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The Nairns of New Zealand


When World War I came to an end, two brothers from New Zealand, Norman and Gerald Nairn, who were serving with the British forces in Palestine, decided to stay in the Middle East and go into business. Since both were skilled mechanics they thought it only logical that they work with motor vehicles, and decided to run a bus company. So, almost by accident, was founded the Nairn Transport Company, one of the most colorful transportation companies in the world.

In those days in the Middle East transportation was still largely dependent on camels and other beasts of burden. Everyone knew that trucks and buses and cars were faster and could carry more, but there was one large obstacle: there were almost no roads. Furthermore, cars that tried to cross the desert had to face not only break downs and flat tires, but also sand storms and the possibility of Bedouin raids. Because of the raiders, most cars were equipped with racks into which were thrust Enfield rifles. Conditions were so uncertain that if clients of one famous tourist agency of the period went to Baghdad, their life insurance policies were automatically cancelled.

The Nairns, however, went ahead with their plans. Not long after going into business they assigned their chief engineer, a man named Ted Lovell, to lead a three-car expedition—a Lancia, a Buick and an Olds mobile—to see if a desert crossing between Damascus and Baghdad was possible. When Lovell returned and said it was, the Nairns made several crossings themselves, and decided that regular trips would not only be possible, but profitable, especially since they could be linked to a run from Beirut to Haifa.

On October 18, 1923, the new service was officially opened—in specially-built, eight-cylinder, seven-seater convertible Cadillac's. They were formidable cars. In one of them, which had already logged 90,000 miles on desert routes, Norman Nairn with two others, plus ample luggage and mail, once covered the 505-mile distance from Baghdad to Damascus in a record 14½ hours. They made three stops only, each lasting five minutes: one because of a flat tire and two for gas.

The Haifa to Beirut service was linked up with the new one from Beirut via Damascus to Baghdad, a total distance of 715 miles. Its success was immediate. Many Iraqi and Syrian travelers now could take the bus for a fast trip to Beirut or Haifa, where they could board a boat to Europe or beyond or take the train to Egypt or Turkey.

In those pioneer years all the drives and many of the other employees of N.T.C. were British, the majority of them ex-soldiers. Bet each convoy, each comprised of at east three cars, carried a Syrian Bedouin guide whose amazing knowledge of the desert was in dispensable. Without them drivers would have often gotten hopelessly lost on the empty plains.

The trip was usually safe, but the threat if marauding Bedouins was always present. Once, not far from Damascus, Bedouins held up a car, killed one traveler, wounded two others, including a driver, and galloped off with a cargo of gold. To avoid repetition of such incidents the Nairns agreed to pay £2,000 annually to the Bedouins every year via a Shaikh in Damascus who was a great traveler himself and a personal friend of the Nairns. Subsequently, realizing the growing importance of the transport service, the various governments involved guaranteed protection themselves.

During the first 12 months of operation the giant Cadillac's carried no fewer than 1,476 passengers and 35,000 pounds of mail. Among the first passengers, the Nairns reported later, was the Shah of Persia. His Majesty and his attendants made the trip to Damascus in November, 1923, and were most satisfied. And on June 5, 1924, a Beirut newspaper wrote "Mr. (Norman) Nairn, the pioneer of this service, has done more in the past year to unite ... Syria and Iraq than all the politicians of Europe and Arabia have been able to accomplish (or prevent, as the case may be) in a decade."

Though the Cadillac's provided excellent service and seemed indestructible, it soon became clear that much larger vehicles were needed. Norman Nairn experimented with various types and, in 1925, decided to order from the Six-Wheel Company of Philadelphia some six-wheel "Safeway Saloon Coaches" with room for two drivers and first-class accommodation for 14 passengers. These buses were equipped with six-cylinder, 110-horsepower Continental engines with 8-speed gearboxes. They weighed seven tons each, could reach a maximum speed of 55 miles, carry 1¼ tons of luggage on the roof and cost $17,500 apiece. On May 26, 1927, King Faisal of Iraq officially named Nairn’s first six-wheel trans-desert saloon, "The Babylon."

Nine years later N.T.C. made news again when they ordered, from Marmon-Harrington in Indianapolis, the world’s largest semitrailer-tractor combination. This giant was 68 feet long, 8 feet 8 inches wide and 11 feet high, The trailer was completely dust free and could accommodate 32 first-class passengers. It had a buffet, a toilet, room for one ton of luggage and a 200-horsepower diesel engine that could move it across the desert at 50 miles an hour.

Another Nairn "first" was a lightweight, stainless steel trailer built by the Edward G. Budd Company of Philadelphia. In upper and lower berths like American Pullmans it slept 14 passengers and was the first vehicle of its kind to be equipped with air conditioning. The tractor was powered by a 150-horse power Cummins diesel engine.

Nairn Transport Company continued its services, with clockwork precision, up to and through the Second World War. But in 1947 Gerald Nairn returned to New Zealand and in 1948 Norman Nairn turned the company over to his staff and retired to a villa in Lebanon where, at 71, he still lives today. The staff ran it until 1957 when the organization was liquidated. The equipment was later sold to the present owners, a business group in Damascus.

N.T.C. now owns 15 vehicles of different sizes and makes. Some of them, bought 30 years ago, are still in use and function perfectly. Twelve trailer combinations operate on the Damascus to Baghdad run. Five of these offer first-class accommodation, can seat 18 passengers each and have air conditioning, food service and toilets. For its second-class traffic the company operates two trailers also seating 18 passengers; five other trailers provide third -class transportation. Three buses of smaller size maintain the Beirut to Damascus service.

Today Nairn’s trailers cross the great Syrian desert daily in each direction, trans porting hundreds of passengers with their luggage and many tons of mail, including American, Italian and German diplomatic pouches. What once were daring ventures by a few magnificent men in their riding machines are now streamlined routine trips for the masses, such, alas, is progress.

Written by Fuad Rayess. This article appeared on pages 2-8 of the September/October 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.