The backstreets of a Sharjah industrial estate might be the last place in the UAE where you would expect to find glimmering classic muscle cars and hot rods, but that is exactly the scene when you visit custom-car company Rayans Rides.
It was founded four years ago by Pakistani petrolhead Sheikh Imran Rashid, who grew up in Islamabad dreaming of high-performance cars, and moved to the Emirates 11 years ago to work as a marketing manager. Rayans Rides initially comprised Rashid’s long-running personal vehicle-building projects, as well as more minor customisations for customers. Then, about two years ago, it began to specialise in the world of pro-touring cars, moving to its current premises in Emirates Industrial City about a year ago. For the uninitiated, the term “pro-touring” was coined to describe the practise of modifying original muscle cars from the 1960s and 1970s with modern components, bringing them bang up to date with enhanced engines, suspension, brakes and the like.
“The company started by accident,” Rashid, 40, recalls with a laugh. “I was roaming around the industrial area looking for a project and one of the mechanics I used to work with had started his own little shop and couldn’t afford the rent on his own, so he wanted to lease half of that shop. It was a two-car space. It was meant for me to do my own cars as projects. Then when we did our first car, we took it to the Custom Show Emirates in Abu Dhabi and won, so we started getting interest from a lot of people who wanted us to build these cars.
“At that time, pro-touring was a new concept in the US and we jumped on that pretty early on – nobody is doing that still in the UAE. Basically, the shell of the car is old and everything else inside is brand-new, with a few touches to bring it up to spec.”
Perhaps the best illustration of the Rayans Rides modus operandi is the "Eleanor", its re-tooled 1967 Ford Mustang inspired by the customised pony car of the same moniker from Nicolas Cage movie Gone in 60 Seconds. Driven by a Ford 427, an engine originally introduced in the early 1960s, the Eleanor has an output of 500hp upwards, about twice the power of the original source car, and can be tuned up to a monumental 750hp.
When I visit the Sharjah workshop, which can now accommodate up to eight full projects at once, an Eleanor is prominently parked outside, resplendent in two-tone grey livery and looking every inch the movie star. Only, instead of being an out-of-reach Hollywood fantasy, Rayan Rides’ cars are gloriously affordable: the Eleanor’s base price is Dh220,000. As Rashid points out, that is about a third of the price you could expect to pay for a similar vehicle in the United States.
“I have struggled [in the past] when I didn’t have money to own these vehicles, so I know the feeling of somebody who wants these cars yet cannot afford them because the pricing is so ridiculous and jacked-up,” he says. “We want to disrupt this market.”
Other popular models include two contrasting Chevrolet custom jobs, based on the C10 pick-up truck and late 1960s Camaros respectively, with similarly non-stratospheric prices. All of these pro-touring models can be registered in the UAE as classics, thanks to the original bodies used in their construction.
The process of securing a modified muscle car is simple: Rayans Rides offers a catalogue of dozens of models, and once a customer has chosen one and decided on all the options (exteriors, interiors, wheels, colour-schemes etc), the company sources the base vehicle, ships it from the US, along with all the parts, and sets about turning the project into a road-ready four-wheeled wonder.
Rashid's team of mechanics are busy even at 7.30am when I arrive, welding and hammering throughout the course of the interview. The company is a family affair: Rashid's father, Sohail, oversees the workshop on a daily basis, while the enterprise is named after the founder's son, Rayan, nine – he hopes the youngster will move into the business when he grows up.
"I've been interested in cars from childhood," Rashid recalls. "My parents say I used to play with toy cars and nothing else. When I was 9 or 10, instead of reading storybooks, I used to read car mags – a lot ofHot Rod and Super Chevy magazines. I've always been into muscle cars – the sound of the engines, the V8 – more than European classics or Aston Martins, Ferraris or Lamborghinis."
Rashid’s first car, meanwhile, was a Mini, which has informed a sister company, Gulf Mini. Based in the same workshop, it sells customised original Minis from Dh60,000.
Word of Rayans Rides is spreading fast, with customers from as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon, and there are plans to expand in the GCC. Rashid’s ultimate aim, though, is to take on the home territory of the original muscle cars.
“I want to compete with the US market,” he says, “do it better and do it cheaper than them.”
For more information, visit www.rayansrides.net