Cars may seem to be a petty subject in the context of Iraq, a country that has experienced over thirty years of incessant war and economic sanctions, and where the United States fought a war for eight years. The cars on the streets of Baghdad can tell much about the history of Iraq since the 1950s, however, as they are tangible evidence of the ebb and flow of Iraq’s politics and economics during the past half-century. This photo essay will depict a sampling of Curbside Classics-worthy cars seen on the streets of Baghdad, and also attempt to convey some of the historical lessons they embody.
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An appropriate starting place is this street scene from the early 1960s. Depicted on this 1960s-vintage postcard printed by Iraqi Airways is Abi Al-Nawas Street, a famous avenue near the Tigris River that once was home to Baghdad’s political, social and cultural elites. The featured element in the street scene is a bright-blue 1960 Chevrolet sedan, and visible in the background are other large American cars as well as several white Volkswagen Beetles. The inclusion of the Chevrolet in the scene sends a clear message about both the place and the car: The neighborhood is a place inhabited by people capable of owning a huge car that consumed large amounts of expensive (by the standards of every country other than the U.S.) gasoline. The Chevrolet – a car that any American factory worker could have purchased (albeit probably on credit) – was a status symbol for the wealthy and powerful overseas, where a large American car was a rare and exotic vehicle. Many of Iraq’s elite did own American cars during this time; as a result, cars from Detroit would have roles in significant events in Iraq’s turbulent history.
One such event was the 1958 revolution in which Iraq’s monarchy, which had been installed in 1932 by the British Empire, was overthrown. A group of military officers led by General Abd al-Karim Kasim conducted a coup against King Faisal II, who descended from a branch of the Hashemite dynasty that rules the Kingdom of Jordan to this day. After killing most of the royal family (and many of their officials), the officers created a republic; in 1968, it was taken over by the Ba’ath Party led by Saddam Hussein, who ran things from behind the scenes until 1979, and then quite overtly as president. In 1958, as the old order in Iraq collapsed, many among Baghdad’s rich and powerful would attempt to escape army patrols and mobs in the streets in the American cars that had been their status symbols. One was the 70-year-old premier of Iraq, Nuri as-Said; his friends had dressed him as a woman and then put him in the trunk of their American sedan, but had to move him to the back seat when panic from claustrophobia caused him to pound the trunk walls, begging to be let out. The escape attempt failed, and he shot himself after being cornered by a squad of soldiers. (Aram Roston, The Man Who Pushed America to War (Nation Books, 2008), 7.)
Some of these cars survived the turmoil of 1958 and the years that followed, and they continue to roam the streets of Baghdad to this day. The author personally observed a 1960 Chevrolet sedan–painted red with all of its windows smashed, but otherwise identical to the one on the postcard–slogging through Baghdad’s congested traffic. Unfortunately, the sighting lasted only a few seconds and did not allow enough time to pull out a camera and take a photograph.
The oldest cars commonly seen on the streets of Baghdad date back to the 1970s, a decade viewed by Iraqis as a sort of golden age. During the 1970s, Iraq experienced a period of prosperity as its oil production rose at the same time that world oil prices soared after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. At the same time, Iraq experienced a period of peace between the end of the last major Arab-Israeli war, in 1973, and the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. Iraq’s living standards rose to levels not seen before or since, and with that prosperity came an influx of cars that middle-class people could now afford. The iconic cars of this period were Toyota sedans, from small Corollas and mid-sized Coronas to the largest model built by Toyota at the time, the Crown.
These cars still abound today in the streets of Baghdad, kept alive in their fourth decade by the dry, rust-free climate and the ability of Iraqi mechanics to repair their simple and robust mechanical systems. Many bear the orange fenders used by taxis in Iraq, and many others are in private use. No doubt, they will survive in large numbers for decades to come, continuing to serve their owners after the more than half-century since they left their assembly lines in Japan.
