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The Forgotten Austin that Helped Change the World

[Editor's Note – Say hello to our newest Hoon Robby DeGraff. He's getting started in a big way with his tale of discovery in Vietnam. --JG]

When we think of the Ford Bronco, OJ comes to mind. When we think of John F Kennedy, we remember his ’61 Lincoln Continental limo. When we think of the pope… well that’s a given. The point I’m trying to make is that we remember the cars associated with historic people or events. So why would I argue that the light blue, rusty Austin Westminster you see above, is probably one of the most historic cars of all time?

Let’s go back in time to Vietnam in 1963.

A Buddhist monk by the name of Thích Quảng Đức traveled to Saigon, Vietnam’s biggest city. He went protest the cruel treatment of monks, and harsh policies of South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm and his regime. Before the idolized monk performed his act of self-immolation (lighting one’s self on fire), this Austin picked him up from a monastery in the old war-ridden city of Hue, and drove him southward to his final destination.

When Đức got to Saigon, his self-immolation took place at a busy intersection, surrounded by other monks, reporters, and Vietnamese civilians.  A famous picture came out of this act, and you’ve probably seen it in either textbooks or somewhere on the Web. Photographer Malcome Browne shot this award-winning picture,which prompted President Kennedy to later remark that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

As a photographer, I couldn’t agree more. This remains one of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen.

I decided that I needed to bring this forgotten car into light, and give it the true attention it deserves. After a bit of research, I found that this Austin Westminster was built between 1956-1959, and was powered by a small 106-horsepower 2.6-liter inline six. It’s been nearly fifty years since the car dropped off Thích Quảng Đức in downtown Saigon, and now it’s sitting right along the Perfume River at the Thien Mu pagoda in Hue.

Before getting to that light blue Austin, I spent four months studying abroad in Vietnam. It was the best experience of my life, and an every day-24/7-crazy adventure. I took classes, volunteered at an NGO called KOTO teaching English to disadvantaged street children, and traveled throughout this truly fascinating country.

On a ten day trip to Vietnam’s central and northern region, we stopped at places like Hoi An, Dalat, Hanoi, and, of course, Hue, which is where I ultimately came across this historic car.  I walked into this beautiful Buddhist pagoda, which was built around the year 1601, and saw a huge bell weighing in at a whopping 4,523 pounds. Supposedly, it can be heard from up to 6 miles away, yet I resisted the urge to ring it. To my right were a set of giant figurines, probably nine feet tall with beards and hair borrowed from horses. No doubt that would scare the crap out of me at night.

Walking down a few steps, I entered into an open courtyard where the smell of incense filled the air. Amongst all the silence and tranquility, I looked to the left and to my surprise saw an old car sitting behind a tiny wooden fence. Following my internal gear head alarm, I walked over to check it out.

“Holy shit!” were the two words literally escaping my mouth when I saw that picture in the windshield. This was that car… I was in complete shock and awe. The light blue paint had faded and patches of surface rust had commandeered parts of the hood and once-chrome bumper. The car was held up by two concrete blocks, and just about everything on it looked original, including the tires. A closer look at the cabin revealed a roof coated in dust and a windshield surrounded by worn-out rubber stripping. I could see the rim of the wooden steering wheel, and evidence of where a mouse had tried to naw its way into the dashboard.

That horrific yet powerful picture in the windshield stood out, and made me stop. Had I just discovered forgotten a piece of history on accident? Yes. Was the car in it self a treasure from decades ago? Yes. I stood there thinking, however, not about how cool this old Austin is, and how I could lovingly restore it. Instead, I was reflecting on what a strong and unbelievable sacrifice this young monk had made for fair treatment and human rights in his country.

If you’re interested in reading more about the surprising cars and modes of transportation in Vietnam, check out my blog.

Currently there are "20 comments" on this Article:

  1. dwegmull says:

    Hello Robby,
    Welcome! And kudos for a great first post. Now, I'm off to your blog…

  2. muthalovin says:

    Awesome story, and welcome aboard.

  3. Van_Sarockin says:

    Sorry, but that car didn't change the world

    • Devin says:

      Yes, the car was just transportation, but you can't deny the importance of the event it was connected to. It might have just driven Thích Quảng Đức to a location, but that photo was one of the most important of the last century, and he did need a car to get him there.

      It could've been any car available in Vietnam in the 1960s, it just happened to be that one.

      • Van_Sarockin says:

        I'd agree that the monk, his suicide and the photo and coverage did a great deal to shift public percetion of the Vietnam War, worldwide.

        It's like celebrating the streetcar that goes to CERN (if there is one) because Tim Berners Lee invented the internet there. And I really like streetcars, too.

        • tonyola says:

          I agree. Comparing this Austin to the Kennedy limo is too much of a stretch. First of all, Kennedy was actually riding in his Lincoln when he was killed. Second, he chose to leave off the Plexiglas bubble top which, while not really intended to be bulletproof, might have deflected or slowed the fatal bullets.

          • Devin says:

            Stuff that was even more tangential to the Kennedy assassination is getting attention lately though, like the hearse and the ambulance. People find objects connected to famous events endlessly fascinating, even if they were there solely by chance or due to convenience.

          • Van_Sarockin says:

            Bonnie and Clyde's death car is historic. Same with Al Capone's armored limo, and T E Lawrence's armored Rolls, and Popemobiles, too. They played actual rolls in historic events.

            Yup, the plexi top might have added enough uncertainty to make the hit too risky.

            • tonyola says:

              Another truly historic car – the 1911 Graf & Stift in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, thereby starting World War I.
              <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/FranzFerdinandCar.jpg&quot; width=400>

              • Van_Sarockin says:

                That car is absolutely historic. The story is odd and fascinating. They had driven past one group of assassins who lost their nerve. Later, the driver took a wrong turn down some narrow, winding streets, and came right upon another, lone assassin, who shot and killed the archduke, etc.

                • FЯeeMan says:

                  Driver for former Archduke Franz Ferdinand1911-1914
                  Familiar with operation of 1911 Graf & Stift automobilesExperienced as riding mechanicTook only one wrong turn

                  Hmmm… not exactly the resume highlight he may have been hoping for

      • LTDScott says:

        While I agree, as soon as I saw the car and the word "Vietnam," I immediately knew what it was before reading even further. Probably because it was the only car to appear in some of my history books, so I was fixated on it.

    • Impalamino says:

      I'd agree that the car didn't change the world. But I could make a strong argument that it HELPED change the world, as the title of the post states. Clearly, someone thought it significant enough to set aside.

      Nice post, Robby.

  4. Jim-Bob says:

    I've known of the story of this car for about 20 years and it always makes me sad. Did it change the world? As many others have already pointed out here it did not. The country later fell into the hands of the communists and individual rights were hampered along with it. All we have here then is a vehicle that acts as a historical bookmark, holding a place in history where a desperate young man took his life in a very painful and poignant way.

  5. Scandinavian Flick says:

    A significant piece of history indeed. Things like this are important in that they remind people of significant events that really should never be forgotten so that sacrifices made are not in vain.

    Pretty cool to run across it at random. Thanks for sharing, and welcome, Robby!

  6. Nat says:

    Well you hardly discovered it! It is on the tourist trail in Hue- i guess 90% of all tourists who travel from Hanoi to Saigon or vice versa, see this very car. Nat from Saigon.

  7. Robert says:

    This is still happening in Tibet right now (to protest Chinese occupation) and we do not see any news coverage of it.

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