1995:AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF MOTORING IN KENYA by Gavin Bennett
CHAPTER ONE 1895-1907 START ENGINES, OR SHOULD WE SAY ... PUSH!
Summoning what breath and dignity he could muster, George Wilson sat poker stiff at the wheel of Kenya’s first ever car and, staring fixedly ahead, he uttered the historic cry: PUSH!
Today, exactly 80 years later that clarion call still echoes throughout the land. Kenya’s pioneer motorists were a tough, enterprising lot. They must also have been quite mad. For when the first automobile was lowered from a steamship in Mombasa in December 1903, a determined pedestrian could go further without breaking down, an ox-wagon could carry more cargo, a horse drawn carriage was more comfortable, and a mule was quicker to start up and a great deal cheaper to run. And a couple of other things: there were no garages, no petrol pumps and, er ....only one major road in the entire country.
Historians always bestow upon pioneers the qualities of vision, indomitable courage and endurance which they undoubtedly had. Formal records refer to their other vital attribute as ‘eccentricity’. Thus is came to pass that the eccentric George Wilson (Bwana Tayari ) (1), offloaded a curious contraption called a De Dion Bouton before a bemused gathering of pith helmets and parasols at Mombasa’s old port. They watched this object of wonder with a mixture of reverence and disbelief as the cameraman disappeared behind a whoosh of magnesium powder that doused everyone in clouds of acrid smoke . Little did they realise how apt a prelude that was.
A gaggle of excited totos (2) ( the adults wouldn’t go anywhere near it ) pushed that first car from the quayside to the Grand Hotel, for it was another two days before horsepower actually took over from manpower and Kenya heard the spluttering concerto of the internal combustion engine. For its petrol had to be offloaded from the ship in four-gallon tins, similar to the kerosene debes (packed two in a wooden box) that were the mode of the era. And Wilson, ably assisted by his wife, had to pay earnest attention to a service manual to discover where to put the oil and grease and how to adjust the various brass levers on the steering wheel to get the spark and fuel mixture just right (3). And it didn’t help to have sceptical traction engine mechanics poking around asking where the boiler was! But when he finally got the engine to fire, he had indeed started something. For while his De Dion was the only car in Kenya, it was a sluggish conveyance. But the moment another car followed in its tracks, it became a racing machine.
Precisely because of the antipathy of the environment, Kenya’s motoring neither started nor grew in the normal manner. It was born of man’s universal obsession with chariots - his burning desire to go further and faster than the next fellow. The growing band of bangers was spurred on by this and this alone. At this stage, Kenya merely had a few mad motorsportsmen. In the years to come, the whole country was to go motorsport mad ... and remain so. Competitive motoring in France by this time was chapeau vieux, having started in 1887 and grown into a regular four-way fight between De Dion, Panhard Levassor, Peugeot and Renault. Thanks to the primitive nature of most cars, the immediate challenge was merely to keep the beast going. Motorsports meant Reliability Trials.
For as the apocryphal tale of Mombasa’s first ever road race goes: the official starter was able to flag the cars away and then climb astride his velocipede (bicycle) and pedal to the finishing line in good time to signal in the winner! Whatever speeds those whiz-kids attained, they rarely maintained it for more than a few miles before the engine overheated (and they had to resort to the caustic soda treatment) or the carburettor choked or they had a flat tyre. And quite apart from the mechanical limitations, it took a man with a strong stomach to coax a car up to those dizzy velocities of 20 mph (5). Control of the car was so poor that in England the government introduced the Red Flag Act, which insisted that any petrol-powered conveyance in motion upon a public thoroughfare had to be preceded by an attendant on foot, waving a red flag.
This rule was less bizarre than it might at first seem, when one considers that the pilots of these vehicles were definitely L-plate material, and in absent-minded moments were still prone to shouting ‘woah’ instead of depressing the middle pedal. Handbrakes were more familiar to these recently elevated cart and carriage drivers, though the automotive version did not press a large wooden spatula against the wheel but instead caused a belt to wrap around the drive shaft. An all-or-nothing procedure at best. The manuals did foresee the possibility of these belts breaking instead of braking, and advised that: the driver should make appropriate adjustments to the steering wheel to ensure that the vehicle comes to rest against a suitable soft obstruction, such as a hedge!
And Kenya didn’t even have any of those! Mombasa was the only town, and was flattered by the title. It was a steamy island and had more elephants and leopards than buildings, and its nearest equivalent to a suitably soft obstruction was a tangled, fleshy jungle slithering with snakes. The buildings were a tumble-down shambles of tin and terrazzo, broken by a maze of musty lanes wafted by the mingling odours of spices, wet rope, sea salt and simple humanity. Yet a few places have so stirring a history as this ‘town of war’. No town has been besieged, captured, burned and sacked so often and the massive Portuguese stronghold of the Fort Jesus has looked down for more than three centuries on wave upon wave of intruding influence. At times it might have trembled. At the car, it probably laughed. Perhaps it should have trembled after all.
When Wilson got moving, the country’s road map was not too complicated. It was drawn in 1897 and consisted of the dot of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean seaboard and the dot of Mumia (now Mumias) close to the North Eastern shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza. These points were joined by a single wiggly line. That was all - just 590 miles of earth road, winding its tortured way across the Nyika (cauterised desert scrubland and the tsetse fly belt) past Kilimanjaro (Africa’s highest mountain) through the black cotton Kapiti plains to the bamboo covered Kikuyu Hills, then down through the lakes and water-courses of the Great Rift Valley (Masai country) and over the densely forested highlands of the Challenging to the Nile Basin. Cutting and constructing the Uganda Road - entirely by the hand - through this spellbinding land teeming with the wild animals was an heroic achievement. People were scarce. Willing labour was scarcer. Tsetse fly killed the oxen and the mules so vital for transporting building materials. Malaria, blackwater fever and dysentery killed men. Heat and water shortages alternated with the floods which in turn could wash away months of work in a matter of minutes.
