CC Global History: The Dolmus – Forgotten American Classics of Turkey

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(First posted 1/27/14)  For almost half a century, numerous American cars from the 1950s were in daily use in a country outside of North America, where they were completely isolated from the mainstream American classic car community.  Stranded overseas by the tides of the Cold War, they did more than just survive; they became a fixture in their adopted country’s automotive scene.  Anyone reading these words will think that they are about to hear about Cuba.  In this case, they are wrong.  The same words apply to Turkey, where 1950s American cars became a national institution called the “dolmus.”


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The dolmus, pronounced “doll-moosh,” is a privately owned and operated minibus that provides services between those of a taxi and a bus.  According to one account, it began during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when middle-class people who previously used taxis to move around Istanbul found themselves unable to afford to use taxis on a regular basis and were forced to share buses with the poor.  One everyday taxi customer in this situation came up with the idea of paying his usual driver more, while bringing four other people needing to make the same round trip, in order to spread out the cost.  The driver enterprisingly began to offer this service to all of his customers, and the dolmus was born.

The word “dolmus” means “full,” referring to the practice of waiting until a car is full before departing for the designated destination.  An example of such a situation is this 1955 Chevrolet, which is about to have three across in front and four in back.

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As the dolmus spread from the 1930s onward, a simple system developed to connect cities in Turkey and areas of the large city of Istanbul with the regular, easily found service.  Drivers would queue in designated dolmus areas, with signs indicating their destinations, and each would wait until the car filled to capacity.  There would be multiple cars going to each destination at various times during the day, wherever and however often dolmus operators figured they could find enough passengers.

A smartphone app was not necessary to find a dolmus to a particular destination; a person without a timetable or a telephone could simply walk to the dolmus pickup point of a city or Istanbul neighborhood and find one.  Waiting for the car to fill before departing usually would be necessary, but dolmus service was far cheaper than a taxi and cheaper and more flexible than a city or intercity bus.

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American cars of the 1950s became the main vehicles used by the dolmus trade for several decades, and they gave the dolmus a distinctive look, since American cars were otherwise rare in Turkey.  There were multiple ways in which American cars were imported into Turkey during the 1950s, and probably all of them contributed to the cars that ended up in dolmus service.  America’s large and flashy cars were significant status symbols for people in Turkey who could afford them during the 1950s, a decade of major economic growth in Turkey, so imports from the United States were substantial during that time.  General Motors and Chrysler also each had assembly plants in Europe that produced cars based on their American full-size models during the 1950s, and some of these cars may have ended up imported into Turkey.  These import channels would have closed after local production of passenger cars in Turkey began in 1960, with local assembly of Ford of Britain’s Consul, which was accompanied by trade restrictions to protect the domestic Turkish automobile industry.  These protectionist measures starting in 1960 likely account for why American cars from the 1950s predominated in the dolmus trade.  There were additional American cars brought into Turkey and sold by American diplomats and military personnel, the latter primarily from Incirlik Air Base, which opened in the early 1950s.

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Whatever brought these American cars to Turkey, dolmus operators embraced them, and for decades they dominated the business.  Substantially larger than European cars of the period, a standard size American car allowed a driver to take five or six paying passengers on each trip, instead of struggling to fit four into a smaller car.  Many if not most dolmus cars had extended wheelbases and a third row of seats, either as rearward-facing or jump seats, allowing a dolmus to carry eight or more paying passengers.  The ability to more than double the revenue from each trip made the extended wheelbase American car the logical choice for a dolmus operator (Soviet spies trying to undermine American leadership of this business may be lurking in the VAZ-2101, better known by its alias Lada, parked across the street).

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The extended wheelbase, three row cars in dolmus service were probably a mix of factory-built long wheelbase models and standard cars stretched locally by Turkish coach builders.  This 1948 or 1949 Desoto Suburban, popular as a taxi in the United States, came from the factory with an extended wheelbase and jump seats that allowed it to seat eight, or more when tightly packed in dolmus use.  GM and Chrysler assembly plants in Europe produced comparably stretched models for limousine and taxi use, such as the eight passenger Coronado produced in Chrysler’s Rotterdam plant in 1958-62.  The factory-built models were probably not numerous enough to account for the predominance of extended wheelbase cars in dolmus service, though, so it is likely that most were converted locally in Turkey.

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The vast majority of dolmus cars were American cars from the 1950s, but a few were not.  This 1986 photograph shows a car from the Volvo PV800 series, produced from 1938 to 1958, built on a separate body and frame with a 128 inch wheelbase (139 inches on long wheelbase commercial versions) and sharing mechanical parts with a small Volvo truck.  They were produced as taxis, limousines with divider windows, and commercial chassis, as well as four wheel drive vehicles for military use.  Comparable in length to a standard size American car  with an extended wheelbase, a PV800 series vehicle would have been their equal in dolmus use.

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These cars covered enormous mileage over their lifetimes, so most of them probably were like the proverbial axe used forever, but which had three blades and two handles over the years.  With Istanbul 280 miles from Ankara and 350 miles from Izmir by road, an intercity dolmus could easily cover over 100,000 miles each year.  This 1954 or 1955 Dodge Kingsway probably had several engines and transmissions by the time that it was photographed near Istanbul’s Galata Bridge in 1986.

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By the 2000s, the time of the 1950s American car dolmus had passed.  Dolmus operators replaced them with new minibuses from Mercedes, Renault, and other manufacturers, such as this Sprinter-based bus.  With greater seating capacity, modern and more trouble-free mechanicals, better fuel efficiency, air conditioning, and other driver and passenger amenities, they were a better solution for the dolmus role.  The dolmus business continues to thrive in Turkey, but classic American cars have disappeared from the queues.

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Some dolmus veteran American cars survive in Turkey, restored for use as nostalgia transport for hire, such as this stretched 1954 Plymouth.  The websites for these cars, such as this 1954 Plymouth and this 1950 Dodge, often are only in Turkish, suggesting that Turks rather than foreign tourists are their main target audience.

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Today, there is very little information in English available about the era of 1950s American cars in dolmus service, and memory of them seems to have faded almost entirely.  Unlike the classic American cars of Cuba or the overloaded motorbikes of Vietnam, they have no glossy coffee table books memorializing them.  Only a small number of websites mention their existence or show photographs of them, mostly travel blogs showing old photographs from the 1970s and 1980s with very little explanation.  Few photographs are available on the internet.

As British, Australians and New Zealanders have been the predominant English-speaking visitors in Turkey, it is unlikely many Americans are aware that these 1950s American cars ever existed in Turkey.  My knowledge of them comes from reading a short article in a British car magazine during the late 1980s, then seeing them first-hand in 1993 during a trip to Istanbul.  Unless someone in Turkey has compiled a collection of photographs and memories of these vehicles, they may become a forgotten episode in the history of American cars overseas.  Having been some of the longest-lived, hardest-working cars ever produced by the American automobile industry, they deserve to be remembered.