At the beginning of 2018, Jeff Ng’s Volkswagen Golf R, the most souped-up version of the enduringly popular hatchback from the German automaker, couldn’t start.
Failing ignition is something all car owners have probably experienced at some point, except that Jeff isn’t your average petrolhead; the 41-year-old – then the head of BAG’s business development – had already been operating a miniature workshop called JMA in Batu Besurat specializing in continental cars for close to five years.
Jeff and his team weren’t the only ones who couldn’t solve the problem however, with mechanics from Brunei’s Volkswagen dealership also firing blanks.
“I had tried almost every technician I knew that handled continental (European) cars in Brunei,” said Jeff, who decided to reach out to his regional network, from whom he often sourced car parts from for JMA.
“Eventually a friend connected us to a company (from Malaysia) called Volkspeed Motorsport.”
Terrence Law, a bespectacled Volkswagen-certified master technician who had competed in diagnostic challenges in Germany, was dispatched from Volkspeed’s base in Glenmarie’s Industrial Park in Shah Alam, Selangor.
After touching down in the Sultanate, Terrence spent all of 15 minutes tweaking Jeff’s Golf R – and it was revving back to life.
“At that point, I realized there was a serious skill gap that we (continental workshops) are missing here in Brunei,” said Jeff. “That’s when I decided JMA needed to partner with Volkspeed.”
The petrolhead duo behind JMA
For the first four years, JMA functioned as a part-time workshop serviced by Jeff and his colleague and close friend Melvin Tan.
Located next to Jeff’s family shop selling water pumps, JMA would take on orders during the weekdays through a shop assistant or online. On the weekends, Jeff and Melvin – both senior IT executives – would grease up engine bays, although the focus then was mostly on performance upgrades.
“JMA started by selling parts, doing performance upgrades and minor diagnostics for continental cars,” said Jeff.
“Continental because that’s what we were really into, and there weren’t many around doing it. It was difficult to find locals to help us with the workshop in the beginning, so we essentially did all the installation and repair work.”
Neither Jeff or Melvin were formally trained, but by the time they hired their first full-time employee last year – a budding 27-year-old automotive graduate from Pusat Latihan Mekanik by the name of Justin Cheong – the petrolhead duo had built JMA into a small but respected brand followed by thousands of local continental car enthusiasts.
Brunei’s JMA becomes Volkspeed’s first international venture
When Terrence returned to Malaysia after fixing Jeff’s Golf R, he brought news of JMA’s eagerness to partner to Volkspeed’s managing director Simon Kang, a Malaysian entrepreneur best known taking his family’s hardware business Suriwong from a small store in Alor Setar, Kedah to a national wholesale supplier of building materials.
“When we started Volkspeed Motorsport in Selangor in 2016, we always had a long-term vision of wanting to expand throughout Malaysia then branch out overseas,” said Simon. “But we were still on our first branch and did not expect to venture out internationally so soon.”
In February, Simon brought his managing team to Brunei and impressed by Jeff’s tenacity, agreed to a joint venture with JMA to open up three units capable of housing six hydraulic lifts and eight engine bays at the new Light Industrial Building complex located in Kg Jangsak.
While waiting for the property’s occupational permit, Jeff sent his three technicians to Malaysia immerse themselves in Volkspeed’s operation, who focus on servicing Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz automobiles as well other brands under the wider Volkswagen group, which include Audi, Porsche and Bentley.
“We are investing in Jeff’s vision of building a third-party workshop (besides authorized automobile dealer) that will deliver quality, affordable and reliable service for continental car owners,” added Simon. “It’s the same vision we share at Volkspeed.”
Continental peace of mind?
A subject of continuing debate, from motor enthusiasts to the everyday driver in this region is the overarching difference between European and Asian automobile brands.
In Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia, brands hailing from the continent of Europe are often simply referred to as ‘continental’ or ‘conti’. They’re traditionally thought to be more high-end; geared towards luxury and overall driving experience, while Asian cars are stereotyped to mostly be economical; all about ferrying you from point A to B for as long as possible.
The existing price difference between Asian and European cars are naturally and sometimes artificially exacerbated in Southeast Asia due to proximity and taxes, but the line is becoming increasingly blurred; more European brands have begun assembling and manufacturing in Asia to lower costs and be competitive at lower price points, while Asian brands are producing more upmarket lines to target affluent owners.
In Brunei, there are approximately 649 automobiles per 100,000 people, but there aren’t any readily available statistics online breaking down ownership by brand, so Jeff can’t pin down the exact size of his target market.
Sales reports by the Brunei Automobile Traders Association consistently report Asian automobiles coming out on top, and as expected European brands are still on average more expensive than their Asian counterparts in the Sultanate.
In the greater debate, the price tag of continental cars isn’t Jeff’s main concern. Instead the 41-year-old sees his role as providing Bruneians continental owners a peace of mind.
“When I bought my first conti (a Mini Cooper), my worry wasn’t the selling price, but also the maintenance that came after: Would parts be difficult to find? Would it be expensive to service?
“At JVM we hope to solve those worries and problems by being a one-stop continental workshop. We have the technical expertise to provide end-to end; from oil change to engine overhaul to performance upgrades. And we have the right network so we can help offer you options in terms of parts; whether you want original or OEM (generic brands),” he says.
Jeff adds that the stereotype of continental cars being less reliable is misleading; he says the issue is more fundamentally rooted with workshops being unfamiliar with their systems – which are becoming increasingly electronic – especially in higher-end models that push the envelope with gadgetry and complex engineering.
The consequences of mishandling more advanced systems can be dire, as Jeff points to an imported ‘reconditioned’ Volkswagen Scirocco in JVM’s garage, sold to a Bruneian owner, that now needs an engine overhaul despite being less than a decade old.
“Based on our analysis, we believe it was tuned incorrectly when it was sent to be ‘reconditioned’ and as a result has been damaged,” said Jeff.
“The same with my Golf R, the issue was our own lack of knowledge. But with our partnership with Volkspeed, it will no longer be an issue.”
JVM is located at Block A, Unit 10-12, Light Industrial Building, Spg 845-10-43, Jln Gadong, Kg Jangsak and opens from Monday to Saturday, 8.30am to 5.30pm.