Without doubt the most forbidding section of this road was across the Nyika (Taru Desert) Nature could not have provided a more effective barrier between the outside world and the interior. By 1903 a further 190 miles of earth roads were being opened up chiefly between administrative centres. The most notable of these feeder roads ran between Nairobi and Fort Hall (Muranga) 56 miles, Lumbwa and Kericho 19 miles, Voi and Taveta 70 miles, and Machakos and Athi River 12 miles. In 1888 a mixture of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s largesse and the British Governments’ abhorrence of slaving had led to the formation of the Imperial British East Africa Company , headed by sir William Mackinnon - the first man to establish a regular and extremely valuable shipping service between Zanzibar and the go-down of East Africa and Central Africa, and part of Europe and India.
As a businessman, Mackinnon wanted to get to Uganda. Kenya was merely an inhospitable tract of high land and lying between him and viability. As a philanthropist he wanted to spread the benefits of learning the western culture throughout the region. He encouraged industrial mission stations, set up administrative posts and at one stage when the British Foreign Office was being particularly parsimonious he personally financed the building of part of the road. He chose a 25 year old Australian who came to Kenya in 1889 for the job. His name was George Wilson. The road followed the alignment of the old foot safaris (and still does to this day) where the porters used to muster at Mwembe Tayari (be prepared at the mango tree) and walk for seven days. There they could stock up for the hell-run across the pitiless Taru desert, many dying of thirst on the way to the next sure water at Voi. Those who survived that scorching torture trudged on, through drought and flood, day and night, through disease, mosquitoes . . . and larger carnivores. What was left of them was torn to shreds by the lava near Kibwezi.
And on, on to the big lake and the richer pickings of Uganda. For this the Uganda Road was built by men like Hobley, Wilson and Fundi Jones (the Mackinnon Road) and by Sclater, Hall and Smith (Sclater’s Road) in the footsteps of those extraordinary pioneers, the Wakamba. The Wakamba had dealt largely in spear tips (with which the buyers often later attacked the sellers). Arabs and Swahili had dealt in slaves and ivory, and that alone. The forests, mountains and lakes of the land called Kenya (meaning ‘mist’) were of no commercial or esoteric interest to them. The wildlife, the teeming, super-abundant wildlife was, with the exception of the elephant, merely a dangerous nuisance to the safaris. Only later did sportsmen from Europe and America exploit the full potential of happy hunting ground. And as order was painstakingly overlaid on this empty wild place, so trade broadened to include hides and skins.
The first Public Works Department carts rolled into Mumia in 1896, when the railway was still in coconut country near Mariakani. But the new law and order had rescued much of the country from oppression and barbaric bloodshed. And the railway, infinitely preferable to bare feet, soon put the porter out of business as it pressed its steel fingers toward the target. So by the time Wilson made the rubber meet the road, the trail was lonelier than ever and the African bush had begun to reclaim its own. (Now 80 years later, one is tempted to suspect that the same thing is happening again.)
An indicator of the road’s attractions to early motorists is the fact that it took 23 years after the arrival of the first car before a petrol vehicle completed the journey from Mombasa to Nairobi (the one-armed John Douglas and Syd Downey did it on a Harley Davidson motorcycle in 1926, and later the same year Galton-Fenzi matched them in a Riley). There were many cars in Nairobi before then, but they’d all got there ... by rail. A reliability trial through the meadows of Sussex was one thing. Crossing the natural low-tide Causeway of Mombasa and venturing into the interior of Kenya was quite another. Lion on the causeway had the right of way ... and regularly exercised it. And that was the civilised bit.
Another factor handicapped the would-be Mombasa-Nairobi aspirants. Nairobi wasn’t really there. In 1895, when Sclater built his road through the area, he paused at a camp called Pangani, and sheltered at a post called Fort Smith (Kabete). He had to slot in a few bends through the rivers and trees, but it was not until decades later that these became Forest Road, Parklands Road and Waiyaki Way. At the turn of the century, Nairobi’s only permanent resident was an illiterate Maltese sail-maker called James Martin. Otherwise the site was frequented only by Masai in the role of ‘tourist'. The railway brought Martin some company and a scattering of tin shacks and tents, and gradually Nairobi spawned on the ‘Hill’. A year later traders ensconced themselves on what is now Moi Avenue. There was a little of this for Wilson to aim at. Had he planned an inland trip, he would have thought in terms of Kwa Jomvu, the big Ivory market (and now home of AVA!) Maji ya chumvi (salt water), Mtito, Kibwezi, Fort Smith, Naivasha, Nakuru, Kambi ya Moto, Eldama Ravine, Nandi, Kakamega and Mumia.
There were other powerful disincentives to motorised travel. Although by 1903 in-line engines, clutches, gears and steering were being tamed so they were (roughly speaking) in their current form, cars still had non-removable wooden-spoked wheels. You only changed the rubber covers when you had a puncture. Even in the benign environment of Europe you had to change covers almost as often as you changed gears. Kenyans were discovering the added effects of equatorial sunlight, which perished tyres almost as fast as stones punctured them. Indeed, had Autonews existed then, its No. 1 motoring tip might have been on tyre care: immerse the tyre in a solution of carbolic acid and 5% glycerine to retard perishing, wash tyres with ammoniacal water to prevent splitting. On no account allow your tyres to come in contact with oil or fat, which will cause instant ruination (a fact which still echoes in motorists minds today, although it is largely a myth now, thanks to modern rubber compounds).
Any extended journey would have required a trunk full of patches, although there would have been little need for other spares, besides a drive chain (the propshaft had not been widely accepted). Early vehicle chassis were nothing if not simple and robust, and the whole machine was built to such casual tolerances that almost anything would be an adequate substitute for the correct part (a young tree in place of a leaf spring, for example). Spare petrol would likely have to be sent ahead by ox cart to Kibwezi mission. Had anyone been determined enough to make the drive to ‘Nairobi’, (with service crew, perhaps?) it would have taken at least 40 hours if problem free. So let’s say about a week.
