Al-Ahram Weekly Online
23 - 29 August 2001
Issue No.548
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (404)

In the 1920s cars were still considered a bit of a luxury in Egyptian society. However, car dealers and manufacturers tried to encourage demand by rising social classes through advertising new models that were both durable and affordable. In February 1927 they got the perfect marketing opportunity during the first international car show to be held in Cairo. In this week's Diwan, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * digs through the pages of Al-Ahram to recover the excitement that surrounded the opening of the car show and the buzz it brought to the budding auto market


Show off those wheels

The front page of Al-Ahram on 17 February 1927 Prince Omar Touson
"The first international automobile fair opened in Cairo yesterday on the grounds of the Royal Agricultural Society in Gezira. At precisely 2pm, the board of directors of the Royal Automobile Club stood at the gateway of the Royal Agricultural Society to receive His Highness Prince Omar Touson, who came to inaugurate the fair. Among the other members of the royal family to attend was the noble Abbas Halim.

"These distinguished personages, followed by a train of reporters, toured the various exhibits. His Highness Prince Omar Touson expressed great interest in the exhibits, closely examining many of the automobiles and machines on display. Following the tour of the exhibits, the company proceeded to a marquee where a band struck up music and many photographs were taken. Then tea was served, after which the committee of directors escorted His Highness to the gate, where he shook hands with each member and congratulated them on the success of the fair, which, he said, pleased him greatly.

"It pleases us to announce that the fair, itself, was even more successful than anticipated. Automobile companies from around the world took part, as a result of which some forty models and assorted automobile mechanisms and accessories were on display. The many splendid items we saw served to demonstrate the great advancements in the automobile industry, in terms of both machinery and tasteful design.

"When the time came to open the fair to the public, an great crowd pushed into the exhibition hall and many placed orders for the models that most impressed them. This testimony to the success of the fair compels us to offer our congratulations to the Royal Automobile Club and to all those who contributed to organizing the fair."

That was how the opening of the fair was reported on the front page of Al-Ahram on 17 February 1927. Two pictures complemented it: one of Prince Omar Touson together with prominent Egyptian and foreign personages and the other of that assembly touring the displays.

Two months prior to this, the newspaper had begun preparing its readers for this major event. In the previous December, when it announced the forthcoming automobile fair, it made a number of observations of social and economic significance. The automobile, it wrote, was no longer the preserve of millionaires. Mass production and lowering prices had made it available to other social strata, although could not yet be said that possession of this means of transportation had been democratised, "except for in the US, that is." In Egypt, the car owning classes would now have included the notables: large landowners in the countryside, senior government officials and prominent businessmen in the cities, in addition to well-to-do expatriates.

Although the automobile was still primarily a status symbol for these propertied and moneyed classes, Al-Ahram observed that the market was expanding rapidly. Certainly, automobile manufacturers realised the potential of the Egyptian market. As Al-Ahram wrote, "If their statistics tell them that the number of automobiles in Egypt is still relatively small in comparison to the size of the population, the rapid rise of sales from one year to the next has made them realise that Egypt possesses a very profitable market for automobiles. In fact, the most innovative manufacturers have already begun to study how to modify automobile components to make their products as suitable as can be to the Egyptian climate. Indeed, this has been one of the benefits of the fair, for were it not to take place, manufacturers would never have contemplated manufacturing automobiles specifically for Egypt."

Another by-product of the expanding automobile market was the road works that were in progress. The newspaper took the occasion to praise King Fouad for his dedication "to the repair and widening of streets and the construction of new roads over the past years. This is an ongoing effort and an essential one, for such road works are enabling automotive vehicles to serve as a means to stimulate economic life in the provinces and to stimulate the tourist season."

In a subsequent edition, under the headline, "The automobile fair: Why it has come at the right time," Al-Ahram listed the inter-city roads that were now suitable for automobile traffic. The most important was the Cairo-Alexandria road. Whereas five years earlier driving between those two cities was more "a form of athletic exertion," now it had become "a beautiful excursion and it is even possible to transport women without fear." Moreover, it was now possible "to drive at high speed along most of the road, and it is getting wider month by month while, simultaneously, all the dangerous patches are being eliminated."

