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Great Drives 03 - The Nairn Buses

Nairn Pullman in RAF service during WW2. Photo copyright Wikipedia.

I've driven across a few deserts in my time, and generally, these journeys haven't gone smoothly. Thanks to the harshness of the environment, I've had engines overheat, suspension systems collapse and have even seen a ladder-frame chassis crack apart under the stresses of corrugated, sandy tracks. There's nothing routine or predictable about crossing a desert; every time I've done it, I've been ready for anything to happen and have greeted the eventual return to tarmac with relief and a much needed beer.

So based on my experiences, the thought of running a scheduled daily service across the 550 miles of unexplored desert which separates Damascus and Baghdad is a pretty daunting one. Now factor in the fact that the service will be running at night, and the desert's only permanent inhabitants don't really like you, and it gets rather more daunting. And that leads us to the knockout blow - you'll be doing all this in the 1920s.

Implausible? Certainly, but to the Nairn brothers from New Zealand, evidently the implausible was just another minor challenge to be overcome.

The story of 'The Nairn Way' has its origins in the logistics of the British Empire. Back in 1923, mail from India to the UK took 30 days to arrive, due to it following a circulous sea route which took it south of Arabia, and then up through the Suez Canal. An overland route through the Middle East had the potential to cut this to ten days.

Nairn luggage label, copyright Wikipedia.

The Nairn Brothers, who after the First World War had drifted into running an overland taxi service in the deserts around Beirut, were called on by British officials to investigate the possibility and in April 1923 they made the first of their trial runs, their unlikely convoy of a Buick, an Oldsmobile and a Lancia completing the desert crossing in three days.

Clearly encouraged by the fact that even the Lancia had somehow survived the crossing, a scheduled service quickly followed the trial runs, and The Nairn Transport Company's cars were soon speeding across the empty desert of gravel and dust at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Word spread, and demand rapidly grew. By 1925, convoys of up to a dozen cars were making the trip together, carrying passengers at £30 a ticket, and lugging with them enough mail to sustain an empire. Drivers were recruited from every corner of the world, and were renowned as an eccentric bunch, who'd easily put the Pub2Pub crew's penchant for beer to shame.

With the route pioneered and marked with oil barrels, the Nairn drivers soon began to run at night, the darkness improving security from the gun-tooting locals and the cooler temperatures meaning that the primitive tyres would catch fire less regularly, which is always a bonus. The cars were beefed up to cope with the repeated desert crossings and the numbers associated with the service grew and grew. By 1927, only four years after that first tentative trial run with the Lancia, almost 4,000 crossings had been made, carrying 20,000 passengers and 4,500 sacks of mail.

At this stage, most of the vehicles used for the desert runs were made by Cadillac, and tough customers they proved to be, able to run at 70 miles per hour through the desert, night after night, without overheating or being smashed to pieces. And the Nairns got their moneysworth out of their four-wheeled camel substitutes, with the cars not being retired until they'd notched up over 200,000 miles. Offroad. At speed. In the 1920s.


But a Cadillac could only carry so much, and soon the brothers opted to take their service to the next level, and after experimenting with a few different options, settled on combining the toughest lorry tractor-unit they could find, with a pullman trailer which featured air conditioning, a bar and seating for up to 18 passengers. These behemoths could complete the 550-mile desert crossing in 18 hours, and in their twenty years of service they thundered their way headlong through over 2 million dusty miles.

But despite the general awesomeness which the Nairn Transport Company achieved in the uncharted deserts of the Middle East, all good things have to come to an end. For the Nairn Buses, this happened in 1958, when increased competition from air travel, and rising border disputes on their routes, forced the company to stop operating. And so the curtain was drawn on probably the coolest bus service the world has ever seen.

Norman and Gerald Nairn, and your motley crew of beer-fuelled drivers, we salute you.


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