The top 7 most Desi drives ever!
Don't deny it, if you're from South Asian descent at some point you will have experienced one of these cars
Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
By 'Desi' I mean of course those of us with ancestry from the Indian subcontinent, where the approach to motoring has often been of a, shall we say, more pragmatic nature?
Pack a vehicle to ten times beyond what's prescribed, coax it along at mediocre miles per hour so that it merely sniffs at rather than drinks fuel, expect it to never ever go wrong and in 20 years time on resale, recoup its entire value plus most of the running costs.
And if you don't believe me, watch this rare one-off episode of 'Asian Top Gear' presented by the hit late 90s BBC comedy show, Goodness Gracious Me. It's so on-point it brings back memories of sitting atop some uncle's knees, shoulder-to-shoulder with another cousin, both of us locked into place by a fat aunt holding a wailing baby reeking of soiled nappy. And that was last week!
If it were possible that a vehicle could conform to the stringent requirements set out above, it would be the Desi Driver's Dream car. Manufacturers take note - for the ultimate in Masala Motoring has not yet been realised. Not quite. But contenders have gotten close and some are now Asian Automotive Icons.
As self-proclaimed #BrownCarGuy I do think it's only proper that I should be the one to pronounce the Top 7 most Desi Drives ever - so here they are in reverse order. And if you don't agree you can always offer me chai- paani (colloquialism for bribe) to change the listing, or leave your indignant yet humble contrary comments below.
7. Mahindra Jeep
An absolute icon that is essentially an original Willys Jeep from the 1950s. Favoured by the armed forces and police, it's familiar to Desis not just because of its fabled prowess in any kind of terrain India can throw at it, but also because every movie star that's played a cop has been behind the wheel of one.
Witness above megastar icon Amitabh Bachchan ricocheting over rocks in pursuit of Vinod Khanna in a Land Rover. Interesting fact – Mahindra & Mahindra was originally called Mahindra & Mohammed, but co-founder Malik Ghulam Mohammed emigrated to Pakistan after partition and it was renamed.
6. Hindustan Ambassador
Again a Bollywood movie staple, and indeed one of the most common cars on the roads in India for a good few decades from the 60s to the 80s until the number one car on this list started to dominate the Indian carscape.
Essentially this is a 1950s Morris Oxford Series III. The production rights and tooling were sold to Hindustan Motors and history was created.
Its semi-monocoque design made it quite spacious and so it won't come as a surprise that it was also designed by the father of the original Mini and Morris Minor, Sir Alec Issigonis. The guy was an auto hit maker with a knack for creating cars that were sold by and loved in the millions.
Ambassadors were actually imported back into Britain in 1992 briefly as the Fullbore Mark 10 and some even served as taxis here known as 'Karma Cabs'.
5. Datsun/Nissan Sunny
Since 1966 the Sunny has brought light to the lives of Desis everywhere. If this list were longer, it would probably also feature Nissans like the Micra, Primera, Almera, Bluebird and... do you remember the Prairie?
My newsagent had one – as did many other Patels with cornershops - and he adored its boxy blandness because it fitted in all his family, was utterly dependable and doubled as a van to load up with at the Cash & Carry.
But distill down the Nissan love and you're left with the Sunny in almost all its forms as the car favoured by Asians everywhere. In Pakistan, you'll still find black and yellow 1970s Datsun 120Y models logging hyper-galactic mileage as Taxis.
4. Mitsubishi Pajero
Yes I know we call it the Shogun here in Europe for reasons you should ask a Spaniard, but in Pakistan during the 80s and 90s, it was the car of politicians and feudal lords.
If you had a Pajero you really were a top notch Pajero of the highest order and other Pajeros wished they could be an utter Pajero like you! (Seriously, Google it).
Essentially it was a luxury 4x4 in a market where a Mercedes G-Wagon, Range Rover or even a Toyota Land Cruiser would be taxated beyond the means of even the rich.
But in a Pajero the landed aristocracy could lord it over their village, traverse over rutted roads and farm fields and there was room in the back for their Kalashnikov-armed guards – oh yeah, for real. Of course the new top-dog SUV boss in the subcontinent for these guys plus sports and entertainment celebs is now actually the Lexus LX.
3. Mercedes W123/W124/E-Class
Every 'Uncleji' strives to one day have his own Mar-Se-Deez – and it has to be the middle one (As & Cs are not real Mercs and the S is overdoing it), plus it must be a saloon because that's what their dads used to drive. There is no more robust a statement of achievement, accumulated wealth, sheer class and utter motoring magnificence in the eyes of a generation of Desis than a Mercedes-Benz.
It's in our genes. My father, who had no interest in driving or cars whatsoever, only ever professed a desire for a Mercedes. And despite being a BMW guy myself, I must confess the pull of the three-pointed star is strong and I could so rock a W123 coupe in matte grey with black wheels and dark chromed trim. Sorry, found myself fantasising just then – well I have been called 'Uncleji' too you know.
2. Toyota Corolla
The Corolla is the world's best-selling car with around 45 million built since 1966. A good proportion of those ended up in Desi homes I'll wager and there is no question that at one point or another almost every Asian on the planet either owned, drove or rode in a Toyota Corolla. It's the 'everyasian' car, the global equivalent of Europe's Volkswagen Golf. It'll run forever, do everything you need and never ever complain.
As a kid my uncle had a 1980 Liftback version of the E30 Corolla in white in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and had adorned the bonnet with stickers of three black birds. He drove the wheels off it - legend!
But ask a Desi which is the ultimate Corolla the answer is likely to be the E70 1982 Corolla saloon. Solid to the point of indestructibility, it was reasonably affordable and perceived to be quite classy.
Interestingly these rear-drive saloons are now popular as entry-level Drift cars in some Middle East countries (if you can't get a BMW 3-Series, you get one of these). By the way, if you're an American Desi, replace Corolla with Camry!
1. Suzuki/Maruti Alto/FX/800/Mehran
Built and distributed both in India (as a Maruti) and Pakistan in all its various guises and nameplates (let's just call it the Suzuki Alto here) this is probably the most Desi-driven car on the planet.
It's like the Mini Cooper of the East – extraordinarily practical, miserly to own and run, endearingly easy yet hilarious fun to drive (it even executes perfect handbrake turns – allegedly!) and dependable, despite less than average build quality.
A particular hero's mention goes out to the all-conquering first generation early 80s version with its angular lines and distinctive black garnish at the base of the C-Pillar – well it wasn't really a vent was it? The Suzuki Alto is simple motoring at its most sublime and frankly is as Desi as biryani.