Nineteen eighty marked the beginning of a great national tragedy for Iraq, as the now-overtly dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Iran, starting a war that would last through 1988. The war would cost the lives of an estimated 160,000 to 240,000 Iraqis, with additional hundreds of thousands wounded. It also would bankrupt Iraq: The state took on 130 billion dollars of debt to pay for weapons and other supplies for the war effort while Iraq’s oil production declined due to war-related under-investment and neglect. Such consumer goods as automobiles ceased to be widely available. As a result, during the 1980s new cars in Iraq were mostly of a few specific types, and purchased by the government for use by Iraqi government officials.
The most common new car in the 1980s was the Volkswagen Passat (Dasher, in the U. S.) There seems to be one parked on or moving along every block in Baghdad today. In this photo, a blue one is seen at far left, in front of a line of newer Japanese cars and one 1980s car that will be familiar to American viewers.
Several types of American cars appeared in substantial numbers in Iraq during the 1980s. The full-sized Chevrolet Caprice and mid-sized Malibu are still occasionally seen on Baghdad streets. (Unfortunately, the author was not able to take any good photographs of these models in Baghdad.) One frequently sighted car is the front-wheel drive A-Body Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, seemingly always painted white, a model mostly identified in the United States as best-suited to senior citizens or as a hand-me-down vehicle for high school and college students. These cars generally were issued to senior military officers and civilian officials. The government of Iraq picked its U.S.-sourced cars well, because time has proven them to be among the most reliable and durable American cars of the 1980s, and they should continue to serve their current owners well past the quarter-century mark.
The Saddam regime was much more lavish when it came to members of its ruling family and its highest officials, of course. The W126 S-Class Mercedes was the vehicle of choice for every dictatorship in the world during the 1980s, and the Saddam regime was no exception. This lineup of four armored W126 sedans and one earlier W116 S-Class sedan (also armored) was spotted in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. This was where Saddam Hussein once had a summer villa in the mountains, and Ali “Chemical Ali” Hassan al-Majid commanded the genocidal “Al-Anfal” campaign that killed over 1,000,000 Kurds through mass shootings, starvation and chemical weapons. If these cars could talk, perhaps they could tell of leaders of the Saddam regime sitting in the back seats, making decisions that would end or ruin the lives of millions of people.
After the end of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, the ’90s were almost as unkind to Iraq as the war years of the 1980s had been. Iraqis lived under international economic sanctions that caused complete economic collapse early in the decade. With food and other essentials in short supply, societal norms unraveled as people struggled to get by day to day. Many Iraqis trace the massive corruption that currently exists there (Iraq has consistently finished among the worst several countries in the world in Transparency International’s corruption rankings since 2003) to the 1990’s, when societal respect for law and hostility toward corruption fell apart as people struggled to survive by any means necessary.
As one would expect when the international community unites in opposition to a dictatorship or when corruption takes over, Russia and France were pleased to step in to gain influence and make profits. Evidence of their relationship with the Saddam regime abounds in the streets of Baghdad, in the form of a stream of yellow: 1990s-vintage Volga GAZ-3110 and Peugeot 405 sedans, painted Western taxicab yellow instead of Iraqi taxicab orange-and-white. They account for the vast majority of the 1990s cars presently in Baghdad.
Some of these yellow Volgas and Peugeots trickled down to ordinary Iraqis for use as personal cars. An example is this white Volga with an improvised roof rack. Typical of the Soviet-designed Volga, which lasted in production from 1968 to 2010, it apparently broke down on the side of the road, judging by the open hood and trunk lid. (If you have a broken-down Volga, the author has a 1985 Soviet parts catalog for the previous-generation GAZ-3102 model. It might be useful for ordering replacement parts from the GAZ factory.)
