On a recent Friday afternoon, in the upscale Shahrak-e Gharb neighborhood in West Tehran, Iran, Porsches, Toyota Land Cruisers and Mercedes-Benz two-seaters drove up and down the street, music blaring from high-powered speakers.
Iran, where gas is still only about 50 cents a gallon, has a thriving car culture, reminiscent of Southern California in the 1960s, with young people cruising around, showing off their wheels. The flashier the car, the more looks and flirts its driver gets. Recently, it was Saeed Mohammadi's shiny 1972 eggplant-purple Paykan that got all the action.
Wearing Ray-Ban Aviator glasses and a black hat, Mohammadi, 21, beamed self-consciously, taking in all the glances and smiles from female drivers and cheers from the guys.
His ride? The dorkiest car on the street.
"Look at the Paykan," one young woman says from a car window. "I used to be driven to elementary school in one."
Eight years after they went out of production and were thrown into history's dustbin, Iran's onetime national car, the Paykan, is making a comeback.
Not that many people are especially interested in driving it again, with its manual steering and gearshift, rough ride and omnipresent gasoline vapors. But its surge in popularity — it is the subject of a documentary and two art exhibitions — seems to represent a longing for a simpler past.
"Every Iranian has memories of this car," says Shahin Armin, 37, an Iranian-American design engineer who used to work for Chrysler and Honda in Detroit. "Maybe not always good ones, but we are romantic people. When people see a Paykan nowadays, they are reminded of a time when we had fewer choices and simpler lives."
Armin, who moderates a website dedicated to the car, Paykanhunter.com, returned to his native Iran last year and quickly found himself caught up in what he calls the "Paykan revival."
"I guess now that times are difficult again, the car reminds us of our own survival as a people," he says.
He stood in the Dastan Gallery in North Tehran, where Iranian expatriates visiting from the U.S. and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, had gathered around a burned-out Paykan on display in the middle of the sleek gallery. Sipping espressos, they peeked through the opened-up keyhole of its back trunk, which showed a childhood picture of a boy sitting in the open trunk of a Paykan.
"This is amazing," one of the visitors says of the car. "It doesn't get more Iranian than this. This is history on wheels."
For many Iranians, the Paykan was the first step up in life, as oil money started trickling down to the people during the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Introduced in 1967 and based on the British-built Hillman Hunter — itself a forgettable car from Britain's postwar auto industry — it had extra-strong bumpers to withstand Iran's chaotic traffic.
The shah, a Westernizer who tried to modernize his country at a rapid pace, endorsed the car, calling it a source of national pride. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Paykan, like Iranian society, underwent intense, if cosmetic, changes. Already basic, it was stripped of anything remotely fancy, such as chrome and a radio, and mass-produced only in white.
"What I remember as a kid is feeling so anonymous in this sea of white Paykans, sitting in the back seat of one myself and seeing other completely similar cars and families drive by," says Armin, who is making the documentary on the Paykan.
Everybody in Iran has a love-hate relationship with the car, he says.
"There is such a duality regarding this car. We love it for the memories it carries of our childhood, and of its survival," Armin says. "But it is also the tragedy of Iran that while we have so many talented people here, they continued producing almost exactly the same car for four decades just because people had to buy it anyway."Now, if nicely restored, the Paykan again makes heads turn.
Driving up and down Iran Zamin Street, the cruisers' favorite, Mohammadi wore a broad smile when yet another car filled with young women flashed its lights at him.
"My dad married in this car," Mohammadi says, one hand on the wheel. "Now I am picking up girls with it."