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The Glove Box: Paykan

Cover photo from Petrolicious

I suppose I’m fond of cars that find a new home in a land far away. I’ve already written about two of these: the Peugeot 504 and IKA Torino (although the latter was modified to fit its new market). A car that doesn’t make a huge impact in one place may well mobilize an entire nation elsewhere. Today’s car didn’t exactly have what it took to save a struggling British company, but thanks to some opportunistic business ventures, Iran reaped huge benefits.

This last vehicle from The Glove Box before winter break fully begins, the Paykan, is just like many of the other cars I’ve featured: mechanically simple, but with an interesting story. The only problem with our modern age is that I can’t find that story in its full form: whether out of prejudice against Iran or a simple lack of media coverage over the years, I don’t know, but the Paykan inspires me to pursue global automotive storytelling.

Early Paykans on an imported (Rootes) Commer truck. Photo from Reza Amanatchi on Flickr

The British motor industry has often produced cars that turned out to be popular only in their home market, and not anywhere else. Makes sense, then, that British marques have been teaming up with one another or being bought by foreign companies for a long while. To this day, British manufacturers struggle to get mass appeal even in continental Europe, let alone elsewhere. Jaguar, a storied brand, is imitating BMW in an attempt at success in the modern United States. Seriously, tell me they don’t look the same (Jaguar vs. BMW, both)

Rootes Group formed over time as a more traditional, upscale competitor to the ubiquitous British Motor Corporation (BMC, manufacturer of the famous Mini and MG sports cars), later British Leyland. Both were mergers of mergers that continued to make other acquisitions over a few decades. They partook comprehensively in “badge engineering,” selling the same car under different brands under a corporate umbrella, usually with slight variances in trim and pricing between them. Rootes and BMC both fizzled out of existence in the early 1980s, by which time most of their brands lacked relevancy.

British Leyland, an unwieldy enterprise, was partly nationalized in 1975, and over the next decade, most of its brands were stripped away and the small, struggling Rover Group was left mostly making reskinned Hondas. Corporate ownership moved to British Aerospace, and then to BMW. In 2005, Land Rover was split off and sold to Ford, and MG Rover, the shadow of BMC’s core range, went to Nanjing Automobile Group, but not before BMW revived the Mini brand.

Rootes, meanwhile, was bought in 1967 by Chrysler Europe, which subsequently ran itself into the ground until 1978, when the remnants of the car business went to the French company Peugeot. Rootes had introduced the Hillman/Sunbeam Imp (Comic Sans alert) as a rear-engined competitor to BMC’s Mini in 1963. It had character, but teething problems ruined its reputation and the company was soon in financial peril.

Right before the Chrysler takeover, Rootes made its next big reveal: the “Arrow” series, so called because nobody wants to say or write “Hillman Hunter, Humber Sceptre, Sunbeam Arrow, Singer Gazelle, and many others” every time they mention this vehicle. To make matters worse, some single model names were sold under different brands depending on the country or the year; most notably, Sunbeam was often the unified Rootes brand sold in continental Europe. The gradual Chrysler takeover introduced a wider audience of nations and more brand names to confuse with each other.

When is he getting to the car he’s actually going to talk about? you’re saying to yourself. It will come soon. But the British motor industry is monolithic and confusing even to me. So, the Arrow was built from 1966 to 1979. Look at its design: it is aggressively bland, but rather modern for when it was introduced. If I squint, I can at various times see notes of Mercedes, BMW, Datsun, Maserati, and Lada. As for that last one, perhaps this car was so successful in Iran for so many years because it was so anonymous, even Soviet.

But now! The Paykan. Enter Mahmoud Khayami, Iranian-French industrialist who wants to mobilize Iran and make some cash in the process. Khayami is still living, in his 80s, a successful retired life. His family owns numerous Mercedes dealers in Europe and the United States. He has a large collection of Persian art and frequently makes charitable donations, with special interests in Iranian primary and secondary education. The Queen of England has decorated him in the Order of CBE. In other words, a good guy.

The pickup version in unusually good condition. Photo from sheik otto on Flickr.

Khayami’s company, Iran National, today Iran Khodro (IKCO), began building the Paykan (Farsi for “Arrow”) in 1967. From then until 1979 and the Islamic Revolution, the abundance of oil money allowed Paykans to become ubiquitous. The Paykan was the middle-class symbol, something to aspire to. PaykanHunter, the source for all things Rootes Arrow with an obvious focus on the Paykan, occasionally posts pictures showing just how great a proportion of the cars in Iran were Paykans at one point. (Count the Paykans.) After the Revolution, cars as a whole were harder to acquire and use, but IKCO kept building the same old car.

Over its lifetime from 1967 to 2005, the Paykan received a variety of engines, mostly from Peugeot, surely a result of the Rootes-Chrysler-Peugeot connection back in Europe. Indeed, Peugeot overtook the Paykan as the primary driver of Iran’s automobile industry, but the Paykan stayed around and benefited from the connection. The Peugeot 405 became popular in various forms, becoming the basis for Iran’s first real “national car,” the IKCO Samand, in 2003. Today’s IKCO designs are mostly combinations of different Peugeot components with some in-house design and engine technology.

Photo from Stefan on Flickr

It’s apparently impossible to kill the Paykan, though, even with all of those Peugeot parts lying around. Sure, the government paid IKCO to stop making it in 2005 because it was thoroughly unsafe and had no emissions controls. But the pickup version was actually made until 2015: that’s 48 years of a car that was a primary source of income for thousands of working-class families. Its replacement? Simply a redesigned pickup version, called Arisun, of the Peugeot RD/ROA, which is itself a Peugeot 405 body placed upon Paykan mechanicals. (Check out this piece to learn more about the pickups.) Effectively, then, the Paykan remains in production, or at least part of it does.

Why do I like this car? First, as you may have noticed, I tend to like automotive cockroaches, those cars that seem to stay in production forever. Second, this one in particular mobilized Iran and likely helped at least a little bit in making that country such a superpower. Third, I for some reason think it’s nice to look at. Maybe not attractive per se, but satisfying, substantial, ready for action. I could see owning one of these and being happy with it. I encourage you to look around to get a fuller picture on this car, whose looks deceive how interesting it is. The Glove Box will be back after the break.


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