Photo courtesy of LTC Seth Morgulas, Army National Guard
More-exotic machinery also found its way into Iraq during the 1990s, and some of it trickled down after the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and toppled the Saddam regime in 2003. Saddam’s elder son Uday–best known for his sadistic torture of Iraqi Olympic athletes and soccer players, and for sexually assaulting women when he felt like it (which led to an Iraqi general shooting him with an AK-47 in retaliation for raping his wife, crippling him and causing him to fall out of the line of succession in favor of his younger brother Qusay)–accumulated a collection of Ferraris and other sports cars during the period of economic sanctions. The burned-out hulk of a Ferrari in this photo is a confirmed former Uday Hussein car. It was torched by Iraqis during the collapse of the regime and liberated of removable parts by U.S. servicemen and servicewomen.
This yellow 1994-97 Porsche 911 was in the possession of an Iraqi government agency which will be unnamed. It might have belonged to Uday, some other member of the family or a top-level regime official.
With the Saddam Hussein regime terminated, and the bloody insurgency of the mid-2000s ended, Iraq has entered a new phase of history in which the possibility of better lives for its people exists. Despite ongoing terrorist bombings and political conflicts, rising oil production offers the potential for economic development and higher living standards, and a period of relative peace may allow a fractured society to recover. A renewed influx of imported automobiles is already occurring, as new Hyundais, Kias and Toyotas become common sights in Baghdad. This new-car lot is filled with vehicles from each of these three manufacturers.
American cars are also making their way to Iraq. Vast numbers of Chevrolet Suburbans arrived with U.S. military and civilian missions, and most of them stayed in Iraq. Too worn-out to be worth transporting back to the United States, they were transferred as gifts to the government of Iraq, in whose hands they would be capable of many more years of service. (Some of these Suburbans can be seen in previous photos.) The importing of new vehicles, including this Chrysler 300 and Jeep Liberty, is also occurring.
Older, second-hand cars, such as this 1990s “cab forward”-era Chrysler Concorde, are also making their way into the country. Like the new cars, they are an indication of improving living conditions as Iraq continues to become more normal–a minor one, perhaps, but an indication nonetheless.
Of course, many of the classics in daily use in Iraq are tanks and other military vehicles. This row of Soviet-made T-72 tanks stands ready for action on the grounds of Iraq’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is located nearby numerous important offices of the government of Iraq.
An appropriate way to conclude this brief history of automobiles in Iraq is to return to the 1950s, to the period before the revolution of 1958. During that era, when the United States had very limited involvement with Iraq, this 1955 Ford Thunderbird came to Baghdad. Like the Red Violin in the eponymous motion picture, it’s likely this car has passed through multiple owners and borne witness to many terrible events. This quintessential symbol of 1950s America now resides on a street in the Baghdad International Zone (more commonly known as the Green Zone), a handful of blocks from the U.S. Embassy. The author suspected that it had a connection to Iraq’s royal family, but a source stated that it was actually imported by a wealthy Iraqi businessman during the period of the monarchy. (The source spoke in a British accent, which made him seem intelligent and informed regardless of whether or not he actually was.) The source also stated that the owner has refused multiple American and British offers to buy the Thunderbird, as he knows the value of the car and its story and is waiting for the appropriate time to sell it for the greatest profit.
Perhaps that story is true. Perhaps the owner is willing to sell at any time but is simply trying to drive up the price. In any case, one can state with certainty that the owner is a shrewd person who is not laying down and allowing fate to dictate his terms. The same can be said about most of the people of Iraq, who have endured, from 1980 to 2010, what literally can be called a Thirty Years War–perhaps the longest period of virtually uninterrupted conflict experienced by any nation in the past 200 years. Ideally, years from now someone will be able to track down this car and report about a shiny, restored 1955 Ford Thunderbird driven around the streets of a rebuilt and prosperous Baghdad by a successful Iraqi businessman–and a microcosm of the greater restoration of a country. Perhaps it will happen.
The author served as a civilian with the U.S. government in Iraq in 2009-2010 and 2011. Not being able to visit Babylon or any of Iraq’s other many archaeological sites, he decided to do some amateur automotive archaeology during his limited spare time. All views expressed in this article are his own, and do not reflect any official positions of the U.S. government.