Chonburi, Thailand - One of the most unique and expansive private car collections in Thailand, which includes many prized exhibits that are the only ones to reach this country, is actually open to the public every day of the year.
That’s because it’s located at the sprawling Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, just outside Pattaya, which, in recent years, has turned into one of Thailand’s biggest tourist attraction’s meaning this stunning and somewhat eccentric display of cars is on show to the thousands who pass through its gates every day of the year.
To give some background to this amazing collection first. Nong Nooch Tropical Garden traces its way back to 1954 when Mr Pisit and Mrs Nongnooch Tansacha purchased 600 acres of wild rolling countryside in Chonburi Province between Pattaya and Sattahip to turn into a fruit plantation.
Both avid travellers, they brought back many ideas they had seen around the world to create an ornamental garden that soon grew into a tourist attraction with accommodation, a swimming pool and restaurants also being incorporated.
After a quarter of a century spent creating the gardens, in 1980 they opened it to the public and with daily attractions such as a cultural show and an elephant show added into the mix. Three years later they handed over management to their son, Kampon Tansacha.
Today Nong Nooch Tropical Garden is growing at a phenomenal pace with massive expansion undertaken during the last few years that’s seemingly going to continue into the future. It’s been a big hit with tourists, in particular chiming with the rapid rise of Asian tour groups, and a huge new state-of-the-art coach station has just been opened to cope with the fleets of coaches arriving every hour. The entrance, ticket offices and facilities have all have all been upgraded to reach the style of an international theme park. More than a million people, mostly from across Asia, visit every year. There are 2,000 staff to cope with the influx.
It’s hard to pigeonhole it. It’s called Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, but really, it’s part entertainment complex, part theme park and – resonating perfectly in this era – it’s a mecca for selfie addicted tourists with dozens of themed gardens and zones that house thousands of animal statues. It’s also a major conservation centre with a worldwide reputation and a litany of prestigious awards – but most of that is away from the public eye.
What isn’t tucked away though is the car collection. Kampon Tansacha is an avid collector of cars and can regularly be seen driving the highway to Bangkok in standout sportscars from his collection. His roster though is totally unique, many of the cars are so offbeat and niche they are the only ones to have arrived in Thailand.
And you don’t have to hunt this collection down or persuade an owner to unlock the gates to his private lair, it’s all beautifully laid out on show in front of the thousands of visitors that stream in every day.
Originally the cars were housed in one gallery, but as the collection has grown significantly a new gallery was opened a year ago located just inside the main entrance – so now the exhibits are split between two galleries in separate locations.
It’s a truly amazing collection, it’s one man’s personal passion, it’s unique in the world of car collections anywhere. It’s an eclectic mix of offbeat sportscars, with the majority falling into the hand built with ultra low volume category, mixed up with off-road capable machines of all shapes, sizes and application. There’s also the most rudimentary microcars, high performance sports trikes, SUVs and trucks – with lots of off-road DNA – racing cars, rally cars, ATVs and even bicycles.
How do you choose cars from a collection as brazen as this one to highlight? A good place to start is with “Shep”, the world’s craziest ATV. A new addition to the global ATV landscape, it’s built in Russia and has four giant wheels and a buoyant body that means it can float in water (even without its wheels attached). It has no suspension as the tyres, which each contain 800 litres, fulfil that task. “Top Gear” called it a “Little Tank”, it looks crazy, in fact it looks like a prop straight off a “Star Wars” set. Positioned on its own down the middle of the two facing rows of cars in the brand-new gallery and hooked up to a matching trailer, it utterly dominates the scene.
When you walk through the doors of the new gallery the display kicks off with the Polaris Slingshot, a high-performance trike from the famous U.S. maker of ATVs and in fact there are plenty more Polaris vehicles dotted around the collection.
There’s another trike on show in this gallery, this time the whacky V13R from Canada’s Campagna while in the other “car garden” it’s also three wheeled sister, the T-Rex, is present. Staying on three wheels, but this time with the single wheel at the front, there’s an American race-prepared Bond Bug in the corner, featuring the iconic SCCA livery.
At the other end of the size scale the off-road theme continues two imposing Humvees, a white 2 door and a yellow 4 door, as well as the production Hummer H2. Then there’s a jacked-up Toyota FJ Cruiser and a massive Ford F 150 pickup. There are also a couple of Unimogs while the biggest vehicle in the collection is Navistar International’s CXT truck with its acres of polished chrome. There’s even a spaceframe-chassis Ford “Trophy Truck” designed for off road racing.
More ATVs come in the form of a Rockwell buggy, a pure spaceframe vehicle with no bodywork that’s designed without compromise to race its way up rocky mountainsides.
Novelties in the new gallery include a Plymouth Prowler, a retro styled “hot rod” turned into a production reality twenty years ago by Chrysler of which just 11,000 were made. Another rarity from the U.S. is the Chevrolet SSR, a retractable roofed convertible pickup with lavish bodywork that was built in limited numbers in the early years of this century. A Smart Fortwo “barchetta” adds further wackiness.
Rally legends are represented by perennial adversaries of the “Group A” era, Subaru’s Impreza and Mitsubishi’s Evo, while racing cars are on show courtesy of the Radical, with no less than three of these hand built British machines being in the collection.
Lotus is a repeating theme here with the Elise, Elan and Esprit all represented along with a couple of low volume Elise spin-offs, the 340R, which featured a special bodyshell that had no doors or roof as well as open wheels covered only by token mudguards with just 340 units built in 2000, while from a decade ago there is the stripped back 2-Eleven with its track-focused bodywork.
There are plenty more unusual British cars here including two Morgans, a Union Jack-clad Plus 8 Speedster and a green 3 Wheeler, as well as a Zenos C10, a British minimalist sportscar that was hand built in tiny numbers for just a couple of years during the middle of this decade. There’s also a classic Mini Cooper hitched up to a matching trailer made out of the back half of a Mini. There’s also another Mini in shocking pink with a very short wheelbase. Also, and another rare find in Thailand, is an Aerial Atom, all exposed tubular chassis and racing style front and rear wings plus a supercharged Honda engine.
It’s very much a western focused collection but there’s still room for a few Japanese cars and – aside from the two rally icons mentioned earlier – there’s a new-generation Honda Civic Type-R in glorious red as well as Nissan’s “Godzilla” GT-R.
Other oddities include a Renault Sport Spider from the ‘90s, a Caterham 7, a pair of KTM X-Bows, a hooked up to a matching trailer with both wrapped in Swiss flag livery and an Impreza “art car”. There’s also a selection of cute micro cars, bicycles and even a jet ski that can be driven on both land and water.
It’s an unusual and engaging collection and for all enthusiasts of four wheels there will certainly be cars in its ranks they have never seen in the flesh before. The new gallery also has a coffee shop inside from which the cars on show can be taken in.