What you need to know:
- Restoration of ancient machines brings out the qualities of patience and meticulousness to their purest forms and no hamlet in the four corners of the earth is too far to search for parts
- Sati Jabbal’s home resembles a Doughty showroom in its heyday only that his collection includes every imaginable model. Currently, he is shopping for space to continue feeding his passion
- Gata-Aura is today one of the most consistent participants in the Concourse d’Elegance and his immaculate 1947 green and cream MGT is a real gem
Covid-19 applied the brakes on the 50th anniversary of the Concours d’Elegance but if there was disappointment, there is no sight or sound of it in the garages of Kenya’s champions of motor vehicle restoration.
If anything, the pandemic has increased the quality time with their prized possessions and the golden jubilee beauty show, now deferred to September, 2021, promises to be one for all time.
Restoration of ancient machines brings out the qualities of patience and meticulousness to their purest forms and no hamlet in the four corners of the earth is too far to search for parts.
Collector of many interests
It also brings out an obsessive passion that seems capable of overriding almost everything else; here is one field where the utterance of the word crazy, far from causing offence, is welcomed as a compliment.
And if it were not for Covid-19, it could even earn you a high five.
For more than 30 years now, Paul Chemng’orem has been a fixture of the Concours d’Elegance. The book keeper, wine expert, family man, collector of many interests and obsessive amateur mechanic is as much at home in a greasy blue overall in a jua kali garage in Kariobangi discussing Volkswagen nuts and bolts as he is in a Savile Row suit attending a classic car show in the UK.
He has about two dozen cars of various models in his stable and he casts his eye for parts near and far. Chemng’orem, 70, a long time managing director of the Kenya Wine Agencies Ltd before retiring into a variety of interests including wines, discovered his love for tinkering with gadgets early.
He told me: “I was about 14 years old and we were listening to the radio in the family living room. In those days it was called a wireless. My sister cheated me that the voice was coming from a human head inside the radio and I decided to see for myself. So I opened up the radio but found no head, only wires.
"I restored the radio to its original state and it worked just as before. However, I was reported to my father, a teacher by profession and a no nonsense disciplinarian. Have you ever come by a cane made out of palm tree fronds? It doesn’t break no matter how hard you are thrashed with it. My father gave me a thorough caning to set me straight.”
Did he succeed? No, he didn’t.
Chemng’orem’s love for tinkering would see him graduate to become a service crew member for Peter Shiyukah, the first African driver to finish the Safari Rally. He worked with the likes of David Dambo, Shiyukah’s regular co-driver, Aziz Yakub and a host of other Safari legends.
“I am hands on,” he told me. “I am to be found in the middle of anything I want done.”
Sati Jabbal is a warm and personable man whose tender persona belies a great fighting spirit.
His parents wanted him to become a draftsman. But he had no interest in it.
His passion was in motorbikes and he found his way into Doughty Ltd, the company in Industrial Area, Nairobi that held the Honda franchise in Kenya.
And there, he found his purpose in this world. He was so consumed with his work that if a DNA test were administered on him, it would match that of the motorbikes he was fixing - any motorbikes. But then, he almost died on board the machine of his adoration.
He told me: “On 20th October 1990, I was involved in a head-on collision with a car that had strayed into my lane while overtaking another one on Valley Road. To understand the seriousness of the accident, I wrote off the car I collided with and its occupants were injured and needed hospitalization.
"I broke my pelvis and my bladder burst. I was in hospital for six months including eight days in the intensive care unit.
"A friend that I considered very close to me looked at me and told me: ‘You’re finished. You’re gone.’ By that time, I had left Doughty and was running a thriving motorbike service business at Wilson Airport. As I lay helpless in hospital, he proceeded to recruit my best mechanic.
“The Concours d’Elegance restored me. It became the object of my focus. I swore to live, to restore bikes like no one else could. And you know what? I succeeded! Because of the severe injuries I sustained in the accident, I suffered a lot and I still suffer even today. For a long time, I was on crutches.
"But since I rebuilt my first Honda 404 bike I am a regular winner at the Concours. My appetite was sharpened by the accident. I really needed to prove to the people who betrayed our friendship that my life was not over. Despite all this, I nursed no hard feelings. I even helped the people who hurt me when they requested it.”
Sati Jabbal’s home resembles a Doughty showroom in its heyday only that his collection includes every imaginable model. Currently, he is shopping for space to continue feeding his passion. And his 1925 machine is a true sight to behold.