The Cairo-Suez road came next in importance. "It has become very suitable for automobile traffic and it is soon expected to be adapted for driving in the winter season. What tourist would not wish to dedicate a day to an outing along that road to behold the beautiful panoramas of the desert and the Red Sea? And how many passengers on the ocean liners passing through the Suez Canal now have the opportunity to come to see the sights in Cairo, now that it only takes three hours to reach the capital from Suez?"

A third "splendid excursion" now was a drive along the Cairo-Fayoum road, the newspaper exulted, and soon, equally pleasant outings would be possible on the Abu Tig-Manfalout road, which was among the important construction projects under way in Upper Egypt, and northwards to the barrages along the road that was being constructed to link the capital to that attraction.

As the automobile fair approached, the publicity campaign stepped into high gear. Just over two weeks before the opening of the fair Al-Ahram began running the following advertisement in successive issues:

"Remember this date: Wednesday, 16 February. On this day the first automobile fair, sponsored by the Royal Automobile Club, will open on the grounds of the Royal Agricultural Society in Gezira. The most famous models from the US, France, Italy, the UK and Belgium will be on display. Special automobiles have been manufactured to suit the Egyptian climate, and trial models will be available to potential buyers to test." To further entice spectators the advertisement announced that the army's regimental band would be performing and that the famous Groppi's confectioners will be hosting the tea service in the garden.

The previous advertisement was placed in Al-Ahram by the exhibition organizers, but the participating automobile firms also mounted publicity campaigns of their own. Citroen carried the day with a half page spread in which it announced that it was going to display "many automobiles of the latest models." The advertisement went on to list these models, their specifications and their prices, furnishing interesting documentation of the types of automobiles available at that time. Among the models spectators would be able to see were the luxury four and five-seater Torpedo selling at LE210, an elegant four door sedan with the driver's seat inside for LE245, another luxury model available with two, three or four seats and an optional jumper seat for LE 255, the one-ton capacity camion van for LE235, or for LE245 with the driver's seat inside.

Nor did the advertisers forget to mention that all accessories were included in the price. "Purchasers will receive the vehicles complete with head and tail lights, electric ignition, oil and gasoline gauges, a clock and two elegant windscreens, one in front of the driver's seat and the other in front of the passengers' seat." The Torpedo featured an additional electric headlight, two electric horns, an automatic windshield wiper, five nickel plated wheels and five rubber tires.

The other automobile manufactures placed similar advertisements. Peugeot listed prices very competitive with its French rival. Its ten horsepower torpedo was going for LE135 and its ten horsepower limousine was on sale for LE245. The Humpobile was an American model and its manufacturers boasted that this "first-ranking" car enjoyed "more than twenty years of experience and international fame." The famous Studebake would also be on display, with, its promoters claimed, twelve reasons to buy it: a 16 horsepower engine, a cruising speed of up to 60 miles an hour "with complete safety," a fuel consumption of no less than three miles per gallon, sturdy steel chassis, beautifully upholstered spring seats, luxurious comfort and ease of controls.

Promotion for the automobile fair continued throughout the two weeks it was in progress. The fair organizers continued to run the same advertisement they had placed in Al-Ahram before the opening, though with slight modifications. The fair grounds were opened, it announced, from 10am to 7pm and the regimental band would "delight audience's ears" daily from 11am to 1pm and from 3.30pm to 7pm. "There is also a pavilion that has been set up for dancing to the tunes of jazz band music," it added, suggesting that the organisers expected a large showing of Cairo's expatriate community. The entrance fee was ten piastres and five piastres for military personnel, "on the condition that they appear in uniform." Students were accorded a similar deduction, on the condition that they arrived in organised groups. The entrance fees were not trifling sums at the time if we consider that the daily Al-Ahram cost a half a piastre. The ad concluded: "Everyone who owns a car or who wishes to own a vehicle for the purposes of driving or transport must visit this exhibition."

