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Nineteen Fifty Meets: Billy Karam

 Published: 23 January, 2023

A name synonymous with the Lebanese racing scene is Billy Karam. The man has done it all, from winning the national rally and hillclimb championships 8 times to holding 6 different Guinness World Records. His journey to the top wasn’t an easy one. Like many Lebanese, Billy had to move abroad at a young age after the country was swept away by a bloody civil war. Years later, however, a passion for racing that was embedded in him at a young age was rekindled. A passion that ended up taking him across numerous continents, as both a racer and collector of model cars. On the track, he’s known as one of the fiercest and most successful Lebanese drivers. Off it, he’s known as the owner of the biggest model car collection, tucked away in a one of kind museum. I had the privilege to sit down with Billy and ask him a few questions on his early beginnings, passions and future plans.

Tell us a bit about your passion for cars. How did it start and where did it come from?

When I was young my older brother Rony had a Vauxhall Viva GT and he was a rally fan, he wanted to compete. Unfortunately, he had eye problems and at the time the races were mostly in the evening. He ended up competing in only two rallies and then had to stop. This is how the passion started, I followed him, loved his car, and started to like racing. Although he stopped, my passion grew stronger. My brother also had Marklin Trains dioramas and I was always intrigued by them; this is how my passion for dioramas started.

Can you tell us more about your racing career?

I started racing very late. As you know for racing, you need capital. However, I did not enjoy the support of my family, my mother was very anxious since it’s a very risky sport. I got my start later on in life when I was in my early 30s after spending my younger years abroad. I had this friend of mine, Michel Araman, whose brother Tony was also a rally champion. We used to go watch him race against Tony Georgio. That’s how the passion started to grow steadily. One day Michel invited me to a race he was racing in and I decided to join with my BMW. I thought that was a good idea, so I went on and raced. The times I set were much better than many of the racers that had more powerful cars. Michel saw some talent there and told me to go buy a proper rally car and start racing. So, I bought a normal Porsche, a 911 SC with 240 hp that honestly had nothing special about it. I used it for one race and nearly died, it was very risky, the car was sliding, and I was going too fast. Nonetheless I got very good results and people started to tell me that I should buy a car that’s more equipped for racing, that I couldn’t continue with the car that I had. This is when I went to Paris Salon de l’Auto and I saw the Almeras Freres, which was a French racing team. I told them what I was racing with, and the manager started asking me technical questions like if I had slick tires, a roll cage, a torsion bar, racing seat belts, or special breaks. The answer was I didn’t have any of those! And they told me “are you crazy? Do you want to die? This is not how you should race! You should come see our warehouse and see how we fix a Porsche for racing.”. So I went down to Montpelier where his garage was. I was one of his only Middle Eastern clients, he was happy to have me there. This is when I bought all the racing equipment necessary for racing and installed it on my car. This is when I finished 2nd in the Lebanese rally championship and was even faster than proper racing cars. It’s also when I realized I had talent, and I should push more and go all the way. In 1985, I had to change my car, I couldn’t compete with the SC anymore, there were Renault 5 turbos and other much faster cars. My aim was always to win, I’m very competitive. I was born this way. I was a Lebanese table tennis champion, I used to play basketball, I finished 4th once in the Lebanese skiing competition. My mentality is racing, I always want to be first. My father taught me to be this way. Later, I went once to Cyprus where a rally was being held and met Said el Hajiri, who was driving the Rothmans 911 SC RS with which I won the first Lebanese Rally Championship. I went to him and told him I loved his car and I wanted to buy it. He answered that it wasn’t his, he was only the driver, and that I should contact David Richards. This is what I did, I went and talked to him to settle the matter. He told me “After the end of the year, if you want this car, you must come and buy it in London. It will be first come first served basis.” I got excited and asked him when. When the time came, I was the first one there and purchased the car. However, we had an issue with Lebanon. It was during the war, and we couldn’t find a way to ship the car there. I had to be there for the Rally du Printemps. From Jordan, I was on my own, I had to find a way to get it to Lebanon. We couldn’t even pass the Syrian border, so I had to ship it from Jordan to Greece, then Greece to Cyprus and from Cyprus to Lebanon by boat. It arrived one day before the race. I couldn’t practice, I didn’t know how the car felt, I hadn’t driven it. During the first round, I wasn’t good enough and was involved in a little crash. We managed to fix the car in time and by the end I fast enough to claim first overall, by only a small margin. Later in 1986, I won all the races with the Rothmans Porsche. I even beat a Renault 5 Turbo, which was faster than my car. From then, I clenched a total of 8 Lebanese rally and hillclimb Championships. I also competed in Trophée Andros on ice, Rallycross against Sebastien Loeb and Solberg, all the big guys. This is when you improve. I did a couple of rallies in the desert, which was a completely different experience. It opened different skill sets. I also was supposed to win the rally in Dubai but finished 2nd because of politics. I also drove with Carlos Sainz in 1986 for four kilometers in his Subaru and learned a lot from him. I also drove with Said el Hajiri in the desert. This is how I learned, I didn’t go to any school and didn’t grow up in this environment as my family didn’t want me to race, they had blocked the financing for racing so I had to bring in my own money. My best souvenirs I have are the ones with the Rothmans Porsche 911 RS. I had an accident with it, I won the Lebanese Championship with it, it was my first real racing car. And it was a beautiful one, the passion I provoked in Lebanon by bringing a new car like this one to Lebanon was huge. It’s not about money, it’s in the heart. And 30 years later I still have people talking to me about that Porsche and remembering it. For me, that’s worth everything.

