When it comes to the automotive building blocks of the UAE, few cars are more iconic than early Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers. Both are well-monikered off-roaders: they would indeed rove and cruise the land before the advent of today's network of world-class highways across the Emirates.
For Sebastian Husseini, the man behind Dubai-based workshop Sebsports and a motorsport racer who is a veteran of two Dakar Rallies, it was nostalgia for this simpler time that inspired his move into restoring classic off-roaders.
"I grew up here," he recalls. "My parents came here in the late 1970s – my mother's from Holland and my dad is Lebanese. They met here. I remember these cars from when I was young. This is all you saw around the desert and cruising around in Dubai. The Police used to drive around in old Land Rovers.
"We have a Land Rover in the shop, a 1954 Series I, that was apparently used to lay down water and electricity pipes in Dubai before it was a city. These were the cars that helped build the country. Before the UAE was as developed as it is today, they were the only way you could get around. They were a lifeline for the people living in the desert. So, many folks living here have a strong fondness and rich history with these cars. Their fathers and grandfathers drove them. With the speed at which the country has developed, people like to hold onto certain things from their youth.
"Sebsports started in 2011. Initially, we started as a motorcycle shop, but the market was very seasonal," he says. "I've always had a passion for classic cars and was doing them up on the side. People started seeing my personal cars and asking me if I would do restorations for them. One thing led to another, and we've become a classic 4x4 restoration shop."
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A year ago, the company moved into its current base in Al Quoz, a compact but impressive facility that features designated spaces for every part of the restoration process, including painting, sanding and assembly. Customers can bring their own classics, or else Husseini can source vehicles for restoration that he finds on expeditions around the region to desert towns and farms, and into Oman and Saudi Arabia.
“A stage one restoration is just an exterior body respray,” he explains. “A stage two restoration is a full-body restoration, but we don’t go into the engine and drivetrain. And stage three is a full nut-and-bolt restoration, from bumper to bumper, with everything brand new on the car. We paint the chassis with a high-rust-protection marine-grade paint, so that they don’t get any more rust for at least another 30 years.”
The outer bodywork paint, meanwhile, is kept as era-correct as possible to the original shades, which involves painstaking work sourcing archive information that is then taken to a paint specialist, who mixes the exact colours. There is also the option of what is known as a “resto-mod”, where an old chassis is dragged into the 21st century with additions such as a new engine, air conditioning and disc brakes.
“We try to stick to about three months for a full restoration, but it depends on the vehicle,” Husseini says. “If we have more complicated work to do, such as a modern engine, it takes a bit longer. To do a quality job, you have to take your time.”
The end results are perhaps not as expensive as you might imagine for a gleaming, perfectly restored classic: Dh120,000 to Dh250,000 is the ballpark figure for a Land Cruiser, Husseini says, while Land Rover prices are currently a little lower. Accolades and compliments for the impressive results are, unsurprisingly, flooding in.
"Recently, we won best in class at the Gulf Concours with a 1952 Land Rover Series I, a car that we restored a few years ago," Husseini tells me. "I called up the customer and asked if we could borrow it for the weekend, gave it a bit of a polish, and sent it to the show. Jaguar Land Rover's classics restoration department were here with some of their cars and were blown away by our Series I. Hopefully, we will be able to work with them in the future."
In the meantime, Husseini mixes work with pleasure – one of his regular drives is a striking four-door two-tone 1978 Land Cruiser FJ55.
“I’d love to keep every single one of them,” he laments of watching the restored vehicles leave the workshop. “We have put our blood, sweat and tears into these cars, and every one of them comes out perfect, but it’s a business. The very special ones, I’m definitely going to keep, at least for a little while – use them, get it out of my system, then usually something pops up that I want more.
“We’ve built some cars that are too nice and you’re terrified of taking them anywhere – you don’t want to park them at a mall or take them off-road and hammer them. But I believe you should go out and use them – if something gets banged up or scratched, everything’s fixable.
“We want to be the best classic 4x4 restorers in the region,” Husseini concludes, “and hopefully be recognised all across the world.”