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Driving Pakistan's Badlands In A Vintage British Convertible

Mohsin Ikram drives a 1954 Austin-Healey across Pakistan. As the head of Pakistan's Vintage and Classic Car Club, he's doing it mostly because he loves the open road. But he also sees it as a statement against the turmoil that has made parts of the country no-go zones.
Abdul Sattar Aga Khan
Mohsin Ikram drives a 1954 Austin-Healey across Pakistan. As the head of Pakistan's Vintage and Classic Car Club, he's doing it mostly because he loves the open road. But he also sees it as a statement against the turmoil that has made parts of the country no-go zones.

Every now and then you meet a character who stands out against the landscape. The landscape, in this case, is the sweep of terrain between the Arabian Sea and the Khyber Pass.

The character is a stocky man, wearing a baseball hat, dark glasses, a quirky grin, and an air of stubborn optimism. His name is Mohsin Ikram.

The reason Mohsin stands out against this landscape is because he's motoring across it in a sports car that was made in Britain when Winston Churchill was still alive.

Traveling across Pakistan in a museum piece, with no roof, is not for the fainthearted.

But Mohsin is a man in love. He is, he explains, in the grips of what he calls "this car thing" — a burning, lifelong passion for vintage cars.

Pakistan was founded in 1947. There are still a few cars around that were shipped in here before that, under British rule.

Mohsin, who is 50, started collecting them when he was 16. His fleet currently includes a 1947 Lincoln Continental convertible that once belonged to the king of Afghanistan.

"I would go out of my way to have fun in classic cars, go anywhere in the world, take any challenges," Mohsin says. "I love being around cars."

Restoring classic cars is clearly Mohsin's life, but he does have a proper job — as a travel agent and events manager.

"I hate doing all that," he says. "I wish I didn't have to work for money and spent all my time on cars."

A Cross-Country Journey

Mohsin is the founder of Pakistan's Vintage and Classic Car Club. A few weeks ago, with a group of fellow enthusiasts, Mohsin set off from his home in the southern port city of Karachi and headed for Peshawar, close to Afghanistan. That's a journey of about 1,000 miles; Mohsin's wife, Saira, travels in the car with him.

Pakistan has some fine freeways, and many new cars. But driving here is often also a battle with dust and potholes, rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, cycles of all sorts, gaudily decorated trucks — and herds of goats.

Mohsin and Saira are traveling in a dark green 1954 Austin-Healey. When visibility is bad — at night, for example — Mohsin switches his dark glasses for a pair of glass and leather World War II flying goggles.

Mohsin and his friends started these road trips a few years back. They're partly just about enjoying their cars. They stop along the way to hold car shows and gatherings of fellow enthusiasts.

But for Mohsin, this journey is also a statement of defiance against those creating havoc in his country.

"I am from that school of thought that this is our country, and we have to show them that we are living a normal life," he says. "We want to have fun. We will have fun, come what may."

He continues: "I want to be free. I want to be free enough to go anywhere in Pakistan, wherever I want to go to. Why should a terrorist keep us off the streets?"

Pakistan isn't the kind of place that generally comes to mind if you're contemplating a leisurely cross-country drive. It's rare for a day to pass without a suicide bombing, a gunbattle or an assassination somewhere on the map.

But the violence is patchy. In most trouble spots, there are very large areas where life carries on as normal. This is true here, too.

Avoiding A Trouble Spot

During the journey, Mohsin's convoy has to make a big detour because of a rumored riot. He loses a fog lamp and breaks a spring after going off-road for hours to avoid a 60-mile traffic jam.

But they eventually reach Islamabad, the capital, unscathed. Saira climbs out and allows this correspondent to squeeze into their car for a while.

"We are only 5 inches from the ground. It is a funny feeling. It's like a go-kart," says Mohsin, as the Austin-Healey growls its way through the city's wide avenues.

"We get all kinds of reactions, but mostly people like what they see. They have smiles. They give me a thumbs-up; they appreciate the car," he says. "Some people laugh — I don't know why."

At this point in his journey, all that remains is the final leg, a three-hour drive to Peshawar.

More than 1,000 people have been killed or injured by bombings and shootings in that city this year. Mohsin is accustomed to this. In Karachi, there is bloodshed every day. But some of his group have told him they won't be going any farther because of security fears.

"Some people have dropped out because there's a warning that there might be some terrorist attack in Peshawar," Mohsin says. "I told them if you're not going, I am going alone. And my wife said, if you're going, I am also going with you."

I watch as Mohsin and Saira, and a handful of others, set off down the road to Peshawar on a dazzling blue autumn morning. Later I phone them; they'd made it, unharmed. Everything was — says Mohsin — "fantastic."

For the stubbornly optimistic Mohsin, these trips are making a fundamental point, about the impact that people can make by standing up to the men with guns.

"People don't realize the people power," he says. "If we unite, if we get together, we can do anything."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Reeves
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