Broken Arrow: Former Designer Works to Remember Iran’s First National Car
Photography by Alireza Behpour, Nathalie Taleghani, & Shahin Armin
Petrolicious recently sat down with Shaheen Armin, a young man who quit his job designing new cars in the U.S. in order to create a documentary about a nearly unknown classic car. The Paykan, or “Arrow” in Persian was made in Iran since the ’60s, becoming known as “the national car of Iran” mostly because it was made for an incredible 38 years.
First, tell us a bit about yourself
SA: I was born in 1976 in Tehran. I moved to the U.S. when I was 20. Tehran is a massive city and growing up in such a place makes a profound impact on your personality. It is something that I carried with me throughout all my life.
How did you find a love for cars?
SA: When I was born, my parents lived in a small apartment in central Tehran. They tell me that I used to cry a lot when I was a baby, so my nursemaid used to take me down the street where there was a car dealership. Looking at the cars was the only thing that would stop my crying. I guess that is where it all started.
Tell us about those early days in Michigan?
SA: I just couldn’t wait to get to the U.S. We were moving close to the suburb of Detroit; I couldn’t believe my luck. I remember going to my first Woodward Dream Cruise and I just couldn’t believe my eyes. I was surrounded by all those muscle cars. Their deafening noise and the smell of rubber was everywhere. It was really hard to take it all in. It was an emotional day for me.
Growing up in Iran, we only had only one car magazine. It was a black and white monthly publication. They were doing their best, but in those days during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), paper and ink were in short supply, so the overall quality of the magazine was really poor. I used to only be able to stare at those black and white small pictures of Mustangs, Camaros and Corvettes and now, I was standing next to the real things in the middle of Woodward Avenue. It was unreal.
Was it hard to start your career as an automotive design engineer?
SA: Of course, my dream was to get a job in one of the big three automakers, but that seemed so out of reach. I was taking some CAD classes at our community college and signed up for an automotive class. My teacher, whom I’m eternally grateful for, saw the dedication and passion in me. He was an employee of Chrysler himself, and he got me an interview at the Chrysler Design Studios.
I got the job and after only two and a half years of being in the US, I was sitting behind my own desk at Chrysler Advance Studio. The dream came true and for the next two years, I worked extremely hard, took night classes and got my B.S. degree and I became a studio engineer. I worked on so many different and exciting projects and I was a part of the design team of Chrysler LX platform (300C, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger) and numerous other design assignments. I loved being in the studio and got a chance to work with some very talented and amazing designers, modelers, and engineers. In total, I worked for more than 10 years at Chrysler and later I joined Honda America in Ohio as a product engineer, working there close to three years.
Why did you go back to Iran after years of success in America?
Working on the design side of the car industry is intense. It requires a lot of overtime and quick responses to constant changes during the design process. After working for 13 years I felt I needed a break. I decided to take a time-out to rejuvenate my passion for cars, do some traveling, and spend some time with my parents in Iran.
Now I was excited to see Iran after all these years, and mostly I was excited to see Paykans again. It is true that I worked on some very modern and technologically-advanced cars, but all those years I couldn’t get the humble Paykan out of my head. Back in 2009 I decided to create a blog and called it www.PaykanHunter.com and I started thorough research into this car.
What’s special about the Paykan?
Paykan means “Arrow” in Persian. It was a locally produced version of the British Rootes Group’s “Arrow” series platform. Arrow was the name for a range of cars produced under several badge-engineered brands by the Rootes Group (later Chrysler Europe). The series is typically referred to by the name of the most abundant model, the Hillman Hunter.
The Paykan production began in 1967 on the outskirts of Tehran. It continued practically unchanged, apart from a facelift, for the next 38 years. During the ’60s, Iran was experiencing an economic boom and the Shah was investing heavily in the modernization of Iran. The car industry was high on the agenda and the Shah was committed to support local production. In 1962 entrepreneur brothers Ahmad and Mahmoud Khayyami established the Iran National Company. In 1966 they signed a deal with the Rootes Group for complete “knock-down” production of the Paykan. It was a huge success, and within just a short time Iran’s roads and cities were full of Paykans.
The price was right, it had simple mechanics, and it played along with the nationalist theme back then in Iran. A lot of Iranians became car owners for the first time. Paykan put Iran on wheels. It was also a symbol of western consumerism that was rapidly expanding in Iran.
But why did you like Paykan, is there a story behind that?