Damn it, the rain was quicker! Still the clique of the motorists grew fertilised by some compulsive passion that we still all know so well, despite the confines of Mombasa’s streets, despite the scepticism of the petty bourgeois on their velocipedes and the grandees in their carriages (horse and railway). The Wilson’s of this world had to suffer numerous ignominies ... like discovering that the hoards of people who followed them round were not so impressed by the miracle of internal combustion engines, but were more interested in four-gallon tins they left in their wake. These instantly became the country’s most versatile containers, and were avidly hammered into stoves, pots, shower baths, flower pots, roof tiles and even wall panels. Many of these originals still survive in Mombasa to this day.
The debe is one of two things we can thank America for. The other is a cloth called Americani-for a time the currency of the country! Even mules and oxen were wrapped in American pyjamas as a protection against tsetse fly. Yet, perhaps there is a third thing: For in the early part of the century, the racing-bred French cars completely dominated the world market ... and thence the Kenya market. Germany (Daimler and Benz) came a poor second and Britain a tardy third. America was almost nowhere. Then, in 1908, something happened that revolutionised the whole picture. It raised motoring from a farce to a powerful force almost overnight. It increased the consumption of motor spirit beyond that of ale and whisky. It first reached our shores as a rumour. And then someone actually brought one here.
The cause of this fuss was not much more impressive to look at than the debes that fuelled it. It was even nicknamed the Tin Lizzy. It was the legendary the Model T Ford. The sceptics suddenly stopped laughing.
CHAPTER TWO: 1907-1920 KENYA GETS INTO GEAR WITH A CRUNCH
Evil roads, petrol shortages, no spares, diabolical mechanics, car crashes, currency scandals and a struggling economy. We are, of course, talking about Nairobi. Perhaps we should hastily add... in the year 1907. Winston Churchill came to Kenya to have a look-see in that year, and he left with the impression: ‘Everywhere hard work, strained resources, hopes persisting through many disappointments, stout hospitable hearts and the beginnings, at any rate of progress.’
We cannot escape the colossal irony that if he paid us another visit in 1983 he might leave with exactly the same words. Echoes, indeed. Then, as now, progress was somewhat anarchic. Then, as now, it was inextricably linked with transport and travel, at every level from the basic opening up of the land to delivery of goods to the general mobility and style of life. While transport became slow and unreliable, progress matched it stride for faltering stride. But when the car became capable, reliable and swift, all the other developments also roared ahead.
In 1907, the only thing that roared in Kenya was the lion. Progress made a noise better described as ‘clank, tinkle, rumble, clatter, clink, squeak, moan, chink, thud’ - the unmistakable sound of railway or ox wagon full of debes. Noise enough to make a man-eating Tsavo lion run a mile or send a herd of elephants storming off in trumpeting terror up the side of the Yatta Plateau. Perhaps the zoologists are wrong, and it was the din of debes that actually started the wildebeests migration! Either way, the train was laboriously trying to haul Kenya into the 20th century, with inept assistance from ox wagons and the monstrously cumbersome steam-powered trucks that were the only means of broadening the effect of a Lunatic Line that was, after all, three-feet wide. If development didn’t happen within spitting distance of those tracks, it didn’t happen at all. This was an axiomatic that the inland centre of Kenya, a fort at a place where the big chief used to be, called Machako, was suddenly totally useless. The authorities decided the centre would have to be on the railway, and they chose a new site for a new capital.
For some reasons they selected a railway camp on a stinking bog of black cotton, and called it Nairobi. In a few months the ground baked as hard as cement, cracked up and became fine powder. Everything was choked with dust. In the wet season, the ground dissolved into a bottomless swamp and anything that moved on it sank. But the more inappropriate Nairobi proved to be, the more determined the administration became that it should be Kenya’s premier town. So by the time the sodden and insanitary miasma of shanty shacks had been swept by bubonic plague (1902), razed by the fire (1903) and waged again by plague in (1904), Nairobi’s future was assured. While the government’s determination was unshakeable, it was not unsinkable. Bridges were swept away by every healthy downpour, and in particularly wet May 1905 even an ox wagon got stuck up to their axles in the main street.
Everything was permanently plastered with mud and choked with dust - not a good rooting compound for the growth of motorcars which even in perfect condition, where a whimsical collection of pipes and tubes and pedals and panels. Nowadays when we bulk at having to service some of our cars every 2,500 kms because our fuel is so acid and our dust so thick and clinging and abrasive, perhaps we should spare a thought for our 1907 equivalents. Their service interval was once every 24 hours! Many of the early engines had exposed valves and timing gear, some of the most delicate and fast moving ‘internal’ parts lived in the open air. Few of them had pressurised oil systems but instead relied on splash. There were precious few oil and grease seals, so every component instantly got deluged with sticky substances which collected every passing particle of dirt and insect. If you had to ‘get out and get under’ (as every car owner did almost every trip) you also got filthy back and front. Indeed, it was the difficulty of maintaining a car (one hour every evening) and the expense of keeping it going that militated against the motor car’s popular appeal much more than its initial price (about shs 4,000 for a basic model). You didn’t have to be fabulously wealthy to buy one, but you had also to hire a chauffeur (to get out and get under) and a mechanic (to clean oil and grease daily), spares had to be made by tedious improvisation, tyres wore out so fast that motor agents advertised the fact that ‘new’ tyres on a particular car had to be used for test driving it when it left the factory.
Threads on simple nuts and bolts were not standardised, so the new car owner was advised to buy a screw -cutting lathe for his ‘motor house’ which also cost money to build. The basic service routine involved several dozen operations, many of them messy, smelly and complicated - like moving the gearbox cover to check the oil (no dipsticks) boiling chains in malodorous Russian tallow, and varnishing the woodwork (15 coats, please) every six months. For all this time, trouble, and expense, what sort of a drive did you get? First, you had to pressurise the fuel tank by hand, set the throttle level, round to the front to crank the engine, go back and readjust the throttle, and then crank again to start. On a good day. The gears you engaged by pressing a pedal, which on same model was also the brake (engaging reverse, by degrees, was one means of stopping).
