Tehran: How Buicks drive the revolutionary message
By Christopher de Bellaigue
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!"
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
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.