When cars arrived in Jerusalem

A long-time Jerusalem resident chronicles the history of automobiles in the holy city.

Henry Ford, the father of modern automobiles (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Henry Ford, the father of modern automobiles
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The other night on television, there was a lengthy program about driverless cars. One of the main points made was that there would be fewer accidents, fewer deaths and fewer car problems.
Here in Jerusalem we live in an age of cars. In 1963, when my wife and I, as students, were here for the first time, we learned a real lesson. The local populace had been nearly stripped of cars following Israel’s independence. All the car dealers left and the government imposed enormous taxes on any private vehicles sold. In Jerusalem, except for some diplomat’s cars and for the prime minister’s car, practically the only cars here were giant Studebakers that were brought from the US to serve as paid urban transportation.
We bought a motor scooter and survived.
The first era of cars in Jerusalem, almost a century ago, just after the British Mandate was established, is a memory to be rekindled.
Prosperity was celebrated in the Palestine of the 1920s just as it is in Israel today – by the purchase of a new car. A sharp upturn in the fortunes of local residents, after the dire economic straits of 1923 and 1924, led to a doubling of car imports in 1925. Only 305 cars were brought to Palestine in 1924, while 1925 saw the import of 786 motor vehicles. The British kept very good records. The country was undergoing a process of “automobilization,” which continued unabated into the early 1930s.
Jerusalem residents first met the motor car in 1908 when Bostoners Charles Gliddens and his wife drove from Haifa to Jaffa to Jerusalem as a part of their tour of Palestine.
The Gliddens popularized the automobile as a means of sightseeing and touring, and their 47,000-mile trip around the world in 1907-1908 was reported in every corner of the globe.
With the inception of the British Mandate, the development of Jerusalem began in earnest. The construction of roads, in particular, made it possible for the increasing numbers of cars to become a local reality.
The growth in vehicular traffic, however, apparently unleashed the beast in the local drivers.
A 1926 editorial titled “The Peril of the Motorcar” dealt with reckless driving in the following terms: “There are many motorcar drivers in Palestine who cannot assimilate the simple law that when an irresistible mass is propelled hastily to meet an immovable object, damage is likely to be caused to both.”
The blame for traffic catastrophes was pinned on local drivers.
“In Palestine, where practically no congestion exists, an accident is less the fault of actual conditions than the individual fault of the driver... It would seem whenever an accident occurs here that too little value has been placed on human life by the driver.”
Meanwhile, automobile agencies were opening in all of the major cities of Palestine – and in Jerusalem in particular.
Among the ads of the Palestine Weekly, we find that near Damascus Gate, Hababo Brothers were selling Buicks, “a palace on wheels that people stop in the street and take their hat off to.” Tannous Brothers, also in the vicinity of the Damascus Gate, was the local Chevrolet dealer. In the Armon building in downtown Jerusalem, E. Hugh Cook handled Studebakers, including convertible models: “In 30 seconds and without leaving his seat, the driver can enclose the entire car by simply lowering the weather-tight leather enclosures.”
The New Motor Engine Company sold the Willys Overland, which guaranteed “130-140 kilometers to a tin of benzine” A Ford could be purchased at E.A.S.T. Coy.
With a strong engine, Ford’s “supremacy of performance, essential in negotiating heavy sand and deep mud, is responsible for that quick ‘getaway’ making it popular for modern crowded city traffic.” N. Farhi, at phone number 136 in Jerusalem, sold the Renault, “the most economic car.”
Vester and Co., located at the American Colony store, had Dodge Touring Cars selling for 275 English pounds and sedans for 330 English pounds.
Tire dealers had also sprouted up around the city. The Dodge dealership and Vester and Company sold Goodyear cord tires featuring “supertwist.” These were sure “to meet the constant need to flex and flex, to take those sudden shocks and jars evenly and easily on low air pressure.” Alfred Salzman in the German Colony distributed and sold Continental tires. His ad pointed out that “Continentals save time and money.” E.A.S.T. carried the Dunlop tire, “since 1888 the world’s safest economical balloon tyre.”
The growth of automobile use in Palestine was so dramatic that in 1929 the Mandate Authority had to legislate a new and expansive Road Transport Ordinance. Published in a 75-page pamphlet, the ordinance was to be enforced by A.S. Mavrogordate, commandant of Palestine, and his staff. An important requirement was that “every motor vehicle shall carry a deep-sounding bulb horn.”
This booklet, the transport legal digest of that era, contains fascinating details about cars and buses in the country. The circular licenses which all cars and commercial vehicles had to display contained English, Hebrew and Arabic text.
By the end of the 1920s, the automobile had arrived in full force, and Jerusalem and Palestine would never be the same again.