You had one High and one low forward gear, that gave you the acceleration of a mkokoteni, and a top speed of around 40 mph.. if you could see the car on the road at that speed. You may have had a windscreen added as an ‘optional extra’ and perhaps some form of lighting - very likely gas lamps which had to be regularly fed with water and a special gas-generating tablet. If it rained, however, you would have to lower your windscreen or peer over the top, as windscreen wipers hadn’t been introduced. And if you hit a bump... well, if you really want to know what it felt like then get someone to push you along in a wheelbarrow over a cobbled surface. At night, bumps had an added interest. They made all lights go out. Petrol was bought from the general store (or chemist) in cans. It had to be filtered through a chamois leather strainer. There was effectively no instrument to tell you of any impending problem. Indeed, when fuel, amp and water gauges were first fitted they were considered so infradig that they were tucked out of sight where the driver couldn’t see them anyway.
On top of all that, the 1907 driver didn’t have the first idea about mechanical things. He didn’t really know how to drive his car, never mind how to fix it. He would labour along in the wrong gear until the car physically would progress no longer in High up hill, or the bulkhead in front of his feet was beginning to glow red because he’d been screaming along in Low for past six miles. He was taught to switch off the engine well before he came to a halt, and his use of the brakes would vary between sudden-death stops, rude smells and real live flames. Even if he was specially talented at the job of steering and stopping without damaging himself, his car or any onlookers, the vehicle itself was still a handful - especially in Nairobi’s black cotton.
His narrow-section tyres were inflated in about 60 psi. The brakes worked only on the real axle. The suspension geometry wasn’t much more sophisticated than an ox cart. At over 20 mph in a straight line on a dry road, the driver had to be both busy and brave. Trying to go round a corner while braking on a wet night was a form of slow motion attempted suicide. He did however have some compensation - there was no driving test, no highway code, no road tax and no insurance. The phrase ‘traffic jam’ hadn’t been invented. Yet on the basis, he could have unleashed a four-ton 15-litre Opel into the public thoroughfares.
Accidents did happen. The most common involved horses, carts and people on Government Road. The standard rebuke for reckless drivers seems to have been around shs 75 for hitting a horse (higher if the horse actually fell over as a result). Apprenticeship for becoming a reckless driver was served by taking part in rickshaw and mule-cart races up and down Sixth (Kenyatta Avenue) and Government Road (Moi Avenue). If you got bored with that, then you shot at any uncomplaining target that went past the Norfolk Hotel veranda (early efforts to install streetlights in Nairobi were thwarted because they proved irresistible to these same marksmen). The dark nights were once brightened greatly by Lord Cranworth’s mechanic, Thumbi (kamba for dusty, as his prime job was washing the car). He showed so much initiative that he was promoted to oil level checking, but one night peered into the wrong hole (the petrol filler cap) with the aid of a candle.
Thumbi, his trousers ablaze, very likely set a new record for the run down Sixth Avenue. In this way did 1907 pass on to greater prosperity and progress. Kenya’s motorists got their Swifts, Napiers, Mitchells, Argylls and motorcycles sufficiently under control to prompt the establishment of several large towns some distance from the railway tracks. Large scale farming ventures were set up. Nairobi was actually given some town planning (fittingly by a medical and drainage inspector, not a designer), and there were even some motor safaris with specialised ‘outfitters’ catering for growing demand. Hundreds of new settlers and administration officials continued to pour into Mombasa and locomote their way inland. Some were a definite case of foreign dumping - dumping remittance men banished to a safe distance by their families in Europe, persons at variance with the law in their home countries, and those who had failed everywhere else and were looking for a new venue to practice their incompetence.
But there were also many tough, straight pioneers and adventurers, farmers and ‘eccentric’ nation builders. Through all this, the motor car and motor cycle population rose well over 100 vehicles. Nearly all German, French and British. In 1908, Henry Ford’s Model T had completely revolutionised car design manufacture and marketing. These extraordinary jalopies reduced maintenance to near nothing, cut pieces in half and brought reliable motoring to masses... in America. Kenyans simply didn’t believe the claims for the Tin Lizzy, and manufacturers in Europe even advertised that their vehicles were not ‘American junk’. Their main sales ploy was to list the names of people of repute who had bought their vehicles. It took the great war of 1914-1918 to shake them out of this snobbish complacency.
The reactionary military had stoutly resisted the idea of a motorised ‘cavalry’. The practicalities of war made them think again, and thousands of cars were press-ganged into war service. Rolls Royces and Lanchesters were given armoured car bodies and performed magnificently in African Campaign. Even the model T box body was capped with a machine gun, to form an Artillery Corps, and the likes of Commer Trucks became the back-bone of army supply lines. A division of such a Carrier Corps was based in Nairobi, at a place now known as Kariokor! The war did three things for motoring. It tested vehicles to every limit in thousands of miles of overloaded, off-road motoring. Lessons were learned and improvements were made. It introduced legions of young men and women to motor vehicles, and got them used to, and good at the motoring idea.
Governments produced millions into the motor industry in buying tens of thousands of vehicles which were blown up as fast as they could built. The philosophy of mass production - pioneered by Henry Ford was thus pressured into use and handsomely financed. When the war ended, big, healthy efficient motor manufacturers were able to produce cheap, reliable cars for a public that was hungry for them.
In 1918, Kenya started a major reconstruction program to get farming and industry going again after the neglect of the war years. Everyone was encouraged to borrow heavily from banks - and borrow they did. There was a massive boom in spending, not least on cars. By 1919, the vehicle population of Kenya was well over 1,000. The private car had become a reliable and practical vehicle. It was usually a four-cylinder side valve machine, relatively quiet and cheap. In its luxury form, supremely represented by the 1914 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, standards of finish, reliability, comfort and silence reached a level that has not been matched since. While this all-time classic was a tribute to British engineering, the cost was beyond most buyers. Small, simple cars were required, and only America was producing those. American cars simply took over the complete Kenya market, with only the Standard making any showing from Europe. The model T Ford, the single most famous and significant vehicle in the history of motoring, was far and away the market leader (the VW Beetle was to win a similar reputation in the 1950’s and perhaps we have the makings of another universal vehicle in the Datsun 1200 Debe of today). The rest were catered for in order of popularity, by the Overland (made by Willys, who was later to develop the jeep), the Buick and the delightful Hupmobiles (Hups).
