The Unlikely British Saloon Which Put Iran on Four Wheels
By Andy Bannister
Think of Iran and you probably don’t immediately associate it with car manufacturing, but in fact this Islamic country has a rapidly growing industry founded on the unlikely success it made out of one humble British saloon car.
Known as the Paykan, (Farsi for “Arrow”) this Rootes/Chrysler vehicle put millions of Iranians on the road and only recently ceased production. A pick-up version, the Bardo, is still offered by the manufacturer, Iran Khodro.
The Paykan was nothing more or less than an Iranian version of a middle-class saloon car introduced by Rootes in 1966 and best known as the 1725cc Hillman Hunter. In Britain it competed, with only average success, against the market-leading Ford Cortina and GM’s smaller Vauxhall Viva.
The Hunter was also sold on the home market in a bewildering variety of badge engineered versions. There was the stripped-out Hillman Minx, the slightly more luxurious Singer Gazelle and Singer Vogue, and the top-of-the-range Humber Sceptre, which had pretensions of competing with Triumph and Rover. There were also two coupe derivatives, the Sunbeam Alpine and Rapier.
In the US and Canada the Hunter was sold for a few years as the Sunbeam Arrow, but disappeared around 1970 after a life of obscurity. It also popped up elsewhere around the world, being sold in South Africa with Peugeot engines as the Chrysler Vogue, and was made as a diesel in Peru. In Australia, there was a plush version called the Royal and a sports model, the Hustler.
Despite being quickly left behind by its more modern competitors, in Europe the Hunter somehow soldiered on until as late as 1979, by which time it was made at Chrysler’s factory in Ireland and boasted the company’s pentastar on the grille.
As a “nearly” car, consistently underperforming in sales terms and never being that desirable, even in its sportier GT form (which celebrated the car’s unexpected success in the London to Sydney marathon), the Hunter would be a footnote in history by now if it wasn’t for an almost chance encounter back in 1964.
At that time oil-rich Iran was a monarchy led by the pro-western Shah, whose country was looking at establishing a domestic manufacturing industry. The political climate of the time meant the regime was particularly keen on fostering links with British auto makers, who in those far-off days were considered world leaders.
A cable was sent to the leading British manufacturers asking them to attend a meeting at London’s Hilton Hotel in November 1964 with an Iranian representative. Only the Rootes Group, owners of the Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam and Humber marques, took the invitation seriously and bothered to turn up. From this meeting was born one of the country’s most successful export contracts, which would eventually catapult the humble Hillman Hunter into every street from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea.
Paykan kits were churned out by the British in ever increasing numbers and sent out to Iran for assembly. As the years marched on, Rootes sold out to Chrysler, which itself had a turbulent time in Europe before in turn selling its loss-making British, French and Spanish operations to Peugeot in 1979.
Events in Iran were even more dramatic, with Islamic fundamentalists toppling the regime of the Shah, fighting a long but ultimately inconclusive war with Iraq, and establishing the state which is still with us today and, for better of worse, is a major player on the world stage.
Through thick and thin the humble little Paykan continued to be made in Tehran, with a steadily increasing local content. Although hardly modified in looks from the 1966 original it became a truly home-made Iranian product. At its peak there were enormous waiting lists for what was described as the national car, which was popular as both a taxi and as personal transportation.
As Iran Khodro’s relationship with Peugeot deepened, time was gradually called on the Paykan and in 2005 production of the ancient saloon finally ceased after 2.3 million units had been produced. A commercial vehicle version is, however, still sold by the company. In a further twist, however, in October 2006 it was announced the Paykan tooling would be shipped from Iran to an even more troubled part of the world, northern Sudan, for yet another lease of life.
Today Iran Khodro’s surprisingly wide range includes the Paykan pick-up, various Peugeots including the old 405 and the newer 206, Renault’s low-cost Logan model, plus a variety of locally developed cars including the Pars and the company’s pride-and-joy, the Samand. In unconscious tribute to the sprit of those Rootes engineers of long ago, this modern-looking saloon was born with the help of significant British engineering assistance.
Iran Khodro now has domestic competitors of its own, including the Kia-derived Saipa range and versions of Hyundai and Suzuki vehicles, among others. Watch any news broadcast from Iran, however, and it is plain to see the Paykan is still a national fixture on the streets and looks set to be one for many years to come.
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