x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Moon Leopard, the first car built in the UAE

More than 25 years ago, two men decided to build cars in Jebel Ali. Johnathan Gornall gets a ride in one of the few remaining models of the jeep-like Moon Leopard

The imposing Moon Leopard, part of UAE history as the first car to be made in the country, was built in suspension-testing stainless steel.
The imposing Moon Leopard, part of UAE history as the first car to be made in the country, was built in suspension-testing stainless steel.

or years it has been the stuff of urban legend - the tale of a big cat indigenous to the UAE but rarely sighted.

Once, an enthusiast managed to photograph her on the roof of the car park at Ibn Battuta mall; occasionally she has been seen and heard prowling and growling in the backstreets of Dubai's Al Barsha district.

And now, on a small, quiet stretch of sand not far from the bustle of Jumeirah Beach Park, the Moon Leopard is finally cornered.

The what?

Indeed. First impressions, it has to be said, are not favourable. Not so much bounding as wallowing down the beach comes a vehicle that looks as if it were designed by a committee - part Jeep CJ-7 and, well, part Darth Vader.

Despite the Jeep chassis and four-wheel drive, it is clear that the big, heavy cat, clad in suspension-testing stainless steel, is not in her element - something about which her owner, Omar Shams, engineering manager at Dubai Petroleum, is under no illusions.

"She's a sheep to drive off-road, because she's overweight and underpowered and reminds me of myself," he says with a chuckle. "She sinks in the sand."

But catlike four-wheel-drivability is not this particular beast's claim to fame. Assembled in the Jebel Ali Free Zone in 1990, Moon Leopard 001 occupies a quirky but nevertheless significant place in UAE history as the first car to be built in the country - and it's a place that Shams, a car enthusiast whose taste leans towards the eclectic, intends to preserve.

His Moon Leopard is a relative youngster in a collection that includes three 1970s Rolls-Royces and, from the Sixties, a Karman Ghia, VW camper van, convertible Beetle and two Volvos - a hulking PV544 and a sleek P1800, the type driven by Roger Moore in the British TV series The Saint.

It's the Leopard, however, that weighs heavily upon him - and upon the specially strengthened roof of his garage in Al Barsha, where he stores three of the unbuilt cars his father bought when the company went bust in 1990. Here, the stainless steel is an advantage: they are impervious to the elements.

"Being car number one of the first batch of cars ever produced in the UAE really puts it up there," he says. "And it's that that has been resting on my shoulders for so long with regards to what I do with the car.

"Right now I'm the custodian and I do feel an obligation to pass it on so it doesn't lose its significance within the country. I'm running out of space and I will soon have to find it a new home and I would very much like to be comfortable that it won't leave it in the UAE."

Although born in the UAE, the Moon Leopard was conceived in the Philippines in the late 1980s after a chance meeting between two Europeans. Nicholas Stoodley, a British adventurer and sometime furniture designer, arrived in Manila as a young man in 1972. Planning to stay for a few days he has lived there ever since.

In Manila, he says, he reinvented himself, several times - as a ready-to-wear clothes designer, a basketball promoter and a roller-disco entrepreneur, among other things. After all that, designing a car must have seemed like a natural thing for someone with no engineering skills to do and, in the early 1980s, after running into a French photographer "who, though charming, was completely crazy", that was exactly what he did.

During one night on the town, Stoodley told The National, he and Jean Guy Jules decided that what the world really needed was a new off-road vehicle, that they were the men for the job and - for precise reasons now lost to history - that it should be called the Moon Leopard.

At the time, recalls Stoodley, the name seemed "masculine, mysterious and slinky", but its origin may have owed as much to the fact that Jules was in the throes of planning an expedition to locate a flying saucer supposedly downed in the Philippine jungle.

Most such schemes, hatched in the small hours, tend not to survive first light, but over the next few days Stoodley put pen to paper and the beast took shape. "In some ways," he muses, "we were true pioneers ... the world would soon see the rise of a new category of vehicle that came to be known as an SUV".

The rest is ... little-known history. Basing their vehicle on the Jeep CJ-7 chassis, the pair made two interesting decisions. The first (influenced, perhaps, by Gallic pride) was to reject the Jeep's capable V6 or V8 power units in favour of the PRV - the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6. The second - based on the availability of skilled panel-beaters servicing the Philippines' Jeepney market - was to have the car's body handmade in stainless steel. The result was a car as underpowered as it was overweight.

Next, Jules took the historic decision to have the cars assembled in Dubai, forming a company called Leopard Cars SA for the purpose - not that he was in the business of making UAE history. In November 1988, when the car made its public debut at the 10th Dubai Motor Show, he revealed that the decision to set up shop in Jebel Ali Free Zone had been entirely pragmatic.

"The move to the Emirates was a natural one," he told one local newspaper. "Labour costs are cheaper than in Europe and there are far fewer working restrictions and no taxes."

In Dubai at the time, says Shams, "this was the car to have, because of how obscure, beautiful and bespoke they were, and I tried to convince my father to buy me one."

Er, beautiful?

"I get lots of thumbs-up and waves and wherever I leave the car there's often a small crowd gathered around it when I come back," he says, but nevertheless modifies his assessment: "So ugly that they are beautiful; it's a bit like the Morris Minor."

Unfortunately, they were also were "horrendously expensive - Dh160,000, the same as a Mercedes 560SEL. My father told me to get lost."

The price was just one more reason why the Moon Leopard story proved to be a short one. Number 001 - the model Shams owns today - was followed by just 10 other vehicles, only a handful of which made it onto the streets, before the company failed.

"They went bust because the formula was wrong," says Shams. "You don't go and buy a collection of parts and assemble them to make a car, because if you were to just go out and buy a car and strip it, it would cost you a lot less."

The collapse of the company was, however, good news for Shams. For a bargain Dh75,000 his father, Mohammed, "very kindly went and bought the remnants ... it was one hell of a birthday present and I was very grateful to him".

The stock included parts adding up to about five unbuilt cars and one that was 90 per cent finished. Shams threw himself enthusiastically into finishing it off - and, he now concedes, proceeded to vandalise it.

"I didn't like the front grille, in my naivete," he says. "I think it's beautiful now but at that time I didn't, so I cut that, which was dreadful, and moved the lights around and other things". That particular Moon Leopard, he says, "ended up being a dog's breakfast".

Luckily for posterity, this was not model number 001, on which Shams still had his heart set. His chance came when the owner, a Briton who had been involved in setting up the company at Jebel Ali, left the country, and he snapped it up.

Whoever eventually takes over as curator of the Moon Leopard needs to understand that looking after it is a labour of love. Shams' British wife Joanne used to drive it regularly and "always had a mallet in the car, to tickle the fuel pump". Annual registration, meanwhile, is rarely straightforward.

"I do have trouble from time to time. The people are only doing their job and flagging up to their superiors that this is not a standard car. Luckily these superiors are bright enough to recognise the significance of it."

For Shams, the Moon Leopard is symbolic of the wider story of his city and his country. "We owe an awful lot to our guest workers who help us, and have done so for many years, to make Dubai what it is," he says, contemplating the nearby Burj Khalifa.

"We would not have been able to do it alone, so to all those people, some of whom even gave up their lives while building the country, we are hugely grateful."

Then he turns his attention back to the Moon Leopard and to two Europeans who once dreamed a quixotic dream in Manila: "And even to them, because they created some history."