It was significant that America had very similar motoring conditions to Kenya’s - great mountains, deserts, mud, heat, dust and all the other great tests of man and machine. Their vehicles were inevitably more suitable than Europe’s heavy gentlemen. We needed vehicles that would skip through life like spiders on a keep-fit gig. The model T did. More than 15 million Ts were produced, and in 1920 more than half the cars in the world were Fords. The Ts characteristics and uses are legend, and we won’t fazzle story and pen even further here, except to mention the vehicle’s most endearing characteristic: once its engine started, it moved forwards with or without a driver. And to start it you had to stand in front of the radiator with cranking handle, then nip round the side and jump in before the vehicle tootled off on its own.
Thousands of cartoons illustrating the T’s behaviour, the most famous is of an owner with both hands on top of the radiator trying to hold the car back and plucking up the courage to let go and make a run for the driver’s seat. Even in the worst times with terrible cars, Kenyans had shown an inordinate interest in motorsport. In the post war boom, competition became inevitable. After newspaper reports had complained of too many people racing around the streets, despite the point-duty policemen opposite McCraes, Cearns and the Indian Bazaar; formal competition simply had to come.
The first motorsport meeting in Kenya came in 1919, with a motor gymkana in Nakuru and a motorcycle hillclimb at Clairmont House. Participants reached speeds ‘in excess of 30 mph!’ Ten days later, on September 30th 1919, the Automobile Association of East Africa was formed. Motoring had arrived. In the following years, it was to suffer severe setbacks through currency scandals and enormous collapse from ravages of drought, locusts and the depression. But never again was there any doubt that Kenya was now being hauled into the 20th century... by car. The car did more than revolutionise development. It also opened up entirely new social possibilities, not least the facility with which Mr A could temporarily kidnap Mrs. B...
BITS AND PIECES
There’s nothing new about special attention being paid to roads leading to politician’s doorsteps. In 1907, the first serious road improvement in Nairobi took place after the government got stuck. Import duty in 1909 was 10 per cent ‘ad valorem’ on all goods.
In 1911, two Kenya zebra were used to pull an aristocrat’s hackney carriage in Naples. Meanwhile, an experiment to use Eland to pull ox carts in this country proved unsuccessful.
In 1914, the importer of the first automobile publicly challenged Hirtzel’s model Ts to a race. Hitzel’s said it would be a waste of time unless ..."he wants to run a test in Nyeri and back every day for a week, or a speed consumption run up and down the rift escarpment on the road to Naivasha."
As if to emphasise the T’s rather off-belt talents, a few days later J Mitchell was charged with catching three young wildebeests without permission, ‘by chasing them with a Model T’.
The Edward-Harris wedding of 1912 was historic - no Kenya bride had ever travelled to church in a car before. The first officially organised motorsport competition in Kenya was a Petrol Trial (equivalent of our Economy Runs) in August 1918.
Contestants had to leave their cars in standard running trim for the course from the New Stanley Hotel to Ngong Boma and back (12 miles each way). They could choose their own speed. The best result was 47 mpg by a small Saxon car. Some 10 entrants achieved better than 30 mpg. There were nine classes and special prizes totalling shs 60. The profit balance of shs 100 was given to charity. There were 32 entrants, paying shs 5 each. Half the cars were ‘works’ entries.
Columnist ‘carburettor’ tried to start a Motor Club through the EA Standard in June 1919. He then personally organised the first ‘petrol trial’ reported on the first Motor Gymkhana, and organised a Motorcycle Hillclimb. One month later EA Motor Association was formed. It changed its name to the EA Automobile Association, later to become the Royal East Africa Automobile Association - set up to arrange nation-wide ‘petrol depots’, get costs of fuel and insurance cut, to persuade the government to do something about the roads (!) and to organise competitions.
CHAPTER THREE: 1920 - 1940
Kenya’s motoring fortunes had lots of ups and downs in the 1920s. So did Kenya’s bedsprings. For by this time most of the new avenues of morality and motoring had been quite extensively explored and our pioneers were no longer asking “can it be done” but rather “can it be done in a different way.”
Behind the wheel, they tried to do it faster, or for longer, or with less petrol, or while wearing blindfolds and boxing gloves. In the boudoir (and sometimes while behind the wheel, too) they....well, the missionary position definitely took a back seat, and the Happy Valley recipe of wine, whisky and women blurred the distinction between elevenses and sundowners, and applied an equally soft focus to such subjects as marital fidelity and group therapy. The motor car played a significant role in this sizzling set-up, by giving people unprecedented mobility. Certainly our pioneers used this new capability to open up the land, to extend trade, to streamline commerce and industry, to mechanise farming. But they also used it to wreak a recreational revolution which at its Happy Valley extreme would make today’s knaves look like Sunday School teachers.
The particulars of this not unsubstantial group are well enough documented elsewhere, but the same syndrome, to a more moderate degree, pervaded the whole society. After decades of hard work and hardship, droughts, plagues, wars, recessions and taming of a primitive environment (not to mention nearly a century perverted Victorian prudery) people at last had the time , energy and the wealth to unwind a bit. Many of them not only unwound but also unravelled. The motorcar was the perfect vehicle of their playtimes and also passions. People could meet and interact, go a -visiting, elope, abscond, abduct, rendezvous, travel, hide and run away, all very quickly and all thanks to motorcars. Their fun philosophy persisted irrespective of Kenya’s economic fortunes, which fluctuated form crisis to Christmas several times during the decade, and developed around two toys - women, and motorcars. So when they weren’t fiddling with bra straps or neighbours’ knickerbockers, they were tinkering with tappets and valves, con rods and piston rings.
