To mark World Car Free Day last Saturday, many Athenians went by foot, bicycles and public transport to the Archaeological Museum to admire some “ancient” cars that were on display, as a reminder of times gone by.
The highlight was a 1919 Humber that was parked outside the museum.
Today, of course, Athens is clogged with traffic. According to the Hellenic Statistical Service (ELSTAT), the number of passenger cars in circulation in Greece increased from 4.7 million in 2007 to 5.2 million in 2017. 2.8 million are registered in Attica and mostly Athens.
But when did the first car appear in Greece?
According to a book titled “I lived in the Athens of Belle Epoque” by Miltos Lidorikis, the first car appeared in the streets of Athens in 1897.
Lidorikis says that until then cars were unknown in Greece. Only those who were reading foreign newspapers and periodicals were aware of their existence.
In any case, he says, it would have been impossible to drive in the city and the outskirts. “How could it be possible to drive a machine of such fine composition in roads that were not only unsuitable but also dangerous?” he writes in the book written in the beginning of the 20th century.
He claims that the first car was brought to Greece by Nikolaos Kontogiannakis, a relative of a prominent politician of the time.
“I remember it because it coincided with the [Greco-Turkish] war of 1897. [Kontogiannakis) was a good friend and he drove me to his beautiful mansion to take a photo dressed as an Evzonas before I was transferred to the border,” Lidorikis recollects.
He says that Kontogiannakis traveled very short distances in Athens and suffered from the dust, mud, and terrible pits.
In the end, he returned the car to its manufacturers in Europe because it was “useless in Athens”.
A year later, a second car, a two-seater, appeared. The owner was a theater director named Kostas Christomanos.
“I remember him trying to drive the vehicle to Faliro [south of Athens] without ever reaching his destination,” Lidorikis writes. Christomanos’ car had the same fate to Kontogiannakis’. It was returned to the manufacturers.
These two vehicles were exceptionally noisy, raising unimaginable dust clouds when they were driven. “That’s why the Athenians when hearing them approaching, dispersed right and left to avoid the dust.”
But in 1900, Athenians watched with admiration the arrival of a new electronic car that was silent, with rich lighting and seven seats, which had been brought over by the then director of the Electricity Company, K. Nicolaides.
The driver of this car was Alekos Bahaouer, the first professional chauffeur in Greece who worked in the profession for almost 40 years.
In 1901, Lidorikis writes, Leonidas Arniotis appeared in the Greek capital with a car that made unbelievable noise and became a spectacle for the Athenians.
Arniotis intended to make a triumphant visit with his vehicle to his hometown Sparta. He transported the car on a train until Tripoli. But before he reached Sparta, a mechanical failure canceled the journey. The vehicle was returned unceremoniously to Athens by train, writes Lidorikis.