What got you into collecting model cars?

Every boy has a small collection of toys, and so did I when I was young, a small one, like everyone else. I also had some dioramas, I was good at working with wood, because my family were wood traders and used those skills to build several things that I collected. When our house was robbed in Beirut, my collection was stolen. I was heartbroken. And I think this provoked something in me, I wanted to recover everything I had lost. When I went to the salon de l’Automobile in Paris, I saw my Rothmans Porsche in model cars. There were 10 examples of it and I bought them all. I then changed the stickers and put my name on it. This is how I started collecting. I was buying everything related to the cars I owned. Then I went for all the cars I would have loved to have but didn’t. Then all the cars would have loved to race with but didn’t have. Then one day I went to the Nuremberg Toy Fair and bought 1000 cars from Minichamps. My collection grew and grew. I was collecting them at home. I found myself having no more place at home. This is when my wife told me “No! You stop here. It’s either your cars or you who stays. You cannot go on like this. You have some space at the warehouse, why not dedicate a space for them?”. And this is how I got the idea to start building the Museum. I said to my brother “You take a room for your classic cars, I’ll take one for the model cars.”. And this is what we did. So, we now had a space dedicated to that, it opened doors to buying more cars. I own now more than 40,000 model cars.

How do you find the model cars you are looking for?

It happens when you go to auto shows around the world which is the perfect space for people selling model cars there. I have now more than 19 representations including Minichamps, Norev, Exoto, etc. I started to buy as an agent, in bulk. The most difficult to find were my own cars, because I wanted to have all the models of cars I owned. I had to find the model cars, then change them and add my own stickers. It involved taking them to a professional in France to do that.

How did you get your first Guinness World Record?

I got the first one by chance. The Guinness World Record team was in Lebanon for some hummus or tabouleh record, and I was invited to one of the ceremonies being held. This is when I talked to their team and told them about my collection of model cars. At that time, the record was held by someone in Dubai who had 12,000 cars. I told them I thought mine was larger and obviously they asked to see it, so we met at the Museum. They were impressed. They told me to count it and give them the right number and went back to Europe. After counting them, we realized we had more than 20,000 model cars. We had to prepare an official tally with witnesses, article names and description, etc. They accepted the handover and came back to Beirut and checked if everything was in order. This is when they gave me the Guinness World Record. Since then, I’ve managed to build a privileged relationship with them as I now hold 6 records with 3 others still pending.

You have multiple Guinness World Records, one of which include dioramas. Can you tell us more about it?

The dioramas are a mirror of what’s happening in my life and what influenced it throughout the years. I love to create dioramas. All the dioramas are linked to me and to what I like. You can see in the Museum different kinds of dioramas including war dioramas. As Lebanese we are affected by war, and I wanted to reflect it in those dioramas. To get the Guinness World Record, you must build them yourself. Simply, I had the biggest collection of dioramas in the world in one place.

Do you have a favorite car or car manufacturer?

I won my first championship with the Porsche, and I was the first one in the middle east to initiate the Porsche Club of Lebanon. We did all the formalities. I got a medal from Porsche AG recognizing that even during the war I had initiated a Porsche Club that had more than 100 members. We used to do car meets under the bombs. So of course, I am a Porschist. It’s my favorite, I have a special bond with the brand.

Are you still into motorsports?

You should know that we tried to get Formula 1 and WRC to Lebanon. WRC, at that time, wanted gravel roads instead of asphalt. They had enough asphalt tracks. So that’s why they gave the contract to Jordan instead of Lebanon. For Formula 1, we worked very hard to get the contract, we wanted to bring it to Lebanon. It was accepted and we signed the contract with Bernie Ecclestone, who was the CEO. We chose the circuit, it was in Solidaire, Beirut. We even got Herman Tilke to Lebanon, he’s the one whose designed most of the F1 tracks around the world. Charlie Whiting even came to Lebanon, the FIA Formula 1 race director. Unfortunately, the Lebanese government delayed the Solidaire project, and it wasn’t finished in time. As you know, Politics in Lebanon is messed up and government officials don’t help the sports community here as they should. I delivered. We signed and brought the contract. But you know, the politicians weren’t ready, as usual.

What’s next for Billy Karam?

To be frank, as Lebanese, we were hit very hard during the economic crisis. I’m one of them. And we stopped a lot of our activities. Now our aim is to save our company and employees and we’ve been in survival mode for the past 3 years and it’s getting worse and worse. After shutting down the museum because of the pandemic, we managed to recently reopen which was a big boost. I have the same message as usual to my visitors. I want to show them more about the car culture, and history in general. There’s an important message that I try to give to everyone, it is to stay safe, to respect safety on the roads. We are all parents; we want our children to come back home safely. Put your seatbelts, don’t drink and drive, don’t use your phone while driving. I had racing accidents in my life, and I want to teach the new generation about safety. This earned me an award from an NGO at the United Nations as my Museum had a double message. I was also encouraged by Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, who came three times to visit the museum, to push more on the safety idea.

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