The Story of Concours d’Elegance

At the 47th annual CBA Africa Concours D’Elegance, themed “The Beauty and the Beast,” class and history come to life.

A man in a kilt.

A pleated kilt. In perfect harmony with a black coatee and a vest, both decorated with ornate silver buttons. The man in traditional Scottish evening wear is standing next to a chocolate brown Mercedes 300SE. On a warm September morning. What first grabs your attention is neither the man nor his car. It’s both of them as a package. At Ngong Racecourse, they are showing each other off.  

It is the way they stand confidently next to each other. The way he touches her delicately, never unnecessarily. The way he drives her, slowly and deliberately. He’s confident, they both are, because this relationship has been decades in the making. It has involved not a single scratch in all that time. Although the man has aged, the luster of the car hasn’t

The man.

The man is Dr. Joseph A. Aluoch. He’s 74. We are at Ngong Racecourse for the 47th annual CBA Africa Concours d’Elegance.  Dr. Aluoch is a tall dark man with a silver goatee. For the last five decades, he has worked as a Consultant Chest Physician, holding the mantle as the first of his profession in Kenya.

In those years, he has owned many cars, but none like the one he has here. He bought the Benz in 1991 as a 20th wedding anniversary gift for himself and his wife. It was the last of the 126 S to leave the production line, shipped directly from Stuttgart to Kenya. It arrived in its owners’ hands on the exact date of the anniversary, right in time for him to drive his wife to Carnivore Grounds for lunch. It has been 26 years since.  

The Car.

***

Two decades before that day, on a cold morning in 1971, 12 elaborately dressed Alfa Romeo owners stood next to their cars at the Safari Park Hotel (then called Spread Eagle). This was the first car show of its kind in a country that was on the peak of a racing circuit phase. After selling its 100th car in Kenya in early 1970, Alfa Romeo dealers encouraged its customers to form a club. That became the Alfa Romeo Owners Club, an association of car owners and enthusiasts. Unknown to them at the time, it would also be the route towards the most prestigious car event in Kenyan history.

With an original membership of 20 people, the club organized the elaborate event in 1971, and for the rest of the decade, as a fun activity for the group. But the ’80s would redefine the event in several ways. 

The first was a move to the now-defunct Embakasi motor racing circuit. Opened in 1967, the circuit was one of two (the other was Nakuru) that formed the heart of a budding petrolhead revolution in Kenya. It would last just two short decades, and in its final years, transform Concours d’Elegance in many ways.

When the event moved there in 1981, it also opened up to non-club members. Participants quickly increased to 25, as spectator numbers also swelled. It also changed it in less subtle ways that define CBA Africa Concours d’Elegance as we know it today.  In its French roots, the car show whose name translates to “Competition of Elegance”, was always a competition about both the vehicle and its owner. The cars (and originally chariots) and bikes were statements by themselves, but the costume of the owner, as well as presentation, also mattered.

As the event grew across the world, its core identity was defined by a presentation where the judges were mobile, and the cars and their owners waited for them. With more space from 1981, Kenya’s version of it allowed for the cars to move through judging stations instead. This provides a way to also assess the functionality of the car or motorbike.

Another subtle change is that instead of choosing to be either purists or enthusiasts, the event became a hybrid. Purists assess cars and bikes based on how close they are to the original. Enthusiasts allow modifications and improvements.

In 1988, the Embakasi circuit closed shop. Now homeless, Concours d’Elegance moved to Ngong Racecourse. The racecourse, situated off Ngong Road before you get to Karen, was itself in its secondary and final home after moving from Kariokor in 1954. Although it wasn’t an immediate marriage, the racecourse would become the final home of the car event, on a day when classics didn’t have to mix with thoroughbreds.

Moving the event away from the motor racing/petrolhead circuits did something else for Concours. It allowed it to reach beyond those niches, and grow several events around the main course. In its first year at the racecourse, in 1989, the crowd doubled. By 2017, it was over 10, 000 people on a single day. Sponsorship grew too, and moved from Car and General, to Coca Cola and a few others, and eventually to CBA in 2012. As interest increase, so did entries. Today, they are limited to 70 cars and 40 bikes to optimize the experience.

The first time I attended Concours d’Elegance, in September 2009, I fell in love with a sky blue 1969 Mustang. With clear windows and a flawless leather interior, everything about it looked delicate and yet vicious. The pristine condition of that car made me forget I had actually been making my way to the food stand, so I doubled back and looked at the cars and bikes again. I couldn’t tell what else exactly it was this time, but there’s something powerful that us to old cars and bikes.

Could it be the design?

Why do 70 cars and 40 bikes from across Africa bring thousands of people together each year? 