Sati Gata-Aura was an aeronautical engineer with Kenya Airways before retiring into restoring vintage cars.
He had started off enthusiastically as a rally driver before undergoing an epiphany. During the 1978 Safari Rally, he reached the last leg of what turned out to be a car wrecker.
In a 1986 interview with the defunct Auto News magazine, he narrated: “Shekhar Mehta helped us with some competition suspension parts but the car was otherwise standard. It went remarkably well but the combination of a couple of little troubles and our own exhaustion finally brought down the axe.”
The car was used for a few more national rallies and its punishment continued until “I just couldn’t justify it anymore and KRT 168 began a new life.”
For a man whose vocation was caring meticulously for fine machinery and whose hobby was restoration of old cars, Auto News noted, rallying was a major emotional wrench.
Almost with a spirit of repentance and apology, Gata-Aura set about repairing the damage – not just to sound cosmetic and working order but to a level of detailed care and quality finish that far exceeded the efforts of the factory which built the car in the first place.
Gata-Aura is today one of the most consistent participants in the Concourse d’Elegance and his immaculate 1947 green and cream MGT is a real gem.
Peter Wanday is the chairman of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club. He is the only one I spoke to whose whole family shares his passion in its entirety.
“In this house,” he told me, “we are all motor sport enthusiasts. There is an unwritten rule that if you hit the age of four, you graduate from a bicycle to a two wheeled machine which is a motor cycle. All my four children have ridden motor cycles. My son, Ted Wanday, has, of course, raced competitively.”
Like Chemng’orem, he started at an early age. His father, a civil servant with the Ministry of Works, owned a Ford Cortina and every weekend, a mechanic came to fix it. (It seemed to always need some fixing). Wanday became enamored of the man and hang around him until his task was done. By and by, he became the mechanic’s spanner boy and his scientific mind, which would eventually bloom into becoming a civil engineer, served him in good stead.
“Passion is not something you can easily describe,” he told me. “It is something that you find in yourself or something that grows inside you. I just found myself taking an interest in motoring even before I was 10 years old. Out of my father’s Cortina, I was able to grow and started pulling down BMW and Alfa Romeo engines.
“And I have won prizes at the Concourse with the machines I worked on. I am a purist; I believe that all the parts of a vehicle should be original.”
Fierce as the competition is, Concourse competitors do it for the satisfaction because there isn’t any prize that can reward their input.
The expense in time and money cannot be covered by the trophies but the fulfilment goes beyond words.
That is why the field is crowded with repeat participants, sometimes showcasing new machines and at other times upgrading the old ones.
Wanday now organises a Concourse that is a big event in Kenya’s social calendar. It attracts visitors from the East African neighbourhood and from as far as Australia and Europe.
Biggest of them all
The one-day event is attended by an average 10,000 spectators and continues to grow.
All the country’s motor sports clubs attend it as do car accessory dealers, oil companies, classic car salespeople and a heritage collection featuring machinery such as steam engines and tractors.
And so, like almost everything else sport and life, the year 2020 is lost but to those given the fortune of living when so many others have gone, the days are full.
The Concours d’Elegance, now pushed one year back to September 26, 2021 but still themed 50th anniversary, is sure to be the biggest of them all.
There are Concours d’Elegance events around the world which feature classic and vintage cars and motorcycles and Kenya’s event is arguably Africa’s most prestigious.
It has been maintained over this last half century by the Alfa Romeo Owners Club whose first anniversary event took place at the Spread Eagle Hotel, now the Safari Park on the Thika Superhighway.
At that time, the occasion was limited to members of the club. But its appeal resulted in the decision to organize a Concours each year to celebrate the Club’s anniversaries.
Bob Dewar was appointed to arrange, develop and manage the events and has continued to be the Event Director since 1971.
During the 10th anniversary of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club, the Concours d’Elegance was opened to all makes and types of cars, pickups and SUVs.
To provide the space needed for more competitors, machines and spectators the chosen venue was the Embakasi Motor Racing Circuit.
This was located in an area designated for sports and recreation. Subsequently there was a change of user to commercial and the land has become part of Nairobi’s industrial area.
With the expansion of the Concours to cater for all makes of cars, the Alfa Romeo Owners Club invited the late Peter Hughes to be the Chief Judge.
He was a former East African Safari Rally winner and became the Chairman of the Competitions Division of the AA of Kenya which evolved into the Kenya Motorsport Federation.
Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports reporter, is a writer with The Content House.