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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 May 2018

Zein and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Zein Hussein claims he is the only mechanic in Egypt who can keep hardy BSAs, Triumphs, and Nortons rumbling. He is certainly the one with the most experience.

A 1964 BSA Road Rocket, under restoration at the shop.
A 1964 BSA Road Rocket, under restoration at the shop.

CAIRO // Zein Hussein remembers motorcycles better than their owners.

If you come across a classic British bike in Cairo, chances are the mechanic’s calling card will be inside the engine. He leaves his business details in a small compartment as testament to his work.

It is not really for commercial purposes. Zein, 57, claims he is the only mechanic in Egypt who can keep hardy BSAs, Triumphs, and Nortons rumbling. He is certainly the one with the most experience. The mechanic has been working on them since he was 13, with an original set of tools that his father used on the British army’s bikes during the colonial era.

One of the smallest spanners can go for as much as US$40 (Dh147) online, his son Aly says. They, like British bikes, are collectors items for some, but for Zein and his sons, Aly and Khaled, they are the tools that keep their business, and these classic motorbikes, alive.

Zein speaks about the bikes with a kind of mysticism. He says that the cobalt 1963 BSA M21 under restoration in his Classic Bike workshop sounds like a thunderstorm when it’s running.

“They are like obedient horses,” he says. If someone is ill, the care that they put into the bike, cleaning each part and washing each detail, is therapeutic. It takes them out of the illness.

Zein himself is recovering from an injury after the Kawasaki that his family rides around fell on him. It is the first time he has been seriously hurt because of a motorcycle, despite frequently riding bikes on the shoddy roads between Cairo and Hurghada on the Red Sea and Alexandria on the Mediterranean.

These days people do not ride as many British bikes as they used to. The wealthy prefer ostentatious Harleys, and the working classes prefer cheaper east Asian imports.

Zein, who works on all types of motorcycles, says that the newer east Asian bikes are more or less impossible to restore. The parts are not made of the quality materials as the rigs that he works on. “They were built for wars. If they failed, the British would have lost the war. They are made to go in the Egyptian desert, in the sand, pulling heavy loads or artillery.”

He shows a picture of a sunken British warship, including a corroded bike covered in algae.

“I could restore this bike. I’ve fixed a bike that a building fell on top of, and another that was in a house fire.”

One bike that he worked on was taken to Alexandria. The salty air there wore away at the bike, and a new owner, an Australian, brought it to him. He recognised the bike, cracked open the engine, showed the Australian his business card, and got to work.

Many of his clients have been diplomats and businessmen from Commonwealth countries that grew up with the classic bikes. He does not deal with their export, but diplomats can easily ship them out. Others reassemble their motorcycle after moving it out of Egypt in separate parts.

The 1970s was a golden age for bikes in Cairo. The Egyptian army opened its stores, auctioning off bikes left behind by the British occupation. Most of them eventually found their way back to Zein, along with the spare parts. He inherited the know-how, as well as a number of full motorcycles and parts from his father, who was a mechanic in the British army before opening up the first iteration of his workshop in the capital’s Sayyeda Zeinab neighbourhood. The family then moved their workshop to Basateen, in southern Cairo, in 1982.

In 1991 they also opened up a storehouse in Moqattam, in the cliffs above eastern Cairo, and a year later moved their workshop from Basateen back to Sayyeda Zeinab, where it still stands today. The family has a huge store of parts in their original packaging. Most parts and bikes that are beyond repair are useless to anyone in Egypt other than Zein and his clients. When they are recovered in an old garage somewhere, they find their way back to him. His son Aly shows off an example, opening a fist-sized box labelled “Not to be opened until use,” to show brown butcher paper wrapped around a greased gear.

Zein describes himself as the type of person who does not throw anything away, instead keeping his possessions in good shape or returning them to their original working quality. He feels like he is one of the few people around anymore who approaches life this way.

“You can find a part to fit in these bikes from China, but it’s important to preserve what we are doing. We’re alone in this,” he says.

There is a kind of slowness in Zein’s work. He dismisses the idea of selling the bikes online, which keeps his prices much lower than in other parts of the world. A bike he restores can go for about half as much as it costs in the west. But if Zein went online, he would probably empty his storehouse and be out of a job, and his sons would be left without something else.

“I’d rather leave my sons the legacy and history of these bikes and their skills than a lot of money.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae