It’s a good thing my company didn’t want me to drive when it sent me to Iran in the fall of 1978.
Arriving at Mehrabad Airport, weary after days of flying from New York City to France, and then to Tehran, Iran’s capital, I was tired and grumpy. It took only five minutes to forget all that as I headed into Tehran’s bumper-to-bumper traffic in an orange Peykan taxi.
The driver, a hairy man proud of his ethnic heritage, alternately blasted his horn, shifted gears, and screamed or shook his fist at other Peykan drivers. He and I were met by a torrent of buses, trucks, and motorbikes roaring at Mach II speed. Somehow he managed to dodge small herds of goats, an occasional donkey or camel, pushcarts, and vehicles parking or pulling away.
Peykans were everywhere in Tehran. The ubiquitous and boxy car, a cross between a 1963 Plymouth Valiant and a 1959 British Vauxhall, was cheap, uncomfortable, ugly, slow, and incredibly dangerous. Actually a Hillman Hunter and built under license by Iran Khodro from 1967-2005, its OHV four-cylinder engine produced enough power to propel the car to 60 mph in 30-plus seconds. Most had four-speed manual transmissions, no air conditioning, and about 2 inches of rear-seat leg room. Perhaps that’s why they were used mostly as taxis (sarc).
Nothing terrified me more in Tehran—or assaulted my mental health as severely—than Iranian drivers and their Peykans. After arriving at the company’s office, a four-story, marble-faced edifice, I must have looked white and scared.
“Have a nice trip from the airport?” my boss asked, greeting me with a smirk. I told him about the harrowing drive.
“Some say Iranians are the worst drivers in the world,” he said. “But they may be the best. It’s just that they’re aggressive and pay little attention to stop signs, traffic lights, and safety regulations.”
After leaving the building, I learned there were two kinds of pedestrians in Iran: “the quick and the dead.” Those who died usually stood too long in “zebras,” safety zones painted with stripes. Walking with me through the city, a consultant warned me to “think and jump fast.” He told me about the time he decided a swim in the “jube,” the city’s outdoor sewage system, was better than ending up as a Peykan hood ornament.
Jubes presented problems for pedestrians and motorists alike. For pedestrians, there may not be a bridge across rushing water, which was usually full of decaying fruit, vegetables, dead animals, and human waste. Motorists eager to grab parking spaces sometimes dropped curb-side wheels into jubes. I witnessed cars being rescued by pedestrians who lifted them out of the water.
“The critical thing,” the consultant said, “is to not move while standing in a zebra, even though you’re only inches from fast-moving traffic. Most people want to run. That’s a mistake. Wait for a break in traffic and walk normally across the street. This gives drivers time to swerve out of your way. Unless, of course, they‘re heading right at you. Then jump.”
Not very reassuring…especially after another consultant added: “Zebras are purely ornamental. They act on the Iranian motorist like adrenaline, spurring him to accelerate, and anyone foolhardy enough to cross the street may wake up in traction.”
From that day on I avoided jubes, zebras, and crossing major Tehran highways.
Sit in the backseat
A taxi driver stoked my fears when he said Peykans rolled over on their roofs in accidents.
To avoid a car backing along an expressway, the Peykan he was driving did just that. Upon gaining consciousness, he realized pedestrians were trying to open doors and others were rocking the car to upright it. He crawled through a window and pulled out his passenger.
His advice: “Always sit in the backseat because it offers more protection.”
The more serious risk was not having third-party insurance. Because you hired the taxi, the driver or anyone else in an accident involving the vehicle could hold you liable—even though you hadn’t done a thing. Being in an accident was serious business, too. Fines and jail sentences for Americans who caused accidents were steep. And not knowing the language made it difficult to file accident reports and deal with police…all valid reasons for the company to strongly urge employees not to drive in Iran.
An older employee returning home in his Peykan struck and killed a jay-walking Iranian. Although it wasn’t his fault, he was immediately put in prison without bail. Often in such cases, the penalty was either death (an eye for an eye) or lifetime restitution for the deceased person’s family. The company’s lawyers decided they could bribe authorities to release the employee.
Enter the company’s security guy, Tony, a burly man from the Bronx. He reminded me of tough kids I knew growing up near Newark, New Jersey. Big, quick-witted, and mouthy, Tony knew his way around Tehran. He asked if I wanted to write about being a prisoner in an Iranian jail. Seemed like a good idea. So off we drove in his Peykan to meet the jailed employee.
“Get the (bleep) out of the way!” Tony screamed from his Peykan’s window. Iranian drivers knew what he meant, particularly when he cut them off and landed on his horn. We parked in front of a castle-like building made of stone blocks with tiny, heavily barred windows. The stench of human sweat and other, less attractive aromas permeated the air as we approached the desk sergeant. I thought I heard moans from the building’s bowels.
In a booming voice, Tony announced his desire to see the prisoner and arrange his release. The officer, who resembled a Neanderthal man, shook his head in non-comprehension and walked off. A few minutes later he returned with an interpreter. A heated conversation followed and ultimately Tony pulled a wad of Iranian currency from his pocket. A quick exchange of money resulted in our departure with the frightened employee.
