Along with silly hats, cults of personality, secret police, rigged elections, grandiose titles and chests full of fake medals, dictators, military strongmen and ordinary despots have always had a fascination with powerful and expensive automobiles. Studebaker even marketed a car called the Studebaker Dictator from 1927-37, before guys like Tojo, Mussolini and Sacha Baron Cohen gave the dictator business a black eye. Here’s a list of the favorite cars of heads of state who were as likely to win humanitarian of the year as they were a free election.
- The Shah of Iran (Iran, 1941-1979): To the extent that people remember the Shah at all, they remember the feeble, unibrowed 1970s Shah who always seemed to sport a pair of comically large Swifty Lazar glasses. But from 1941 until his overthrow in 1979, the Shah ruled Iran with an iron fist that included a brutal secret police force and an explosive former beauty queen for an empress. Like so many others of his ilk, the Shah’s tastes ran toward expensive Italian exotics. His favorite was rumored to be his coachbuilt Maserati 5000.
- Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic, 1930-1961): Generally regarded as one of the most repressive dictators of the Western Hemisphere, the numerous statues and likenesses he had built of himself approached a cult of personality, something rarely seen outside of communist dictatorships like North Korea. El Jefe, or “The Chief” as he was known, was a motorsports fan and particularly favored Ferraris to which he was introduced via his favorite political assassin and bowling pal Porfirio Rubirosa. As an aside, Trujillo met his end in a Sonny Corleone-like a hail of assassin’s bullets while a passenger in a 1957 Chevy Bel Air sedan.
- Kim Jong-il (North Korea, 1994-2011): The portly and recently departed North Korean “dear leader” was rumored to have a soft spot for schlocky Steven Segal action movies, all-you-can-eat buffets and late-model Italian Exotics. He was never actually photographed with any of his expensive cars (or hitting an all-you-can-eat buffet), both of which are understandable when your country is in a perpetual state of famine. His funeral procession was, however, led by one of his reputed non-Italian exotic favorites, a Hawaii 5-0/Mannix-era Lincoln Continental limo.
- Muammar Gaddafi (Libya, 1969-2011): While not a car guy per se, the recently deposed Gaddafi did have a collection of late-model exotic cars and a few truly bizarre custom golf carts. At least one of the carts was swiped by rebels after his overthrow and summary execution and paraded through the streets of Tripoli.
- Idi Amin (Uganda, 1971-1979): As a dictator, Amin checked all of the boxes. Not content just with heading a particularly brutal and corrupt regime, his self-bestowed titles were all ones for the ages: “Uncrowned King of Scotland”; “Lord of All Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea”; “Conqueror of the British Empire”; as well as the classic, “President for Life.” Amin went only for the best when it came to cars. His Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman was one of the most expensive cars on the planet in the late 1960s. Israeli commandos transported one identical to his in the back of a C-130 to act as a ruse and maintain the element of surprise in the famous hostage-freeing raid on Entebbe airport in 1976.
- Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (Haiti, 1971-1986): Second generation in the Haitian dictator business, Baby Doc was known as a bit of a playboy during the reign of his father Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He favored late-’60s Ferraris like the 365 GT 2+2. Later in life, he was partial to S Class Mercedes-Benzes, and it was in one of these that the last photo of him on Haitian soil was taken as he fled to the airport in Port-au-Prince.
- Benito Mussolini (Italy, 1925-1943): While Mussolini’s dreams of a new Roman Empire were delusional at best (particularly when he could realistically lay claim to having the most incompetent armed forces of the 20th century), the granite-jawed fascist dictator did at least have style. Over the years, numerous special-bodied Alfa Romeos have appeared at auction purporting to be the former property of Mussolini and/or his favorite mistress, Clara Petacchi. All of them are arrestingly beautiful.
- Saddam Hussein (Iraq, 1979-2003): Unlike Mussolini, Saddam had terrible taste in cars. Among the cars found in his many palaces were several badly done replicas and neoclassics that won’t be appearing on the lawn at Pebble Beach any time soon (unless a “cars of deposed dictators” class is added). His equally brutal sons Uday and Qusay were just as fond of badly customized Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagens.
- King Farouk (Egypt, 1936-1952): The last king of Egypt was one of Enzo Ferrari’s earliest fans. In addition to amassing a valuable collection of rare American coins (and a not-so-valuable collection of fezzes), Farouk owned several early Ferraris including a rare 1952 212 Inter, one of the last cars that he bought prior to being deposed by a group of army officers later that year.
- Juan Perón (Argentina, 1946-1955): Like fellow Latin American dictator Rafael Trujillo, Perón was also a Ferrari fan. Like Farouk, he was a fan of the 212 Inter model and he ordered a rare and striking version of the car with coachwork by Ghia. Unlike the other deposed dictators on the list, Perón actually lived to be reunited with the car when he returned to Argentina from his 1955-73 exile. He spent the last year of his life with his beloved yellow and black Ferrari in his possession again.
Honorable Mention: Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen (Republic of Wadiya 1992-????): Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictitious character Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen from the movie “The Dictator” displays an affinity for what appears to be a fleet of gold-plated Hummer H2s.