Any car that can survive for that long has a story behind it. By the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Khayyami brothers were still making the Paykan. It was offered in Kar (basic), De-Luxe, wagon, pick-up, Automatic & Javanan (youth) models, with lots of different colors. Production volume was close to 100,000 units per year to meet demand. Although they had plans to diversify their product range, the revolution changed everything. The Khayyami brothers had to leave Iran. The government took control of Iran National and changed it into Iran Khodro.
Paykan then entered a new chapter of its life. It became revolutionized from a symbol of consumerism and turned into a symbol of the revolution and resistance. Paykans got simplified, they were “de-chromed”, and most of the time they were available only in white.
Also, this car made its impact during the Iran-Iraq war. During the tough times, Paykan really saved the Iranians. It became a main source of income for so many Iranians by the way of “mosaferkeshi” (freelance taxi driving).
You are really focusing on the social impact of this car then?
Yes, absolutely. There is not much to talk about with the car itself. It was simple and in my view, a very well-proportioned car, but what I’m really interested in is the impact it had on Iran. Paykan changed Iran and the Iranians changed Paykan, and that is where the story lies. The streets of Iran are no longer dominated by Paykans, but there are still thousands of them being used daily.
It has played an important role in Iranians life, hasn’t it?
Definitely. You won’t believe it, but the Paykan pick-up production just ended this past March. Iran is now the biggest car producer in the Middle East, and it all started with the Paykan.
Tell us about the two related art exhibitions in Tehran and audience reactions?
Shortly after I arrived in Tehran, I was approached by AUN Gallery, who was planning to do a group show. This was the first art exhibition of its kind, and exclusively about the Paykan. As part of the gallery’s biannual challenge, each artist was invited to take the hood of a discarded Paykan and create his or her own interpretive art with it. My participation was collaboration in a sculpture with visual artist Nazgol Ansarinia and video art.
Later, I co-curated another group show, and this time we used an entire Paykan. We went out to a junkyard and bought a Paykan. We dragged it out of there and we gave each artist a piece of the car to work with. It was like breathing a new life into the car, we gave it another chance to live through art. The show was held at Dastan Gallery and was called Final Encore II.
Both exhibitions were a success, and drew a big crowd. Even a New York Times reporter came to see both shows, and published a brilliant article about the Paykan.
Tell us about your documentary project about the Paykan.
I’m working on a film that will inform Iranians about the history of the car, and for non-Iranians it will be interesting to see as well, because we are doing a social review of the last 48 years of Iran’s history.
How did you get started with the film?
About a year ago, I went to see my high school friend Sohrab Daryabandari. Sohrab is an accomplished photographer and has made short documentaries before. We sat down in his small studio and talked Paykan. After a few sessions, he was impressed by the amount of research I’ve done during the past five years and said that he wanted to help me make the film happen. Knowing that my research was sufficient, we started the pre-production process which took around four months.
Our filming took another four months. There are numerous complications in making films inside Iran, such as obtaining the proper permits, convincing people to be interviewed, the horrendous Tehran traffic, and unreliable and slow Internet and so forth. It required a lot of stamina and patience.
What type of film making training do you have?
I don’t. But like so many Iranians, I have a passion for cinema. It could be scary to think about making a long film, but I felt that I could learn quickly. Of course, without the help of Sohrab, this film would never have happened; he has been instrumental in getting this project started. He is also the main cameraman on the project.
Who is the producer and what stage of production are you at right now?
Rather than spending money, we are spending time, trying to solve all the issues ourselves. This is basically a two-man production. We have had help and support from friends and family along the way.
Sohrab and I are editing the film at the moment. We have been working around the clock for the past three months. So far we are pleased with the result, and we are hoping that we can finish the project within the next few months.
Do you own or aspire to own a classic car? And your favorite Paykan is?
In Iran, I got a 1969 Paykan De-Luxe, which I bought last year. It was in a really bad shape. I fixed it all up and now I use it as my daily driver. I also have a 1973 BMW 2002. Back in the States I have a Paykan too. Well, it is the British version of it. It is a 1968 Singer Gazelle, and I imported it to the US from the UK.
My favorite Paykan is the Paykan Javanan (youth) model, which was based on the Hillman Hunter GT. They are very hard to come by these days. I would love to own an old Alfa Romeo or perhaps a Lancia Fulvia or a BMW E9 or even an E30 or… the list is too long, please don’t get me started.