Second hand car dealer

By the year 1967 the State infrastructure was established and functioning. A number of roads had been constructed and more were being built to deal with the fast growing number of cars and lorries on the road. This was the time of plenty; plenty of work; plenty of money; plenty of pleasure. At the beginning of oil exploration in the late forties the first sign of wealth for a Qatari was to own a wristwatch with heavy metal bracelet. Now unless he owned several cars he was marked as a very ordinary person. The Sheikhs set the pace; they bought a car as one would buy a tie; owned as many, and gave them away to their poorer relatives or favourites or put them on the second-hand market. H. Y. H had a cousin who had made his name in the second-hand car business. He also had a brother-in-law who was a rogue, who, seeing an opportunity to make money in buying and selling cars set up a business as a second hand car dealer.

Jaguar 2.4

Always eager and nosey to know of any distinctive cars on the market I used regularly to visit both places. One Friday morning the brother-in-law had a brand new Jaguar 2.4 on show. It was almost brand new. A genuine 750 miles on the clock. Except for the thin film of desert dust it was as from a West end showroom. I was keen to own it. It could be mine for thirteen thousand riyals. I wanted to buy it on the spot. H. Y. H. cautioned me about payment. I was to let him deal with the transaction. It crossed my mind he seemed to be too closely interested, which thought I dismissed as being unworthy, for he had told me about his brother-in-law’s character and in fact he was protecting me. I think he sensed this, for he made arrangements for the three of us to take my cheque to the Ali Ahmed Sheikh who owned the Jaguar. This done, with the Sheikh’s monogrammed seal on a receipt I felt happy and content driving the car.

Jaguar 2.4

Jaguar 2.4

I enjoyed driving the car and used it sparingly. When the real summer came upon us I found it somewhat uncomfortable, as it did not have an air-conditioning system and the driving position, resembling somewhat a cockpit of an aeroplane did not ventilate the lower half of one’s body. The four or five cool days of the cold season were happily warm with the heater on, this did not compensate for the very hot months to follow. And it did not have a sunroof. One learns the hard way if ruled by the heart (desire) and not by the head (common sense). It was delightful to drive but one arrived at the end of a journey, hot and slightly uncomfortable, sticky with perspiration.At that time there were only three other Jaguars in Doha and one was tucked away in an unused warehouse in the oilfield, unwanted by management who preferred large American cars. My appearing with a smart “new” Jaguar set the company personnel chattering. The deputy General Manager commented one evening at a dinner party that I seemed to have a stable of fine cars. To which I could but reply that all mine worked and were in good shape, particularly the Jaguar. Because, one should explain, the Company Jaguar was always breaking down that being the reason it was banished to be hidden amongst the tents in an old “go-down”.

A renewed clamour from the Palestinian Bureau caused Jaguar to be placed on the blacklist. I learnt this one evening at a cocktail party. I sold the car two days later to the brother-in-law, making sure I got cash in hand. I dropped two thousand riyals, the only time I have lost heavily on a deal. He was content. So was I. He sold it again at a profit of one thousand riyals.

The pretty blue Peugeot “504”

Cars do not last forever. Particularly if used as a workhorse. The Peugeot “404” was beginning to shows signs of fatigue. I did not improve the value of the body when I backed into a huge American car outside my office. The office was situated above the Communications block in front of which was a large parking lot. Being pressed for time one day, I was just about ready to drive off in the 404 when a departmental head came across to talk. Winding down the window we made arrangements to meet later and I was free to keep my now overdue appointment. I took a swift look in the mirror revved up the engine, engaged reverse, and swung sharply in a wide circle. CRUUUUNCH. The car stopped dead shaking me forward and lashing me back into the seat. Now I looked back into the mirror, behind was a large American car that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. The 404 had a huge “V” sliced into the boot. The other car belonging to the seconded Spanish I. B. M. engineer had been moved two feet, one could see the tyre marks, otherwise no damage was done to his car except the gigantic chromium buffers attached to his front bumper carried patches of paint from the Peugeot. I found him in the telegraph office.

“No problem” said he, “A very strong car”, then, turning to inspect the ‘404’ he became almost emotional, “Oh! Your poor Peugeot, such a big bash, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear”.

We agreed I had come off the worse in the accident and I offered my apologies. As I was driving away to my appointment I looked at the car park. A line of cars where neatly ranged in the spaces immediately in front of the building. Standing by itself in the middle of the car park was the American “jerry can”. Who but a madman would park like that, I said to myself. Who but a fool would look in a mirror, see nothing there and reverse at great speed? I should have added, perhaps I did.

