Great Cars of ... Egypt?
This site also demonstrates one of the great dangers of archaeology; not to life and limb, although that does sometimes take place. . .
-- Indiana Jones
When contemplating doing archaeology in Egypt, the mind immediately conjures up images of pyramids, tombs, temples, mummies, walls filled with colorful and inscrutable hieroglyphic inscriptions, and archaeologists dressed in khakhi and pith helmets thoughtfully contemplating a small piece of broken pottery and muttering "Hmmmm ... 18th or 19th Dynasty, but certainly New Kingdom." Actually, most of that is fairly accurate, although few wear khaki and pith helmets anymore; it's mostly jeans and junkie shirts (between the sun and the depredations of local washerwomen, clothing gets beaten mercilessly).
Cars don't often enter the popular imagination, but to those of us who have attempted to carry out fieldwork in Egypt, cars are a necessary part of the equation of doing business, both from a productivity standpoint and also from a self-preservation aspect. You see, the thing that strikes fear into most Egyptologists/archaeologists is not curses, Nazis, Soviets, dormant fungi, or even the odd terrorist or two; it is traffic. There are few things more frightening to the Egypt newbie than the prospect of crossing a busy Cairo street. Even when one is riding inside the cars, fear is ever-present, albeit suppressed after a time. Lack of seat belts, "rules of the road" that are treated more as mere suggestions, and generally pretty ancient vehicles bereft of modern passive safety equipment make even a ride to the grocery store a bit of an adventure.
And yet despite this (maybe because of it, actually), I find myself looking back rather fondly on many of the vehicles that carried me all over the country. The most common ones are rare to unknown here in the US, and even in much of Europe where the models are familiar, the actual build of the cars is unusual since many are manufactured in Egypt and are thus tailored somewhat to the local economy and environment. To modern sensibilities--and even those of the late '80s and '90s--the cars are ... well, not generally well regarded. In some sense this impression is objectively accurate, but I hope here to put these cars in some context and show that they have many redeeming qualities and are in a lot of ways very well suited to the environment in which they operate.
Anyone who has traveled in the developing world probably has a few stories to tell about mad-cap taxi rides from hell. In Egypt it's little different. There are meters in the cars, but few, if any, actually work. Basically you agree on a general price before going, and then hope the cabbie doesn't bug you the whole way for more. Once you've been over there for a while, you get an idea of about what the going rate is, and often you can just hop in and settle up for an agreeable fare once you get to the destination. Still, it is often a harrowing ride. Lanes are virtually non-existent, and one gets used to (for the most part) being cut off with about half an inch to spare, all while careening through the streets at speeds that would make Richard Dawkins say a prayer or two. No, there are usually no seat belts. Hence, after a while one learns to put the ever-present fear onto the back burner if only to avoid an early death due to constant panic.
There are myriad different makes and models running around Egypt, especially among private owners. Most people who work there on research budgets, however, generally take the cheapest transportation available which, besides buses, which are an adventure in and of themselves, are usually the taxis. These come in a variety of models as well, but we'll just look at the most popular. They're generally older models discontinued in Europe and elsewhere in the 1970s, but they continued to be produced in Egypt under license. Due to economics, the owners tended to keep them running for years.
Fiat 1300/1500/124/125/128 Most of the cabs--until recently--are older European models or Russians knockoffs thereof. One of the most common is the Fiat 1300/1500, which is one of the oldest models in use. These date to the 1960s and were very basic: 1295 cc engine and a 4-speed manual, rear-drive, with about 65 horsepower. It was later succeeded in 1966 by the 124/125, which has achieved something of an iconic status due to its being produced by the Soviet Union's Lada brand. The 125 was one of the first true European sports sedans and, together with the Lada, sold upwards of 15 million copies.
Egypt had its own production line for Fiats under the El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company, which started building cars under license from Fiat (Egypt also had an earlier state-built model, the Ramses, of which the less is said the better). The Fiats were pretty well designed for the Egyptian market, which was just starting to industrialize and develop something of a middle class. It was small, tough, and handled well given the generally poor roads and tight streets of Cairo and environs. Nasr built 125s until 1983, but continued building the 128, arguably a much better car. I believe these are still being produced by Nasr. These are some of the most common cars you'll see in Egypt, but they aren't really one of my "favorites", although I rather like the somewhat goofy look of the 1300.
