History of motor cars in Bahrain

BAHRAIN’S ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOTOR CAR

Since 1914, when the first car arrived in Bahrain, the number of vehicles on the road has increased exponentially to reach almost 600,000 currently. Bahrain’s growing fascination with the motor car for more than 100 years has been mirrored by constant modernisation and expansion of the Kingdom’s road infrastructure.

It must have been a strange sight when the first car landed on Bahrain’s shores over 100 years ago. Until then, transport had been provided by horses, camels and donkeys. The vehicle in question was an American Detroit-made King automobile, which was shipped from India by Shaikh Abdullah bin Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa in 1914.

This historic occasion heralded the beginning of Bahrain’s enduring fascination with the motor car. To begin with, ownership was modest, with just 200 cars on the road by 1930. As the number of imported cars grew, Bahrain’s first public petrol station opened in Bab Al Bahrain in 1938; and by the end of the Second World War, there were around 400 cars in the Kingdom.

The development of Bahrain’s oil industry brought new prosperity and economic growth; and by the mid-1950s there were an estimated 3,500 cars on the road, growing to 6,500 in 1961 and 15,000 in 1970.Greater prosperity followed the huge increase in the price of a barrel of oil from US$ 3 to US$ 12 in the early 1970s. This resulted in the number of cars more than doubling in just five years to 33,000 by 1975.

Exponential growth in vehicles

Since the mid-seventies, the number of vehicles on the Kingdom’s roads has grown exponentially. Based on data provided by the Information and eGovernment Authority, there were 522,780 privately-owned cars in Bahrain at the end of 2016. Given a total population of 1.37 million, this is equivalent to approximately one car for every three people. That ratio is even higher when one takes into account the number of valid driving licence holders. During 2016, there were 47,605 new vehicle registrations, of which 32,595 were privately-owned cars.

According to Bahrain-based vehicle financing specialist National Finance House, 40 per cent of car purchases in 2016 were by credit compared with 49 per cent ten years earlier. Over the past decade, the number of private vehicles registered on the Kingdom’s roads has grown by over 100 per cent, with an average of c.35,000 registrations annually. Currently, privately-owned cars account for over 90 per cent of total vehicles on the road.

The continuous increase in the number of vehicles has been mirrored by constant modernisation and expansion of Bahrain’s road network. This started with the widening and paving of existing roads to facilitate the use of cars; and was followed by the construction of wider carriageways and ‘road arteries’, plus the introduction of roundabouts at many junctions. A series of new bridges in the 1930s replaced the traditional ferries between Manama and Muharraq, followed by a more modern causeway in 1941. In addition, new highways linking Manama with main residential areas of the Kingdom were constructed.

Master road network plan

A major development took place in 1968 with the introduction of a master road network plan to support the Kingdom’s new urban planning initiative. This resulted in considerable land reclamation to the north and east of Manama to enable a new ring road to be built; together with the construction of new major highways linking the capital to other parts of Bahrain. A key highlight was construction of the new Sitra causeway, one of the most strategic road links in Bahrain, which opened to traffic in 1976. The causeway connected the islands of Nabih Saleh and Sitra to the capital Manama across Tubli Bay.

Ten years later, the US$ 1.2 billion King Fahd Causeway between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia was officially opened in 1986. Regarded as one of the great modern engineering feats, the 25-kilometre causeway ranks among the 20 longest bridges in the world and one of the longest over water; as well as the longest causeway in the Arab world. Ongoing development of the Kingdom’s road network continued over the next two decades.

Due the continued rapid growth in the number of cars, the next major upgrade of Bahrain’s road network commenced in 2006. This involved the construction of several new six-lane highways linking main residential and business areas. In addition, many old roundabouts were replaced with modern traffic light intersections; while flyovers were introduced at the most heavily-used road junctions to ease traffic flow.

In 2010, a major reconstruction of the Sitra causeway was completed at a cost of US$ 280 million. The new causeway, one of the largest single road projects ever undertaken in Bahrain, comprised two bridges and an embankment with a total length of 3.2 kilometres. Additional developments included another causeway linking Manama and Muharraq; and a new causeway between the industrial areas of Mina Salman and Hidd.

