Cars never really did it for me, and it is only now, late in life, that I actually own one — though somebody else drives it. Despite a lifelong aversion to car ownership, a determined devotion to public transport and good old-fashioned walking and cycling, I have always had a fondness for old cars, much as I have a fondness for steam trains, especially British steam. As a child I was taken on several occasions to see the London to Brighton Rally, an annual event where vintage cars and men with big moustaches, a hearty laugh and a fine contempt for all things health-and-safety would drive their wonderful vehicles from the city to the sea.
Nothing like that happens in Pakistan, but we are not without those with an enthusiasm for cars that are long past their sell-by date. Indeed, as I have burrowed ever deeper into the subculture I have discovered an entire workshop devoted to the restoration of the VW Beetle and its associated models, tucked away in a ‘Pindi basti. There are literally dozens of Beetles in various stages of repair and disrepair, and the mechanics tenderly bringing them back to life masters of their art.
These shining beauties emerge into the light but rarely, and in the case of a mustard-yellow Rolls Royce that I saw today — just once a year. They are owned and run by a diverse group of enthusiasts who come from all over the country and annually they come together to show off their prized bits of automotive history.
Ranged around the lawn at a five-star Islamabad hotel on a sunny December afternoon, were millions of dollars-worth of motoring history. Probably several millions to judge by the pedigree of some of the vehicles on display. Islamabad is just a stop along the way as the convoy will be heading off to Peshawar in a couple of days. They started in Karachi and have wended their stately way northwards stopping at Lahore en route. The men (…this is very much a ‘man thing’ I am sorry to say. Women feature little in the vintage car scene in Pakistan other than as loyal wives that twinkle somewhere in the background) leaned against their mirror-finished heirlooms, busting with pride. They burbled and preened, compared notes and were photographed time and time again by those who had come to admire their handiwork and envy their ownership.
It would be easy — and very wrong — to dismiss this group of men who by the very nature of their hobby are richer than most of us will ever be. To dismiss them as dilettantes, rich boys with expensive toys. But look again.
Many of the vehicles on display are a part of the history and heritage of Pakistan. They were owned and run — not always by the ruling classes — in the time before Partition. The car collections of the princely families are the stuff of legend, and I have seen garages in which sit the dusty outlines of Bentleys, Rollers and Vanden Plas, jacked up on bricks, wheels stacked in a far corner. They sit there awaiting the ministrations of men like those that had brought life back to the cars that sat on the lawn in Islamabad… and one day they too may purr quietly again.
Keeping heritage alive in a country that cares little for it and is both a poor custodian and conservator, is neither cheap not easy. Vintage cars cost an arm and a leg, sometimes multiples thereof to restore and then keep in running condition. There was a quiet sense of feeling distinctly lucky as I walked among them.
What few museums there are nationally are grossly underfunded and often indifferently curated. Our past, both near and far distant, is poorly served by those who live just for the present. ‘Heritage’ as a concept is poorly understood. History and heritage are not the same but they can come together in the same place at the same time, in the instance of classic cars in the form of living and working artefacts, preserved for all of us to see. Give them a look if they ever come your way. Reach out and touch, very gently, pieces of all our histories.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2015.
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