Monday 28 August 2023

The Colonel’s Car: Gaddafi’s Bizarre Supercar Design

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
''Those who don't love me don't deserve to live.'' (By Muammar Gaddafi)

During a period that spanned four decades the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi became world renowned for his cult of personality, his proposal to partition Switzerland during a G8 summit, invading four out of Libya's six neighbours, his attempt to persuade an Egyptian(!) submarine to sink the British Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner and for orchestrating the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Nonetheless, many myths still shape contemporary thinking on Gaddafi, such as the provision of free electricity, free healthcare and free money to 'his people' while living a modest life largely devoid of any luxury himself. Gaddafi spared no effort to promote this image during his tenure, preferring to sleep in tents rather than in expensive hotels on state visits abroad. In reality, Gaddafi salted away billions during his 42-year long reign and travelled the world on a private $120 million Airbus A340 that even came with its own jacuzzi.

Gaddafi was also obsessed by his restless goal to become someone greater than just the leader of Libya. An ardent Arab nationalist, Gaddafi promoted the idea for a single Arab state stretching from Morocco to Iraq with him as the head of state, and entered negotiations with several Arab states in the 1970s. Gaddafi's insistence that he alone should be the leader each time led to a breakdown in negotiations. Every country that refuted his ideas was immediately subject to a wave of coup attempts and assassinations as petty vengeance. Gaddafi's desire to lead a entity surpassing the borders of Libya was revived in his bid to establish the African Union in the 1990s. Gaddafi put forth the concept a United States of Africa with of course, him as head of state. The Colonel even indicated that the proposed federation could extend as far as the Caribbean: as any country with a large African diaspora would be invited to join.
In a rare moment of achievement, Gaddafi managed to unite nearly all of Africa's democratically-elected leaders and not so democratically-elected leaders in disavowing his plan for a United States of Africa. And what do you do when your plans to become the leader of an entire continent just failed miserably? Exactly! You use your excess time by personally supervising the design of a supercar. But this wouldn't be just any supercar. Rather, this car was specifically designed to reduce the number of people killed in automobile accidents. As a spokesperson of Gaddafi's regime put it in 2009: "The leader spent so many hours of his valuable time thinking of an effective solution [for road accidents]. It is the safest car produced anywhere". [1] The car would be shaped in the form of a rocket (at least in the view of its designer Colonel Gaddafi), which would give lead to its name: صاروخ الجماهيرية - Rocket of the State of the Masses.

Much like the Porsche Panamera, the 'Rocket of the State of the Masses' also has four doors. That's also where the similarities end.

Now the name 'Rocket of the State of the Masses' might not be particularly inviting for a family browsing through a car showroom, nor does it seem particularly fitting for a vehicle claimed to be the world's safest. However, it does offer some compensation when your attempts at advancing your actual rocket and nuclear weapons programme have just fallen flat. Launched at the conference of the Organisation of African Unity in Libya in 2009, the car was set to be produced in the capital Tripoli, where a factory was to be constructed the same year. [2] 'The Rocket' was powered by a 3-litre twin-turbo V6 that produced 230 horsepower. The car stands out for its severely pointed nose and tail, which Gaddafi argued, would ensure ''the car would bounce off any object in a head-on collision''. [2] Additional curious design elements were sliding side doors for entering and exiting the rear of the vehicle and ''an electronic protection framework'' that left even the actual event organisers puzzled as to what that actually meant or did. [2]

Available in dark green or white, neither color managed to effectively conceal the strange design choices hidden beneath.

'The Rocket is too round, it needs to be pointy.'

And here's where it gets even more interesting. You see, this wasn't actually Gaddafi's first attempt at designing a car. Precisely a decade earlier, during the 1999 conference of the Organisation of African Unity, Gaddafi had already unveiled his first car. And its name? None other than 'Rocket of the State of the Masses'! Just like its 2009 counterpart, this car was designed to be the safest car in the world and was slated for production in the capital city of Tripoli, where a dedicated factory was to be constructed the same year. [3] Back then, the rationale behind Gaddafi's pursuit of car design was explained as the result of ''the Colonel spending long hours thinking of ways to preserve human life all over the world''—a bold assertion considering his involvement in the bombing of Boeing 747 and DC-10 passenger aircraft killing 440 innocent persons to achieve petty vengeance against the United States and France years before.

