The raw statistics are daunting: A country with a total land area of 316 sq. kilometres, a human population of around 440,000 and – wait for it – a total of 352,671 licensed motor vehicles (as at June 2016). That’s about four vehicles for every five persons on the islands!
Looking closely at the above numbers one finds that 79% are passenger cars, 13.5% are commercial vehicles, and 6% are motorcycles, while buses and minibuses account for less than one per cent. Still that is quite a large number of private cars and one can say that to find a carless Maltese family today is indeed a rarity – the average is more like two cars per household in fact.
Malta’s love affair with the car goes back a long way and records show that the first car registered in Malta was as long ago as 1907. This was a Siddley 1904 model and it is known to have been driven around Gozo where it apparently scared the locals… Needless to say it had the somewhat prestigious registration Number 1.
The high car population in Malta can perhaps be best explained by sociological changes over the past forty years or so. People became more mobile, looking for jobs and opportunities beyond their immediate vicinity; small neighbourhood shops (though still going strong in some areas) gave way to larger supermarkets away from town centres, and the ever increasing need to socialise after hours. This last is one area where public transport in Malta failed miserably until a few years ago – buses stopped running from 11pm to around 5am. In recent years buses run a limited night service which connects the entertainment hub of St.Julians with Valletta and most places. It is doubtful if this will help reduce the craving for new cars though – currently 36 new vehicles are added to Malta’s roads daily…
Though driving in Malta is relatively safe you will likely be caught up in a traffic jam at some time if you choose to hire a car on your holiday. The inner harbour areas are the most affected at rush hour. Rush hours are normally anything from 7 to 9am and 4 to 7pm Mondays to Saturdays. A yearly traffic ‘phenomenon’ is the restart of the school year in late September which can cause something approaching gridlock for a week or two. Gozo (blissfully) has no such problems – one tends to find some traffic on the Mgarr to Victoria road but driving everywhere else on the sister island can still be considered a pleasure.0
The Maltese love of cars is more than skin deep. There are scores of car enthusiasts and the island’s Old Motors Club (http://www.oldmotorsclub.com/) holds frequent static displays of classic cars. Some cars from bygone days are still seen regularly on Malta’s roads: Ford Prefects are still relatively common, one can sometimes still spot the odd Ford Anglia and older versions of classic cars like Mercedes and Zephyrs are driven with justifiable pride. Oddly enough the 1970’s Escort MK1 remains a cult car on the island and is much sought after by both collectors and drivers.
For heavier work the classic British Bedford trucks remain a mainstay on Maltese roads and are mostly impeccably kept. Most feature a very local variant of decorated script called ‘tberfil’.
The resort of Qawra hosts Malta’s only classic cars museum (http://www.classiccarsmalta.com/) with approximately a hundred impeccably kept cars on display with the oldest dating from 1928. A museum to house some of Malta’s iconic old buses has been planned for some time though in the meantime a good number of the old workhorses remain abandoned at a Marsa wharf.