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Tehran: How Buicks drive the revolutionary message in Iran

By Christopher de Bellaigue
The Independent
October 12, 2000

AT A BUSY intersection a rust-encrusted Oldsmobile draws to a lurching halt. The driver is a middle-aged woman in a chador. From this pearl of 1970s American auto engineering comes the sound of a sermon on the radio. The speaker's voice is high-pitched and piercing. "Death to America!" he cries.

Buicks, Chevies, Cadillacs - the Islamic Republic of Iran has the lot and they are ailing witnesses to a quarter of a century of Iranian history. It is two decades since Iran's revolution, when the seizure of the American embassy severed ties with the US. Tehran's rush-hour dinosaurs are reminders of better days.

Before 1979 they were status symbols. When the revolution came, the elite fled to the US and elsewhere but their cars stayed. If Iran's motor industry were in better shape, the Buicks and others would have been scrapped years ago. But producers, shielded by a ban on imports, cannot meet demand and this has fostered thrift.

Although sanctions deprive them of spare parts, Iranian mechanics are renowned cannibalisers, and the Caddies trundle on. In the eyes of most Iranians Britain is second only to America in economic imperialism. On Tehran's streets elderly American cars are rivalled for ubiquity by a long-forgotten British embarrassment: the Paykan. Paykan means arrow but car buffs will recognise these boxy creatures without much difficulty. The Paykan started life in the 1960s as the Hillman Hunter and was sent to Iran in kits for assembly. Now it is 97 per cent Iranian but its design has hardly changed.

Paykans not only lack the elan of the Cadillacs and Chevrolets but they are also, environmentalists say, one of the main reasons Tehran is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Iran Khodro, which makes the Paykan, is a cosseted near-monopoly. Demand is double production levels, so Iran Khodro can rely on a steady stream of customers. Buyers have to join a 14-month waiting list and pay $7,000 (pounds 4,900) for a 40-year-old design.

For all its faults, the Paykan arguably performs a social service. Thousands of Iranians go to work in shared taxis, invariably Paykans, encouraging them to shed some of the inhibitions the regime imposes on them in public. Men are squashed most unIslamically next to women. Paykan debates on political and social issues are often high- quality.

For all that, it is surely good news that there are plans to relax import restrictions and expand domestic output. The Paykan's parent company is to produce a cleaner, zippier "national car", while such players as Peugeot and Fiat are increasing their presence.

Morteza Alivi, Tehran's Mayor, may be right when he says 20 per cent of cars on the capital's roads should be scrapped. Nevertheless, if you step into Tehran's rush-hour you will realise there is life in the old guard yet. The Buicks and Paykans will continue for some time. Even the heralded "national" car shows an embarrassing trace of that hateful foreign influence - its design is British.


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