Habibur Rahman Sanni spent a lot of time with his father, Lutfur Rahman, when growing up and – consciously or otherwise – it ignited a passion in him that would later go on to define him as a person. This passion, over time, helped him acquire a unique collection of over 100 vintage cars during his lifetime.
Lutfur Rahman was an avid boat and car enthusiast. Even though he was originally from Chandpur, Cumilla, Lutfur worked in law enforcement in Kolkata before moving back to Dhaka after the 1947 Partition. He brought back with him a few cars to sell and bought a large piece of land in Dhaka.
Lutfur opened an automotive shop on his land and called it Pakistan Motors, which was later renamed Bangla Motor after the 1971 Liberation War. Over time, the entire area came to be known as Bangla Motor.
The early days of Sanni
Sanni went to St. Gregory's High School and College and then studied architecture at BUET. In his leisure hours, Sanni tended to accompany his father, be it during his travels or when making deals for the shop. In his father's shadows, Sanni learnt the mechanics of cars, he learnt to fix them and, in the process, developed a passion for it himself.
But interestingly, Sanni did not seem keen to pursue the business of buying and selling cars, instead, he wanted to collect them.
Although Sanni trained to become an architect, he never pursued it as a career. He worked on a few architecture projects on the side during his college days and used the money he earned to buy cars people no longer wanted.
"These cars are valuable now, but back then they really weren't," explained Saadi Rahman, son of Habibur Rahman Sanni, adding, "People wanted newer cars, and the cars my dad bought were the ones they wanted to get rid of.
They did not hold a lot of value back in the day and my father did not buy them as an investment either. He bought them because he was fascinated by cars, it was his passion."
Soon a chain of events became established, Sanni would buy a car, he and his mechanic friends would work on them, and he would restore them. "This was his hobby and this is what he wanted to do," said Saadi.
"One by one these cars started piling up at our house. He essentially brought home other people's junk, but he worked on them, and he restored them to their former glory," added Saadi.
Sanni had a big family of 10 siblings. While all of his siblings moved abroad when the 1971 Liberation War broke out, Sanni remained in the country with his parents and fought the war.
"Dad met my mom when he was in university, and they decided to get married after the war was over. They have always remained in Bangladesh and the collection grew," said Saadi.
For the blind love of vintage cars
Sanni collected cars from all over Bangladesh. Whenever he would find leads of a vintage car that the owners no longer wanted, he would go buy them and restore them.
Some of the cars in Sanni's collection came from Europe or America. "My father's collection includes cars previously owned by the Maharani of Natore, cars gifted to famous lawyers by the Queen, etc. As a kid, I remember riding around in a World War II Jeep which was stationed in an American base in Cumilla. He acquired US army cars from the World War circuit in Cumilla and Sylhet," explained Saadi.
Sanni had made a lot of close friends through his hobby, one of them was Mahmudul Faruq, another fellow collector. The two got together and sometime during the 1980s, they wanted to share their collection with everyone, they wanted to share their history and how each piece had a story to tell.
Sanni and Faruq started the Old Car Club of Bangladesh in 1983, and two years later, they held the first vintage car rally in Bangladesh at Sher-E-Bangla Nagar. The club organised their second rally in 1988 and its third in 1990.
"People got to see and learn something from the success of these rallies. After successfully organising the third event the hobby started to branch out. People started the Volkswagen club, the Mercedes club and so on," said Saadi.
"These [vintage car] rallies also showed people how these cars were a piece of our history. Some people had automobiles sitting in their garage which belonged to their grandfather. They started restoring these vehicles, and they kept them in their family," said Saadi.
A culture born out of a rambunctious hobby
"Everybody knows about Sanni's collection of vintage cars. We have been friends since childhood, we went to the same school together. I have never been a car person and I never understood Sanni's fascination for them. But he would always have me drive one of his cars at his rallies.
I have met many people in my lifetime, but very few were as passionate as he was," said Shawkat Osman, a childhood friend of Sanni, "However, Sanni was rambunctious about his hobby, he was always very soft-spoken and humble."
As Sanni's father grew old, Bangla Motor was eventually shut down. He ran a shipping business, but he later started a logistics company called Sanni Transport Company. As time passed Sanni could not devote as much time as he did to hobbies when he was in university. But he went on to inspire car enthusiasts and collectors all over the country.
Sanni was diagnosed with colon cancer in December of 2021, and he passed away on Monday (26 September).
"One of the last cars my father was working on was a 1910 Daimler. It was always one of his favourites. I grew up hearing him say 'this will one day be a hundred years old,' and, sure enough, this car went on to be 112 years old," said Saadi.
"We used to think it was a 1909 Daimler. I had written to the company about it sometime during the early 2000s – I sent them photos of the car and its chassis number. They got back to me saying it was a 1910 model and is the only one left in the world! Hopefully, I will be able to finish the project for him," concluded Saadi.