In the full-blooded manner of the day, motorsport was enterprising, highly competitive, and important. Fittingly, the first motorsport protest concerned a victorious lady driver accused of deviating from the prescribed route and marring the clerk of the course’s judgement by knobbling him in the bushes. On the motor trade front, the 1920-30 decade was utterly dominated by the arrival of an irrepressible Irishman call JJ Hughes. JJ began with the absolute conviction that the Model T Ford was the greatest invention since the wheel, and that it could revolutionise everybody’s life, all industry and all agriculture. He set about convincing all Kenyans of the same, by stripping a Model T down to its basic chassis and simply driving it - anywhere and everywhere, at all times and in all weathers. If a place was declared totally unreachable, he went there. If a farming area was completely cut off by floods, he went there, often bringing the stranded settlers food and their mail, a big smile ... and the Model T. Everyone soon agreed the Model T was the answer to all their problems. But one of those problems was a total lack of cash following the currency collapse of 1920 and the subsequent economic slump. So the people who needed the Model T most-the farmers - couldn’t afford to buy one.
JJ was undaunted. He gave the farmers Model T’s in exchange for a slice of the farming action. He was so convinced that the T as tractor, the T as transporter, would make farming profitable that he simply arranged with farmers to set aside 100 acres of their next crop in payment, and to tend that crop with a Model T which he delivered in advance. The idea worked brilliantly for both farmers and JJ, whose boundless enthusiasm and imagination, coupled with a business acumen that would have made Henry Ford himself proud, won the Model T an incredible 52 per cent of Kenya’s total vehicle market by 1923. One wonders what JJ would be up to, and what he could achieve, if he were here now. Incidentally, his personal Model T is still parked in a Lang’ata garden. And it still works. Other vehicle dealers of the day - and there were more than a dozen - must have felt as though they were in a threshing machine as JJ entered, analysed and demolished their market, and then built his own. Against Ford’s 52 per cent share, Overland came a poor second with 14 per cent. Dodge and Hupmobile commanded six per cent each, and newcomer Chevrolet took four. The remaining 18 per cent was shared by more than a dozen makes. The total vehicle population in Kenya had risen to 2,608, of which nearly half were motorcycles. Triumph, BSA, Harley Davidson and Douglas were the leading pikis. The total settler population was around 10,000.
The most famous route opening of the decade was the Mombasa-Nairobi link - the very first inland thoroughfare in Kenya, established on foot centuries before suddenly monopolised by the railway in 1896, and now 30 years later , finally reconquered by the car. The first motor vehicle to do the trip was the Harley Davidson motorcycle of John Douglas and Syd Downey, who did it non-stop thanks to the fact they were charged by elephants when they made a provisional night stop. A few months later in the same year (1926) Galton Fenzi made the trip in a Riley car. Sadly, history had lionised Galton Fenzi for this trip, and in the process of showering largely empty praise has buried that man’s other incredible achievements and contributions of motoring in Kenya. The Mombasa-Nairobi journey was not enough to represent even his big toe. He was THE man who led motoring, who led motorsport, who led the formation of the AA, who wrote the first motoring column in the Standard, who opened up countless routes across the length and breadth of the country. The prime mover.
The Mombasa trip? He probably didn’t even make a note of it in his diary!
There is a very fine dividing line, they say, between lunacy and genius. Which is just as well, for Kenya’s motorists in the 1920’s were quite mad enough to get themselves into diabolical trouble but, fortunately, quite ingenious enough to get themselves out again. The steady improvement in the car performance had made motoring simpler, smoother, swifter and safer in most parts of the world. Kenyans did not use these new capabilities to those ends. They used them to delve even deeper into discomfort and danger. Those who weren’t hacking around in the bush to earn a living (farming or joining the gold rush) went hacking around the bush for fun.
The following descriptions of a 1929 Safari incident, involving Gordon Harvey (of Limuru) and former coffee farmer George Ramsey, is a fair example of the national syndrome: “We are going for shooting Safari in the Mara in a couple of Chev boxbodies,” says Harvey. “They weren’t bad cars .... in those days. The Kedong road was atrocious in dry weather, with nearly 20 miles of lava dust as light and fluffy as flour, hiding monstrous potholes. On the open plain we saw what looked like a cross between a dust devil and an epileptic kettle, coming towards us. We got on the windward side, and after quarter of an hour could distinguish the front of a car with a jet of steam erupting from its radiator. The rest of the vehicle was enveloped in dust from a following wind. It turned out to be a Model T Ford. A collection of trophies was tied to the roof, including buffalo bosses, eland and waterbuck heads, and there was a complete (dead) warthog draped over the tyreless rim of the spare wheel. Two rough and scurfy Dutchmen in khaki shorts and terra hats emerged, their beaded faces grimed with grit. They were from Eldoret, a strong Dutch farming area in those days. We offered them some water for their radiator. But that wasn’t the trouble, they said, ‘And anyway these cars run very well when they’re boiling. We’d be grateful, however, if you could spare us some engine oil.'
The previous day, they’d ripped a hole in their sump and all the oil had drained out. They had removed the sump, packed the hole with kapok from the seat cushion, and then hammered the buckled metal straight - effectively sealing the crack with the kapok plug. They then shot a zebra, stripped the fat off it and boiled it up in sufuria. They poured the hot fat through a mosquito net into the engine, and travelled around six miles before dark. In the morning, they put a primus stove under the sump and when the zebra fat was good and hot again, they set off. They’d done another 12 miles when we met them. We were amazed! We couldn’t spare them any oil (we carried just one gallon in case we ourselves had similar problems, and there was nowhere to buy more where we were going for the next fortnight.) They quite understood, and as their radiator had subsided from a volcanic roar to a mere venomous hiss, they topped it up with muddy water from a jerrycan, waved us farewell and good hunting, and headed off through the dust towards their next destination - Kijabe! As they drove away, Harvey remembers, ‘we noticed that both their back tyres were stuffed with grass.’
Those were indeed the days. This is but a poetic example of a familiar tale, where motorists showed first an insane ambition to go a-venturing, then an indomitable spirit and boundless imagination to come home again. Those characteristics were to serve them well in the coming years of drought and plague after plague of locusts, the Wall Street Crash, and the harshest years of austerity Kenya has ever faced. Those combined onslaughts might have broken both the spirit and the body of lesser folk. Kenyans merely got a little bit more crazy.
