Karachi Car Culture

Jay Leno’s Pakistani Twin, Bandits and Unimogs plus the world’s highest classic car rally!

It’s Jay Leno! That’s not actually true. But it is his Pakistani doppelganger. Not only is the similarity uncanny, but like the famed American TV host, comedian and voracious car collector, Mohsin Ikram too, is hilarious company and a full-on car guy! He is also a walking-talking classic car encyclopaedia, owner, restorer and a founder of the FIVA-approved Vintage and Classic Car Club of Pakistan. 

He’s something of a legend in the local gearhead community, not least because he’s regularly seen driving his classics around, and in particular one routine red runabout that he’s especially attached too. 

‘Hey Shahzad, is it okay if I pick you up in the Healey? Or I’ll have to go home and change cars,’ he asks me on the phone. ‘Are you kidding?!’ is my obvious retort. 

Forty-five minutes later, we’re mixing it up with the madness of peak-time Karachi city traffic, in a scarlet and cream 1954 Austin Healey 100. It’s a spectacular oddity among the bland white Suzuki and Toyota econoboxes dicing in the dangerously frenetic traffic of an overcrowded commercial capital, where everyone wants to get ahead – figuratively and literally. 

And yet at the same time, the classic British roadster appears perfectly and properly at home on the torn-up tarmac, in snarly back alleys, and juxtaposed against the crumbling colonial architecture of the surrounding cityscape. The old buildings vie for attention against the slab-sided carbuncles raised from new-money – and occasionally win. The Healey is winning too. And if it’s not the car’s gleaming grille that will get you, it’s Ikram’s beaming infectious smile. 

Somehow there’s an aura of calm around the Healey, it almost seems to be inoculated against the chaos that possesses manic fellow road-users. Perhaps it’s Ikram’s effortlessly skilled driving, or maybe everyone is just stunned by the Healey’s presence. ‘This car makes people happy when they see it; that makes me happy!’ confirms Ikram. 

Unsurprisingly he has several astonishing classic cars in his personal collection, including the Maharaja of Patiala’s 1929 Packard and the King of Afghanistan’s magnificent 1947 Lincoln, but this Healey’s a keeper. Why? 

‘I just love the shape, plus I worked so hard to get this car, it slipped out my fingers several times, and now I regularly drive it on road rallies right up to the North of Pakistan – over 2000 kilometres! My engine is weak, the bearings are making a noise, the timing gear – two of the teeth are broken – and yet I gunned it all the way to Peshawar.’

He parks the car on the street, and has no qualms about people getting in and taking pictures. It gets scraped, it gets bruised, Ikram doesn’t mind. He restores cars, and while he’ll never make this car concours, as he loves driving the wheels off it too much, he can fix it up whenever he needs to. Nonetheless, it’s no bowl of biryani owning and running a classic car in Pakistan. 

After a fault with the original gearbox, he’d sent it off to a ‘specialist’ to get it overhauled. They somehow managed to lose the gears! So he stuck a Toyota five-speed in to keep it on the road. An original gearbox is hard and costly to source, and technically impossible to import. We’re talking about a nation where taxes on new cars are up to 75 percent, importing old cars is not allowed and even getting parts proves a major challenge. 

Lahore-based car restorer, Syed Haider Ali Kirmani, confirms: ‘strictly speaking, used car parts are banned from being imported, so we end up doing things like smuggling them under out jackets to get them in!’ 

He owns a Ferrari 348 and a Jaguar XJS, regularly used, but warns ‘because of the condition of the roads, we expect to have damage every time we take them out. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the Ferrari on a long trip without breaking the front bumper!’ 

You can’t help but applaud the determination to drive them regardless, and we’re not just talking to the gymkhana and back. ‘We have some great roads here, matching anything in the world,’ continues Kirmani, ‘we do a drive to the Khunjerab Pass, in the Karakoram Mountains which, at over 4,700 metres, must be the highest classic car rally in the world!’

Ghazanfar Agha, is another well-known petrolhead, racer and car collector (with an eclectic line-up including a Unimog!) and recounts taking 19 cars for a 12-day road rally across Turkey covering 3000 miles. Like I said, these guys are not afraid to use their cars, despite the travails. 

‘It’s very tough, the dollar is expensive, parts availability very shallow and the skill level has deteriorated substantially over the last few years when it comes to working on the cars,’ Agha laments. ‘The old guys have too much work, and they haven’t created new talent. Most garages now operate on a learn-as-you-work basis, it’s our biggest challenge.’

And all this time, you thought you had it tough? Still, what would you give to drive a classic up a mountain with Jay Leno’s Pakistani twin? No seriously, I’m booking spots!

Interviews with Syed and Ghazanfar also in this video

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