After growing up on Melaka and working for a small engineering firm, two brothers decided to set up a business in Kuala Lumpur. Chua Cheng Bok, and his brother Cheng Liat, opened a sundries shop in 1895 selling everything from soap to screwdrivers. Originally called ‘The Federal Stores’, the shop began to deal with bicycles, motorcycles and the new-fangled motorcars, which were still called ‘horseless carriage’. The change in name to Cycle & Carriage in 1899 reflected the new interest of the brothers and the future direction of the store.
Katz Bros had begun importing the ‘horseless carriage’ in 1896 (see ad) and one of the first owners was publisher and author Charles B. Buckley, who drove around in a Benz Motor Velocipede.
By 1908, a Singapore Auto Club had been set up with the Sultan of Johor as a member. By that year, there were already 214 licensed residents, which is surprising when even in the USA and Great Britain, this was a new development in transportation.
The Chua brothers obviously saw the potential and opened up branches in Ipoh (1906), Penang (1914) and Singapore (1916). While the First World War dampened down sales, it also exposed servicemen to mechanical vehicles and, once the fighting was over, there was a strong interest in motor cars.
The Cycle & Carriage Company was incorporated in Singapore in 1926 as a public company. Orchard Road became the location of the headquarters. Chua Cheng Bok was made the Chairman and the other brothers became directors. Other directors were old friends from Melaka and included John Middleton Sime, one of the founders of Sime Darby. Under the wing of the company and its subsidiaries were vehicle brands such as Swift, Singer, BSA and Overland. The acquisition of Straits Motor Garage added Hillman, Cubitt and Essex to the stable.
However, the world depression came along a few years later and Cycle & Carriage closed all the Malaysian showrooms in 1939.
Chua Cheng Bok had amassed a good deal of wealth in the earlier times and became known as a philanthropist before his death in 1940. He built a large, beautiful house in Jalan Ampang KL in 1929 and his wife continued to live there until the 1960s. It then became a restaurant until legally it could be sold. Sadly, the family did not hold on to it and the house was demolished in 2006 despite protests.
The Chairman role was taken over by brother Chua Cheng Hee while his other brother Cheng Liat became Managing Director.
World War 2 came to the Malaysian Peninsular and occupying Japanese took over the workshops along with the stock of cars and trucks. After the defeat of the Japanese, Cycle & Carriage along with other pre-war firms had to pick themselves up and start again. Cycle & Carriage met strong competition from Borneo Motors which was importing American brands like Chrysler, Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac. The Chua family couldn’t get a foot in the door with the big USA brands. Daimler-Benz was being courted by Wearnes, another local rival dealer but Chua Cheng Liat, who had now taken over as Chairman on the retirement of his elder brother, was determined to get the franchise for Mercedes-Benz. He asked the representative of the German company what it would take to get the deal. After thinking for a moment, the man advised him “Place and order, even if you do not have any buyers yet.” Chua ordered six cars and got his deal. The year was 1951. It was a gamble, and for a long time these first cars sat in the showroom as they were considered expensive and few could afford them. Chua decided to buy one himself. Two taxi companies bought some and the rest were then snapped up. The diesel engines were very reliable and ideal for taxi trips between Singapore and Malaya. These popular, well-built vehicles were still plying their trade in the 1980s. The Mercedes-Benz buses and trucks also attracted buyers. This partnership between Germany and Singapore proved to a strong foundation of a company struggling to rebuild after the war.
With this franchise, Cycle& Carriage then moved back into Malaya where it had all started. The son of Cheng Liat, joined the board of the Malaysian company.
By 1965, Cycle & Carriage felt ready to open an assembly plant at Hillview in Singapore. It also opened a new showroom in Liat Towers (now we know where the building name originated). In 1968, a plant building Mitsubishi vehicles was opened in Johore. By now, Chua Boon Peng, another son of Cheng Liat, had taken on the role of Chairman. The following years saw changes in the corporate structure and the expansion into the manufacture of trailers and commercial vehicles body structures with the takeover of Ipoh Motors and Hercules Automotive.
New franchises were acquired during these expansionist times including brands such as Mazda (1989), Kia (1995) and Peugeot (2002). Proton and Hyundai also at one time came under the wing of C&C in Singapore or Malaysia.
Cycle & Carriage ceased to be a family firm after Jardine Matheson Group gained controlling interest in 2002 and the name was changed to Jardine Cycle & Carriage in 2003.
Under the new management the focus was on Mazda and other brands other than the prestigious German marque were dropped. New Mercedes showrooms were opened in Singapore while in KL four impressive Mercedes-Benz Autohaus were opened.
From the small shop in Kula Lumpur, the Cycle & Carriage group has expanded around the region including businesses in Australia and its focus stretches beyond motor related products into property.