Vintage cars: A 'drive back into the past' of Pakistan

Updated on May 27, 2015 10:13 PM IST

For an elite but passionate group of vintage car collectors in Pakistan, restoring antique rides is like travelling back in time - and money seems to be no obstacle when the prize is a Lincoln convertible that belonged to an Afghan king or a Rolls-Royce once used by India's last viceroy.

AP | By, Rawalpindi, Pakistan

For an elite but passionate group of vintage car collectors in Pakistan, restoring antique rides is like travelling back in time - and money seems to be no obstacle when the prize is a Lincoln convertible that belonged to an Afghan king or a Rolls-Royce once used by India's last viceroy.

Mohsin Ikraam, president of the Vintage and Classic Car Club of Pakistan, says the collectors help preserve a portion of the region's history of the past century. Among rich Pakistanis, he says, the desire to own classic automobiles has been growing and the club's membership has now topped 10,000.

The club sponsors many promotions and events where owners roll out their antiques for annual car shows or take them on rallies spanning hundreds of kilometers (miles) across Pakistan, something that might raise eyebrows among those aware of just how volatile this country can be. To outsiders, Pakistan is more known for militant havens in its northwestern tribal areas and Taliban insurgents who have fought for over a decade to overthrow the government and impose a harsh version of Islamic law, killing tens of thousands of people in the war.

But Pakistan's gearheads are a testament to the universal appeal of fixing up and maintaining vintage cars, more commonly associated with America, Britain and Western countries from where popular shows like "Top Gear" or "Fast N' Loud" have reached Pakistani cable channels.

Pakistani businessman Raja Mujahid Zafar's Wolseley 1936 model car, in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo)

Take businessman Raja Mujahid Zafar, for one.

He has nearly 40 classic cars - the oldest among them a 1914 Ford Model T - at his palatial Islamabad home. A special section of the house and grounds is dedicated to his hobby, including a big concrete garage and two outdoor shelters.

"You can't stop time," he said, gently touching the Ford's copper-plated insignia, "but you can drive back into the past."

He imagines the car whizzing about on roads back when the region was still a British colony, scenes reminiscent of old movies. "That's the historical ride you enjoy," he says.

A man checks a 1914 Ford car restored by a collector, in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo)

The Ford, known as Tin Lizzie or just T, was the result of Henry Ford's desire to produce a car affordable to the middle class in the early 20th century. It was credited for putting America on wheels at a time when automobiles were considered an extreme luxury by people mostly used to riding horse carriages.

Zafar said his "first love" was a maroon, six-cylinder Wolseley 1936 model - a "wreck" when he found it in 1988. It took him several years and trips abroad to hunt down parts to restore it to its original condition, he said.

Getting spare parts is the most challenging aspect of the hobby, collectors say, and parts are often shipped from the US or Europe. Advertisements are put in foreign newspapers - even friends traveling abroad are recruited to help.

In response to an ad in 2004, a London broker got a Karachi-based businessman Karim Chhapra an original clock he desperately wanted for his 1924 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost model. It cost 400 pounds - or about $725 at the time.

The Rolls-Royce won first place at an international Concours D'Elegance car show in Kuwait in 2012, Chhapra said, and his American 1929 Hupmobile came in second.

The Rolls was originally owned by a prince, Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi, in the then-India's Bahawlpur state, which later became part of Pakistan. Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, and Pakistan's father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, rode in it together during the 1947 ceremony marking the birth of Pakistan.

It had remained garaged for decades, said Chhapra, who made his son promise never to sell the car but keep it in the family. When he occasionally takes the 300,000 pounds (about $462,000) Rolls-Royce for a spin, people on the streets stop him for a selfie.

The prince had about 100 cars, most of which were auctioned off, said his grandson, Sulaiman Abbasi, also a member of the classic cars club.

Abbasi said he has worked for years on another car he inherited from his grandfather, a 1948 one and a half litre-engine Jaguar, photographing each sequence as he restored the sleek black saloon with so-called "suicide doors" - the kind that are hinged at the rear rather than the front.

A man drives his restored vintage Chevrolet classic car in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (AP Photo)

Vintage cars are not just about passion but also patience, says car mechanic Ali Hussain, who has been restoring antique cars since 1972 at his workshop in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad.

Hussain is currently working on a 1934 Wolseley and a 1944 Chevrolet, and says he sometimes feels like a doctor, "injecting life" into the old and broken-down.

The hobby is expensive, admits Ikraam, the club president, who has a 1947 Lincoln Continental Convertible V12, which he said Afghanistan's last king, Zahir Shah, used to drive in the early 1970s. For example, a 12-cylinder 1963 Ferrari that was taken from Pakistan to America was auctioned for $2 million.

Pakistan's emerging classic cars industry is worth nearly $11 million, Ikraam said - a staggering sum in a country of 180 million people where the majority live below the poverty line of $2 a day.

As he drove another one of his classics, a 1967 Ford Mustang that could cost $50,000 these days in the United States, Zafar, the businessman, said there is no limit to the cars he would love to have. In his bedroom, decorated with hundreds of small models of old car, the wall clock, the side lamp, the ash tray and the music player are all in the shape of models still missing from his collection.

"These are mostly the cars I dream to own," he said.

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