Out of naivete, blissful ignorance and blind faith, comes original thought, creative
genius and innovation.
One year after their freshman debut, family car-building team Phalet and Leakhena Nhean turn heads with a second offering. Dubbed the Angkor II, the luxury mini comes complete with vibrating seats, self-reclining soft top and state-of-the-art sound system.
Nhean Leakhena, a 19 year old high school student, designed a sophisticated two-door
convertible automobile from scratch and then watched her father build it in the corner
of his car wash garage in Phnom Penh.
It took Nhean Phalet 15 months and cost $2,700 and it looks like something fresh
off the assembly line. It's a head-turner.
Phalet worked entirely alone and made almost everything himself.
How did these two do it without previous experience, without reading technical magazines,
without consulting experts, without using the internet, without even a blueprint?
She said: "I listened to my father, studied the cars coming in to be washed,
and used my imagination."
He said: "I did it by trial and error. Work, thought, work, thought."
Phalet is the genius but he could not visualise what the car should look like. He
needed his daughter to do that because "she has had a talent for design from
There has been considerable media interest in the project over the past two years,
but none has mentioned Leakhena's role. Prompted by her father, she produced a series
of amateurish concept sketches, done in pencil on A4 paper. There were no working
drawings or plans. Phalet then just proceeded to build the car from the ground up,
in his garage. They discussed problems and made changes; sometimes Leakhena drew
a new sketch.
Leakhena, the 19-year-old automotive designer and daughter of Phalet Nhean, has no formal training or experience. "She has had a talent for design from her birth," says her father.
Phalet's wife Neang Chea, 41, is also a key member of the team. She and a foreman
run the thriving car wash business to give Phalet time for his project. Phalet said:
"She is my motivator and she gives me money from the business income. My wife,
daughter and I always collaborate and share ideas and problems about the car design
This is actually their second car, the Angkor II. The first was itself a sensation,
a tiny open-sided two seater with a fabric roof, easy to park, built from recycled
body panels and powered by a motorcycle engine. But Angkor I is vastly overshadowed
by its successor.
There is only one of each model and they're not for sale. Phalet constantly fends
off requests from people to make them one.
He needs a partner or an investor, or someone to do a feasibility study, or someone
to represent him in making an approach to an established assembler in Japan, or China,
or Korea, or anywhere.
His dream is to see a factory in Cambodia building his cars. Given the talents in
this country for making things out of recycled scrap and the Khmer ability to fix
anything, and the unbelievably low labor costs, it might just be possible for a homegrown,
low-tech, non-robotic assembly plant to work. But Phalet concedes it's a faint hope.
He said: "I am very interested to meet any investors who want to be my partners
to establish the factory to produce the car. I don't care about the location or their
nationality. Wherever or whoever makes my business operate, I am very pleased to
join with them.
A look inside the Angkor II reveals hand-stitched upholstery and door linings.
"So far I haven't got a reply from a Malaysian businessman who talked to me
With financial backing, Phalet hopes to make more cars with better materials.
The Angkor II's chassis is made from steel left over from when Phalet built his garage
The main chassis members are two 5 x 10 cm channel steel sections welded together
to form the side rails. The body reinforcing is 2cm box section steel, the same as
commonly used for security screens.
The underfloor pan probably came from an old Camry, he's not sure.
There are no auto junk yards in Cambodia; anything discarded is usually totally worn
out. So Phalet handmade almost everything on the car. Even the mock walnut-grain
dashboard panelling. He achieved this effect by passing a gas flame across a painted
The engine is a Suzuki 3 cylinder, 12 valve, 660 cc, transverse mounted, front-wheel
driven, through a 4 speed gearbox. The 50 litre gasoline tank gives a travel range
of about 800 km at 6 litres per 100 km. It has a top speed of 120 km/h.
In addition to what you'd expect to find on a modern small car, it has some special
features. All four seats are fitted with adjustable-speed massage vibration devices,
and the convertible roof folds down behind the rear seat at the push of a button.
The seat back can also lay flat to form cargo space.
It has air conditioning, a fancy cd system; the electric assisted devices include
side mirrors (with flashing turn indicators), retracting aerial, screen washers,
fuel cap cover. There are novelty flashing lights on the insides of the doors.
The brakes are disc at front, drums at rear, on 13-inch wheels. The headlights are
from a 1998 Corolla; the stylish rear light units and reflectors were handmade.
Phalet built the car as the car washing proceeded at pace around him. He started
with the wheels and chassis and gradually built it up, adding a body frame.
The body is made from discarded panels from wrecked cars, formed in situ, welded
to the structural members and machine-sanded to a perfect finish. Only the front
and rear bumpers are plastic. There is no spray painting booth; he applied three
coats of light green lacquer in the open, on calm days.
He made all the upholstery and interior lining himself, using a sewing machine and