It is the coldest day of the year as I sit writing this huddled over the wood burner. For inspiration I thought about somewhere hot and, with Baghdad rather heavily in the news of late, I thought I might bring you the strange story of the Nairn brothers from New Zealand and their historic transport saga in the desert.
After ‘demob’ from the First World War Norman and Gerald Nairn stayed on in Beirut selling army surplus vehicles and then in 1923 started a haulage business that put their wartime mechanic’s training to good use with both trucks and cars as taxis. They acquired a Lancia, a Buick and an Oldsmobile and discovered that they could cut 35 days off the mail route by ship from Australia via the Persian Gulf to London by making a 24 hour overland trip through the desert to the Mediterranean. It was a dangerous journey both for risk of getting stuck or breaking down and the likelihood of being robbed by marauding tribesmen. In the end a £2000 ransom to a powerful Sheik put an end to the desert highwaymen.
In 1923 the brothers bought a V8 seven seat Cadillac convertible with 90000 miles on the clock and found it to be ideal for the 505 mile trip from Baghdad to Damascus (the record across largely virgin stony desert with only one puncture being fourteen and a half hours). More Cadillacs were acquired and by the end of 1923 1476 passengers and 35000lbs of mail had been carried. A Beirut newspaper commented that the Nairns had done more to unite Syria and Iraq in a year than all the politicians in Arabia and Europe had ever achieved! The service also took in Beirut and Haifa and included Fellujah (the recent dissident stronghold) and on to Ramadi, where the RAF had a base. The popularity of the overland route saw a fleet of Safeway saloon coaches made by the Six-Wheel Co. of Philadelphia enter service in 9127. These carried one quarter tons plus 14 passengers and were powered by 110 horsepower Continental petrol motors with eight forward gears giving a top speed of 55mph.
In the mid-1930s came the most famous of the Nairn ‘ships of the desert’. These were the largest articulated outfits of the era, 68 feet long, 8 feet 8 inches wide and 11 feet tall. They had space for mail, 32 passengers, a buffet and a toilet. The tractive units were six wheel drive Marmon-Herrington (related to the famous Marmon V16 luxury car) powered by 188bhp diesels. Most of the travel took place at night to avoid 120 degree Fahrenheit midday temperatures in the shade (if any could be found) and massive 32 volt 150 watt headlamps were fitted to light up the sand and avoid the worst rocks and gullies. Stainless steel Budd semi-trailers were built similar to railway carriages and these were air conditioned and sealed against dust. They came to be hauled by Whites powered by 150bhp Cummins diesels and at £12000 each they were the most expensive 20 seaters in existence. However high fare (up to £13 in the 1940s) and the lucrative mail contract made the service viable and one and a half million miles were clocked up during the Second World War. Just think of all the diplomats and spies from all nations that must have used the legendary service.
The Whites had 4x2 drive which was found to be more effective at maintaining high speed in the hard, flat desert than the 6x6 Marmons. The diesels averaged 9mpg compared with 2.5 for the old petrol Safeways. So smooth was the desert in parts that in 1928 Capt Malcolm Campbell had considered a land speed record attempt there.
Tyres gave the Nairns their greatest problems but Firestone eventually came up with special rayon 12.00x20 twelve ply covers that contained the minimum rubber to avoid overheating and these managed 20000 miles compared with 5000 back in the days of the Cadillacs. After the war two-stroke Detroit diesel engined General Motors coaches were added and the brothers handed over the business and fifteen vehicles to their employers and retired – Gerald taking a long overdue holiday that took him to London for a long stint whilst Norman settled in the Lebanon.
The company carried on to 1957 and was then sold to outside interests, who around 1970 were forced to accept that air travel was here to stay.