BBC Autos

Other Side of the Road

The cars of Iran

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

HIDE CAPTION

When the Shah of Iran fled Tehran in 1979, the capital city’s flashy cars also sought sanctuary.

The societal convulsions that sped the Shah’s ouster pushed luxury sedans and sports cars deep underground, if not entirely out of the country. Some vehicles were requisitioned by the revolution’s leaders and sold, while others – including many previously owned by the Shah – would come to moulder in a museum northwest of Tehran. But in a city where oil wealth flows freely among elites, beautiful cars remain out of sight only for so long.

That was clear on 5 August, when a classic car show was held outside Saadabad Palace, the president’s official residence. The gathering was one of many held at palace sites throughout Tehran in recent years, as popular attitudes towards the machines have softened. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the divisive former populist president of Iran, was an unabashed car enthusiast, having conducted a charity auction for his stalwart 1977 Peugeot 504 sedan that, according to the country’s official news agency, resulted in a $2.5m winning bid in 2011.

Though Tehran’s highways function today as illicit playgrounds for owners of contemporary sports cars, the gracious grounds of Saadabad Palace inspired a more leisurely pace. Unlike car gatherings in the West, where vehicles tend to be corralled into homogenous groups, there was a refreshing lack of orthodoxy. Here was a Citroën DS under the same tent as a late-1970s Buick Regal. Here was a Maserati Merak mid-engine supercar preening across from a meek AMC Pacer. Scarcity breeds creativity, and perhaps a bit of irreverence.

Mercedes-Benz might have been the best-represented manufacturer on view, with a stunning gold-metallic 1961 300 SE convertible being a big draw.

The most surprising attendees, however, were impeccably maintained US muscle cars from the ‘70s. A Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am, replete with Smokey and the Bandit-correct black and gold paint, looked ready to outduel American highway patrolmen. A Chevrolet Camaro RS convertible menaced passersby with its long snout and toothy grille. And a progenitor of the Detroit muscle era, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS, was also on hand to keep these rapscallions on good behaviour. The cars were remarkably juxtaposed with women dressed in the traditional hijab, a legacy of the 1979 revolution, snapping photos on their smartphones.

Car love is indeed a universal language.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.