“Merci dix”: A swansong for Morocco’s Mercedes Grand Taxis

“Merci dix”: A swansong for Morocco’s Mercedes Grand Taxis

(Image credit: Sam Christmas)

In Morocco, people don’t call for an Uber; instead, they pile into Grand Taxis – battered but colourful old diesel Mercedes that are North Africa’s answer to Cuba’s vintage cars.

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This morning, Hassan Mesfar is late for work. In the blue light before dawn, he emerges at the wheel of his car through a cloud of dust and bounces off the pot-holed road leading into Essaouira’s Place des Grands Taxis. After nonchalantly avoiding a collision with an orange vendor’s cart and a skinny stray dog, he speeds through the square’s gate before finding a space to park at the back of the high-walled yard.

Hassan Mesfar idrives his Mercedes to Essaouira's Place des Grands Taxis (Credit: Sam Christmas)

Hassan Mesfar idrives his Mercedes to Essaouira’s Place des Grands Taxis (Credit: Sam Christmas)

Sunrise in Essaouira
Mesfar is a well-known and much-loved character in the picturesque and ancient Moroccan seaport, instantly recognisable by the car he drives: a 1974 Mercedes Stroke 8. In the UK, such a vehicle would belong in a classic car collection but in Africa it’s just another rolling ruin. Nevertheless, it has the dubious honour of being the oldest taxi in Essaouira – but not by much, as there are plenty of other battered and bruised diesel vehicles long past their sell-by date.

Indeed, in this city like all over the North African kingdom, many diesel Mercedes (especially the W123 240D model) from the 1970s and ’80s have spent their twilight years as Grand Taxis in the sun, after being shipped over when deemed too old for the European market. Here they have become part of the fabric of society, providing an essential long-distance travel link for locals as well as a colourful snapshot for tourists, much like the old American cars in Cuba. But not for much longer, as the Moroccan government is keen to rid them from the country’s roads.

In Moroccan French, "Merci dix" literally translates as "thanks times 10" (Credit: Sam Christmas)

In Moroccan French, “Merci dix” literally translates as “thanks times 10” (Credit: Sam Christmas)

The end of an era
In 2014, the Moroccan Ministry for Transport launched an incentive scheme offering Grand Taxi drivers 80,000 diram (£6,500) to scrap their old vehicles. So far, more than 56% of the 45,000 Grand Taxis in service have been updated thanks to this programme – something the government is aiming to increase to 100% by 2022.

“It’s the end of an era,” says Mesfar, as he sits down to enjoy a coffee at his regular spot. He’s got time to relax now his car is parked; as is customary with the Grand Taxis first-in first-out system, he won’t be picking up customers until later in the day. “The government is offering us money to update our cars for shiny new Dacias [vehicles from a budget brand of the same name] but for me they’re not the same as my old Mercedes. It’s the best car I have ever driven – so solid, so reliable, so comfortable – it never lets me down. That’s why around here we call them ‘Merci dix’.” 

In Moroccan French, this literally translates as “thanks times 10”, but there’s also a play on words with the local pronunciation of Mercedes /Meərsidɪs/. Hassan, who like many taxi drivers is a theatrical conversationalist, says it by pursing his lips, lifting his chin and narrowing his dark eyes as if squinting into bright light. He then draws out the “r” by pulling back his seasoned face into a grin, rattling through the other syllable and pushing out the final “s” sound through near-closed teeth. All the while jiggling his head and raising his hands in mock praise. It’s quite the performance.

Le Grand Taxi is a popular mode of transportation in Essaouira (Credit: Sam Christmas)

Le Grand Taxi is a popular mode of transportation in Essaouira (Credit: Sam Christmas)

Le Grand Taxi
To understand the impact of this scheme on a national scale, it’s important to understand the wider role of taxis in Morocco. In a country of 36 million people, there are only 2.8 million registered cars: so just one car per 11 Moroccans. To put this in perspective, nearby Spain, which has a population of roughly 10 million more, has more than 24 million vehicles on the road. And without rail or bus providing a well-developed or affordable solution to the masses, Grand Taxis are the leading long-distance transport solution.

