His hands are dry, rough and cracked from over 45 years spent working as a mechanic. But Mosul man, Whalid Hamdoun al-Uzbaki, isn’t taking to the hand cream yet. He has turned his hobby of car restoration into a business. After searching through Iraq’s scrap yards for old cars from the 1950s and 60s, Younis buys them for small amounts and restores them, selling them for tens of thousands of dollars to collectors.
Al-Uzbaki talked to NIQASH about why he’s been so successful with the vintage vehicles and how at one stage, that success could have turned him into a terrorist target in the troubled area.
NIQASH: How did this all begin?
Al-Uzbaki: I had always been attracted to old things because I always felt they became more valuable over time. I think that our society doesn’t value what’s really important. People care too much about material things, new things. That bothers me a lot.
For me, cars from the 1950s and 1960s are treasures, as valuable as any antique. I remember the first car I restored very well. I repaired it but at the time nobody wanted to buy it or was interested. So I sold it very cheaply and gave up repairing cars. Then in 2006, when it was very dangerous here in Mosul, I started looking for cars again. I managed to create whole new cars out of the scrap I found.
NIQASH: Tell us a little more about these vehicles.
Al-Uzbaki: The first one was a 1954 Chevrolet pickup. I found it in a garbage dump at the end of 2006 and I bought it for US$200. It took me eight months to repair. But now it’s on display and for sale in Kirkuk.
The second car was also a Chevrolet but this one was from 1955. In the 60s a Christian cleric called Father Youssef Tuma used to drive it here and I always saw it parked in front of the old church in Mosul. In 2008, I saw it again and managed to buy it for US$3,000. So I renovated and found new parts for it. A month ago I sold it to a guy from Erbil [in Iraqi Kurdistan] for US$30,000.
NIQASH: So one imagines you will keep going with this project?
Al-Uzbaki: I’d like to. I love doing this, it’s creative and it’s innovative. Today most of Mosul’s skilled mechanics are sitting at home doing nothing. And re-creating and renovating old cars like this requires a lot of time and effort.
NIQASH: Do you drive the cars personally?
Al-Uzbaki: Yes I do. I also drive them to other parts of Iraq and I’ve been to cities like Erbil, Dohuk and Kirkuk many times. I’ve also raced the cars.
People definitely pay attention. They often stop me and ask to take pictures. Sometimes people are surprised to see the cars in a race because they are so old. Another time, a policeman at a checkpoint told me I was exempt from being checked and that I could also use their special road, usually for military vehicles only.
Actually in 2006, the attention that the cars get, almost got me into big trouble. Some US soldiers raided our neighbourhood looking for insurgents and through a translator, one of the officers told me I should get the car finished in two months. He wanted to buy it. But I didn’t want to sell the car to any Americans because I thought if I did, I might become a target because people would think I was cooperating with the US forces.
So when they called me to ask about the car, I told them that my father was sick and had been admitted to hospital and that the car wouldn’t be ready. I kept delaying them until finally the officer forgot about the car.
NIQASH: Isn’t it hard selling cars like these in a country like Iraq?
Al-Uzbaki: I’ve never thought that I would fail. I am always proud of what I do. In Kirkuk, the 52 Chevrolet is on display with modern luxury vehicles. People had been negotiating with me to buy it. But I would only accept US$30,000.
NIQASH: You’re clearly very passionate about your cars.
Al-Uzbaki: Yes, I love them. I’ll tell you a secret . When I take my cup of tea into the workshop, I’ll often talk to them. I caress them and I tell them how beautiful they are and talk to them about the good old days. Actually one day my wife overheard me doing this. She called my daughters and told them I was going crazy!
NIQASH: And I’ve heard a rumour that your car restoration might be going international. Is this true?
Al-Uzbaki: It is. My son-in-law is German and he lives in Berlin. He used to photograph me while I was working and he’s also filmed me at work. He also drives the cars himself. When he went back to Germany this time he showed the pictures and the video to an older German man who also likes restoring cars. So this chap has now sent me an official invitation to come and visit him in the north of Berlin where he has a workshop. I’m not sure if it can happen but I would like to visit him because I really think we’ve got a lot in common.