The Gods Must Love Cars

Last Sunday I was going to go to the races – to the horse races at the Nairobi Racecourse. I was prepared to brave the traffic, despite the roadworks of the Ngong Road and even though the Nairobi International Trade Fair was also on at Jamhuri Park. But the morning was wet and chilly. I changed my mind.

It made me think. The gods must love cars. Every year they make the sun shine on Kenya’s Concours d’Elegance. On the days before the event the skies were grey and there was rain about. But they cleared for the Concours and the cars gleamed in the sunshine. As for many of the last years, I was there as the volunteer Press Officer. Each year, its media centre grows bigger and more energetic.

Writing a press release was an easy and enjoyable task. This year it was the 49th time the event was organised by the Alfa Romeo Owners Club – and the eighth time it has been sponsored by the Commercial Bank of Africa. As usual, there was an almost full complement of competing cars – 72 of them – and 31 motorcycles. But the Concours is much more than a competition for classic cars and bikes. It is a motor show, yes, and it is a fairground, a carnival, a grand parade, a fashion show, a day out for the family. As I then wrote – and as I have written many times – the Concours has become one of Kenya’s most popular social events. Once again, about 10,000 spectators went along to the Nairobi Racecourse.

The organisers have found a formula for the Concours that works well. It attracts competitors from other countries. This year, three entries drove their cars and 13 rode their motorcycles from Uganda; three South African competitors flew from Johannesburg. I chatted to one of the Ugandan competitors, a man with an impressive name – Kakooza Wazzir. He had driven his 1980 Toyota Mark II Corona from Kampala. In the paddock he had proudly displayed the Uganda flag over the car’s bonnet. With his pink suit, black homburg, black waistcoat, white shirt and white shoes with black heels, he himself deserved a prize for elegance.

But it was one of the oldest cars in the event that took the top prize – John Roe’s 1930 Ford Model A. John Roe is an ardent restorer and collector of classic cars. He showed me around his amazing collection a few years ago at his place in Karen. He has the unique Rolls Royce Boatail that won the Concours last year. And he has a couple of cars that featured in the film ‘Out of Africa’: the magnificent 1928 International SS Motor Truck, driven in the film by Robert Redford, and the Hotchkiss Coupe from the 1930s – shown in the film being admired by a couple of Masai Moran.

I suppose that when the Concours was initiated 49 years ago, it was mainly a mzungu event. It isn’t now. Most of the competitors are now African. And the majority of the thousands of the spectators are also African. If the gods love cars, so do Kenyans.

So what is it about cars? Anywhere in the world they are status symbols, of course, but here in Kenya very much so. Back in the days when I was teaching a masters course in adult education at Southampton University, one of my students was from the literacy scheme in Kenya. He got his degree all right. But on the eve of his departure he said, ‘What credibility will I have when I go out to the villages on my bicycle or even on my piki-piki. “Where is your fat stomach?” they will ask, “Where is your Mercedes?”.

But there is much more to it than that. I hear the young competitors talking about the history of their vehicles. I hear them talking about the thrills on their motorbikes and the beauty of their cars. It is a good sign for Kenya’s Concours.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation