Great Cars of Egypt Revisited
Thanks to the wonders of the 3G cellular revolution, I am now able to surf the Interwebs from "the field"; the archaeological field, that is. As I type this, I am sitting in a dig house in the Fayum Depression of Egypt working on an archaeological project. The last time I was here in Egypt was 2003, well before Car Lust launched. And, as the world watched last year, Egypt threw off the shackles of the Mubarak administration, which had ruled Egypt for some 30 years and ushered in, for better or worse, a new and more democratic era of government. Sadly, we've also watched a number of demonstrations that have occasionally turned violent, but I suppose that might be expected in a country that has rarely known any sort of real democracy.
But hey, this isn't a post about politics, it's a post about cars. As regular readers may be aware, a couple of years ago I composed a post for this blog on the Great Cars of Egypt. Most Americans wouldn't be aware of the sorts of automobiles running around on the highways and biways of many developing-world countries, and I thought the introduction might be of some interest. Besides, having spent quite a bit of time here, I had a certain fondness for many of the models. Were they "great" cars? Well, as I noted then:
True, in some absolute sense they aren't what one would call spectacular. . . .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. . .Automobiles are very expensive purchases for most [Egyptians], 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.
Now that I am back, I have indeed noticed some fairly significant changes on the roads, though the manner of driving remains largely the same (i.e., terrifying). Hence, I thought I'd take this opportunity to have a look at what's gone on since I was last here -- both automotively and in general -- and see if there are still any Great Cars of Egypt.
Back in 1988 when I first came to Egypt (photo) to do a project in the rural Delta area, we were largely cut off from the rest of the world: the nearest land-line telephone was -- literally -- miles away, we could only get some short-wave radio stations, and our musical entertainment consisted of as many cassette tapes as we could stuff into our luggage (I still haven't listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall since, having played it so many times that season). Our only transportation into and out of the site was the project's rented VW Bus which was surprisingly reliable: it had only one flat tire while I was there (changing it by the side of a small rural road generated quite a bit of attention -- and assistance -- from locals who seemed to materialize out of nowhere). Other than that, it was the usual array of Peugeot 504s, Fiat 124/128s, Lada Nivas, and other sundry vehicles referred to in my previous post.
My experience of Egypt didn't change all that much up until 2003, with a few notable exceptions. First, the primary criterion for membership in the developed world had finally been introduced some time in the early 1990s: Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. High civilization at last comes to Egypt.
Second, by 2003 cellular communications had also arrived. Across much of the developing world cellular networks actually tend to be more reliable than landlines, so all of our Egyptian field school students had mobile phones. Really, I'd never thought I'd see the day when people would be taking phone calls in the trench in Egypt. By the second week we were able to recognize everyone's ring tone, so nary a call went unanswered ("Mohammed! It's yours!")
Third, the Internet had made its way into Egypt by 2003, at least in the form of public Internet cafes (private businesses and individuals, of course, had Internet access as well). That meant that I could communicate on a daily basis with both friends and family at home and update the project's Principal Investigator on our daily progress and problems. That made a big difference: previously that contact with home was restricted to a few snail-mail letters and maybe a phone call or two.
Instead of cassettes, we had moved on to CDs, which were less bulky than tapes and sounded a lot better, but the problem remained of having to lug actual recorded music media to Egypt and thus you were still stuck with the 20-30 CDs you could fit in your luggage.
Automotively, the range of vehicles was still pretty much the same, although some new models had begun to filter in. A few more Asian models were kicking around, but the majority were still the standard Euro-derived models.
Fast forward to the present: I would argue that the difference between 2003 and 2012 is far greater than that between 1988 and 2003. This time I have brought with me 6 days' worth of music on my various electronic devices (Macbook, iPod, iPad) and we now have 3G/2G Internet access way out here in the Fayum. It's not quite as fast and reliable as broadband is back home, but I've been able to do about as much research as I can handle from my Macbook. For instance, I've been using Google Translate extensively working my way through an old French site report for the Roman bath I'm working on. In earlier times, I would have been stuck making do with my own by-guess and by-gosh translation or finding an interpreter here. Plus, besides the several books I carried with me on my iPad, I've downloaded a few more while here so I have a basically endless supply of reading material. . . .all on one little device!
Due to the time difference, email contact with North America is still once or twice a day, but I can surf the web almost at will, and with Skype I can call home and talk whenever the time zones and schedules permit -- and in video! Really, being 'in the field' with all this stuff feels almost like cheating.
And the automotive scene has also changed rather markedly. As I mentioned in the previous post, the Egyptian government at the time had decreed that nearly all of the older cars on the road had to be replaced by more fuel efficient and less polluting newer models. And, lo and behold, they've largely done it. I've seen a few holdout Fiat 128s and Peugeot 504s still in their taxi garb running about, but not very many. 504s are still fairly common as private vehicles, which gladdens my heart immensely as that is perhaps my favorite Egyptian vehicle. However, the vast majority of the taxis in Cairo are newer models, mostly South Korean and Chinese makes. I've been in a few Hyundais (the Accent and something called the Verna) and also a couple of Chinese models, many manufactured locally under the Speranza marque. There are also some Chevys being used as taxis, the most common I've seen is the Lanos.
I've seen a very few of the old models still functioning as taxis, though none of the older 124s. By far the most common is the 504, mostly the wagon version. According to one of my Egyptian colleagues, there are a LOT of Egyptians that also love the 504, primarily for the reasons I noted earlier: it was a very good touring car design to begin with, it was tailored specifically for rougher roads, they're fairly simple mechanically, are easy to work on, and have abundant spare parts. There are fewer of the really beat up ones still roaming the roads, so most of the ones I've been seeing have been in very good condition.
The Lada Niva is also a rarity these days. I think in the first month-plus that I've been here I've only noticed two or three of them. By and large, the Niva has been replaced by newer Asian makes of small SUV such as the Daihatsu Terios and the IX35 from Hyundai. I've even seen some Chevrolet Captivas running about. The higher end is mostly occupied by Mercedes G-class SUVs. That's too bad about the Niva, really, as it was quite a stout little vehicle and seemed a perfect fit for the crowded streets, variable roads, and rough desert environs of Egypt. I am sad to see it go.
There is, however, an even more significant addition to the roads of Egypt: The 'Tuk Tuk'. These had never been in Egypt until a few years ago which seems odd given how they've multiplied like rabbits in the meantime and they seem to be an ideal vehicle for a densely-populated developing country. Tuk Tuks have a long history elsewhere, originating in Italy shortly after WWII as the Piaggio Ape C, essentially a Vespa scooter with two wheels in the back and a flatbed for cargo. India picked up the design in the late 1950s and it's probably most associated with that country than any other. They've evolved, slowly perhaps, but still retain the basic configuration of their original design, even down to many using handlebars instead of a steering wheel. Most have used the typical 2-stroke engine, but 4-strokes have been filtering out as well, owing to more concerns with urban air quality. Despite a very few with some serious engine hardware, most still are pretty pokey, cruising at around 22 mph.
Being the intrepid reporter that I am, I went and hired one for the ride home from the site one day and it was certainly. . . .different. The actual journey was fairly uneventful (by Egyptian standards anyway) and we -- I roped a field school student into assisting with my "field research" -- set off on the usual route back to the field house. It was somewhat marred right from the get-go by the driver wishing to make our trip more pleasant by showing off his bad-ass sound and video system at something approaching full blast. Hence, we were treated to the best in modern Middle Eastern popular music at approximately the volume of a jet engine. He also seemed to keep flipping to songs that could conceivably be called "romantic ballads" (at the volume of a jet engine) thinking perhaps we might afford the opportunity of a snuggle or two. We didn't. But other than that (and the trucks that seemed to loom much larger than usual) we puttered along quite nicely. True, it wasn't exactly blazingly fast, but believe me, there are times when slow and steady doesn't necessarily win the race but at least it eases the terror of the journey somewhat.