Motoring technology has come a long way since Kenya’s pioneering days. But in several ways, it has actually come a long way it has actually come a long way backwards! In last month’s Autonews, we reported on the latest car battery from Chloride. It never has to be topped up, can’t leak or spill, and can have pieces chopped off it and still it will start a car. What a wonderfully modern idea! Since then, we’ve seen an advertisement for much the same thing: a ‘Young’ battery with solid electrolyte - unspillable, no corrosion, no filling with distilled water, indestructible porous ebonite separators. Similar in every way to Chloride’s new breakthrough ... except the Young battery concerned was manufactured in 1932! The ad appears in the earliest equivalent of Autonews: a journal called ‘East African Motoring’. Its 56 pages contained road test reports, tips on how to adjust your ignition, news of radio, theatre and cinema, a better driving column, vehicle sales statistics, book reviews, maps and a few motorsport pictures, and a digest of latest accessories. Its cover price if 50 cents brought a lump to our throats until we did some sums. The average car today costs Shs 150,000 or some 50 times as much as the average car in 1932. So their 50 cent magazine could today cost Shs 25, yet AA members pay less than Shs 3 per copy for Autonews. To illustrate just how lively the motoring world was in the 30s, EA Motoring had more ads than editorial -ads which proudly displayed a pair of totally bald tyres and proclaimed 'still lots of life left after 35,000 miles', another which claimed ‘the finest hydraulic car greasing in Kenya’ and just to show how long it has taken us to get back to where we started, an ad for a puncture-proof tyre, a radiator recoring service, and a big shout about how shiny duco paint is.
Imaginations were lively too. The Outspan Hotel in Nyeri was offering a special all-in price of Shs 12.50 per night! ... with an optional overhaul for your car in the hotel garage! In those days there was no taboo about drinking and driving, so EA Motoring was heftily sponsored by Grant’s Whisky, Tuborg Larger and a stuff called ‘Nguvu’ beer (their ad explained that Nguvu was sold only in very small bottles because a big bottle would floor any man). For all this up-to-the minute stuff of 1932, there were still some curiously primitive aspects of motorcar design. Dipping headlamps hadn’t been invented, so motorists had to stop when they arrived on the outskirts of town and block out half their lamps with a piece of cloth. Being dazzled by oncoming cars was obviously a serious problem on the rare occasions when there was an on-coming car - and a motoring columnist of the day suggested that a sidelight be angled at rightangles to the road, so the driver could navigate by looking sideways when faced with full-fronted beams.
Certain components still wore out rather quickly. A clutch plate was described as ‘everlasting’ because it had managed 60,000 miles. Despite such things as the unspillable battery, there was still some debate over the relative merits of batteries or magnetos, there was still resistance to ‘fat’ tyres and only recently had the motoring public got used to cars with roofs. Many die-hards refused to get into these new-fangled ‘sardine cans’ while others complained of claustrophobia, or worried about the effects of breaking glass in the event of a collision. And crashes, despite the paucity of traffic, did happen. Cars still weren’t all that well behaved if they hit a bump at speed, and many of the drivers were fantastically incompetent. One young gent of 17 was charged with negligent driving after rolling his sedan on a dead straight road. One of his lady companions (who limped into court) said the driver was busy looking at the speed (and so impressed with what he saw) that he drove off the road, and that in picking her up from her house he had to change gear and reverse to negotiate her driveway, which she could herself manage in a single manoeuvre in top gear!
The young man’s defence was that the road had a bump in it, that these new ‘fat’ tyres were a menace and anyway, how could he possibly be to blame for a crash if he didn’t even know what caused it. The whole affair lasted only two seconds, ‘your honour’, said the defence council, ‘Hardly time enough to commit a serious crime in motorcar.’ The excessive speed referred to by prosecution witnesses and which drew gasps from a packed court, was ... 55 mph! Such exotic pranks were still novel enough that the prosecution had to call an ‘expert’ witness to establish just what had happened to the car. After serious thought, the witness declared, and with due attention to the fact that the bonnet and boot lid were dented, the canvas roof ripped right off, and the car’s occupants spread variously about the surrounding vegetation, he considered the car had almost certainly rolled. The court thanked him for this invaluable advice.
When Kenya’s Automobile Association was formed in 1920, it had an almost instant membership of 1,000. Though that might not sound an impressive figure, it was about 70 per cent of the entire motoring population - a massively powerful motoring voice that the authorities did not resist unless there was absolutely no alternative. The AA formed the backbone of motorsports organisation, either in its own right or through its enthusiastic officers. It tackled insurance costs, unfair freight competition from the railways, road mapping, the setting up of petrol depots, and administrated licensing and carnets, was the driving force behind the erection of road signs (a cool 17,000 of them by the end of the decade), and actually prompted changes in the tax on cars and fuel.
Interestingly, it gave little or no guarantee regular benefit to members. It promised only to expose the motoring course and represent motorists' interests as each new situation arose. It did so with some distinction added the Royal Aero Club to its portfolio, and within a few years won a Royal charter to become the Royal East African Automobile Association, affiliated to the RAC and AA in Britain. Its splendid progress was to be tripped up from time to time by national economic collapses, and it was to take its worst hammering during the traumas of the second world war.
There is little doubt, reading through the minutes, papers and reports of those early years that the single, unquenchable fire at the heart of AA was one Galton-Fenzi the honorary secretary. We say again that the man’s historic drive from Nairobi to Mombasa was among the least of his achievements. The challenges he faced on behalf of AA members were tougher than the tasks faced by the AA today in every respect ... except one: he had the almost unanimous voice of motoring public. Proportionately, 1,000 members in 1920 would be like 100,000 members today. Given that the same proportion, the current AA could be infinitely more useful to its members than it ever was in the 20’s. But it has just some 13,000 members, the majority of our motorists, it seems, don’t know what potential they are missing.
