The car collectors of Pakistan
With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a rugged-looking Roger Beckermann, played by Italian actor, Rossano Brazzi, drives a blazing orange Lamborghini Miura neatly through the Italian Alps. “On Days Like These”, the Quincy Jones composition, softly plays through-out the stunning, dreamlike introduction of the 1969 film classic, The Italian Job.
It was this scene that last year inspired 13 vintage car aficionados from Lahore, Pakistan, to recreate Beckermann’s romantic solo drive through Europe. They booked tickets for Italy, made arrangements to rent nine classic cars, and traced their route on Google maps. The plan was to arrive in Rome, drive up to Florence, then make the 400km drive north to Lake Como, before climbing up through the mountains in a north easterly direction to Stelvio Pass — a route voted by the BBC car show Top Gear as ‘the greatest driving road in the world.’ For these middle-aged motoring enthusiasts it was a dream come true.
That group included Mushahid Shah, Kamran Hussain and Haydar Kirmani. A year on from that trip, the three of them are seated in Shah’s cozy living room in an upscale neighbourhood of Lahore. It’s a quiet, clean residential area with lots of trees and Shah is able to live here thanks to the proceeds of a chicken-feed mill that he owns. (Hussain works as a neurosurgeon in the city, while Kirmani, who is distantly related to Shah, runs his own software development company and also has a workshop that restores classic cars). “We would watch The Italian Job clip again and again,” Kirmani says of his passion for cars. “At some point one of us asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’”
The men are part of a popular Facebook group, the Vintage & Classic Car Club of Pakistan (VCCCP) a forum for hobbyists to engage with one another about their shared interest in exclusive automobiles from the golden era of motoring. The page currently boasts over 10,000 followers and also operates as an association where classic car enthusiasts organise and advertise motoring events for the public at large, such as the annual VCCCP rally. This runs all the way from Karachi over 1,300km north to Lahore, a further 400km up to the capital, Islamabad, and then east to Peshawar, the rally’s final destination. The event functions as a moving museum where the flotilla of vintage vehicles showcases a part of the country’s national heritage that is otherwise barely visible.
The three men are open and engaging when explaining how they developed their shared passion for classic cars. Shah and Hussain have known each other since childhood and they recount how, growing up, they’d visit old bookshops near their school in Lahore to buy dated copies of motor magazines. “We dreamed about owning the cars we’d see in the pictures,” says Hussain, who finally decided to seriously pursue his childhood passion when he returned to Pakistan after completing medical degree in the UK. “One day I was sitting around and feeling rather depressed about the state of affairs in the country and thought, I’m working and living here, but I’m not really following any of my interests.”
The 56-year-old neurosurgeon bought his first classic car, a Fiat 124 Sports Coupe in 1998. In the years since he has added a 1977 Porsche 911 SC Targa, a 1969 Mini Cooper, a 1963 Mini Cooper, a 1966 Porsche 912 SWB, a 1970 Mercedes 250S W108, a 1975 Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV, a 1975 Toyota Celica GT, a 1963 Ford Cortina, a 1966 Mercedes 190 and a Caterham 7 replica.
The provenance of each vehicle tells its own story. For example, Hussain mentions that his Mini Cooper once belonged to Syed Akram, a brigadier in the Pakistan Army. “He had the distinction of capturing Ramkot, Rajasthan, during the 1971 war with India. He loved cars and had five Mini Coopers. The car is a preservation of history,” Hussain says proudly.
More generally, the cars are all sourced from within Pakistan. Many of them were imported in the 1970s when it was cheap to do so — unlike now when it is virtually impossible given the red tape and stringent laws — and there wasn’t a great appreciation for their value.
Both Hussain and Shah come from respectable middle class families who are relatively successful. While Hussain studied hard to become a neurosurgeon, Shah was busy studying for his MBBS degree. “We both had very strict parents,” says Shah, speaking candidly about himself and Hussain. But that discipline brought with it financial benefits. “I was lucky enough to start collecting cars at the age of 20,” he admits.
Shah started out with a 1964 Mercedes-Benz 220SE Coupe, and then quickly added a 1966 Ford Mustang Convertible, a 1964 Jaguar Mark 2 and a 1964 Ford Thunderbird. This impressive start to his collecting career ended just as rapidly when he was ordered to sell off all his cars at the age of 22 as his parents wanted him to focus on his studies instead.