Unfortunately, one of the tradeoffs of always having someone else do the driving is that, while one has the opportunity to see a lot of the surrounding scenery (for good or ill hereabouts), one often doesn't pay as much attention to the mechanics of getting from point 'A' to point 'B' as one probably should, and we ended up missing one of our turns. But, utilizing our finely tuned navigational skills honed by years of survey as archaeologists (ha), we finally stumbled on something that seemed to get us moving in the right direction. Eventually we made it to a recognizable stretch of the dirt track that gamely likes to think of itself as a road and we were pretty much home free. Until. . . . .
Well, until nothing, but I thought this little story needed a bit of suspense.
Generally speaking, however, it was a decent little vehicle and perfectly suited for busy streets with slow-moving traffic (which would not describe our location, unfortunately). For locals, it's also cheap, probably 50 cents for a trip of a mile or two (we paid more, being affluent foreigners). I'll have to give it a qualified thumbs-up, albeit only for more urban areas.
And though the Tuk Tuk is a slow, careful urban burden carrier, occasionally one is fitted with "the usual refinements" and called into service, as this video demonstrates:
One vehicle I have extensive experience in is our trusty(?) 1991 Toyota Land Cruiser. It certainly looks like the perfect vehicle for archaeology: a big, boxy off-roader, simple but rugged. So far it's functioned mostly as a general-purpose people hauler, but it does go off the road quite often, though not all that far off: primarily a couple hundred yards from the road to the edge of our site, Karanis. It's not too rough, but this week it started going into the more desert areas north of the Fayum Lake or 'Birket Qarun' as it is sometimes known. In that area, an AWD vehicle is almost mandatory if you go any distance from the road. And the Land Cruiser has, for many years, been the vehicle of choice for expeditions to the far corners of the earth.
In a nutshell, the Land Cruiser is the longest-produced vehicle series in Toyota's history. The first of the models was sold in 1953, and some 59 or so years later, they are selling as strong as ever.
First called the Toyota Jeep BJ, the name "Land Cruiser" was coined in 1954 by Toyota's then-technical director Hanji Umehara to be a no-less-dignified moniker than the British "Land Rover" designation. "Land Cruiser" had already been used on a Studebaker car from 1933-1954, but nobody seemed to care.
The second generation Land Cruiser, the 20 Series, was very Jeep-like, but was larger than the original Willys MB Jeep. Built from 1955 to 1960, the 1957 FJ25/28 cab chassis was the first Japanese vehicle to be exported into Australia.
Following that was the 40 Series, shown here, which seems to have a popular following today here in the States. So much so that it prompted the design and production of today's Toyota FJ Cruiser. And like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Chevy HHR, and Ford's present Mustang, old is new again in certain markets.
The 40 Series was essentially an upgraded 20 Series, but the improvements made sales soar. In 1983, its last year imported into the United States, only 300 were sold, making them truly collectable and highly sought-after vehicles.
The photo of this next 55 Series Land Cruiser was taken in November, 2012, somewhere on the streets of San Francisco, California, not in Cairo, Egypt. It was built sometime between 1967 and 1980, and today the truck looks like it is an interesting urban survivor.
The 60 Series Land Cruiser got us through the conspicuous consumption decade also known as the 1980s. Perhaps it even moved us into what's now called the "Luxury SUV" category with amazing standard features like air conditioning, a rear heater, and an upgraded interior.
The 70 Series Land Cruiser we're using here in Egypt was built from 1984 to, well, Toyota is still building it. Ours has a straight-6 engine and a couple of opposing bench seats in the back and a luggage rack on top. Our journey down here from Cairo netted us one of those classic scenes you see depicted of fieldwork nearly everywhere: a Land Cruiser piled high with gear strapped down to the top driving off down a dusty road to the adventure that awaits (even if by 'adventure' you mean the drudgery of digging wind-blown sand and dealing with various gastrointestinal, errrmmmm, difficulties). It's had some problems starting a few mornings -- even requiring a jump-start with a pair of makeshift (i.e., no clamps) jumper cables -- but it's most often been a good workhorse vehicle.