HONEYMOON OFF TARMAC
Kenya was introduced to the wonders of tarmac in 1922. There was no instant cheering and sighs of relief, but rather a few curious stares and some suspicious prodding with walking sticks and the like. But public reactions to a 20 meter long test strip was generally good, and soon the centre of Nairobi was largely bitumenised. Asphalt had spread to the other metropolises of Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu by the end of the decade. The rest of Kenya’s road network was as terrible as it always had been (and always will be). The Galton-Fenzis were still often carving their way through bush with a panga, and many journeys that can now be done in half a day still took half a week. One of most classic bog-ups of all time took place after a wedding just outside Naivasha during this period. The blushing bride and her groom zooming off with a gay wave to their 200 guests...and a few miles down the road they nose-dived into a monstrous mudhole. The guests all jumped into their cars and roared off to help, so in the end there were some 36 vehicles buried up to their axles. They all spend the night there. The honeymoon couple declined numerous offers of jackets and skirts to use as curtains. (To the best of our knowledge there is no connection between this incident and the song ‘You Can Do It In The Road’).
In an apparently serious comment on the state of Kenya’s road maps, and as an encouragement to the new EAAA to start drawing some, Galton Fenzi said: ‘Any motorist who follows the existing roads maps would very quickly find himself driving across the plains... When a through road was opened between Nairobi and Juba in the late 1920s, the news was greeted with the comment: ‘Kenya has been closer to England by more than a week.’ It seems in the early motoring boom, cars were thought of as a direct competitor with aeroplanes! A possible explanation as to why history has overlooked so many of Galton Fenzi’s achievements comes from a paragraph in the EA Standard of 1924: ‘Galton Fenzi is always doing things, and he does them so quickly the public has no time to recover its breath!’
In 1923 the United States was already manufacturing more cars per month than Kenya has possessed in total in the past 80 years. There were no fewer than 186 different US motor Manufacturers.
SEEK, AND YOU SHALL NOT FIND...
Motorsport throughout the 20s and much of the 30s was dominated by ‘Trials’ - based on entertainment and competition, but concerned also with the very real problem of establishing a car’s reliability. In publicity terms, these Trials became the means of finding ‘the best’ car for Kenya. Fortunately, there was never a conclusive answer to this search, so we just had to keep on having more Trials. As their purpose was to prove cars in Kenyan conditions, our Trials perforce differed significantly from those in Europe. Ours were also much more fun, as the Europeans eventually discovered, and so they invented a new form of sport called motor rallying, exemplified by an event launched in 1925 called Monte Carlo Rallye. In years to come, Kenyans would show them how to do that properly, too.
THE CAR AND AGENTS THAT MADE IT
There were 36 main motor agents in Kenya in the 1920s, and more than twice as many different makes, all haggling for a share of a tiny market with fewer than 2,000 vehicles in total. In a set-up as profligate as that, there was an astonishing turn-over of failures and new hopefuls. Just three of those originals survived to the modern day - Hughes Ltd, Gailey and Roberts, and Motor Mart. Motor Mart (now the parent company of Westlands Motors and Bruce Motors) began with the unlikely combination of GN Light Cars and Denby Trucks, plus a small godsend called Michelin. Just as they were about to expire, they cajoled a wealthy British cotton farmer called Arthur Bulley to buy them out. When he started having to send large quantities of good money after bad, he send one fat cheque with a Scotsman called John Bruce, who turned out to be one of the finest businessmen ever to set foot in Kenya. Teamed up with Alfred Vincent and Tom Lockhart-Muir, he transformed Motor Mart into one of the largest and most efficient motor organisations on the African continent.
Perhaps in their most perspicacious move was to take over Chevrolet, which was to become a major rival to even Ford in the 30s. Those Fords which took such an inordinate slice of the early market were first run by Newton’s Ltd. One of their many dealers was TJ O’Shea, who in turn employed the irreversible J J Hughes. Hughes formed his own company in Nakuru in 1928, and had the entire Ford franchise decade later. Gailey and Roberts have grown into one of the largest and most varied agencies in this part of the world. They kicked off with a gem called Caterpillar (formerly Holts tractors) and quickly added such solid investments as Albion trucks. They have maintained the talent for choosing exceptional makes ever since.
Oddballs in the overall melting pot included Kettles Roy, purveyors of Raleigh bicycles and ... holeproof hosiery (with some ads we’d hardly dare print today!). Many of the most successful businesses were service stations acting as sub-agents for the main dealer. As well as births and deaths of agencies, there was also much swapping, chopping and changing, amalgamations and profitable sell-outs. Through all this, Chevrolet was getting set to bite big chunks out of the Ford monopoly, helped by the arrival of the little Austin Seven from Britain - at last someone was listening to what Henry Ford had been saying for the past 20 years. Other significant names of the time to conjure with were Buick, Lancia, Norton, Talbot, Dodge, Rover, Essex, Durant, Overland, Crossley, BSA, Willy’s Knight, Bean, Rugby, Packard, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, Hudson, Lagonda, Standard, Brockway, John Deere, Pontiac, Vauxhall, Case, Reo, Nash, Studebaker, Thormycroft, Triumph, Fiat, Citroen ... and such nobodies as Peugeot (whose agents were Carr Lawson).
WE ALWAYS CARRIED A BOAT ON THE ROOF, OF COURSE...
There are still plenty of wild and wonderful places in Kenya, and today’s safari enthusiasts get up to some pretty hairy antics through their compulsion to get from wild A to wonderful B. But what is now considered fairly outlandish adventure was all part of day-to-day travel back in the 30’s when, as they say man were mad and cars were crazy. This photographic memoir sent to us by the reader R Frederickson of Nairobi illustrates the point rather well: He writes:
‘We went for a week’s safari under the Narok escarpment and crossed the river below Magadi. The water was only ankle deep on the outward journey, but when we returned it was in flood. I always carried a boat on my Chrysler for just such an eventuality. We removed the engine of one car (a Chev) and carried it across in the boat. We then hauled the Chev body over and rebuilt the car. My son then drove to the nearest trading post in the Chev and borrowed some empty oil drums and rope.’
‘We used the drums to float the other two cars (one Chev and one Chrysler) across intact’. ‘On the way home, the Chrysler’s engine cut and the brakes failed, so there was nothing to do but back it into a bank ...the car fell on its side. We attached a pull-u-out to a bush and soon had it back on its wheels, got the engine running and pumped the brakes up a bit; and so returned safely home.’
Have a good weekend!