Promotion also took the form of privately sponsored reports from the fair grounds. Published on the newspaper's front page, these reports often featured interviews with automobile company representatives under the by-line of an anonymous "Spectator." One such interview appeared on 19 February -- three days after the opening -- beneath the headline: "What does Monsieur Ebenrecht the representative of Renault, have to say?" The "Spectator" opens by praising this manufacturer's models: "These attractive six-horsepower vehicles are certain to draw spectators. Their four upholstered seats combine elegance with convenience, for it is easy to get in and once seated passengers feel the utmost comfort. Many people these days are eager to see the latest Renault automobiles and have come to the fair especially for that purpose. Simply to behold these beautiful cars removes all barriers to purchasing one. And certainly, Renault is the model that many will choose, for its sturdy construction, ample comfort and elegant design puts it on par with the American automobiles which rival it in popularity."

The "Spectator" had a very difficult task before him. In order to maintain his credibility he could not repeat himself too often in his descriptions of the various manufacturers and makes he was promoting. The following "interview" with Monsieur Valsamedes, marketing representative for Peugeot suggests he succeeded in this task. Valsamedes, writes the "Spectator," was the "dean of automotive agents in Cairo." From him he learned that "the duty of the automobile agent is to enable clients to repair their vehicles quickly and at minimum expense. The client who trusts his agent is the client who can feel confident that he is leaving his car in good hands. All my clients have faith in me because I leave them no room for worry or anxiety. My garage is fully equipped with all necessary machinery and spare parts and is staffed by expert mechanics who are thoroughly familiar with the automobile models I represent."

The Belgian Minerva already had quite a repute in Egypt. "This model has had 30 years of uninterrupted success in Egypt," writes the Spectator. "Its features and advantages are indisputable, combining as they do beautiful form with excellent craftsmanship. Every owner of a Minerva has something to be proud of, because of the ease of command it offers, the smoothness of its motor, on top of the fact that it is the quietest automobile around. And, as though this is not enough to bring drivers pleasure, add to these qualities pure comfort." In an obvious pitch to those with aspirations for upward mobility, "Spectator" adds that most of the European royal families drive a Minerva, but that now its inexpensive price has brought it into the reach of all.

British cars, the Rolls Royce in particular was the focus of the article, "What brought Rolls Royce to Egypt and what does it hope to do here?" The Rolls Royce, the "Spectator" tells us, had time-honoured venerability to its name. It was manufactured by Thropp and Mary Company, which had the privilege of supplying the British royal house with transportation vehicles since the age of George III. The Rolls Royce, "whose driver's seat is located inside the coupe, excels in gracefulness of design," enthuses the spectator. "When readers come to see these automobiles they will realise that modern civilisation can easily rival the legacy of the past in luxury and aesthetic grandeur. In addition to the preceding, these automobiles offer superior mechanical perfection."

Automobiles were not all that was advertised in these features. So too were automobile parts and accessories, as we note in the headline: "Superior Firestone tires: the history of this company and the fame of its owner." The article, appearing on the front page of Al-Ahram of 28 February, relates that in 1896 Firestone founded a small factory with a capital investment of $1,000. Within three years, his company's worth increased fifty fold. The secret of his success was that, from the outset, he concentrated on offering consumers the best products at the lowest possible prices. The major product was, of course, "the now familiar inflatable inner tube tire produced so successfully by that company [that] has contributed greatly to improving driving manoeuvrability and comfort." "The Firestone Company is also competitive in terms of price and quality," adds "Spectator."

Yet, Al-Ahram was not about to restrict its coverage of Egypt's first automobile fair to advertising and privately sponsored feature articles. It designated a correspondent of its own to report on this unique event. It was a Sunday when the newspaper's correspondent visited the exhibition grounds. The crowds that day consisted of "a dignified elite" that toured the various exhibits and marvelled at the many different models on display. "Sales soared that day, ascertaining that this fair has contributed greatly to the development of automobile transportation in Egypt."