So, having had the car repaired I was keen to change it for a new one. It had earned its keep; it had travelled many miles on road and desert without letting me down. The security man in the oilfield, my eyes and ears in Dukhan, bought at a cheap price, I was pleased he had it, it was in good shape and the back of the boot was good as new.The new 504 was restyled. It had a smart streamlined body. The chassis was different too. The loss of the heavy cross member supporting the engine and front suspension was noticeable. The steering did not respond so well; the road holding was not as good. True, the body was better styled, but some of the “oomph” had been lost.

I was pleased with it yet it was underpowered. I still had the powerful Starfire Oldsmobile and the pretty powder blue Peugeot was used most days for duty work. It seemed too delicate to take on the desert and whenever we took a desert journey the Starfire was chosen.

When I bought the first ‘404’ Peugeot it was the fashion to cover the seats with a second plastic cover. A set with a basket weave design were fitted. They looked clean and smart. When they were taken off at the time of sale the seats were unmarked and as new. When buying the blue ‘504’ I declined the efforts of the salesman to fit seat covers over perfectly good and very elegant seats. I enjoyed the quality seat as fitted by the manufacturer and I was sure the lack of seat covers wouldn’t make much, if any difference to the price I would get when I eventually sold it.

In the autumn of 1969 the Company moved its operations away from the area of the Terminal which meant that I moved either to the Headquarters in town or to the oilfield. I moved to the oilfield and into a newly built tiny bungalow designed for bachelors. The time had come to pack up my hobby of owning several cars and concentrate of one reliable vehicle.

Oldsmobile Starfire 6 litre

Oldsmobile Starfire 6 litre

This was the car that was to take me on many adventures, almost as interesting as the earlier travels I had undertaken in the Austin A60. Of course by this time a Peugeot car, particularly a model painted white was one of very many and I could leave it anywhere unnoticed. After several years the shape remained the same but they were soon taken into use as taxis. A few years earlier I would have offloaded it and bought something smarter. There was now a reason not to.I enjoyed owning the Oldsmobile Starfire, it had taken me over many miles of desert and desert road, but it had to go, I sold it to a Palestinian just before I went on leave. The Blue Peugeot 504 had given me good service yet I needed something more powerful. Peugeot had introduced a bigger powered engine and it also had an air conditioner as an extra. I was able to make a good exchange deal with the Peugeot agent to I purchase a dazzling new crystal white eighteen hundred c.c. four door, air-conditioned car in which I was able to race all over the peninsular.

The air conditioned 504

As in the Lebanon nine years previously I wanted the anonymity of an old car. This could not be attained quite the same in Qatar, the 504 was new, but it soon merged into the swelling crowd of 504’s mostly painted white and one felt much less conspicuous. This was tested out one day when I was lost in the north of the peninsular. I was travelling with a member of the C. I. D. with whom I sometimes swapped information, it was the simplest way to meet and take a small picnic and drive out in to the desert. This day we had been talking and driving along a desert track and became hopelessly lost. Yet we could only be a few miles from some place of habitation. A short distance ahead I spotted the outline of low buildings shimmering in the desert haze. The collection of buildings was a sizeable village that, to our chagrin, neither of us could name. The car nudged its way along the narrow sandy track forming the village street to the centre where we picked up the tarmacadamed road once more. The first person we asked called me by name. So much for the anonymity, I was known even in the remotest village from the capital.

“Do you think he knows you too? ” I asked my companion?

“Shouldn’t think so,” he replied, “Who is he any way?”

“I can’t place him at all”, was my answer, yet I felt I knew his face.

Being only three miles from the main highway we were soon back in town. A week or so later whilst shopping in the suq I met the same fellow again. We stopped and talked and I then realised he had been one of the drivers who occasionally had driven the office car way back in the early fifties. He didn’t look much older than he did then, he must have been very young when he started as a driver. He startled me a little with his perspicacity when he said to me: “You came that day to my village with Mohammed Maidhi’s man.” Mohammed Maidhi was the Arabic name taken by a Scotsman who had been the Chief Commander of the Police since retired. His quiet remark let me know that very little went on in Qatar which was not known to almost every one.

Peugeot 504

Peugeot 504

The 504 Peugeot was to last me until retirement. During the last two years I owned no other car. It served me well; I would drive the hundred kilometres from the oilfield to the headquarter office in almost sixty minutes, which, considering the state of the road even after they had been renewed, was good going; that meant averaging sixty miles and hour. I could have driven faster, some did, but then I was saving my car to last until the early part of seventy-three when I expected to retire; I didn’t, it was September before I got away.

