Car culture shows global nature at Global Auto Salon Riyadh

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This 1958 Chevrolet Impala lowrider with images of the Saudi royal family, took second place in the cars and coffee event in Riyadh | Kahn Media photos

Editor’s note: This report on the recent Global Auto Salon Ridadh was written for the ClassicCars.com Journal by an affiliated media company.

Everyone had pre-conceived notions of Saudi Arabia as we flew into King Khalid Airport in Riyadh. We had all watched the news and read the stories. When Saudi Arabia was in the headlines, the reports were rarely glowing. So, when we were invited to attend the inaugural “Global Auto Salon Riyadh” we approached the event with a cautious curiosity. 

The country had just started issuing tourist visas. Was it really ready for tourism? More than 1,000 people involved in the collector car hobby around the world were brought to the Saudi to find out. 

The Riyadh Car Show was part-SEMA Show, part-Pebble Beach and part-Goodwood Festival of Speed. 

It was an ambitious undertaking for anyone, even more so when you consider it was planned in a matter of months in a country with little to no tourism infrastructure. More than 400 cars and 250 exhibiting companies were transported to the show from around the world, along with all the supporting personnel, all expenses paid by the government of Saudi Arabia. 

If that government was going to put on a car show, it was going to go big.

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Our first exposure to local cars culture was the weekly cars and coffee event hosted in Riyadh. From a distance, it looked like any car meet you’d find in the United States. A row of Ford Mustangs and another of Porsche 911s, a section for Jeeps and another of square-body Chevrolets, all modified, along with a few exotics sprinkled throughout. 

We spoke with some locals over a Tim Hortons coffee (you read that right) and found out that most of these cars are actually illegal to drive. But the laws are changing. The culture and authorities are beginning to warm up to the world of classic and aftermarket-altered cars.

At the cars and coffee, the visiting media was tapped to choose the top two cars and we were immediately drawn to an entirely home-built supercar. The winning car featured a completely custom chassis and body, complete with an LS powerplant. Sure, it was a bit rough around the edges, but more love had been put into this car than any other in the lot. 

Second prize went to a Chevrolet Impala lowrider, fully decked out in Saudi colors with airbrushed paintings of the Royal family on the trunk. It was both the most American and most Saudi car we had ever seen, an easy choice for second prize.

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The show itself was the next surprise. Though it lacked the polish of Pebble Beach, it certainly had high-caliber cars. Eight-figure Ferraris and elegant pre-war tourers lined the concours field while some icons of the custom world were housed in the salon tents. The Ridler award-winning 1957 Chevy known as “Imagine” was up for sale alongside the iconic Chip Foose build “P-32,” a custom ’32 Ford Highboy Roadster. Fresh off its Battle of the Builders victory at SEMA, custom builders Ringbrothers brought several builds including a never before seen K5 Blazer.

Besides the show cars, the on-track action brought another dimension to the show. The Ferrari Festival included everything from the FXX-K Evolution to late-model F1 cars racing around the event’s short track. Drift cars took passengers for a spin while Monster Trucks from the Monster Jam series roared in the distance. A giant Hot Wheels loop in the center of the track featured daily attempts to loop a Jaguar F-Pace around the structure at 50 mph — all successful. 

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Another morning excursion took us to the sands of the Arabian Desert in a selection of drool-worthy off-road 4x4s. Nissan Patrols, Toyota Land Cruisers and even a Lexus LX bashed the dunes without worry. Our guide, Ali, powered through the hills with a laugh while we held on for dear life. They may not have movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, but who needs ‘em when you have this for entertainment? After a few hours exploring, we settled into a camp for traditional Saudi Arabian coffee and desserts. 

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip was the people. There are no people more hospitable or more friendly than those we encountered in Saudi Arabia. We were invited to homes for meals, to garages for collection tours, and to events around the city. 

Even if the car auctions fell short of their sales expectations, enthusiasm for the automobile and car culture have no borders. 

While we can’t ignore atrocities attributed to the Saudi government, we found that we can’t hold the citizens guilty. The goal of our trip was to see and experience Saudi cars and car culture while also helping the country emerge from centuries of isolation using a shared passion for cars as the olive branch. On both accounts, we consider the Global Auto Salon Riyadh a success.

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