Lada Niva ("Built for Siberia, Not Suburbia") These are some of the best vehicles you'll find in Egypt (apart from the premium imports) and have come to be regarded fairly highly worldwide; they've even developed something of a cult following, at least in the places it was/is sold. It was originally designed and built by the Soviet Union's AvtoVAZ as a Lada. It's probably most popular in its home country, but also has quite a following in Canada, which has a similar climate. Incidentally, rumor hath it that the name "Lada" was invented because it is easily pronounceable in most languages, has no sexual connotations in any of those languages, and can be written in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.
Nivas started production in 1977, and production continues to this day. Much of the mechanical base is derived from the Fiat models which AvtoVAZ was producing under the Lada nameplate, but the important drivetrain and suspension mechanicals were designed by AvtoVAZ. At the start it had a 1.6-liter engine producing 72 horsepower and a full-time AWD system. It had coil springs at all four corners and independent suspension in the rear, which made for decent handling on the road. Since it was/is fairly small with a short wheelbase, it was a pretty formidable off-road vehicle. I think they're probably one of the better vehicles for tooling around Egypt; because of the high ground clearance and short wheelbase, they can navigate the sandy and rocky desert areas that archaeologists, paleontologists, and geologists like to work in. Plus, once you get back on the road, they're not too hard and uncomfortable. They tend to be owned by the middle classes, much as SUVs are everywhere, but back in the day they were far more comparable to something like the Bronco/Bronco II rather than the land barges that became popular in the '90s.
This was one of the few (okay, only) "communistical" vehicles that the guys at Top Gear actually had good things to say about (see videos below) and for good reason: it was (probably still is) one tough hombre ... or rather, one tough comrade. Among its many achievements: the first wheeled vehicle to reach the North Pole, the highest ascent by a motor vehicle (until 2005), and several rally wins. It was simple and tough, had good off-road performance, and was pretty decent on the road as well. I say "was," but they are still definitely in production. They have come a ways since the early days of simple but effective mixed-use transportation.
Peugeot 504 This car holds something of a special place in my heart, which you will see below. Suffice it to say that the 504 was the absolute workhorse automobile of Egypt throughout the '80s and '90s. There are scads of them fulfilling all manner of transportation needs, and they do so remarkably well. It was introduced in 1968 and was European Car of the Year in 1969 and that award was apparently well-deserved. Initially it came with a 4-cylinder ,1.8-liter engine longitudinally mounted for rear-wheel-drive. It came as either a pushrod single-choke carb (82 horsepower) or with indirect injection (97 horsepower), pushing it to a top speed of 106 mph; not bad for a family car. It also had independent front suspension and coil springs at the back and had such long suspension travel that rutted and rough roads caused it little difficulty. A review of the sedan version by Autocar magazine had this to say:
"It is when one brooks clear of urban areas that the Peugeot really shows its mettle as, literally, a grand touring car. The performance figures speak for themselves, except to say that they are achieved with little mechanical fuss or effort. . .We place it among Europe's finest touring cars. [source]"
Originally the 504 came in 4-door and 2-door coupe and cabriolet versions (all with either carb or fuel injection), but by 1970 the range had widened to include a station wagon and a diesel. The styling is, well, Peugeot-ish. Which is to say, if you like French automobile design, you'll like this. The wagon always appealed to me the most, as the sedan seemed a bit chopped off at the rear with its fairly sharply sloping and seemingly much too short trunk. The wagon to me seems perfectly proportioned, simple, and elegant with a rakish slant of the headlights to break up the otherwise clean lines. (And now, having waxed rhapsodic about a Peugeot--and a wagon at that--I shall now shoot myself)
The station wagon is the most popular in Egypt, I think. At least, those are the most common vehicle that I rode in. They're used as standard taxis around the major towns and cities, and are also most used as servíce taxis--longer distance taxis that make regular trips and leave whenever enough passengers show up. With a third row of seats, they can haul 6 passengers comfortably, though you will often see up to a dozen people stuffed in. We once drove from Cairo to Luxor, a distance of about 450 miles along the Red Sea road with 5 of us, a driver, and our luggage and equipment (some of it stuffed on the ubiquitous roof rack), and it really wasn't too uncomfortable despite the heat.