But three years ago, with Shah having firmly established himself in business, the 48-year-old decided to give his hobby another go. Today, he’s the proud owner of a number of original vintage beauties. “I have a 1972 MGB GT, a 1976 Mercedes-Benz 280 S, a 1959 Austin-Healey 3000 Mark 1 and a 1980 Mini Cooper; this one’s special,” he says, speaking of the latter model. “It has an automatic gear box and factory-fitted air-conditioning.” Rounding off the collection is a 1969 1750 GTV Alfa Romeo, which he boasts is “one of the most desirable Alfa Romeos at the moment”.
Unlike Shah and Hussain, Kirmani’s appreciation for vintage cars developed much later. Having spent the majority of his life in London, the 46-year-old moved back to Pakistan roughly 10 years ago to set-up the offshore office of his UK-based IT company in Lahore. He’d long been around classic cars as his father was a collector. Growing up, the family would often travel across Europe in one of their classic cars on holidays. “Initially I hated them,” he admits. “I used to ask him, ‘What’s this load of junk?!’ Perhaps it’s a sign of old age, but you start to appreciate things in a different way as you get older.”
At present, Kirmani owns a 1981 Jaguar XJS, a 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL (purchased by Kirmani after being inspired by Bobby Ewing in the TV series, Dallas, that he’d watch back in the day), a 1972 E-Type Jaguar and a 1974 Ford Cortina. “It has a personal value for me,” Kirmani smiles, speaking about his Ford, “Because when I was very young my father bought a car like that and made a road trip from the UK to Pakistan.”
Explaining why the hobby has kept them interested all these years is a little more complicated. Hussain compares the preservation of cars to the way people preserve art or houses, or anything else of historical and cultural value. He bemoans the obsession for all things new in Pakistan. “There’s less emphasis on history and culture in Pakistan nowadays. Everything is considered transitory, to be done away with. The culture is becoming too materialistic. People want the newest, the flashiest, the most expensive things. I wouldn’t call it crass modernism, but people aren’t willing to spend so much money on older vehicles.”
As a result, Hussain mentions that he knows of numerous valuable cars that were eventually junked, cut up and melted down – especially since Pakistan’s economic troubles of recent times. “People have lost the appreciation for the finer things in life,” he sighs.
When asked why people would choose a costly, weathered, classic car when one can ride in style and convenience in the latest, swiftest model of vehicle, the men are, unsurprisingly, quick to respond. “Modern cars have become so good that they’ve isolated the driver as much as possible,” Kirmani says leaning forward, “The steering, the suspension, even the atmosphere in the car, isolates you from the mechanics. It’s just a toy — you jump in, drive 200 miles and jump out. Classic cars aren’t like that, they’ve got personalities, and the reason they have personalities is because they’re imperfect. They’ll be loud, noisy, some may have a hard steering, but something about that endears you to it.”
Hussain nods in agreement. “Just the other day ago a friend called me up and said; ‘Doc, let’s go for a drive’. He’d bought one of the latest Aston Martins and wanted to take it for a spin. So we drove and I was doing about 185 mph, but it felt like a 100. Since it was unsafe I slowed down. You can have the same level of excitement in a classic car at a much slower speed.”
“…At 50 miles per hour!” Shah pipes in with a chuckle.
“It’s not that the car is unsafe at that speed,” agrees Hussain. “But it is giving you more sensation. That’s the key to the enjoyment.”
“You have a connection with a classic car and it makes you feel good,” Kirmani adds.
Out of the group, Kirmani is alone in having taken his passion a step further. After relocating to home turf, he recounts how he was appalled at the level of car service in Lahore. “I used to send my Mercedes to a dealer here but they never got it right. In the UK if you go to a Mercedes showroom, they throw out the red carpet for you,” he says with a twinge of exasperation.
This led Kirmani to start a car workshop, INH Motor Company, eight years ago with the help of two relatives. It functions as a workshop for everyday car repairs but also serves as a classic car restoration hub in Lahore. “The truth was this: we thought it was a big laugh. We assumed this was something we could mess about with in our spare time and tell our wives that we’re busy on the weekends!” he laughs.