Owning a car in those golden years one seldom locked it. A local Arab would never think of “nicking” anything from a parked car. Perhaps if one parked in the suq then, maybe. The influx of foreign workers who could be light fingered changed the system a little.

One evening coming out of the Club after a dinner party I invited my guests back home for a nightcap. The car was locked when we reached it. I had no key. Couldn’t find it anywhere. No trace of it in the Club; after a futile search for ten minutes or more we returned to the car.

“I know,” said I”, it’s easy, what we need is bit of wire – thank goodness I left the window slightly open”. Someone managed to produce a suitable length of stiff wire which others, and I because we all had a go, were able eventually to latch on to the inside button topped locking pin. There was no key inside the car, no trace of it in the glove box, but someone had left all sorts of things I did not recognise in there.

“Hold on, this isn’t my car at all. Away!!! All out!! Or we will be done for pinching someone’s car!” My car was parked in a row behind not far away, unlocked with the key in the column. 504’s were fast becoming common.

Not once in all the years I used it did the 504 let me down. It was, of course regularly maintained, the engine oil must have been some of the cleanest in any car in the country, once each month the oils were checked and engine oil changed as a routine. I needed to have a dependable car for I often crossed the peninsular road during the night hours; I much enjoyed driving in the early hours of the morning when the air was cool, the night sky clear and bright and not another car on the road. Up to nineteen sixty-seven police patrols were seldom on the roads. When they increased their presence I would meet them about the half way mark, near the old airstrip, which incidentally was built in the early part of the last war by my old unit No.2 C. R. E. Airfields, (PAIFORCE) stationed in Iraq. Many of the police knew me by sight. I had by then given up smoking but always kept a packet in the car for just such an occasion; a ‘buckshee’ cigarette was always welcomed by the police patrol.

When the army patrols took over from the police travelling at night became a little more hazardous and some of the charm was lost. The gulf area was gradually changing. The laissez faire attitude was disappearing; the oil company was losing its autonomy. Now it was partly owned by the Arab State. For twenty-five years or more I had grown up with Qatar, watched it grow from a collection of tiny bedu encampments and a few coastal villages into a State. Now it was growing away from me, perhaps it was time to go.

There were many requests for the car when the time came for me to retire and leave Qatar. The Peugeot 404 had been sold to the young Lebanese who was in charge of security in the oilfield. He now asked me to sell him the 504 which, to some people’s annoyance I did, and for a very reasonable sum.

Robert Hill in his office in Dukhan, Qatar March 1973

Robert Hill in his office in Dukhan, Qatar March 1973

The black Rolls Royce

One day H. Y. H called to see me and said:

“Guess what, there is a Rolls going for sale, so far as I know nobody knows about yet, I only found out talking to Johah at the petrol station. It belongs to one of the Sheikhas, she’s selling it for cash and it will go cheap.”

“What sort of car is it? Where can I see it?” I asked.

I learnt the car had been gifted to the senior wife of the old Sheikh and she wished to sell it for what cash it would fetch. It seemed she thought the car was old and clumsy and a new flashy Cadillac would be much more attractive. The dignity of a magnificent carriage meant nothing to her.

H. Y. H. had the Rolls Royce brought round to my private house on the outskirts of the town. It was huge. A long wheel-based Phantom V Limousine model with a division and a bench seat for the chauffeur. It was not a car that would have attracted me except it was a magnificent carriage and a Rolls Royce. The black paintwork was in excellent condition except for a small dent in a mudguard that revealed the depth of paint; it was almost one-eighth inch thick. The interior was in very good condition considering it had lately been used by the Palace staff to gad about in. We took a quick look at the engine; at least the Palace mechanics had kept it clean and in good order. Winding down the electrically operated division window did not help much to make the car appeal as an owner driver vehicle; the front seat seemed to be fixed; we could not locate a lever to release it forward. The “abd” servant who had brought the car spoke with H. Y. H. and it was agreed the car would stay with me for several days for me to use and we would then let him know my decision.

