Top gear

Updated Dec 29, 2015 01:45pm
A red Lotus parked in politician Nadir Magsi’s garage
A red Lotus parked in politician Nadir Magsi’s garage

Salman Khan was eight-years old when he first sat behind the wheel of his father’s green Nissan Silvia, a sleek, low-slung car like one straight out of the Hollywood movie Fast and Furious. His foot was on the accelerator and the car could have vroomed off at high speed if his father had not spotted him just in time. He still remembers the sharp slap he received across his face for trying to do something he was not expected to do at that young age.

The slap was a small price to pay for his love for cars and the one that did nothing to dampen his passion for beauties on wheels. His father, in fact, has been the reason why he fell in love with cars in the first place: He read everything about them from the racing and automobile magazines his father would bring home.

As a teenager in the late 1990s, he knew so much about sports and luxury cars that he could tell all the technological and technical differences between a Maserati and a Mercedes-Benz, or a Bentley and a Bugatti Veyron. At the age of 15, he got his own car – a pink Nissan Silvia – as a belated compliment by his father to his audacious first attempt to drive a similar vehicle a few years earlier. Khan now drives a two-door white Nissan Skyline, an elegant car with rounded corners, discreet bodylines and round backlights. It remained parked at his home in Karachi’s Defence area for a number of years before he started taking it for weekend rides to a tea stall he runs in another part of the same neighbourhood.

The only other area in Karachi where he can take his expensive car for a drive without risking any damage to it is the stretch of the Seaview promenade where the Arabian Sea makes a big intrusion in to meet the Malir River — on the eastern end of Defence. It was once known as Devil’s Point, either in recognition of the near absence of human population there or in remembrance of the fast and furious car races that raged there only a few years ago.

Some young men still race their cares there, occasionally, says Khan, but it is not a patch on what has been going on before 2010. “Things went bad when people refused to accept defeat. Now people go there just to drive their cars around.”

A love for cars runs in the Magsi family; here Amir Magsi is seen in his white Ferrari
A love for cars runs in the Magsi family; here Amir Magsi is seen in his white Ferrari

There is a community of sorts of those in Karachi who, like Khan, own luxury and sports cars — everyone knows everyone; some are even best buddies. On weekends, 12 or so of them take out their Nissans, Lancers and Toyotas, and drive them around in a cavalcade.

Khan and his best friend, Mirza Mehdi, are the core members of this community. Their relationship grew stronger as they together rebuilt a 1982 Toyota bit by bit. There is another set of two young friends – Zain and Asad – within this community. Four months ago, they pooled in money to purchase a silver Daihatsu Coupon, a nifty little car with round edges, front-sloping roof and oval headlights.

A gleaming Ferrari  attracts visitors at a car show
A gleaming Ferrari attracts visitors at a car show

The two usually arrive at Devil’s Point as the sun starts to set and drive their car around till it gets dark. Theirs is a popular vehicle among the onlookers who gather at the venue every Sunday to watch shiny cars drive by and heavy motorbikes speed past. Some chase their car; others want to take pictures with it. What is it that makes a car so attractive? Asad says he loves his Daihatsu Coupon because it offers a very smooth drive and, due to its diminutive compact size, is easy to take everywhere. Next he plans to acquire a Ford Mustang 2010 — “a big, lean machine”.

This latter class of cars is well-liked for their engine’s power and performance. “The sound of the engine, its roar — that is what I love. The kick I get when I push the ignition button makes me feel like I am sitting in a plane or a rollercoaster,” says Mehdi. “It’s thrilling and the thrill is exhilarating.”

Mohsin Ikram in a special edition Corvette
Mohsin Ikram in a special edition Corvette

Mohsin Ikram, another regular at Devil’s Point, likes vintage vehicles for their classic looks. He is the founder and president of the Vintage and Classic Car Club of Pakistan and is often seen driving a 1981 model two-door Chevrolet Corvette or a 1954 model Austin-Healey. Both cars, he says, have taken part in Karachi-to-Peshawar rallies. The Corvette, according to Ikram, is the most recognised sports cars in the world and the main reason why he owns one.

Others simply are enamoured by a certain model and make. Mohammad Asim’s passion for his 2004 model Nissan Fairlady 350Z is nothing less than a one-sided love affair. The car, with huge rectangle lights, back-sloping roof and a bumper barely a couple of inches above the ground, takes a lot of effort and care to drive on Karachi’s bumpy and congested roads. Every time he takes it out on the street, he obsesses over which route to take.

