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Volume 32, Number 4July/August 1981

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The Nairn Way

Written by John M. Munro and Martin Love
Additional photographs by Penny Williams-Yaqub

There's an old maxim that says, if you want to succeed in business find a need and fill it. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of Gerald and Norman Nairn, the men who pioneered the famous bus route across the Syrian Desert - the Nairn Way.

In a sense, the establishment of the transport service - the Nairn Transport Company - was accidental. After leaving their native New Zealand and serving in the British Army during World War I, the Nairns decided to set up a business in the Middle East selling automobiles. For the Nairns, it was an obvious choice. They had run a successful motorcycle dealership in New Zealand before the war, and knew, as well as anyone at the time, the internal working of the combustion engine. Their father, in fact, was one of the first people in New Zealand to own a car - a single cylinder, four-seater American Reo bought in 1905.

More important, there was a need to be filled. In the Levant and Syria in 1919, there were very few automobiles and the few cars you did see had a precarious existence; their owners knew little about how they worked and even less about how to repair them if they broke down. So, with backing from an Arab family in Beirut, who saw the potential in the automobile business, the Nairn brothers went into business.

By the end of the next year, however, business was so bad that they made a second decision: to run the cars they couldn't sell. They opened a taxi service between Beirut and Haifa, in Palestine.

Because their taxis soon cut the travel time for the 112-kilometer journey (70-miles) to less than a day - compared to the three days then usual for horse-drawn conveyances - the Nairns soon had to schedule daily trips, which in turn meant additional drivers and more cars.

Until then, they had been using Buicks but now Norman Nairn decided to buy two of the famous "Stanley Steamers," kerosene-fired, two-cylinder vehicles which had proved their worth on the smooth flat highways of America, but turned out to be quite unsuitable for the Nairn Way - and nearly ruined the venture.

In Stanley Steamers, the engines were coupled to the back axle and power was .generated by a boiler that vaporized the kerosene, a process which took about 20 minutes. Once the steam was up, these automobiles could accelerate from zero to 64 kilometres per hour (40 mph) in a matter of seconds, but since they had no accelerators and no gears, drivers had to regulate their speed by opening and closing the steam valve, and couldn't really slow down without using the brake - which imposed a severe strain on the whole braking system and necessitated the frequent change of brake linings.

Another disadvantage was that after a long journey, the steam pressure would drop, the cars would stop and the driver would have to go through the laborious process of getting up steam again. As fresh water was not always available, the Nairns had to equip the cars with extra water tanks, thus increasing their load.

Another problem was that kerosene, often adulterated with water, played havoc with the car's vaporizing system. Soon, therefore, the Nairns swapped the Steamers for two second-hand Cadillacs.

There were other difficulties too. The track between Acre and Haifa, for example, included an eight-mile stretch of beach which was often flooded at high tide. The Naims, equal to the challenge, took along a young boy who would ride on the running board and wade out in front of the car when the beach was underwater to find out if the water was shallow enough to allow passage of the vehicle. They also had to contend with the owners of the horse-drawn carriages whose business had been severely curtailed by the Nairns' service; they would pile rocks and boulders on the Beirut to Haifa track and try to intimidate the drivers.

Problems like that, naturally, cut into revenues, but with a loan to tide them over the Nairns not only survived, but extended the service to Damascus.

The first real success, however, came in 1923 when the British consul in Damascus, C.E.S. Palmer, asked them to explore the feasibility of crossing the Syrian Desert by car.

This was not a new idea. Lord Allenby the British commander in the Middle East during the war, had visited the ruins of Palmyra in a Rolls Royce tourer and in 1919 a convoy of 10 Fords had tried to cross the desert from Etomascus to the Euphrates. Clearly, it was possible to cross the desert by automobile, but whether it was possible to create a regular service was far from assured; six of the Fords had to be abandoned.

At that point, the Nairns received encouragement from an unexpected - but necessary -source: a powerful Bedouin tribal chief, engaged in trade between Damascus and Baghdad. Like all traders of the time, the shaikh had been transporting his goods on camels. But as this was slow and risky - because the caravans, highly visible in the desert, were relatively easy targets for marauding tribesmen - the shaikh decided that a fast motor route across the desert would be valuable.