Prominent among the elite was British High Commissioner Lord George Lloyd, who was clearly there in an official capacity, at the head of a contingent of senior consular officials and prominent members of the British community in Cairo. Other foreign representatives were also there that day, notably the US minister plenipotentiary in the company of the US consul general and other important figures from the American community.

Al-Ahram's correspondent was also on hand to cover the sumptuous banquet hosted by the fair organisers in the Heliopolis Hotel on the evening of 25 February in honour of the participating automobile companies. The banquet featured "everything to delight every taste," the correspondent writes, "and the guests appeared thoroughly content and in high spirits." Towards the end, the "commissioner-general" of the fair, Adolph Legerie "delivered an stirring speech in which he expressed his gratitude for the success achieved by the first automobile fair in Egypt." The speaker extended his gratitude in particular to the Royal Automobile Club its secretary-general Monsieur Alexandre Komanos, "who assiduously supported all our efforts," and to Monsieur Bernardo, "the representative of the French manufacturers who came to Cairo especially to attend the fair." One wonders whether contemporary readers were struck, like we are today, by the fact that all these individuals, not to mention the automobile agents in Cairo, were mostly, if not all, foreigners, indicating that the role of Egyptians was simply to look and buy.

As the end of the fair approached, the organisers came up with a couple of ideas to lure more spectators at the last moment. Firstly, they extended the fair for three days -- from 3 to 6 March -- "in view of the continued success achieved by the fair," and, ostensibly, to permit for the visit of the Speaker of Parliament Saad Zaghlul Pasha and a large host of parliamentary deputies and senators on Friday, 4 March. Al-Ahram predicted that the exhibition grounds that Friday would see a high turnout of visitors "eager to catch a glimpse of the glorious leader."

Also to entice spectators the organisers announced that they had agreed with the participating companies to hold a lottery, the first prize in which would be a Peugeot Torpedo. The lottery, in which winners would be drawn from the stubs of the entrance tickets, would be held at 1pm on 6 March, the newspapers announced. Imagine owning a new car for only ten piastres, the announcements exclaimed. Taking part in this campaign to tantalise readers, Al-Ahram wrote, "Everyone who enters the exhibition from this point forward will enter with but one thought in mind, which is to see the automobile that they might win. Hope gives life savour, which is why the visitors to the exhibition on Sunday will be many indeed." Then, as though to draw a broader audience, from among the vaster non-automobile owning public and those who could never dream of affording one, the newspaper goes on to add, "The automobile has become and essential of contemporary life... Dedicating a day to a lottery open to the public is, therefore, most appropriate. That day will be Sunday."

To further drum up enthusiasm for the fair, the organisers decided to hold several different types of automobile contests. There would be a speed race in which drivers of six-cylinder vehicles would compete around a full racing circuit. A second event would be a "breaking contest," in which drivers would race down a 50-metre track, then slam on their breaks as soon as their front wheels touched the finishing line. Winners would be determined by dividing the average speed the car was travelling at as it reached the finishing line by the distance it took the car to come to a halt. In a third contest, to test automobile reaction time, drivers would compete "to traverse a 16-metre track, twice forward and twice in reverse, in the shortest possible time.

Finally, a special competition for female drivers was also scheduled. One doubts, however, that Egyptian women would have been among the competitors, for even among the few Egyptian women who may have known how to drive in those days, it is difficult to imagine any entering such a competition. In all events, the competitors would have to race around a circular track surrounded by chairs, without knocking into the chairs. For every chair the car bumped into, five seconds would be added to the overall time. "A precious gift will be awarded to the contestant who completes the lap in the shortest time," Al-Ahram announced.

The automobile contests ended on the Saturday evening before the day of the lottery. Although the winners of these competitions remain unknown, one imagines that an exhilarated crowd returned home that evening, many dreaming of the Torpedo they would win the following day. Unfortunately, Al-Ahram remained silent about that Sunday's events at the fair on the grounds of the Royal Agricultural Society, and we have been left to speculate whether someone emerged in a gleaming new Peugeot or whether the lottery was only an advertising gimmick.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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