And he is happy to take all those troubles while on his usual weekly ride — from his father’s car showroom in North Nazimabad to Devil’s Point and back. He does not want his beloved vehicle to get even the tiniest of scratches.

Luxury and sports cars have prices ranging anywhere between two million rupees and 200 million rupees — way above most ordinary cars available in the market. “A Porsche can cost around 18.5 million rupees,” says Khalilur Rehman, the general manager at one of Karachi’s oldest and most famous car dealerships. He sold a Mercedes-Benz S-Class in 2014 for 22.4 million rupees.

Young and handsome Arghan Tahir, a car importer in Karachi, explains there are three ways of bringing luxury and sports cars into Pakistan: people living abroad can send these cars as gifts to their close relatives without attracting import duties, and foreign diplomats coming into the country can bring such cars as their personal baggage. And then there are Japanese auction websites. Some of them sell eight cars every minute.

Car importer Arghan Tahir takes his BMW out for a spin
Car importer Arghan Tahir takes his BMW out for a spin

Once purchased from an auction website, a luxury or sports car is brought into Pakistan on a roll-on-and-roll-off ship which carries up to 800 cars but downloads only as many as buyers in the country have ordered. It then moves to another destination. A car can take up to 45 days to reach Karachi from Japan on such a ship.

Mohammad Asim, who also imports luxury and sports cars, says interest in buying such cars has increased of late. “A few years ago, we used to sell only one imported car a year but the number is now increasing every year,” he says.

Tahir verifies that. “Every month, about 2,800 to 3,000 imported cars arrive in Pakistan and five per cent of them are luxury and sports cars.” He has clients who want to have such expensive cars as Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces and Maseratis.

There is a community of sorts of those in Karachi who own luxury and sports cars — everyone knows everyone.

Most of his clients, he says, come from Punjab. “One customer in Lahore has asked me to get him a Bentley. He is just 22-years-old,” says Tahir with a wink. Another, a property tycoon based in Rawalpindi, got a Phantom Rolls-Royce for 200 million rupees. Tahir himself drives around in a 2004 model BMW convertible priced at 8.6 million rupees.

Since it is expensive to have such cars, people with not much money to spare have devised innovative ways to buy them. Atiq Sheikh, who runs a fast food restaurant in Karachi’s Defence area, drives a Nissan 350Z convertible thanks to the money pooled in by his friend, making them co-owners of the car. He has also devised an exchange mechanism with other car owners — that way everyone gets to drive a different car after some time.

Maintenance of luxury and sports cars, too, requires extra effort and lots of money. Even if they are parked most of the time, they still need oil and filter changes every three months and most car owners do not trust ordinary oil change outlets to do the job. Almost all of them, thus, spend a good amount of their time in keeping their cars in running condition.

The Vintage and Classic Car Show in Karachi
The Vintage and Classic Car Show in Karachi

And, of course, someone who can buy a car for a few million rupees can also afford to spend a few hundred thousand rupees on its maintenance. It is a rich people’s hobby, anyway, though there are few who pursue it the way Nadir Magsi does.

Nadir Magsi is a member of the Sindh Assembly from Qambar-Shahdadkot district and his elder brother, Zulfiqar Magsi, is a former chief minister and governor of Balochistan and the chief of the Magsi tribe. Love for cars, he says, runs in his family. He is known among car lovers for his victories at desert rallies. Nadir Magsi has set up a huge parking-cum-workshop facility on the eastern edge of the Korangi Industrial Area. He not just parks and maintains his own large collection of luxury and sports vehicles there but also uses the venue to provide repair services to others.

Nadir Magsi stands in front of his jeep
Nadir Magsi stands in front of his jeep
The interior of a vintage sports car
The interior of a vintage sports car

“This is where I come to unwind after work and politics,” Nadir Magsi says, sitting in a room full of trophies and car racing photographs. “I started driving in Lahore at the age of 10. My brothers and I would race down the boulevards there.” In Karachi, Nadir Magsi would have races with his friends between the Beach Luxury and Metropole hotels. That was way back in the 1970s and is “unimaginable now due to the traffic and barricades”.

Nadir Magsi’s favourite car is his red Ferrari, parked at his house in the United States. In Karachi, he drives around in his imposing Ford Truck or a no-frills G-Wagen which can often be spotted outside the Sindh Assembly.

In a city where the average car speed cannot go beyond a tortoise-like 20 kilometre per hour during most hours of the day, what can one do with a vehicle that can reach 60 kilometres per hour in less than ten seconds after getting its first sniff of gas? Just “coasting around”, responds Nadir Magsi.

All photographs are by Tahir Jamal, White Star. This was originally published in Herald's December 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.