“Le Grand Taxi is the backbone of Morocco,” says Mesfar, proudly emphasising the essential role he and his co-workers deliver.” Public transportation is next to inexistent, there is only one train line and that’s up north. If you want to get to another city you can take the bus, but departures are irregular, there are frequent accidents and its very slow and it only takes you to the big cities. That’s why people like to take Grand Taxis – because they’re nice and quick.” 

Their popularity can’t be debated here in Essaouira. Since the small hours of the morning, we have watched drivers demisting windscreens with filthy wads of old newspaper, oil-covered mechanics coaxing weary engines back to life and long-distance travellers huddling in small groups, waiting for a ride. They are all eager to get on the road early and escape the unrelenting heat of the day, which makes sitting in a cramped vehicle – with up to six passengers, luggage and driver – absolutely unbearable.

In Morocco, the Place des Grand Taxis is more than a simple taxi rank: it's a main transport hub (Credit: Sam Christmas)

In Morocco, the Place des Grand Taxis is more than a simple taxi rank: it’s a main transport hub (Credit: Sam Christmas)

A colourful system
The Place des Grand Taxis is more than a simple taxi rank: it’s a main transport hub, and each city in the country has one. A chief broker, usually found in a prominent position surrounded by assistants, orchestrates operations. In Essaouira, he stands near the entrance of the walled compound, loudly barking orders at drivers, his helpers and even the passengers. 

Travellers going to a particular city up north are ushered into one taxi, those going south into another and so forth. Then, when all the seats in a car are taken, it can leave on its journey. Generally speaking, the further the destination, the earlier the departure – as most drivers like to return to their home base each night despite travelling upwards of 1,000km per day, but this isn’t always possible.

“Look at the green taxi parked over there,” says Mesfar. “That’s stayed overnight from Taroudant [a city to the west of Essaouira] and that one over there is from Rabat as it’s white. Each city in Morocco has its own taxi colour scheme that makes it easy to spot and here in Essaouira it’s just like our fishing boats: sky blue. A proud colour that once upon a time made us rich.”

In Essaouria, this unique shade of blue originally came from crushed seashells, and nearly everything in the city has been painted with it, from horse drawn carriages to people’s front doors – even the Petit Taxis. This last point is unusual as most other Moroccan cities chose different colours to differentiate Petit Taxis, which are smaller cars (usually French hatchbacks) that are only allowed to take a maximum of two passengers on much shorter rides within the urban perimeter.

The love affair between Mercedes and Morocco dates to the earliest days of the automobile (Credit: Sam Christmas)

The love affair between Mercedes and Morocco dates to the earliest days of the automobile (Credit: Sam Christmas)

Mercedes in Morocco
The love affair between the German brand and the North African kingdom dates to the earliest days of the automobile. In 1892, the Moroccan Sultan Hassan 1st bought the first car ever made by Daimler (the company that owns Mercedes-Benz) and this royal endorsement has continued through history. The current king Mohammed VI still uses a unique Mercedes Benz 600, passed down from his father, for state functions.

“Mercedes cars, like the stars depicted on their bonnet, have always been things that Moroccans have looked up to and admired,” says Mesfar. “But they weren’t always Grand Taxis. In the 1960s and 1970s, we used to drive old American cars but then in the 1980s Mercedes started to take over.”

Indeed, Moroccan taxi drivers simply started catching on to what cab owners in Europe had understood: diesel Mercedes were built to last. Mesfar’s Mercedes W114 “Stroke 8” was a game-changer for the Stuttgart-based manufacturer and 1.9 million rolled off the line during its eight years of production. It’s successor, the W123, appeared in 1976 and in the nine years that followed, 2.9 million of these cars were also produced.

