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Rare vintagesMuseum of classic cars
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승인 2010.06.24  18:13:14
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▲ Photo by Jean K. Min

With a sleek fender line that zooms past slab side-panels, a supple suspension tuned for American freeways, rocket tail fins, a fire-engine red exterior and white leather bench seats, the 1963 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is not a car one expects to find on Jeju Island.

But this quintessential American classic can be seen at the Jeju World Automobile Museum, Asia’s first and largest private automobile museum and home to an unlikely collection of 74 vintage cars from around the world.

To follow their road here, one needs go back to the year 2001 when Kim Young Rak sold the mid-size chemical plant he had run near Daegu for 32 years to UCB, the No. 2 global producer of polyurethane.

“My initial plan with the money after the sales was to buy a school and devote the rest of my life to educating future leaders of Korea,” Kim said. He soon decided, however, that plan would be too much trouble for him.

While enjoying his retirement traveling the world, Kim was impressed by the scores of automobile and aviation museums he visited in America and Europe. He said he was shocked to find that “cars and aircrafts are not simply generic tools for moving people but can be considered collectibles and be preserved for future generations.” It was ironic, he said, that Korea, despite being the world’s fifth-largest producer of automobiles, had no decent automobile museum.

“When I saw a group of kids having fun in an American automobile museum listening to the teacher’s on-site lecture about automobile history,” Kim said, “I realized that I had finally found a cause worthy of devoting my life and money.”

▲ Kim Young Rak has gathered Asia's largest private collection of classic cars at the Jeju World Automobile Museum in Seogwipo City. Photo by Jean K. Min

Locating vintage cars scattered around the world was his most difficult task, but with the help of a former Rolls Royce engineer, Kim tracked down the museum’s first car in 2003, near Christchurch, New Zealand. It was a 1938 Austin 7.

The museum’s collection has since grown to its current complement of 74 vintage cars, with the majority acquired from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Europe.

The prize of the museum is a 1928 Hillman Straight 8, of which there are only six in existence today. The entire body of the car is made of wood panels carefully crafted and processed from Lebanese cedar.

“The museum is also incredibly lucky to have come into possession of a 1952 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith formerly owned by Queen Elizabeth II,” Kim said. When an apothecary to the household at Windsor retired from his royal post, the Queen gave him her white Rolls in recognition of his lifetime service. After his death, however, his descendants decided they could not maintain the Silver Wraith and put it up for auction in 2005. Kim won the bidding.

Kim became sentimental when recalling how he acquired a 1938 Nash Ambassador in 2006. When Kim arrived at the owner’s home somewhere in the Australian outback with his advisor, the owner invited them to his study and showed them black and white pictures taken during his tour of duty in the Korean War.

“I will have to donate my life-time love to my new Korean friend,” the Korean War veteran said before the negotiations, “but I am sorry for asking you for a minimum payment to be saved for my retirement.” Kim tried to invite the Nash’s former owner to the museum’s opening in 2008 but he could not attend because of illness. Kim heard recently that the former owner died last year.

“It is not so much about the money you are ready to pay as your preparedness as a trusted custodian of rare vintages,” Kim said. “Like a pet owner trying to size up a new buyer before a deal is closed, vintage car owners usually try to judge if the potential new owner will be reliable enough to be entrusted with his life-time love.” It is then little wonder that many vintage car owners sell their assets only at the prospect of their imminent death. In that regard, Kim’s museum is a custodian of those legacies inherited from previous owners the world over.

Jeju was not Kim’s first choice of location for the museum. “I initially thought about opening the museum near Seoul so that I could educate as many of the future generation as possible about the rare collections,” he said. However, land prices were too high there to afford a lot large enough for his planned museum — about 156,800 square meters.

▲ A visitor inspecting a model car in the museum gift shop. Photo by Yang Ho Geun

Kim briefly considered Busan as a possible site but decided that Jeju would be the better location for the museum. About 15,000 to 16,000 tourists from the mainland visit the island everyday and land prices are cheaper than in Seoul or Busan. “A museum in Jeju would allow me to buy land large enough for future expansion,” Kim said, “and make the collections accessible to as many visitors as possible.”

The museum has a curator, but Kim said that the curator needs to study more about vintage cars as well as automobile history. Kim plans to open another hall dedicated solely to Rolls Royce vehicles. The museum currently has seven vintage Rollers and plans to add three more soon, which will make it the biggest private collection of vintage Rolls Royces in Asia.

Kim was coy about the amount of money he has poured in to buying and displaying these rare cars but the museum curator said it would be somewhere between $20 million to $30 million. The museum has only a limited maintenance capacity and due to the extreme difficulty of obtaining spare parts, Kim tries to collect only mint-condition cars.

Ten cars from Kim’s collection traveled to the mainland last year at the invitation (and expense) of the Seoul Motor Show but Kim plans to minimize such travel in the future.

The museum hosted its opening event in March 2008 complete with a vintage car parade near Jeju City. That is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. “Korea’s strict driving regulations coupled with the arduous paperwork required for such a classic car road-show make it nearly impossible to do it again,” Kim said.

World Automobile Museum
2065-4, Sangchang-ri, Andeok-myeon, Seogwipo City
Tel: 064-792-3000 (Korean only)

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