Of course, rather than trekking across the open sands or pushing its way through dense jungle undergrowth in search of lost temples it's mostly been used to pack archaeologists in like sardines. Really, it's quite amazing how many butts can fit into a certain length of seat (and on the back bumper and on the roof and probably the hood if we'd tried really hard) when everyone agrees to cast aside their usual ideas about 'personal space' and basic safety. I believe, between the front seat, back seats, and assorted hangers-on, our record was eighteen or nineteen stuffed in or hanging on to that old Land Cruiser. But you know, despite the discomfort, the spine-jarring ride, and the ever-present smell of gasoline, I have to admit that I look on the old Land Cruiser and see. . . .an old spine-jarring gasoline-smelling rolling death trap. Yeah, the romanticism is finally ebbing away.
After the 90 Series came, you guessed it, the 100 Series. The 100 (actually the 105 Series) brought us the first Land Cruiser with an independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering, as well as a V-8. It's also known around the world as the Lexus LX 470. And today's 200 Series Toyota Land Cruiser is a highly-respected, expensive, and capable luxury vehicle. It's even sold, almost unchanged, as the Lexus LX 570. If a great car of Egypt ever existed, this Lexus is surely one of them.
So, what about this 'new Egypt' with its cell phones and Internet-in-the-boonies and newfangled modern cars? Has it ruined the experience or made it better? I suppose it's wimping out to say so, but here goes: a little bit of both. On the one hand, I've certainly not gotten as homesick for both home itself and the larger western civilization from whence I came on this trip, and the contact with the outside world has certainly had a lot to do with that. The increased communications are certainly welcome; heck, my first season here making an international call often took a half hour to set up and was rather prohibitively expensive (and uncertain) to undertake on a casual basis. Now, all I have to do is check if the Spousal Unit is online with Skype and in about five seconds we can be discussing important issues, such as one or the other of the cats' latest squirrel-based exploits. And, like I said earlier, one can still do online research rather than being limited to whatever materials happen to be to hand. As for the cars, well, those are inarguably better in most respects: more comfortable, apparently better handling, and they more often than not have functional seatbelts.
On the other hand -- there's always another hand -- I will admit to having to make some effort to do at least a few things differently here. True, despite the cell phones and instant-Internet and scads of asian cars all around, this place is most definitely not 'just like home'; it remains in many ways a developing country with all the bad roads, lack of reliable electricity and water, and the whole panoply of sounds and sights and smells that one doesn't generally find in North America (except perhaps in some parts of California). It's different. It gives one a chance to get away from one's normal routine and not just do different work for eight hours a day, but be away from all the familiar touchstones of home life: television, radio, phone calls with friends and family, a Starbucks on every other corner, etc. But on occasion I've found myself kind of zoning out sitting here in front of my computer, starting to surf around to the web sites I'd visit back home and really start to waste time doing much the same stuff I'd do if I were sitting in my own living room. And that kind of defeats the purpose of coming here, I think: it's healthy to spend a while outside of one's comfort zone, living without all the accouterments of home life. It gives one. . . .perspective.
And so with the cars. I'm kind of sad seeing so few of those old 504s and Ladas and Fiats all over. They were kind of foreign and exotic and, you know, different. Now most of them all look pretty much the same: rolling, rounded jellybeans, only differing from one another by the badge on the front grille and the name on the back. And now with the Tuk Tuks the streets of Egypt probably don't look too much different from those of Bombay or Bangkok. Oh, I'll happily fasten my seat belt in the new vehicles and feel marginally safer, but it won't have quite the same caché as a 504 wagon with its rakish headlights and long-throw suspension.
In the end, however, with a little careful planning one can still sip a gin and tonic and watch the sunset and romanticize about the good old days. . . .
Credits: The FJ40 Land Cruiser image is from Wikipedia. The 55 Series Land Cruiser was spotted by fellow Car Lust contributor Chuck Lynch. The Lexus LX 570 image is also from Wikipedia. The top photo is reproduced from my original post; yours truly took the rest of the images here in Egypt.