But an idea that started out as a shot in the dark soon became a roaring success. “We thought one person per week would stumble in and we’d tinker with his car,” Kirmani says. “What shocked us was the fact that in the first month alone we had 99 cars.” Having started out with only three mechanics, INH now employs over 100 staff. They even have another branch located in Sharjah, UAE.
“Look, there’s no real money in restoring cars,” Kirmani replies, when asked about the thoroughly niche market that his workshop caters to. “Let’s say a bashed-in modern car comes in for a paint job – you can have it fixed up within a week, tops.
If a classic car comes in for restoration, it takes a good five months just to get the denting and painting done. Plus, you need to have three or four mechanics working solely on that one car.”
Kirmani maintains he’s in it for the pleasure, nothing more. To be able to not only purchase a piece of history, but also utilise it, is a high in itself he says.
But surely there has to be a downside to the hobby, apart from the cost, what with the arduous hunt for spare parts to repair decades-old cars…
“Oh dear, oh dear,” Hussain exclaims dramatically, leaning back in his chair.
“That’s half the fun!” Shah chuckles.
The eloquent neurosurgeon emphasises his point by recounting how complicated it was to search for classic car parts in Pakistan two decades ago when he first got started.
This was primarily because, pre-internet, no one had ready access to solid information. Back then, enthusiasts would have to resort to cold-calling car companies to track down who their suppliers were. Looking for a certain spare part was like sifting out a needle in a haystack. But eBay and the rise of the internet changed the game, thankfully.
These days, perhaps one of the biggest roadblocks for vintage car collectors in Pakistan are the convoluted customs regulations, vis-à-vis the import of car spare parts. “It’s obvious that if a car’s been out of production for 30 or 40 years, you’d be unlikely to find a brand-new spare-part of that very car, in fact you’d be lucky to find a used one,” Kirmani says. “Imagine, in Pakistan it’s illegal to import a used car spare part! Also, you cannot import cars that are more than three years old.”
So what does one do?
“We break the law,” Kirmani jokes. He’s grinning, but his tone is verging on bitter.
“These are people who’d be shocked at running a traffic light,” Hussain exclaims comically, pointing at Shah and Kirmani.
“We would not run a traffic light, but this country has made criminals out of all of us,” Kirmani laughs.
“…But smuggling a car part,” Hussain interrupts, “absolutely!”
“We walk through customs in big overcoats with parts hidden in our pockets, hoping we don’t get stopped!” Kirmani jokes.
“Bribing people left, right and centre,” Hussain continues, “Using connections!”
“We’re reluctant criminals,” says Kirmani.
The three crack up.
Kirmani recounts how he once imported a set of rims for a classic Mercedes that had been out of production for over three decades. However, a customs official told Kirmani that it was illegal to import them and that he couldn’t allow it to pass through customs. The rims, the official had stated, would have to be auctioned off in a few months by the authorities.
“It was only through a concerted effort that I ended up convincing them – and you know what I mean by ‘convincing,’” Kirmani says knowingly. “And I paid a huge fine on top of that. We’ve all had bad experiences.”
“It’s interesting, you know,” Hussain says. “The government passed a law stating that if you went abroad, came back, and, for example, had a car and its registration papers, you could import used car parts, but in a reasonable quantity. The only thing is that customs don’t actually follow their own rules.”
Corruption and bribery within the government machinery is rampant in Pakistan. According to a 2011 survey, the not-for-profit, Transparency International, listed Pakistan’s judiciary and the police as the most corrupt institutions in the country. In practice this means that if a law exists, a loophole to exploit it will usually be found; and if you can’t find a loophole then paperwork can be fobbed or deals made… there’s always a way. But you cannot get around the system without being a part of it – not in the simplest or the most elaborate of endeavours – be it entrepreneurial, hobby-related or indeed, just in the course of day-to-day living.
Given the limitations of the way Pakistan’s bureaucracy functions, Kirmani maintains an unflinching confidence in his workshop. “I would be willing to put a car restored by us against a car restored by anyone else in the world. We have that level of quality here in the country.”
When they’ve done with their stories about the search for car parts, the conversation swings towards to one the central arguments among collectors. Some vintage car enthusiasts are purists, striving to restore a vehicle to its original form, from the engine to the paint. The other school of thought is to not be too concerned with originality. Hussain explains how the modern take on vintage car restoration is to preserve the exterior and interior as much as possible, yet with modern mechanics.
