x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Where dust turns to dreams

Feature For many, making the move to the UAE, the rewards are diminishing. A luxurious villa, once the preserve of most, is now reserved for an elite few.

Mercedes, BMW's and more exotic brands such as Aston Martins and the odd Lotus, await intrepid bounty-hunters.
Mercedes, BMW's and more exotic brands such as Aston Martins and the odd Lotus, await intrepid bounty-hunters.

For many, making the move to the UAE, the rewards are diminishing. A luxurious villa, once the preserve of most, is now reserved for an elite few. Dirhams don't go as far as they once did, with electronic goods, designer clothes and other essential accessories of the Gulf lifestyle costing barely less - and in some cases, significantly more - than they do "back home". There is one thing that a tax-free salary, low vehicle duty and subsidised fuel still guarantees the incoming expat: a new car. For Europeans, the opportunity to afford a big US gas-guzzler is often irresistible. Hummers are rarer than Rolls-Royces on European streets; Mustangs, a relative bargain in the United States and here, are prohibitively expensive there, and exorbitant fuel costs limit the bigger Yank Tank SUVs to investment bankers, drug dealers and professional football players. While more sensible souls snap up Japanese imports here, putting reliability and resale value ahead of aesthetic concerns, the urge to dig deeper to drive something they could never afford back home proves irresistible to many. But the relative cheapness lends roads and car parks a certain dull uniformity. When there's little cachet in a 911 or an M5 - even a Ferrari or Lamborghini barely merits a second glance on UAE roads - how can you really show off your impeccable taste in cars? One way is to do what English bank managers and young American hipsters alike have always done: go vintage. Those of an adventurous bent - and especially those willing to take a gamble that any prospective "classic" will be recognised as such by the authorities after new rules in January ban older cars from the roads - can skip the shiny but sterile showrooms and head into the maze of Sharjah's sprawling industrial suburbs. Among the cement factories, garages, rutted dirt tracks and broken down taxis, some real gems can be found. Ageing luxury barges from 7 Series to S-Classes may abound, but some real rarities still stand out, their once lustrous paintwork buried under half an inch of desert dust. Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, even a stunning 1970s Aston Martin Lagonda, the automotive detritus of earlier oil booms, stand virtually abandoned. A few hundred metres from the National Paints roundabout, that symbol of a traffic system gone badly wrong (that it is not even a roundabout might clue you in), sits a solitary red Lotus Turbo Esprit, as driven by James Bond in For Your Eyes Only (the iconic white Lotus submarine appeared four years' earlier, but was not the Turbo, fact checkers). Further into the industrial zone, a Datsun 240Z sits by a shawarma cafe, its new paint job vainly hiding decades of rust and corrosion. Porsche 928s, probably the most unloved and underrated of the 1980s supercars, are common - useful for parts if you do take the plunge and buy one of these notoriously highly strung thoroughbreds. What nearly suckered me in, though, was a BMW 8 Series. During the 1990s, this was Bimmer's flagship, a big, ungainly coupé saddled with love-it-or-loathe-it styling and powered by a V12 that pushed it to a shade under 200mph. Yours, from a backstreet in Sharjah, for a mere Dh8,000. Of course, this one needed some work, After we fired this thing up, which necessitated overriding certain crucial safety functions from the computer, we discovered it had no brakes. None at all. But it was more cosmetic reasons that led me away: saggy headliners, split wood and cracked leather spoke of too many years in the Sharjah sun, and I reluctantly passed. Instead, a 1989 BMW 3 Series convertible, for a shade under Dh5,000 from a sweaty Syrian on Al Wasl road, became mine. A great car, it had obviously been well used, and the 2.0-litre engine was a touch asthmatic. But it was reliable, fun and stylish. Stupidly, I lent it to a friend, who by coincidence had almost exactly the same model, but with a slightly bigger engine, far worse suspension, and, as in turned out, somewhat beefier brakes. He got it 300 metres from his house before ramming into the back of someone else. It was never quite the same. The fingertip steering precision, always its best point, was off, and I sold it. These days, it is a real head-turner. My next purchase was a real lesson in what not to do. The Porsche 944 is, in the right hands, a great car. I love the 1970s design. In fact, I wish Porsche would move away from their 911-derived styles for once and come up with something really different again. The 944's 2.7-litre engine is still one of the biggest four-cylinders ever produced. This one I found on a classified website. "Like new, showroom condition, etc etc etc". The blurb was all wrong, of course, but the price seemed right, so it was off to Deira to check it out. After an hour waiting outside a seedy hotel in the baking sun, a low, white Porsche pulled up in front of me. You could not have asked for a better driver of a down-at-heel 1980s classic. Out stepped a huge man sporting an exuberant, droopy moustache, wavy long hair in a centre parting, shirt open to his jeans and, I kid you not, a big, gold medallion. It got better. From the passenger seat exited another man. But his long beard, sharp eyes, hawk-carved features and steely religiosity simply could not have been further from both the pimp-flash clothes of his exuberantly-coiffured friend and the sporty styling of the white sports car. Obviously, given this provenance - the men, not the log book, which was non-existent - I had to buy. Trimming Dh5,000 off the Dh17,000 asking price, the keys were mine. I won't bore you with details of the transfer process, but be prepared when buying from another emirate that you need to retest and re-register the car - it is a long and frequently illogical process. Like the land yachts mentioned earlier, there is a reason why mass-produced 1980s sports cars - and even some of the rarer, faster models (yes, I am looking at you, Porsche 928) can be picked up cheaply. Put simply, without a near-professional grasp of mechanics or a dealer garage (and let's face it, a service from the dealer would probably cost more than I paid for the thing), you are looking at a poorly-tuned, badly-oiled machine causing no end of headaches. When it worked, though, it worked. Few things, even to this day, have the handling characteristics of the 944. It was a delight to push hard. Oman's mountains were a joy to drive, and a Dubai-Hatta round trip could be achieved in times I would never put in print. Being rare on these roads had its advantages, too. The sporty lines got me VIP parking at the Adihex exhibition at Abu Dhabi. Staff only realised their mistake when they saw me struggling with the temperamental boot. Working in Abu Dhabi while living in Dubai, however, took its toll on the poor thing. Cars from 1989 should be fussed over, and only occasionally driven hard on weekends. A 250- kilometre round trip commute each day soon did her in. Oil leaks were common. The air conditioning, always temperamental, packed in for good and, far worse, the engine became alarmingly prone to overheating. The final straw was when she nearly blinded a mechanic at a petrol station, who had rashly removed the coolant tap with the temperature way, way into the red. She was sold for a good price to someone who knew Porsches and knew how delighted I'd be to sell it on. Last I heard, the air con was fixed for pennies in Sharjah, every single oil seal had been replaced, new engine mounts installed and she was "running like a train". Still, with the Abu Dhabi journey out of the way, I'm in the market again. I wonder if that Lotus is still standing unloved by the National Paints roundabout? motoring@thenational.ae