We explore old Dubai in a period correct car, just in time for National Day.
Dubai. Tourist hub, financial centre, skyscraper central and one of the great metropolises of the world. Any tourist brochure or website will tell you precisely that and more. However, those who try and dig past the glitzy image are presented with a surprising amount of culture and heritage, most of which stems from Dubai’s history as a trading port on the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Being born and raised in the city, I’ve seen the buildings rise from the sand. I still remember going to and from school, as barren land would turn into a construction site, which would eventually yield a tall residential building. Highways were built, then widened, as the diverse car population multiplied at a rapid pace. Time flew by and Dubai became one of the great cities of the world, continuing to grow on a daily basis.
However, contrary to what a number of people think, Dubai is not a country. It belongs to the United Arab Emirates, which consists of seven cities (emirates), which came together on December 2nd, 1971 to form a unified nation. As the country celebrates its 45th National Day, the gentleman driver and I decided to go back in time, so to speak, and drive through old Dubai. The areas we visited are still thriving, employing the same methods they did four or five decades ago, before the skyscrapers and the supercars came into the picture. Our conveyance was a car that everyone identifies with, regardless of enthusiasm or knowledge. It transcends time, language and culture. It was a 1971 Mercedes Benz 280 SE 3.5.
The city was still sound asleep as we arrived at our first destination, the Dubai Creek. The dhows (a style of Arabian cargo boat) here still ply their trade between Iran, India and other Asian ports, bringing spices, silks and other wares to the markets which have sprung up around the port. Banks, hotels and mosques in this area are among the earliest in the city, built to cater to the sailors and traders who toiled through the day.
As the Benz came to a stop, it was almost surreal to see how things have resisted the passage of time. Rickety wooden water taxis still transport people across the Creek every day, for the princely sum of one Dirham, something that has endured since before the construction of bridges across these waterways.
As I got to work capturing the Benz in the early morning light, I quickly understood the car’s appeal. Every passer-by stopped to click a photograph with their phone, before going on their merry way. Hailing from a time when luxury cars were actually rare, it invokes childhood memories in almost everyone from that time period. As the gentleman driver said, everyone has a classic Mercedes Benz story. Even the local police stopped by to admire the car!
Wrapping up mid morning, we decided to stop by Union House, which is located by the emirate’s major flagpole. With the flag fluttering in the wind, I snapped a couple of quick images as a last salute to the nation, before we made our way to a well-deserved breakfast.
By the end of the drive, I fully understood why a classic Benz is still so highly regarded. A large steering wheel and gauges, comfortable seats, a ridiculously smooth V8 engine and transmission and a solid body ensure that this car can more than hold its own among the newer members of the luxury auto segment. In fact, I’d still choose the 280 SE over a new S-Class. It may not be as fast and it may grumble from time to time, but it’s got character. There’s a certain respect that the three-pointed star at the end of the long hood receives, a respect that is not shown to modern cars.
Likewise, Dubai and the UAE have grown to astronomical heights within a very short period of time. However, visiting the city’s roots put things into a new perspective. Like the car, the character and the respect that old Dubai gets will never be seen elsewhere in the city. Making the trip in a car that’s as old as the country is simply icing on the cake.
So, as the UAE and this particular 280 SE turn 45, it’s a worthy reminder to never let go of our roots. Having called Dubai home, I certainly won’t forget that part of the city in a hurry. The skyscrapers may come and go, but old Dubai is there to stay, and I’m glad I got to see it in a period correct Mercedes Benz.
For all those who call the UAE home, the Bandit would like to wish you a very happy National Day.