Ismail Aktekin is a simple farmer in Turkey's Konya province. But history may also remember him as a local Henry Ford.
More than 40 years ago Aktekin started a cottage industry that built crude vehicles for his fellow farmers. These days Aktekin's grandson, also named Ismail, runs the business and says his shop produces about three of the vehicles per month. He estimated that some three-quarters of the local farmers own one. Demand these days is so great that several shops across several provinces are working full-tilt. Hundreds of the vehicles are produced every year in these small shops, most of them the size of a garage, usually located in villages. According to some estimates, there are roughly 250 people involved in their production and the sales are mainly in Turkey, although one farmer mentioned exports as far as Afghanistan.
The vehicles do not have a brand, and they go by different names in different regions of Turkey. In some places they are called "paht-pahts," so dubbed because of way their motors go "paht-paht-paht-paht-paht." In Aktekin's home region, however, they are more commonly known as "tak-taks." Whatever they are called, these motorized carts clearly favor function over form. Far from status symbols, they have nonetheless endeared themselves to myriad farmers, many of whom are unable to afford a more traditional auto.
The motors run on diesel fuel and can reach speeds of 80 to 90 kilometers per hour (about 45 mph). Everyone says they get better gas mileage than a car - estimates range from 30 percent to 70 percent more efficient, but it is not easy to pin down exact numbers for an unregulated and hand-built vehicle, so here are some guesstimates from various mechanics and farmers: "it runs for a whole hour on just one liter," "maybe 100 kilometers from four liters?" "Cheap, cheap, cheap..."
The main savings come from the purchase price. While the paht-paht doesn't offer the comforts of a car, it costs only about 5,000 TL ($3,000). Considering that a Dutch-made tractor costs about 60,000 TL - or 100 tons of potatoes, as one farmer remarked - and a car is somewhere around 20,000 TL, it is not surprising that local roads are clogged with paht-pahts.
The surprise is how they were invented. The first paht-paht sputtered to life in Aktekin's now-abandoned workshop. A farmer with no formal education, Aktekin, tended his crops in the village of Altuntas, but in his spare time he took apart and rebuilt engines. "He spent 20 years playing with it," said his grandson, "He improved it day by day, experimenting."
His family described him as a tinkerer and a gear-head of sorts. "He wanted to make an airplane," said his wife, "He was interested in all of those machines - planes, helicopters." When asked how he managed to create such a useful innovation she just pointed to her head. "He was very smart," another relative exclaimed.
Today the Aktekin family is well-known in the area and has reaped the benefits of Ismail's labors. A large house stands on their land and there are various improvements underway, but Ismail's mechanical experiments still litter the ground, with a rusty drill here and a modified truck there.
Sometime in the late 1960s, the first paht-paht hit the road. The modified irrigation pump motor was linked to a crankshaft and a frame and hauled cargo and people alike. These pumps have been a common sight in rural regions for generations, but before Ismail they were only used to irrigate fields. Today's paht-pahts are still not street legal and lack a license plate, but that hasn't stopped the mechanics from upgrading the vehicles, installing headlights, various transmissions, even the occasionally enclosed cabin or festive paint job.
The engine has been retrofitted to power other machines as well - it is not uncommon to see one motor powering the paht-paht while its twin, sitting in the back, turns a large drill that links the irrigation pipes to the water table underground.
Vladic Ravich is a freelance photojournalist based in Turkey.