In the comments to a couple of posts, I have mentioned reading about archaeologists working in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century, such as Gertrude Caton-Thompson and EW Gardner (the geologist), and how they used fairly basic vehicles (Model Ts for example) to carry out fieldwork in many desert areas. Despite the ruggedness of these vehicles and the fact that they were designed for poor roads (or no roads), these authors described how they would get stuck in sand for hours or have to trek across the desert for miles to obtain help and spare parts when one of their vehicles broke down.
Back in the '90s I did some work out in the Fayum Depression and attempted to obtain the services of an AWD vehicle to get me out to some of the more inaccessible areas. Doing it on my shoestring budget was really hopeless (I had planned on using my sponsoring organization's Niva, but it had finally gone to that great repair shop in the sky) and I was rather hesitant to go out there without a 4WD vehicle. But after conferring with a very helpful local (thanks, Said!), I ended up retaining the services of a servíce driver with a 504 wagon. True enough, we were able to get to most of the desert areas around the Depression that I needed to get to, either directly or by getting as close as possible and then hiking the rest of the way. Since much of the desert near the Nile Valley is rocky rather than the sand dunes one often imagines, a good vehicle with reasonably high ground clearance and long-throw suspension is pretty adequate. The only places we couldn't reach were directly north of the lake where there is abundant sand and where I had gotten good and stuck a couple of times on earlier trips. I managed to make one excursion in a Niva and it performed flawlessly everywhere we wanted to go.
So are these really the 'great' cars as I questioned in the title? In the main, I would argue in the affirmative, albeit with some reservations. True, in some absolute sense they aren't what one would call spectacular. As Jeremy Clarkson demonstrates in the videos below, the metal was so thick on these cars that you could hit one with a hammer and not worry too much about making a dent (the hammer, on the other hand ...). And perhaps quality- and performance-wise, they aren't exactly world-class; though as we have seen, in their day, many of these were considered more than adequate and in some cases exceptional.
Considering that many of these vehicles, with few modifications since their introduction, were still being produced in Egypt up into the 2000s, one could, if one were so inclined, rip on them as sad examples of government control gone awry. And you could make a pretty good case for that, I'm afraid. But there is a point that should not be missed--we're still talking about a developing country in many respects. Despite all the glitzy tourist advertising and the "romance of archaeology" you see in television programs, Egypt remains a country with a significant portion of the population living in some degree of poverty. Automobiles are very expensive purchases for most people, and many rely on them for their very livelihood. Combined with the generally poor roads in a lot of areas, you really want a vehicle that is simple, has abundant (and therefore, inexpensive) spare parts, are relatively easy for the owner to fix, and can operate on a variety of roads. They're not glamorous or trendy, but by and large they get the job done, if not exactly in comfort or safety.
Perhaps sadly, the days of Fiat 128 and Peugeot 504 taxis are numbered. Recently, the Egyptian government hath decreed that all commercial vehicles older than 20 years shall henceforth be banished from the highways and byways of Egypt in favor of more modern and cleaner-running vehicles ("So it is written ... "). Whether this is due solely to concerns about air quality or perhaps has more to do with creating instant markets for the national auto manufacturer is left up to the reader to discern.
As I mentioned earlier, I have a particular fondness for the 504 and its toughness, especially the strength of its sheet metal. Back in 1994 we were journeying out to the Wadi Rayan Depression (now an oasis, thanks to a new reservoir project), happily cruising along the brand new asphalt highway, when we ascended a small hill, hit a curve and belatedly discovered that a sand dune had encroached on the majority of the road. Needless to say, we ended up making a futile effort to avoid an accident and in the process went off the road and tumbled down the embankment. After rolling over a few times ("Hey, so this is what a road accident looks like from the inside") we came to rest as the photo indicates. All were thankfully okay, with only minor injuries; also thankfully, and unlike what you see in the movies, the car didn't explode into a ball of flame on the way down. While many a modern car, with its fuel-saving sheet metal that's about as thick as a piece of paper, would have had a collapsed roof, the good ol' Peugeot kept its passenger compartment relatively intact, saving us all from more serious injury and giving me a good story to tell rather than ending up as an entry in the obit column back home. Thanks, Peugeot.
Credits: Top photo is from MideastImage.com; the 1300 is from Panoramio.com, user "armando629"; both the Niva and Peugeot is from Wikimedia Commons and the Cairo taxis is from Al-Ahram. The last photo is mine.
Niva begins about 7:00 mark.