On April 2,1923, the Nairns set off on the first of six exploratory trips from Damascus. Three days and 880 kilometers later (550 miles) the convoy - a Buick, an Oldsmobile and a Lancia pulled up in front of the Maude Hotel in Baghdad. After one of these trips, Norman Nairn proposed to British officials in Baghdad that he and his brother provide a regular mail service between Damascus and Baghdad. He pointed out that by using the desert track the normal time for mail deliveries between India and Great Britain could be cut down to nine or 10 days - instead of the customary six weeks needed to send mail by ship through the Suez Canal - by linking the overland route to the arrival of ships at Port Said.

British officials in Baghdad were skeptical, and so were the French authorities in Damascus. But the French government eventually approved the idea after all - even agreeing to provide a subsidy in gold to pay desert tribes for a guarantee of safe passage across the desert - and the Nairns, as a result, signed a contract with the Iraq introduction of the Cadillacs it was now Posts and Telegraphs.

Under the contract, the Nairns agreed to carry mail between Haifa and Baghdad on a weekly basis for a period of five years - and that the time for the journey should not exceed 60 hours. For every hour in excess of that limit, a fine would be imposed. This clause in the contract, incidentally, never had to be invoked.

The preliminaries over with, the Nairns, on October 18, 1923, just a little over six months after the first exploratory trip, officially opened their service - and the first run was a smashing success. Newspapers in Britain trumpeted that thanks to the Nairns' efforts, travel in the Middle East had been "revolutionized."

Not long after inaugurating the mail service, the Nairns also began to advertise their service for passengers and freight and, realizing that if they were to develop this aspect of the business they would need more comfortable automobiles, procured four new Cadillac touring cars. With the introduction of the Cadillacs it was now possible to take seven passengers in addition to the luggage. The new cars were more reliable than the Steamers and faster than the old Buicks; even with the removal of the so-called dickey seat at the back and the installation in its place of a 16-gallon water tank, as well as the addition of two large petrol tanks on the running boards, the Cadillacs were able to shave off a couple of hours from the desert crossing.

Good cars were essential. The early route ran from Haifa to Beirut up the coastal track, from Beirut to Damascus across the mountains, and then into the desert. From Damascus the route was usually smooth; the only hazardous part of the journey was at Felluja, where the cars had to cross the Euphrates on a ramshackle bridge that buckled and swayed under their weight. Once over the river, which was 330 meters (1,082 feet) wide at the crossing point, the going was easy and the cars would glide to a stop in front of the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad covered with dust but in otherwise perfect condition.

Not all the trips went smoothly, of course. In 1924, for example, a convoy of Buicks was late coming from Baghdad and Gerald Nairn and one of his associates went off from Damascus to find out what had happened. After driving some distance they came upon a disconsolate group in the desert surrounded by bags of mail -but no cars. A band of six men on camels had ambushed the little convoy and made off with the cars. Later, it was agreed that the outlaws couldn't have been Bedouins - since few Bedouins could drive - but in any case the Nairns never saw their Buicks again.

The Nairns were soon making two weekly journeys instead of one carrying, in addition to mail and passengers, diplomatic pouches for the British, French, Italian, American, German and Russian embassies. The fact that these governments entrusted some of their secret dispatches to the Nairns is some indication of how highly esteemed the service had become.

It was not long either before the crossing had become popular with some soon-to-be famous people: H. St. John Philby the British explorer of Arabia; writers Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell and, later, after the Naims had introduced buses into their desert service, the famous detective-story writer Agatha Christie; she crossed the desert in one of the Nairns' buses and, in her autobiography, described how she helped Gerald Nairn pack picnic lunches for the trip.

As the Nairns' enterprise prospered, competition was inevitable, and one company, owned by the Beirut brothers Francis and Alfred Kettaneh, began to offer passengers the chance to see Palmyra when traveling between Damascus and Baghdad. The Nairns responded by cutting their time to a little over 24 hours.

By 1926 the Nairns were operating six-ton, American-made Safeway buses capable of carrying 16 passengers in comfortable, high-backed seats and almost two tons of luggage. With two drivers - which enabled the buses to drive at night too - the Naims found they could reduce the crossing time even more - to 20 hours.

The Safeways were a great success. Though they were heavy and liable to bog down in the desert mud during the brief rainy season in the winter, and though expensive to operate, they forced the Nairns to search for ways to economize - particularly through reductions in expenditure on tires.

With the Buicks and Cadillacs, the Nairns had discovered, they had to change their cotton-foundation tires every 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles). They realized that what they needed was a completely new type of tire, and eventually interested America's Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in the problem. Firestone began research into the development of a tire which could endure the heat of desert travel and focused on rayon, a new, synthetic fiber created by the Du Pont Company. Rayon seemed to offer the heat resistance cotton could not, and as the tires made with this synthetic used considerably less rubber in their manufacture, they were much cheaper to make. Eventually, a completely new type of tire came on the market, with a life expectancy of 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles).

