaijan and China require drivers to obtain a permit and guide so she was not always alone.  Hetzer and Hudo suffered freezing -21 deg C cold of the Krygyz Mountains at 3750m above sea level in an attempt to enter China by the Tourugart Pass but were forced to wait in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for a special permit required for Hudo to be issued from Berlin!  This obstacle was compounded by the age 69 limit for her to apply for a Chinese driver’s license because Htzer was 77.  Thankfully she had a resourceful Chinese guide who helped her to enter China by an alternative crossing but it was 500km further and much, much colder!

Hudo is a 1930 8-cylinder Hudson Great Eight Classic
“People are much better than you think,” Hetzer said, referring to the goodwill she experienced when Hudo had three major breakdowns, first in Uzbekistan, then Kazakhstan and now in Johor.  When Hudo had engine trouble in Bangkok, she received help from Jesada Technik Museum who connected her with MSVCR in Malaysia.  She enjoyed warm Malaysian hospitality with Douglas Fox and MSVCR Northern Region members in Georgetown and after she bade farewell to Johnny Chandnani in Kuala Lumpur, she left for JB on Thursday evening escorted by Surjit and Liew in Liew’s 1972 Volkswagen Safari. 

Hetzer was delighted with the way friendly motorists honked and waved when they saw Hudo on the North-South Highway.  In JB, MSVCR Southern Region members were waiting to welcome her but at 10.30pm Luke received a call to inform that Hudo had broken down near Macap, about 67km from JB.  Rather than calling for a tow service, Surjit and Liew rigged Hudo to Liew’s VW Safari and towed it to Straits View Hotel, Johor Baru and to the garage the next morning.

Living Her Dream

Clarenore Stinnes was only 26 when she drove around the world in 1927 but Hetzer is 77 and yet they are equally hard-headed and determined to achieve their goals.  Hetzer is glad that roads are comparatively better now and modern technology, supported by good internet connections enables her to stay in touch with others.  Hetzer hopes that she will be a good example to motivate women and children to set goals and aim to achieve them.  In Kosovo, Vietnam and Laos, Hetzer was invited to speak to schoolgirls and her message to them is: “If I can do it, you can do it!”

The writer with Hetzer and Hudo before the
left JB for Singapore
“I’m just an old woman in an old car,” said Hetzer modestly as she is often tired of the media attention since her flag-off from Berlin.  “Most people dream about it, talk about it but don’t do it.”  Her encouragement is not to just dream but to live your dream.  “I’m living my dream!” she declared.

In spite of the ups and downs, Hetzer is buoyed up by the friendship and goodwill she experienced with people, particularly vintage car owners, in her journey so far.  “We have a common love for old cars – this is our bond and money does not play a role,” she said.  From Kazakhstan to Johor Baru, mechanics who have put Hudo back on the road told her, “It was an honour to have worked on your car.”

Likewise, it was an honour for me to meet this special lady and I join my friends in MSVCR to wish her well as she leaves Singapore and South East Asia for the next leg of her world tour with faithful Hudo.  

Follow Heidi Hetzer around the world on (English translation) website:

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 8 February 2015

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