Pakistan's Peculiar Car Culture
I head to Pakistan's biggest car show to see what's what.
Lahore is Pakistan’s second largest city. It’s also more than two thousand years old and is popularly known as Pakistan’s ‘cultural capital’. This makes it the ideal starting point to begin exploring Pakistan’s car culture. I headed to what is the country's biggest annual car show* to do just that.
Crowds were turning out by the thousands to see the many cars and motorbikes on display. I had to park a mile away and make my way on foot through the traffic jam that had emerged outside the venue. Motorists struct in the jam were revving their engines like mad to gain attention and were generously contributing to the smog already suspended in the air. To make matters worse, a bunch of motorcyclists decided that they could get through the traffic jam much quicker by driving on the sidewalk where I was trying to walk. It was total chaos .
Inside the venue however, it’s easy to see why so many people have turned up. There are hundreds of cars on display, many of which are rarely ever spotted on the roads. One thing is common though: most of the cars are Japanese.
The Japanese Connection
Toyota Mark II
Japanese car companies have monopolised Pakistan’s car market, especially Suzuki, Toyota and Honda who manufacture cars in the country. Before the 1970s there used to be many different car brands sold in Pakistan including Ford, Chevrolet, Morris, Volkswagen and Fiat. But ever since the Japanese discovered how to make uber reliable and fuel-efficient cars, other car manufactures slowly disappeared from the market.
A ton of used JDM cars have also been imported into Pakistan. Despite the heavy import duties, buyers find that they're still great value for money. There are even some cars which are rarely seen outside of Japan, like the Mark II BLIT wagon pictured above.
The Honda Civics
The Civic is one of the most recognisable Japanese cars in the world and ever since the first Fast and Furious film hit cinemas, Civics have become revered in the car tuning community. Fifth and sixth generation Civic sedans were produced in Pakistan and are available as an entry point into the world of cars for many a young enthusiast. Some Civics are modified very tastefully, others not so much.
A handful of Civic hatchbacks which were imported from Japan are now highly sought after by enthusiasts and can sell for up to three times as much as the sedans. I’m yet to see a Civic coupe in Pakistan though.
The Kei Cars
There's nothing more Japanese than a Kei car (except perhaps Sushi?). For those who don’t know, Kei cars are tiny 660cc cars made exclusively for the Japanese market. They are legally bounded to produce no more than 64 horsepower and must be physically incapable of going faster than 87mph. Many of them also have silly names such as the 'Mazda Bongo Friendee' or the 'Daihatsu Naked'. No, I did not make those up.
A whole variety of Kei cars, including hatchbacks, vans, pickups, coupes and convertibles, have been imported into Pakistan, mainly to be used as super economical city cars.
I spotted a bright blue Honda Beat and its successor, the S660 – both minuscule mid-engined sports cars. There were also a bunch of Daihatsu Copen convertibles brought in by the Daihatsu Copen Owners Club.
Oh, and the car you see in the cover image of this article, that's a Suzuki Mehran. It's based on the 1980s Suzuki Alto but PakSuzuki has upped the engine from 660 to 800cc for that little bit more power. Suzuki managed to sell this car in Pakistan for over thirty years with very little modification except for a conversion to electronic fuel injection a couple of years ago. In fact, Pakistan was the last country in the world still producing this car until it was finally replaced in 2019 by the latest generation Alto. Because it's one of the most sold cars in Pakistan and also most drivers' first car, it's commonly called 'the boss'.
The Classic Cars
The real reason I came to the car show was to look at the classic cars. Unfortunately, the classic car turnout was less than expected. I suspect this is because the Vintage and Classic Car Club of Pakistan arranges their own car shows and cross-country rallies in which some magnificent Jaguars, MGs, Rolls Royces, Minis, Volkswagens, Cadillacs, Buicks and many other vintage and classic cars take part.
Nevertheless, there were some interesting cars I got to see including a Daimler Limousine, a 1965 Mustang, a couple of Nissan Figaros and some lovely old Mercs and Beetles.
In the off-road vehicles section, I particularly liked the beautifully restored Toyota FJs and Jeeps. Off-roading is BIG in Pakistan with many rally championships taking place throughout the year – another article on that later.
There were two types of head-turners at the Lahore Auto Show: the exotic sports cars and the weird modified cars. I imagine both have equally bad resale values.
The Ferrari Testarossa I'd seen once before at another car show, but it was just as exiting to see it again because, well... It's a Ferrari. Parked next to it was a parrot green wrapped Toyota MR2 which I thought was quite an ironic placement.
As for the Civic pictured above, I'm not entirely sure why it looks like it's just had a brutal collision with a pedestrian. It was the biggest crowd-puller though. Seriously, how could it not be? It's got a fake dead body on its roof!
Speaking of Civics, remember how I mentioned some of the Civics were not so tastefully modified. Well, just take a look at this purple one. Its number plate says 'LOV', probably because you either love it or hate it.
Finally, I'll leave you with a picture of one of my favourite cars at the show. This car was neither fast nor flamboyant. In fact, it was shyly parked in a corner. What it was, was a modified Volkswagen Beetle. Something like a beach buggy but not exactly.
It's a reminder that in a developing country like Pakistan, not everyone can afford to buy a unique car right off the bat. But the passion is definitely there. Petrolheads are using their ingenuity to turn limited resources into something special. And I think that's something to be proud of.
*Lahore Auto Show 2019 organised by Pakwhees.com.
Photographs are by the author.