The 1999 iteration of 'The Rocket'. The version showcased in 2009 was in essense an exenstive facelift of the same design.

Now, let's address the pressing questions that are probably on everyone's mind at this point: Did Gaddafi genuinely design this car, and was it actually a legitimate project? Of course not. The design of both iterations of 'The Rocket' was contracted out to the Italian company Tesco SpA, which in 1999 received $2.85 million to come up with its design. It seems that a total of only four cars were constructed, comprising two of each version. The cars' styling was attributed to ideas and suggestions from Gaddafi himself according to the Italians. [2] Despite all the touted (safety) features, including airbags for all passengers, parking assistance cameras, run-flat tires, a collapsible bumper and the promise of locally-sourced materials at a retail cost of just €50,000 per car (in 2009), the reality remains that the cars were never intended for actual production; their sole purpose was to serve as a tool for propaganda. Similar to many aspects of Gaddafi's Libya, 'The Rocket' was mostly constructed upon myths. Despite the organisers' assertion that it would commence production in 1999 and later in 2009—either within an already completed factory or one still awaiting construction (depending on which organiser you consulted), even the technical features between the two cars were seemingly identical, with the organisers simply choosing to re-use the press release from 1999 in 2009. [2]

The collapsible bumper was to ensure that the car would bounce off any obstacle it struck in a head-on collision. Because bouncing off obstacles like a bouncing ball after hitting them at a speed of 130km/h is how car bumpers really work.

Although Gaddafi displayed a keen interest in overseeing the 'creation' of a supercar, it's interesting to note that the former Libyan leader showed little interest towards possessing exclusive or exotic cars—a rarity among dictators. Libyan state propaganda went to great lengths in its efforts to further strengthen Gaddafi's image as a man connected to the masses, shunning luxury. In sharp contrast to the extravagant lifestyles typically associated with dictators, Gaddafi opted to drive a simple Volkswagen Beetle himself during the 1970s. On the personal orders of Colonel Gaddafi, this Volkswagen Beetle was subsequently put on permanent display in Tripoli's museum of antiquity! [4]
Besides using golf buggies to navigate his Tripoli compound, Bab al-Azizia, and its underground tunnels, Gaddafi mostly travelled around on a private bus during the 1990s. Later on, in the late 2000s, he acquired a unique electric Fiat 500C hand-built by Carrozzeria Castagna in Italy. This Fiat 500C was equipped with a 34kw powerpack, capable of reaching speeds up to 160km/h. [5] Modifications to the Fiat included the removal of the doors, along with a lowered suspension to facilitate easier access for passengers donning traditional Arab clothing (like Gaddafi). The car's green colour was chosen to match the colour of Gaddafi's 'Green Book', a short book setting out the Colonel's political philosophy. The canvas-covered electric roll-top was shaded in a color reminiscent of the hue found in desert sand. To complete the transformation, the Fiat emblems at the front and rear were swapped with that of the Jamahiriya.

Gaddafi's custom Fiat 500C is pushed out of his compound Bab al-Azizia in Tripoli.

Despite having a span of 42 years to establish a welfare state, Gaddafi instead allocated his country's resources to weapons and terrorism. Always in pursuit of petty vengeance, exemplified by his proposal to partition Switzerland following his son's arrest there after he assaulted two domestic employees, his 42-year quest to become something greater than the leader of Libya ultimately rendered him a tragic figure. It's hard to conceive of a more disgraceful conclusion than initiating the development of a supercar under the pretext of "preserving human life all over the world," only for him to declare, "those who don't love me don't deserve to live," when his own citizens stood up against him to secure basic human rights. The echoes of his legacy persist across Libya to this day, with the 'Rocket of the State of the Masses' arguably standing as a prime example. In fact, at least one of the 2009 models survives today, a poignant reminder that myths can far outlive their creators. 

[1] Libyan Rocket: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi designs a "safe" car
[4] In Tripoli's museum of antiquity only Gaddafi is lost in revolution
[5] Unique Castagna Bodied Fiat 500 ''Liberated'' From Gaddafi's Battle-Scarred Tripoli Compound