In other ways, though, 1926 was not an easy year for the business. All through the early 1920, s, the fiercely independent tribes of southern Syria - which refused to cooperate with the French Mandate authorities - saw the Nairn Transport Company as a natural target, especially when they learned that the company was carrying gold bullion across the desert for a number of banks.

In the previous year, a band of brigands had held up a convoy carrying gold bullion, seized the cargo and mortally wounded a driver, and when other incidents followed in 1926, the Nairns decided they could no longer risk the Syrian Desert crossing. To keep the service going, however, they began to use the southerly route to Baghdad: by way of Haifa, Janin, Nablus and Jerusalem in Palestine, across the Jordan Valley to Amman, northeast to Rutba - where six 15-meter-deep wells (50-feet) dating back to the Romans provide water - and then on to Baghdad.

This journey was, of course, much longer and the terrain more treacherous: two extra days were added to a trip that had formerly taken only 20 hours. Tribal rebellions against the French also slowed service. But by then the company had become sufficiently well established to weather this difficult period without undue financial strain. That same year, furthermore, a competitor went into receivership and Gerald Nairn was able to arrange a takeover of assets which included several buses, a handful of Dodge cars and a half-built hotel in Palmyra. Simultaneously, the Nairns sold out their ownership of both concerns, formed a new company called the Near Eastern Transport Company, and established offices in Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad. They also sold the hotel in Palmyra and abandoned the northerly route across the desert altogether.

By 1934, the Nairns were literally riding high - on new vehicles called Aerocars, Buick coupes towing small coaches capable of carrying 10 passengers. They also added a four-wheeled American Car Foundry coach - capable of carrying 24 passengers and fitted with reclining seats - as well as what was then the biggest bus in the world: a Marmon-Harrington 38-seater powered by a l50-horsepower tractor driven off three axles. This 21-meter-long vehicle (70-feet), purchased in 1933, weighed 26 tons and gave passengers a smooth ride in seats modeled after those used in passenger airplanes. Riders also enjoyed such amenities as a buffet, a toilet and packed lunches.

In 1936, the transport company entered its last and most prosperous phase, a period that coincided with, and partially developed from, the rapidly growing importance of oil in the Middle East.

By then the Nairns were offering an important auxiliary service to the Iraq Petroleum Company: transportation service to petroleum production sites in the desert. Later, after IPC began to build oil pipelines from Kirkuk to al-Haditha on the Euphrates, and from there diverging pipelines to Tripoli, in Lebanon, and to Haifa, the Nairns carried hundreds of workers and technicians across the desert to the pump station sites - as well as the food required to support them.

Although the Nairns' work for oil interests in the desert involved a great deal of time and energy, they continued to keep their regular cross-desert service operating, introducing more cars, more buses and eventually trucks on the Damascus-Baghdad run. By now, passengers expected to be taken across the desert in the shortest possible time and in maximum comfort. The Nairns concurred: during the 1930s they also operated a rest house at the halfway point on the route, at Rutba, where passengers could take hot baths, tipple, or eat fried fish, Yorkshire pudding, roast beef, custards and fruits.

Under the Vichy French during World War II the Nairns had to endure some lean years, but in the period immediately after the war, the Nairns' company flourished. But in the post-war period the company began to decline as air transport developed, and political difficulties increased. By 1950 the Nairns had had enough; they handed over the company's shares to the employees.

Still, the cross-desert service continued  until, in 1956, Iraqi customs officials imposed a customs guarantee so stiff that the firm had to cancel the Damascus-Baghdad service.

Gerald Nairn, in the meantime, had returned to New Zealand, where he died last year. Norman, after traveling to Bermuda and France, came back to Lebanon where he built a villa on the shores of the Mediterranean near Byblos. Until he died of cancer in 1968, he was a familiar figure at Beirut social gatherings.

But though the company had passed into history, the Nairn name had not. Until the 1970's, one bus the Nairns had used continued to ply the route between Beirut and Damascus with passengers for the desert bus to Baghdad, which, in turn, continued to bear the Nairn name. But even this vanished one day, and with it went the last trace of a unique chapter in the history of the Syrian desert.

John Munro teaches English at the American University of Beirut and writes for several British newspapers and magazines.

Martin Love is assistant editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 19-24 of the July/August 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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