KARAJ, Iran (Reuters) -- Before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, some of the world's finest cars cruised the Tehran traffic, many of them the playthings of friends and close associates of the Shah.
When the Shah, a self-confessed car fanatic, was toppled, his allies ran for cover and their property was confiscated. The Mercedes, Ferraris and Bentleys were hidden away in suburban garages. One Lamborghini Miura was buried beneath a shed.
Now the weathered classic cars are slipping out of their hiding places and enthusiasts are hoping to put together what they are confident will be one of the world's foremost museum collections.
"These are national treasures, the crown jewels," said Ramin Salehkhoo, who heads the classic car section of Iran's Automobile Federation. "We have new discoveries every week."
Some of the finest specimens of Iran's automobile history have been spruced up and put on display in a tiny museum in the industrial town of Karaj, just west of Tehran.
Behind the museum is a cavernous warehouse, holding about 150 classic cars awaiting renovation.
Caked in dust and bird droppings, they are spectres of another age, redolent of the royal jet-set.
Hidden among the Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Dodges and Rolls-Royces is the sprightly, olive-green Ferrari 512 BB boxer that King Hussein of Jordan picked up for the Shah on his visit to the Ferrari factory.
Up against the wall is the enormous bullet-proof burgundy Rolls-Royce Phantom IV that carried crown prince Reza from hospital after his birth in 1960.
Down the steps is the Porsche 911 that was confiscated by traffic police keen to give speeding motorists a taste of their own medicine.
The headlights are still coated with thick blue paint so they would not catch the eye of Iraqi jets on night patrols when the two countries were at war from 1980 to 1988.
A MORE OPULENT AGE
The registration plate on the red and cream Mercedes 220 hails from Abadan, deep in the oil heartlands of Iran's southwest.
It dates from the time when Iran was producing six million barrels of crude a day. It produces four million a day now.
Museum director Majid Jafari said this gloomy warehouse had attracted chief engineers from Porsche and Mercedes to see some of their companies' masterpieces.
The museum's Mercedes 500K is the world's last, rumoured to have carried Hitler to troop inspections in Russia, and has fetched offers of $3 million.
It is not for sale. "The Shah used the treasury to buy these cars, so they belong to the people," said Salehkhoo.
Jafari said visitors were nostalgic.
"Some come out of curiosity to see what it was like in that time, others like to see custom-built cars for their uniqueness," he added.
Visitors can inspect the royal beach-buggy and the refrigerator and record-player in the C30 Chrysler coupe that belonged to the Shah's second wife, Soraya Esfandiary.
Still locked in the dusty warehouse is an exceedingly rare silver sportscar hand-crafted by Giotto Bizzarrini, who later joined Lamborghini.
Funds available for restoring the dilapidated cars to their former glory are meagre but Salehkhoo said Iran's fast-growing car industry had showed an interest in helping.
Car makers such as Iran Khodro and Saipa are now looking abroad for loans and bond issues. Investment from Peugeot and Renault is turning Iran into a regional car making centre.
One car missing is the Shah's favorite, a Lamborghini Miura SVJ that was smuggled out of the country and briefly ended up as the run-around of U.S. film star Nicolas Cage.
When the Shah's nephew graduated from military academy, his uncle said his reward would be any of the 3,000-strong royal car collection.
"Apart from the SVJ," the Shah added hastily.