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A Salute to Pakistan’s Auto Industry

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Romano Karim Yusuf reviews Steering the Pakistani Wheel by Murtaza Y. Mandviwalla and speaks to the author.

I would like to start this review, by quoting from the author’s preface: “My motivation to write this text emanated from an emotional thought process that overcomes most of us who cross the half century mark – the feeling of ‘wanting to give back.’”

The first impression is of a well-packaged hardcover edition. A green-themed dust cover, the photo of two quintessential Karachi icons, a truck art decorated Mazda 3500 minibus a.k.a. The Yellow Devil, with the Empress Market Clock tower in the background, both seen in the rear-view mirror of a vehicle, hint strongly at the contents. This Pakistan specific compilation will educate, entertain and surprise you with an incredible number of feel-good stories of struggle and success. Divided into eight parts, nothing is too long, and in any case, you can move on, and return to the bookish bits later. Prefaced by Senator Javed Jabbar, a page listing of automotive/industrial acronyms, a timeline of automotive-related milestones dating back to 1896 and up to 2021, all backed up by a full index; Adam Motors to Zabardast, and much more (it is all there).

This is a book for all levels of engagement. Read it from start to finish or dip in and out, chapter by chapter. With topics ranging from personalities of the automotive scene, vintage auto enthusiasts, corporate success stories, as well as in-depth looks at government policy, technological challenges and many other threads – the material is up to the minute and even has fairly detailed sections on the new electric vehicle policy. 

Pakistan started in the early years with an industry based and reliant on British products and technology. This started to change in the fifties, as American, German and later Japanese brands started making inroads. As a nascent nation in the non-communist block, Pakistan was wooed by numerous Western countries. Today, Pakistan is one of the 40 countries with an automotive industry, although it has yet to achieve the economies of scale seen in nearby East Asian countries. We learn of numerous schemes envisaged by successive governments, some with limited success, others outright scams. Yes, the world of rules and regulations is not as balanced and fair as some would have us believe. Mandviwalla touches on all these subjects, and more. Pakistan was first exposed to the ‘Japanese way’ with the arrival of Toyota in the mid-sixties. In addition to the obvious superiority of product they brought in the shape of the Toyota Corona RT40, was the long-range vision of their managers. Their quick understanding of what makes a product successful, and its implementation, quickly put them centre stage and banished any Western product in the running. Toyota rules the middle-segment, Honda the mid and upper-mid, and Suzuki is virtually synonymous with the budget end of the auto spectrum. 

Mandviwalla dwells on the Japanese management styles and their gradual influence on the Pakistani automotive leadership. Coincidentally, in his words, “the history of the automotive industry of Pakistan is also the history of Japanese automakers.” (Unlike the West, Japan only came into large scale manufacturing after World War II). Their management style of workplace culture, loyalty to the firm, discipline, bottom-up input and decision-making, continuous search for improvement, have percolated into the local workforce. A section on technical and vocational training is an eye-opener, and there, in his meticulous way, was the number of vocational schools countrywide: 3,842. One wonders at the dearth of trained mechanics in the country. I imagine the reality is too many children join the workforce without formal schooling, excluding them from the possibility of reading technical manuals or even following classroom lectures. Some train and migrate to more lucrative shores, the Japanese Government’s involvement, since 1954, with our auto industry, created numerous assistance projects, ranging from training in Japanese management and production processes, a Highway Research and Training Centre, to the Construction Machinery Training Institute in Islamabad.

We discover the real stories behind projects such as Nishan, Proficient, Yasoob, and Revo, to name a few. Motivated individuals who went all out to make a local product, only to be let down by bureaucracy, bankers, and red tape. A sad tale. All in all, a fascinating story of the machine that gives you the freedom to travel.  Over a decade in gestation, and what a labour of love! I will be thumbing its pages for a long time to come.


Murtaza Y. Mandviwalla’s Steering The Pakistani Wheel, is the first researched compendium on the automotive history of Pakistan. In addition to being CEO of Mandviwalla Motors, he is the Secretary General of the Pakistan Japan Business Forum. I quizzed him about the book’s genesis and about how he sees the future of the automotive sector.

ROMANO KARIM YUSUF: How did this project start?
I grew up in an automotive family, and when I was a student in the US, I took a class in business history. I was given a book called The Great Transformation, a history of the industrial progress made in the UK over a 200-year period. I also assisted my professor in documenting a research on the history of the American railroads. That project instilled in me the realisation of the process of reading up on any subject. On my return to Pakistan, I joined the family business and a chance event in 2008, where I was looking up some old company documents and it made me think about the lack of information on the automotive field in Pakistan. I started documenting the automotive history, and at some point, sent the info to my brother; he suggested I keep at it. The years passed, life, work, and also, a little bit of uncertainty about my being able to actually do it, but then, along came the pandemic. I was stuck in the USA and when I started the research, I realised that with a few exceptions, hardly anything had been documented on the automotive scene of the country. There exist 10,000 books on automotive history in the USA, 300 in India, and mine is the first in Pakistan!

RKY: What were the challenges in publishing the book?
I had to self-publish, no local publishers were interested. They said unless the book was about children’s education or medicine, I would be lucky to sell a thousand copies. I have already crossed that number. All funds earned will be donated to an automotive training project.

RKY: How do you see the role of the big three Japanese manufacturers in Pakistan?
Pakistan’s demand has grown gradually and the existing auto makers have developed their business models and their network according to the demand. New auto makers have been hesitant (in the past) due to the preference for used car imports by the government. If there was market potential, other automakers would have surely entered. The pie is now likely to get bigger with incentives for new entrants in the form of greenfield/brownfield projects and expected concessions in auto financing in the next auto policy. At least 12 new brands will enter.

RKY: Going Green; how will Pakistan do it?
The way forward for Pakistan and other developing countries is to go hybrid; it is a tried and tested technology, available in all motor vehicle types and has no infrastructure requirement. It is the best short-term way forward. We will have to wait until the battery technology becomes smaller and cheaper for a long-term solution. EVs are still in their initial stages of acceptance worldwide and require major subsidies and infrastructure support. Motorcycle EV conversions are not safe. And those motorcycle EV available through OEM cannot be used for long travel for now. However, encouraging EV local manufacturing in buses and motorcycles is advisable.

RKY: Do you agree that the import of SUVs is draining foreign exchange?
The demand/pie is becoming bigger. SUVs have taken the market share of sedan models. Imports of CBU (completely built-up units) have drained foreign exchange from Pakistan to some extent. The key is to step-up local production of SUVs which will happen once the post Covid global component supply of parts improves.

RKY: Best locally made car you’ve owned/driven;
Suzuki Swift – Excellent handling and best suited for urban and highway driving

Steering the Pakistani Wheel By Murtaza Y. Mandviwalla Published by Man San Enterprises 371 pp, Rs 3,000 ISBN: 9789692361804

Romano Karim Yusuf is a vintage car enthusiast.