“I’m not a purist,” he admits. “People the world over are junking old engines and putting in a modern set-up; so you have this beautiful vintage car that drives like a modern vehicle.” Hussain recounts how he wound up plugging a Mazda engine into his Ford Cortina, but only because the original engine proved extremely hard to find.
Shah, on the other hand, prides himself as a purist and, unsurprisingly, uses a medical analogy to explain his reasoning. “I would transplant the heart of a man with the heart of a man, not a cow,” he responds acerbically. The trio bursts out laughing.
“I think it’s important to add we call him Mr. Frankenstein,” Kirmani quips, looking over at Hussain and chuckling.
“The monster is not Dr. Frankenstein; he’s the one who creates the monster,” Hussain retorts in mock indignation.
“So we’ve got it right!” Kirmani says. The room again erupts in laughter.
Thanks to public activities arranged by the likes of VCCCP and others, and the enthusiasm of men like Mushahid Shah, Kamran Hussain and Haydar Kirmani, the appreciation and awareness for the art of vintage cars is more popular than ever before in Pakistan. The events and activities in public spaces have created the possibility of a new hobby and a new interest, to inspire and evoke a sense of wonder within youngsters, just as Shah, Hussain and Kirmani were moved when they were children.
Citing an example, Kirmani mentions a public car show that was held in Lahore a few years ago. “We took along three classic cars and allowed the public to get their pictures taken in them. It was incredible; there were queues of up to two hundred people against each car, waiting to see the vehicles!”
He speculates about how much he could grow his business if the rules and mindset were different. “I could employ 1,000 people if the government allowed people like me to import, refurbish and sell classic cars; it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Kirmani says enthusiastically, “As a nation we have incredible skill and talent. I have an old man working for me, who, with a hammer and press, can make you any fender out of any metal. We have a Pagoda Mercedes in the workshop and half of that car was made by him. Doing that abroad would have cost you at least $150,000 to restore. We did it at a fraction of that amount.”
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, thanks to the corruption and a lack of vision, the government hasn’t taken any interest in the immense potential that classic car restoration has to offer on home turf; even with rich skills, acumen and technology at hand.
“If you look at classic cars from the point of view of investment, they are making more money over stocks and shares, real estate, paintings...,” says Hussain. “The value of vintage cars is rising more than anything else. This is something we as a country need to latch onto.”
Pakistan’s growth potential is tremendous, thanks to its strategic geographical location, a large working-age populous, and rich natural resources. What holds the country back is a lack of mature governance, and little accountability or transparency with each successive regime. Provincial rivalry, lack of education, job opportunities, rising national debt and the unequal distribution of wealth have also continued to hinder economic growth. All this has kept the country in a socio-economic chokehold for the past few years.
Ultimately, however, for these three men, car collecting is not about business or economics or politics. It is simply a passion that all three have shared since boyhood. Which begs the obvious question of whether any of them are looking at acquiring more cars for their personal collection?
“Let me tell you a closely guarded secret,” Kirmani says, lowering his voice in a mock conspiratorial manner. “A classic car enthusiast never stops buying cars!”
“It’s a sickness,” Hussain nods in agreement.
While the search and eventual procurement of a particular model always remains on the horizon for a classic car enthusiast, Shah, Hussain and Kirmani declare that a true hobbyist continues to rotate his or her cars for the benefit of others. “Unfortunately some people are hoarders,” Hussain says.
“Vintage car collectors don’t appreciate hoarders taking the cars away from the public eye,” agrees Kirmani. “You own a car for a while, enjoy the experience and then sell it off to let someone else enjoy it. Yet we have some owners here who have 70 or 80 cars and that’s just criminal, especially when you can’t import more classic cars into the country. But imagine, 70 cars could be looked after by 70 enthusiasts and enjoyed by the public too.”
Given that the trio is strongly affiliated with the classic car community in the city, perhaps they could use their influence to discourage the hoarders?
Shah, who has remained quiet for a long time, chortles. “They’re our friends!”
And in a country battling extremism and socio-political instability, finding solace and a sense of relief in a shared passion is a very useful thing to have.