• Gil Zohar

Israel’s classic cars keep on rolling

Infamous for the condition of its roads, the Holy Land was hardly a promising destination for motorists at the beginning of the age of motor vehicles. It took a while for cars to begin to appear on the horizon, and even then there wasn't necessarily enough asphalt to keep them going.

The earliest days of Hebrew motoring seem to have been the early 1920s, when Efraim Halperin, the owner of a coach (diligence) service from Jaffa to Jerusalem and Petach Tikva, purchased four British army surplus vehicles (which had seen action in 1917), with which he established the first bus service. Private cars took a little longer to arrive.

Born in Jerusalem in 1926, Avner Cohen – the nuclear scientist who went on to head Ben-Gurion’s supposed “pants factory” in Dimona – could recall a number of telling vignettes aboutcars in Mandate Palestine.

“His first memories are bloody: during the Arab uprising of 1929, his father rescued wounded residents of Jerusalem’s Old City, and when he returned home, the car seats were covered with blood, as were his suit and hands. In the 1930s his family moved to Rishon leZion where his father became a prosperous orange grower. Life in the agricultural colony was comfortable and happy. The orange grower’s spoiled son had little time for school. He preferred playing sports and developed an impressive physique that complemented his technological curiosity and extraordinary daring. At the age of eleven, he was already driving his family’s old Austin-Morris on the sands surrounding Rishon leZion, and at the age of sixteen he won girls’ hearts in his father’s fancy new Buick.”

Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. p.181

Driving a Bargain

Another juicy taleis told by Eva Steinberg (today Feld), whose Yekke family left Germany and sailed on the Yugoslav-flagged S/S Princessa Olgafrom Trieste to Haifa in 1935. The family settled at Beit Wolloch on Mount Carmel. In July 1942, when Gen. Erwin Rommel’s seemingly-unstoppable Afrika Korps were approaching Alexandria, and mass evacuation seemed imminent, her father, Dr. Walter Steinberg, snapped up a Rolls Royce from a panicked British officer for a mere Palestine £150 (then worth U.S.$500).

The British called the wide-spread fear of Rommel's approach “The Flap;” routed soldiers fled in disorder as far as Cairo and many Mandate officials in Palestine fled. For the next five years, the Steinbergs toured across the Levant in their luxurious pre-owned car. Feld remembers family outings to Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut. She especially enjoyed watching Imperial Airways’ seaplanes land in the middle of the Sea of Galilee (see “Splashdown,” Segula 7).

In 1947 Herr Dr. Steinberg, who had presciently intuited that his beloved Germany was no longer safe for Jews, similarly understood that Palestine was about to descend into war and chaos. Selling his treasured Rolls Royce, he used the money to pay for his family’s voyage to America.

Visiting Jerusalem in 2009 for the first time in 62 years, Dr. Steinberg’s daughter Eva noted the chasses of burned out armored lorries in the Bab al-Wad gorge leading up to the city. Those wrecks are preserved as a monument to the convoy crews who fell attempting to breakthrough to besieged Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence.

On Eva Feld's last trip to Jerusalem – in November 1947 – she had sat guarding a crate of hand grenades with her life as her convoy of ten trucks followed by an ambulance snaked its way up Bab al-Wad. Beside her sat slightly older teenage girls with their hands stuffed inside their coats with the pockets cut out – their fingers on the trigger of their Sten guns.

“The British checked the boys on board but by law were not allowed to touch the girls,” recalls Feld, today 85. “When the convoy left Latrun, we were told to pray for rain – as the Arabs did not attack during storms.”Their prayers were answered and rain fell. “We were the first convoy in 11 days to get through, and people came singing and dancing to greet us,” she adds, remembering the convoy as if the looming War of Independence was yesterday.

Yet the story of automobiles in Mandate Palestine and the early decades of the State of Israel shouldn't be limited to Avner Cohen’s bloody car seats and Eva Feld’s accounts of wartime adventures. Though cars, like trains (see Segula 17) are part of the narrative of Zionist nation building, their historical role is just a small part of the fascination classic cars exert among Israeli collectors today. From their perspective, classic cars are more about nostalgia than history, particularly the challenge of authentically restoring a piece of junk to roadworthiness.

Sexy but Broke / Short on Rust

For enthusiasts like Rafi Herskowitz, whose privately-owned Ralex Museum of Classic and Sports Cars in Ashdod is one of the largest collections of antique vehicles and memorabilia in the country, old cars are about art, design and lifestyle.

Born in Kishinev, today Chişinǎu, then part of the U.S.S.R. but today the capital of Moldova, Herskowitz arrived in Israel in 1974 without a kopeck in his pocket. Trained as a mechanical engineer in Leningrad, today St. Petersburg, he was surprised to find scores of decades-old vehicles simply rusting in peace across his new homeland. Coming from the Soviet Union’s planned economy, he was unfamiliar with the capitalist notion of planned obsolescence. “In the 1970s many cars were abandoned in the streets. People didn’t know how to repair them,” he remembers.

Beginning to work as a mechanic for Toyota – today Herskowitz owns the Ralex dealership – he began salvaging old wrecks. After putting in a long day fixing new cars, he was often so excited about a restoration that he'd stay at the garage all night and work on it until dawn, then resume his day job.

