Classic cars find life after rust in Ramallah

A Palestinian mechanic in Ramallah collects and restores classic cars, bringing relics of the past back to life.

al-monitor Omar al-Saadi works on a 1969 BMW Mini Cooper in this undated photo.  Photo by Taghreed Ali.

Topics covered

nakba day, nakba, antiques, palestinian culture, automobile industry, cars, ramallah

Jun 15, 2020

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Omar al-Saadi has turned his Ramallah backyard into a garage for repairing classic cars. He currently has 26 vehicles, many of them decayed by the years of disuse and abandonment.

Saadi’s family is originally from the city of Lod, southeast of Tel Aviv. They were displaced to Ramallah in 1948.

The cars are mostly British and German-made. The oldest date back to 1945, and all await their turn to be brought back to life.

Saadi’s passion for vintage cars was awaked in the mid-1970s, when at five years old he received his first matchbox Mercedes. His interest in old classic cars would soon become his profession as he learned to repair and sell them.

“I was 15 when I embarked on this journey. I collected old Bedford, Saba, Vauxhall and Mercedes cars, among others,” he told Al-Monitor. Over the past 25 years, he has repaired and restored some 40 vehicles.

“My clients are people interested in vintage classic cars,” he explained. “I believe this line of work is not only profitable but it is also a priceless vocation, as I take immense pleasure from having brought back to life a forgotten beautiful car that is a vestige of a distant past,” Saadi said.

He added, “I feel terrible every time I see an old classic worn out and thrown away at the side of the road, left to be eaten by rust, its owner unaware of its value.”

Currently, he is working on repairing a 1969 Mini Cooper. He buys the parts for the car's interior and body wherever he can find them and has them built locally when he can't.

Saadi explained that he purchases the cars from across the Palestinian territories, whatever their price.

He recalled a 1958 Mercedes 180 he restored. He said it was the last of its kind in Palestine and had been found abandoned and rusted in a valley of the city of Tulkarm.

Saadi paid $6,000 for the decrepit car and managed to save its engine, made extensive changes to the body and restored it to its original glory.

Saadi owns a modern BMW but said he prefers driving around in his 1956 Mercedes 190, to which he made some unusual additions such as a coffee machine and water tap.

His most famous project, Bus 47, is a functional recreation of the old buses that were used before the 1948 Nakba. It took him five months to make it out of pine, olive branches and old lamps left behind by the British army. His creation has become a symbol of the Palestinian Nakba and is used for national commemorative events.

“My cars have taken part in several cinematic works. My Morris Oxford, manufactured in the late 1950s, was featured in a British film and was transported to the UK via the port of Haifa,” Saadi said.

He added that in 2008, he founded a club for people interested in collecting classic cars and put on a festival that featured some 200 vehicles produced between 1945 and 1975.

“The festival was held to encourage people to take interest and preserve old vehicles for their value and historical legacy,” Saadi explained.

Khaled Qaddoura, head of the Palestinian Classic Car Club, told Al-Monitor that the club holds monthly meetings for amateur collectors to learn to preserve and restore old cars, in addition to organizing road trips across the West Bank in a bid to raise awareness of these cars.

“Palestinians show little interest in classic cars and do not like to own them or drive them. The Palestinian market is flooded with modern and advanced cars. Therefore, it is challenging to find some old spare parts, which if found abroad, can’t be easily shipped into Palestine, not to mention their high cost,” Qaddoura said.

“Classic car owners face some hardships, mainly that the Palestinian Vehicle Registration Authority does not issue licenses and insurance for such cars for several reasons, such as the high exhaust emissions, strong headlights and the lack of safety measures such as airbags. This drives many owners to get rid of their cars,” he concluded.

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