Street Scenes: Old Beirut

(first posted 1/30/2014)     Long known as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, Beirut’s streets show a car culture reflective of the diversity and flair of its citizenry.  Old is, of course, a relative term, and in the case of one the world’s longest inhabited cities, we’ll use the term to describe the country from the period following independence through 1975, when street scenes became decidedly less idyllic.

Despite large numbers of poor, Lebanon has long been known for its significant middle class and its population of downright wealthy entrepreneurs. Outside of Europe, especially in the Middle East, disguising wealth is less of a priority and combined with a strong French influence and close ties to the West, the country enjoyed a unique mix of cars from every corner of the capitalist world.

This is clearly evident in this picture, where a Citroen Traction Avant can be seen trundling along an old Beirut street next to American pickups and sedans.  There are a number of small cars pictured as well; see if you can identify them all.

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In this seafront street, a white Mustang can be seen in front of what appears to be an old Cadillac, behind which is a Renault 8.

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In this somewhat older shot, we see the rear quarters of a BMC ADO16 four-door of some sort, and behind the Mercedes Pontons is a white Fiat 1500 sedan.

This picture does not seem to have been taken in Beirut, but still shows a typical mix of cars, with Mercedes sedans alongside Detroit boats.  The latter were ill-suited to a mountainous country full of narrow, winding roads.

Pedestrians and Cars Crowd Beirut Street
Nevertheless, American cars seemingly dominate the landscape, although by the mid 1970s, this began to change, with upscale European sedans becoming more popular.

American sedans have always been popular in the Middle East, as we can see.  But when compared to the hot and flat Gulf states, their presence in Lebanon made less sense.

Small European hatchbacks and sedans from France and Britain caught on sooner in Lebanon than in some other markets.  It’s hard to think of a better sort of car for the country than one built with long suspension travel and an appetite for winding country lanes.

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Of course, cruising down the Corniche with the fresh Mediterranean sea air in your face is most fun in a classic American hardtop.

The long civil war created an entirely new class of wealthy people who, along with a hardy and tenacious middle class, kept the market for new cars in tact.  In pictures taken of the devastation in the ’80s and ’90s, European cars predominate.  However, it’s much more enjoyable to devote our attention to a place and time forgotten among Westerners today.