Today a self-made businessman employing a staff of 35, mostly from the former U.S.S.R., Herskowitz still often remains behind in the evenings to devote several hours to a restoration job. Pointing to a rare, Israeli-manufactured Sabra Sports roadster from the early 1960s now under restoration – and parked in a place of pride in the Ralex showroom, Herskowitz explains, the fibre-glass body “was completely destroyed. It was completely hand-made here [at his garage] from scratch.”

Sexy isn’t an adjective one associates with the puritanical, socialist Israel of that era. But the Sabra’s aerodynamic curves reflect a glamourous design from an early James Bond film.

Alas, like Shai Agassi’s overly ambitious Better Place electric car company which went through almost $1 billion in venture capital before declaring bankruptcy in 2013, the Sabra sports car was ahead of its time and flopped into insolvency. (See sidebar).

Labor intensive, such restoration jobs typically take three or four months, Herskowitz notes with pride. Original parts are often unavailable. Hershkovitz and fellow enthusiasts won’t use a single modern manufactured serial part. All missing components are custom tooled, down to the last bolt.

Abandoned wrecks can no longer be found today by scouring rural Israel, he explains. Collectors like himself now import rusted and aged cars from the United States and elsewhere.He points to a ruined Ford for which he paid $2,300, plus shipping across the Atlantic.

New Cars for Old

Owners of aging but still roadworthy vehicles often get propositioned to sell. Estie Carmeli reports that a determined collector recently followed her through the streets of the Galilee city of Carmiel until she parked, at which point she was asked to name her price for her 1991 Fiat Uno. To the chagrin of her son Guy, she declined to sell her trenta (Hebrew slang for jalopy).

Why do collectors go to such trouble?

“If you love what you do, you’ll be a success,” Herskowitz smiles. “I like repairs, making something from nothing; that’s all there is to it. “I don’t sell anything [I've restored].” His collection is scattered around the dealership, including dozens of priceless vehicles parked outside but protected by a razor wire fence and several fierce dogs – as befits a scrapyard.

The Ralex Toyota dealership owner personally drives an iconic 1963 Mercedes 220 SE B, gloriously restored. His wife drives a slightly newer but no less historic Mercedes.

Though Herskowitz dreams of building a proper museum to house his collection – which attracts a regular stream of old car enthusiasts – Ashdod bureaucrats do not share his passion. “The municipality,” he shrugs, shaking his head in wonder.

Like Hershkowitz, Uri Sahar has devoted his life to collecting and restoring classic cars. His too is a “grease under the finger-nails” story of preserving a neglected part of the country’s heritage. But unlike Hershkowitz, Sahar found a home that would exhibit his cherished vehicles: the Keren Sahar Vintage Auto Museum at Kibbutz Eyal in central Israel (near Qalqilya). Scores of meticulously restored British automobiles from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, including Jaguars, Morrises and MGs, are housed here in all their glory. Especially noteworthy is a 1930 MG Midget sports car, made of cloth stretched over an ash frame. The museum, located in an old agricultural shed, features an ever-growing library.

Apart from the Keren Sahar Vintage Auto Museum and the Ralex Museum of Classic and Sports Cars, Israel has a third privately-run museum of classic cars. The Open Museum at the Tefen industrial park in the Lower Galilee includes a vintage car collection featuring more than 40 vehicles dating from the early 20th century to the nineteen eighties. Assembled by industrialist Eitan Wertheimer, the museum emphasizes the development of the automobile industry. The museum has prepared activity sheets on vintage cars to enhance visitors’ experience.

The Tefen Open Museum maintains a sister branch in Omer near Beer Sheva, which exhibits 32 classic cars chosen so there are no duplicates in the Galilee exhibit. All the painstakingly-restored cars on display at both the Tefen and Omer Open Museums were once driven on Israel’s highways, although only two of them, the Sabra and the Big Foot, were actually made in Israel. All are again road-worthy.

Weizmann's Classic Car

American car pioneer Henry Ford (1893-1947) was a notorious anti-Semite known for his 1920s hate tract, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. He also funded The Dearborn Independent, a popular theme of which newspaper was blaming international Jewry for World War I. In 1938, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler bestowed the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest order fascist Germany awarded to foreign citizens, on Ford.

In 1950, Henry Ford II (1917-1987), perhaps seeking to make amends for his recently deceased grandfather, presented Israel’s founding President Dr. Chaim Weizmann with a royal Ford Lincoln Cosmopolitan. The luxury sedan was one of 18 presidential cars manufactured according to specifications drawn up by the White House. The Lincoln served as the official car of the President of Israel until Weizmann’s death in 1952, when it was put on display at the Weizmann House in Rehovot.

After half a century of neglect, the car had deteriorated badly. Delek Motors Ltd., distributor of Ford Lincoln in Israel, shipped the car to A & T Auto Refinishing Inc. in the Toronto, Canada suburb of Maple. After a 13-month restoration, the refurbished vehicle made its debut in 2001 at the Tel Aviv international Automotor Show. Today, protected by a vitrine, the gleaming car stands on permanent display beside Weizmann’s Bauhaus mansion, a clear symbol of how sovereignty fundamentally changed the Jewish People’s status in the world.

But the isolated car bears another message – would tiny Israel not perhaps be better off with one national museum of transportation, not several private, under-funded collections, however significant? Such an institution could be built at Tel Aviv’s Ottoman train station, or adjoining the Train Museum in Haifa, or as an addition to the Egged Bus Museum in Holon.

Such a national enterprise would not only preserve the nostalgia of Israel’s classic cars; it could also tell the story of how some of them contributed to the survival of the state.

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