High vehicle density

Today, Bahrain’s road infrastructure boasts one of the highest global ratios of paved roads to total roads, at 82 per cent. Vehicle density in the Kingdom is also high by international standards, as well as being the second highest in the GCC. However, according to the Works, Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning Ministry, recent studies have shown that people in Bahrain actually reach their destinations faster and more safely, which is testimony to the design, quality and efficiency of the Kingdom’s road network. This has prompted the World Bank and the World Health Organisation to seek Bahrain’s advice on the best way to manage road traffic.

The growth in cars continues to outstrip the growth in population. Recent studies forecast that Bahrain’s population and the number of cars on the road could equalise at 2.5 million by 2030, meaning that there would be one vehicle for every person. In 2011, a detailed study began for a major new transport master plan for Bahrain, as part of the Government’s policy to encourage more people to use public transport instead of their cars. The plan envisaged a smart integrated nationwide public transport system comprising bus rapid transport (BRT), light rail transport (LTR), a monorail and tramway.

In June 2017, a proposal to build a new road and rail causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, using the public private partnership (PPP) model, was announced. The King Hamad Causeway, expected to cost in the region of US$ 5 billion, will comprise a four-lane road causeway running parallel to the existing one. There will also be a new 70-kilometre railway connecting a passenger terminal in Salmabad and freight facilities at Khalifa bin Salman port in Bahrain, to the Saudi / GCC rail network.

Bahrain’s classic car collections

However, despite continued efforts to attract more people to use public transport, Bahrain’s love affair with the motor car looks set to continue; with the majority of people preferring the convenience, privacy and comfort of their own vehicles. There are also many Bahrainis who are avid collectors of heritage cars. One of the largest private collections in the Kingdom belongs to media mogul and businessman Akram Miknas, who started collecting and restoring old cars back in 1982. His eclectic collection of over 25 veteran, vintage and classic cars ranges from a 1913 Clement Bayard, 1917 Ford Model T and 1930 Ford Model A to a 1953 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, 1955 Rolls Royce Silver Dawn, 1960 Chrysler New Yorker and a 1962 Cadillac Fleetwood. Classic sporting marques under his ownership include a rare 1969 Lamborghini Espada and an iconic 1971 Jaguar E-Type.

On display at the Bahrain National Museum is a restored 1932 Buick, which was gifted by the US government to the late Emir, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, himself a keen collector. He was fond of using some classic cars from his collection, including a late 1950s Cadillac limousine, for official functions, insisting on sitting up front beside his chauffeur. On Friday afternoons, Shaikh Isa could be seen driving himself from the royal palace at Riffa to his summer house at Zallaq in one his favourite cars, which included a gold-coloured Rolls Royce Corniche convertible.

This passion for cars was further illustrated by a landmark initiative of his grandson, HRH the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, which resulted in Bahrain hosting the Middle East’s first Formula One Grand Prix in 2004. This has not only delighted numerous car racing fans from across the GCC region and further afield; but, more importantly, has also resulted in immense economic benefit to the Kingdom.

Planned museum for vintage cars

A plan to establish a royal museum for vintage cars was unveiled recently at a special reception held at the Euro Motors Jaguar Land Rover showroom, in honour of Prince Michael of Kent’s visit to Bahrain in July. This was hosted by Mr. Khalid Al Zayani, honorary chairman of Al Zayani Investments Group, in the presence of British Ambassador Simon Martin and other officials.

Mr. Akram Miknas, who has exhibited his cars over the years at Dana Mall and Moda Mall, as well as at Formula 1 Grand Prix meetings, is on record as saying: “I would love to see a museum of heritage cars, and have my cars on permanent display to share them with everyone. This would have the potential of becoming a very attractive tourist attraction for Bahrain.”

Such a museum would be a fitting tribute to Bahrain’s enduring fascination with the motor car. It would enable visitors to take a nostalgic trip through the amazing evolution of the automobile, with each rare car reflecting a particular period in history. In contrast to modern-day cars with their ubiquitous wind-tunnel designs, vintage cars reflect a bygone era of individuality and style, and a more leisurely and enjoyable motoring experience.