Fearing for his life, the company smuggled him across the Turkish border, an arduous two-day trip by Peykan over the Alborz Mountains, which are taller than our Rockies, and along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. After crossing the Turkish border, the journey involved driving west for hundreds of miles through rural badlands to Istanbul, where he was flown to Seattle. Grateful to be alive and free, I spoke to him months later. He recounted his journey and how he still lived in fear because the Iranian government had posted a “wanted—dead or alive” reward for his return.
A skinny, short man sporting a bushy moustache, my Iranian driver, Eddie, was one of the hardest working employees I met during my 43-year career. He was called a “temporary worker”…but there was nothing “temporary” about Eddie.
You get to know a man by the way he drives. Eddie handled the company’s Peykan better than Mario Andretti in his prime. He’d pick me up around eight a.m. at my apartment and muscle the tiny car into bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“I’ll get you to work on time, Jimmy,” he’d scream over the din of screeching brakes, roaring engines, blaring horns, and angry motorists who, in all practical terms, were insane.
Traffic jam ahead…it didn’t matter. Eddie knew all the shortcuts. And the ones he didn’t know, he’d invent. Driving on sidewalks was no problem. Squeezing through tight alleys marked “Do Not Enter—One Way” was a piece of cake. He was cool under stress. Nothing weighed on his conscience; everything was an opportunity.
It was really fun to be with this guy. Eddie was our “Man Friday.” The company had been hired to fix an ancient telephone system that simply didn’t work. Imagine the frustration of executives who couldn’t make a simple phone call. So they hired Eddie to run hand-written or typed messages on foot or by Peykan from office to office or across town. Not exactly efficient, but Eddie did the job faster than any other way.
He was good at what he did because he knew every street and alley. Nothing was too hard or complicated. He exuded confidence and a positive attitude. I learned this the day he invited me and a young couple to accompany him on a Sunday drive to an enormous reservoir and dam 50 miles north of Tehran.
I knew I was in trouble when he showed up at my apartment in his aging Citroën 2CV. Stuffed inside the backseat were newlyweds. I thought I was in a “Laurie and Hardy” movie as I watched them extricate their immense bodies from the four-foot-wide car. Each weighed more than 250 pounds. The husband was twice my weight.
When we were ready to leave and packed inside, the two-cylinder engine screamed as Eddie pulled away from the curb. The car’s front rose majestically as the rear drooped to the pavement. There were no seatbelts and metal doors flexed in and out with a push of my thumb.
It was mostly uphill on the way to the dam. Other vehicles, even the slowest trucks, tailgated, and drivers blasted horns as the tiny car strained to go 40 miles per hour. Some even passed on hairpin turns bordered by hundred-foot drop-offs. Eddie ignored them.
An interesting tour of the lake and countryside followed, along with a picnic. Then we embarked on the dangerous return trip. Down we went at break-neck speeds, Eddie aggressively tailgating everyone who had done the same to him on the way up. He even passed drivers on the switchbacks. I found out his old car had little braking power as we barely avoided rear-ending slowpokes. When it was over, the newlyweds exited their tight confines looking pale and ready to throw up. I needed time to recover, too.
Peykan over the Alborz
In addition to dozens of Peykan rides to/from work, Eddie took my friends and me on weekend trips over Iran’s giant Alborz Mountains, steep cliffs at the road’s edge leading to river gorges.
Driving conditions were much different outside Tehran. Roads were narrower (many were dirt) and there were more heavy trucks and tourist buses. Animals and pedestrians in the road were a challenge, as were over-anxious drivers.
Paved roads changed to gravel about 50 miles north of Tehran, and soon we skirted cliffs that dropped thousands of feet to rivers and valleys. Every so often we came upon a one-lane tunnel barely wide enough to accommodate a truck. Eddie turned on headlights and tooted his horn. We hoped no one was coming the other way. But on one occasion we backed out when a truck entered the other end, its driver flashing high beams and warning he had the right of way.
Chello-kabobs purchased at a roadside stand tasted wonderful as we gazed at the second, and much taller, mountain range ahead. Cooked over a very hot charcoal fire, the meal consisted of small pieces of lamb, tomatoes, green peppers and onions on a wooden stick. We washed everything down with orange sodas and contemplated 19,000-foot Mount Damavand—Iran’s tallest—in the distance.
Large trucks decorated with colorful lights, long strings of beads, flags, and exotic paint jobs often crowded the road and forced Eddie to hug stone walls on the shoulder. On a few occasions, the Peykan was only inches from sheer drop-offs. I often saw crushed cars hundreds of feet below.
After crossing the mountains, the roads to the Caspian Sea reminded me of driving through rural Florida to Miami Beach. It was hot and humid now. Pine forests lined the narrow two-lane as we progressed through small villages and hamlets.
Sadly, my work in Iran came to an abrupt end in late 1978. Anti-Western behavior was everywhere as were Ayatollah Khomeini’s rebels, who were stirring up trouble for the nation’s leader, Shah Pahlavi. It was time to return to the U.S.
My days of Peykans, zebras, and jubes were behind me. But I appreciated the lowly Peykan…the car had provided many exciting adventures. I wondered what it would be like to drive one in the U.S. But after returning and driving my family’s big, luxurious station wagon, my desire to own a Peykan faded. I’ve never seen a Peykan on American highways. Have you?