I drove the Rolls on the roads way out of town to eliminate as many of the Company people noting me riding around in what was obviously a Palace car. The feel of the thing, the purr of the engine, the luxury, was off-set by the uncomfortable bench driving seat and the nagging thought that I was being quite outrageously silly thinking of owning such a large machine. Yet I could not make up my mind one way or t’other. This was soon effected. At the weekend I attended the inevitable dinner party held for a visiting Company guest at the residence of the General Manager. I had toyed with the idea of going in the Rolls Royce but discretion prevailed. In the lull before the sweet course the G. M. started talking motorcars. His good lady spoke up and mentioned that he had “set his heart on a beautiful Rolls they had recently seen and which he thought it would be nice to have”. She went on to recount the G. M’s driver had brought the car to the house with one of the Palace servants. Apparently it was being sold cheaply by the senior Sheikha. The G. M. had told Ali, the driver to tell the Palace servant he would let him know his decision later. But she had to confess that she had signalled to Ali with a vigorous shake of her head that she was not in favour. When the G. M. thought he would like to pursue the idea and see the car again word came back that as it was thought he was not interested the car was with some one else, and:

“I think”, she continued, “Some damned silly Inglisi has bought it. Now I’m in the doghouse, Alwyn won’t speak to me just because I was honest and confessed I had intimated to Ali to let it drop. He wants it so much now that some one else has it; “but” she went on defiantly, “I still think it is too ostentatious”.

I sat there feeling very uncomfortable. Thank God I had not driven to the house in the Rolls Royce. It was parked in the tiny compound of my Arab house near the airport. It would not fit easily into the garage. Now what to do? But there was no time to reflect,

Lydia shot a question across the table at me.

“Robert is knowledgeable on cars, what do you think, Robert, should Alwyn have bought the Rolls or not? ” Good grief does she know I have the car? My heart sank. No, she doesn’t, or she would act more positively. Playing cat and mouse is not her style. Shall I own up to having the car? No, that would be a mistake. Brave it out and play it along. Alwyn had said very little; if he knew he was playing it close to his chest.

At length I said, “My very considered reply has to be, (jocularly), very considered, I’m on dangerous ground, stepping into a domestic discussion between husband and wife leaves me isolated, I can’t please both of you whatever I say. Alwyn scowled at me; Lydia said:

“Oh, come on! Give us your opinion.”

“If I had the opportunity to buy it I would not do so”. At that moment I had decided on no account could I now buy it; I must return the car to the Palace garage as soon as possible. There was now no way I could be seen driving it, never mind own it. “But”, I continued, “it would be very suitable for a management car”.

“Oh, I don’t want it as a Company car” said Alwyn, “I would buy it for myself.”

“And what would you do with it in England, eh? piped up Lydia, we wouldn’t get it in the garage.”

“Oh yes we would” retorted Alwyn, and the conversation drifted thankfully to houses and sizes of garages.

It was ten days before I met Lydia to talk to.

“Did Alwyn buy the Rolls?” “Shush, I don’t want people to know about it he’s been mooning over it all week and at last I’m certain I’ve convinced him it not to.” The devil in me made me remark:

“But wouldn’t you like the comfort and the joy of riding in a posh limousine.”

“It would need a chauffeur back home, and what would that cost. Imagine Alwyn in a peaked cap and opening the door for me. No, a little Austin will do me when we retire.” The G. M. did not buy it. I learnt, much later that an engineer in government service purchased it and drove it home to the U.K. What happened to the Rolls after that I know not. Whoever got it had a bargain. The asking price converted to sterling was around twelve hundred pounds.

There were several other Rolls Royces hidden away in the desert. I made a visit one afternoon to the Sheikh’s pavilion. I had been speaking to a Palestinian about Rolls Royce cars and he said:

“Come with me this afternoon and I will show you something which will make your eyes shine”. He knocked and yelled until a sleepy servant appeared in view from around the back. He issued a slick tirade in Arabic and the scared servant opened up all the seven garage doors in the courtyard. In one were piles of carpets and rugs some rough but quite a few luxurious and expensive. In the second was a beautiful blue-black Rolls Silver Cloud. It was covered in at least half inch of desert dust. The third garage housed a close coupled sable brown Silver Cloud.

But the most beautiful car I have ever seen sat silently in the next garage. A powder blue two seater. Immaculate, with only eight hundred miles on the clock. It was covered in dust and sand; the expensive cover had been carelessly slung across it. The Flying Lady mascot had been replaced by a handsome mascot especially used by King Faisal of Iraq. It had been on order and undelivered when Kassem murdered him. I tried so hard to find out if I could obtain it but all doors were closed. The Amir had bought it from the King’s estate and had no intention of it ever being used. I wonder where it is now?

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