In Iran, the chariot of choice probably has no seatbelt

Smaller than a Chevrolet, cheaper than a Pontiac, and able to avoid tall trade barriers, Iran's plucky Paykan is king.

Iran's rust-free climate has been generous to the few pre-revolutionary Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and other chrome-bumpered hunks of Midwestern steel that remain here, injecting a dash of ancien-regime glamour on the streets. They are certainly more eye-catching than the boxy, locally assembled Korean Kia Prides that are seen here as as the car of the future.

But king of the Iran highway is still the Paykan, a locally produced identical twin of Britain's long-forgotten and little-mourned Hillman Hunter. With 7 out of 10 cars in Tehran being Paykans, they are as durable a symbol of the 1979 Islamic revolution for Iranians as the stern gaze of Ayatollah Ruallah Khomeini is for Westerners.

The Paykan's horse and chariot logo is as instantly recognizable in Iran as the silver lady of a Rolls Royce in Britain. But there the comparison ends. The Paykan is to Iranians what the Trabant was to the East Germans: a basic but affordable means of transport.

Off-white and fawn appear to be the most exciting colors on offer, while functioning seat belts are regarded as an effete luxury by Tehran's steely-nerved taxi drivers. Paykan owners have a love-hate relationship with their vehicles, sometimes accusing them of being outdated and uneconomical. But all are fiercely proud of the plucky little car, whose character more than compensates for its lack of sex appeal.

"I'll tell you why I prefer my Paykan to a Chevrolet," says Ali Reza, a stubble-jawed taxi driver whose years negotiating the chaotic streets of Tehran have left him looking as grizzled as his 17-year-old Paykan is battered. "You can't get spare parts for a Chevrolet. But you can go to the smallest village in the middle of nowhere, and a mechanic will know how to fix a Paykan."

Certainly the Paykan, whose name means "arrow" in Persian, is one of the success stories of Iranian industry, which has worked hard to achieve self-sufficiency to counter years of international isolation and America-inspired trade boycotts. "The one who has God with him is never alone," reads a sign in a Paykan assembly plant west of Tehran.

Some (less charitably) attribute the Paykan's success to a virtual ban on car imports, which is aimed at protecting local production and conserving foreign currency. Locally assembled Peugeot 405s are snazzier, but three times the price.

Iran's state-owned Khodro Co. began assembling the Paykan in 1967 from kits supplied by Hillman's parent company in Britain, the long-defunct Rootes Motor Co., which was later taken over by Chrysler UK. When that, in turn, was absorbed by Peugeot in 1989, Iran purchased the British company's manufacturing equipment and began producing the Paykan virtually on its own.

The Paykan was due to be replaced by a more advanced model in 1978, but after the Islamic revolution, international investment for joint ventures evaporated, taking with it the newer model. With 2 million devoted owners across Iran, the Paykan is showing no sign of bowing to the Korean invasion.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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