And the Mercedes-Benz with the highest mileage ever known is a 1976 Mercedes W123 240D taxi owned in Greece by a taxi driver. It has covered a total of 2.85 million kilometres – roughly equivalent to driving to the Moon and back six times.

In Morocco, Mercedes cars have enjoyed incredible longevity (Credit: Sam Christmas)

In Morocco, Mercedes cars have enjoyed incredible longevity (Credit: Sam Christmas)

The world’s scrapyard
In the 1970s and ’80s, the average age of cars in Europe was less than seven years old. So millions of robust and reliable Mercedes were soon swapped for newer cars by their original owners and sold on the used-car market. Finally, when deemed too old for European buyers, they were picked up at discounted rates by exporters and shipped to emerging countries, with Africa being the favourite destination.

In 2000, more than 70% of all cars imported into Morocco were more than five years old, including many old Mercedes, which have enjoyed incredible longevity thanks to their robust mechanics, simple maintenance requirements and an abundance of salvaged spare parts. It was estimated 35,000 W123 240Ds alone were still on Moroccan roads in 2011, more than 30 years after the last car rolled off production lines.

“They are made out of good quality steel,” says Mesfar, explaining their robustness on the bad Moroccan roads. “Even when things break, there’s always a way to fix them. Taxi drivers have many tricks to get home whatever happens. You can even drive on a broken prop shaft: all you need to do is fill the boot with stones. The additional weight on the rear axle stabilises things so you can keep the car on the road.”

In 2010, the Moroccan government banned the import of all cars more than five years old (Credit: Sam Christmas)

In 2010, the Moroccan government banned the import of all cars more than five years old (Credit: Sam Christmas)

Clearing the air
The downside of this longevity is that while European drivers have enjoyed many generations of cleaner, more efficient vehicles; Moroccans have been suffering from increasingly bad air pollution. According to the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, mortality due to air pollution in the country has increased by 50% since 1997. Vehicle emissions are the most significant source of air pollution in Moroccan urban centres, accounting for nearly 60% of the total.

In response, the Moroccan government has taken a series of measures to improve matters. In 2010, they banned the import of all cars more than five years old as well as increasing tax duties on the sale of second-hand vehicles. Then, in 2014, they brought in the first cash incentive scheme aimed at Grand Taxi drivers.

So far, Mesfar isn’t convinced and neither are many of his colleagues if you look at official data. The scheme saw poor levels of uptake at its launch and has been extended multiple times for missing ambitious targets of renewing the old cars since.

Critics point at the government having other motivations for subsidising new car purchases. Indeed, in recent years, the country has invested heavily to develop extensive automobile production facilities.

According to Hassan Mesfar, driving taxis wouldn't be the same job without his Mercedes (Credit: Sam Christmas)

According to Hassan Mesfar, driving taxis wouldn’t be the same job without his Mercedes (Credit: Sam Christmas)

Made in Morocco
The North African kingdom is set to become one of the world’s big players in the automotive sector, with its car industry poised to be worth approximately £10 billion within the next five years. As of 2019, vehicles and parts represented nearly 30% of the country’s exports, and already one in five new car imports into Europe comes from Morocco. 

French manufacturer Renault is historically linked with the territory and benefits from support from the Moroccan government, operating two plants in the country’s north. Production at these sites includes the seven-seater Dacia Lodgy, which is now the most commonly bought taxi in the country, representing one in every two new sales.

Regardless of all this, for now, as far as Mesfar is concerned, it’s going to take more than a few a few thousand diram and a shiny new car to make the veteran driver change his ways. 

“I’m too old for anything new anyways,” he says. “I’ll be retiring in a few years so it would be a waste of money to upgrade. I also don’t think my customers would like it; and for me, it wouldn’t be the same job without my Mercedes. We’ve travelled so far, experienced so much and been on unforgettable adventures. It’s only fair we reach the end of the road together.”

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