This 1934 Railton, owned by Diccon and Julia Wilcock was the overall winner of the 47th Annual Concours d’Elegance. Julia also won second place in a 1952 MG TD.

***

The first car in Kenya was a De Dion Bouton. The car arrived in Mombasa in December 1903 right into the waiting arms of its new owner, George Wilson. For the Australian engineer, this was a new challenge. He didn’t know how to start it, leave alone drive it. There were no garages, spare part shops or even fuel stations. There was no highway because, well, there was no highway to speak of.

For the next two decades, the cars in Nairobi were carried by the old train through the expanse of the Tsavo, to new roads emerging in Nairobi. Then, in 1926, Galton-Fenzi drove a Riley from Mombasa to Nairobi.  If you have ever seen the fortified monument where Koinange Street meets Kenyatta Avenue, that’s the Galton-Fenzi memorial. It is there because he also founded the predecessor of the Automobile Association of Kenya and laid the foundation for the highway codes we use. Over the next decades, the number of cars increased as did roads and the rules around them. By 2010, there were 23 cars for every 1000 people in Kenya.

This 1925 DKW, owned by Sati’s Classics, won the overall prize in the motorcycle section.

But most of these cars are newer and more efficient that Wilson’s, and any of the others that followed. Engine and gear technology have improved to boost efficiency. Owning a classic car today is a labor of love because they don’t run as well and spare parts are hard to come by. But that’s exactly what makes them so valuable.

Concours d’Elegance is the best place to realize it has as much to do with people as it has to do with cars.

When you see one, you want to see the other. You want to move closer to the car, and the person, to ask them questions about each other. You want to close your eyes and imagine it on the road in its heyday, the envy of the world. You want to hear stories of its restoration, of its maintenance, of its previous owners. When you get back into your modern car, it will feel empty. As if it was designed by a machine (and it most likely was) that didn’t understand that human nature is rugged, and that’s what makes it beautiful.

Veronica Wroe and a friend next to Wroe’s 1934 Rolls Royce Boattail.

Classic cars are not just parts of automobile history. They are the histories of their owners. Although paintwork and pristine condition of cars are judged on a point system at Concours, it’s the underlying stories behind the scratches (or lack of them) that matter. That glint in their owner’s eyes when they talk about finding a particular part.

The state of the cars says more about their owners than it does about the car itself. The facts about the automobile are already there: its name, specifications, mileage, previous owners, and even at times price. But it’s the stories of the people who designed it, who beat its panels into shape and screwed it together, who bought it and drove it, that truly come to life. From the rugged and quirky designs, to the failures as well as successes, and the ability of obsessive enthusiasts to rebuild entire cars from discarded scrap, that you see.

When it comes to old cars and bikes, you don’t have to be a petrolhead to truly appreciate what’s before. Classics are a history and design lesson about the car, and a human story of beauty in what would otherwise be a mundane activity. The many stories of the bikes and cars, from even younger car enthusiasts, tell you that although automobiles changed transportation, they also transformed human nature. 

As the sun sets on a successful 47th edition of this classic car event, the mood switches to party mode. There’s a fashion show, acrobats, and then there’s Nyashinski. 

In my email conversation with Dr. Aluoch, he attached his original driving license which he got 50 years ago. It still looks as new as the day he got it, which explained, at least in a small bit, why the Mercedes is still so pristine.

For Dr. Aluoch, the Mercedes is not just special because it marks an important point of his life with wife. It also has sentimental value because it has been the official wedding car for many of his relatives. It represents a common family connection. And you don’t need to see either he or his wife driving it to get that. It shows in the numerous requests they get to sell it, and that he adds to the reasons why “I love to keep it.”

But he is already on another mission. He is hunting for his first car, a white VW Beetle KLG 960 he bought in 1968. He doesn’t care the condition he finds it in. He just wants it. CBA Africa Concours d’Elegance, he adds, has now become a hobby.

 

Read about the adventures of the women of Concours d’Elegance [Link].

All images courtesy of CBA Concours d’Elegance and the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club.

Owaahh, 2017.

One story is good,

till Another is told.

  • It’s great to read the history of this event, especially after having met Bob Dewar this year in Kampala.
    You could write what I know about cars on the back of a postage stamp but I love classic cars! (My dad’s a classic car man. Where other families have photos of relatives in the hallway, we have old cars!)
    I recently attended Kampala’s Concours d’Elegance. You could say this event has roots in Nairobi.
    Here are some highlights of this year’s event
    http://muzungubloguganda.com/2017/08/cba-uganda-classic-vintage-auto-show/

  • Leonidas

    Interesting article. Someone should suggest to Dr Aluoch that kilt should worn withe pleats at the back