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Safari Rally winner, Kenya vehicle assembly pioneer passes on at 77

He was born with high-octane blood as the son of ineffable Irishman ‘‘JJ’’ who brought the Ford brand to Kenya. Photo/CORRESPONDENT
He was born with high-octane blood as the son of ineffable Irishman ‘‘JJ’’ who brought the Ford brand to Kenya. Photo/CORRESPONDENT 

Peter Hughes, pioneer of Kenya’s vehicle assembly industry and a motorsport champion of world renown for many decades, has died. He was 77.

Mr Hughes’ distinctive achievement was the establishment and development of Associated Vehicle Assemblers (AVA) in Mombasa, initially a small independent company ranged against three major world manufacturers – General Motors, Leyland and Fiat - who simultaneously set up assembly plants in Nairobi and Thika in the late 1970s.

Through his stewardship and drive, AVA moved from also-ran to industry leader, and at its peak the factory produced more vehicles than all the other three plants combined. It remains pre-eminent, and is still run by the management team he built.

Peter was born with high-octane blood, as the son of the ineffable Irishman “JJ” who brought the Ford brand to Kenya, established Hughes Ltd and, through marketing initiatives that have passed into folklore, captured a never-to-be-equalled 52 per cent share of the market in the midst of the Great Depression.

His mother was Dorothy Hughes, MBE, of the well-known Hughes and Polkinghorne architectural practice and designer of many of Kenya’s landmark buildings, including St Mary’s school, where Peter was buried alongside his parents on Thursday.

He leaves his wife, Carole, children Michael, Tony, Siobhan and Patrick, four grandchildren, and friends beyond counting all over the world. Peter emerged from his parents’ very large footprints by winning the Safari Rally in 1964 when the event was, by both fact and universal recognition, the Everest of world rally sport.

At an international party thrown by Ford in St Moritz to celebrate their international champions that year, Peter drove his Safari car down the world’s most hair-raising bobsleigh track – the Cresta Run – preceding and exceeding the antics of either Cool Runnings or Top Gear.

In subsequent decades he was no less a champion in motorsports administration, as chairman of the AA’s motorsports committee, Kenya’s representative to world motorsport’s governing FIA, and as event chief in the Safari’s most successful years in the World Rally Championships, among many other roles and positive influences.

He harnessed his motorsport skills to promote the quality of Kenya-built vehicles, with projects that scored a string of national, Africa and world rally records.

Peter was a complex character, combining “old school” principles with modern vision and dynamism. He was at once a perfect gent and a firebrand; a traditionalist in ethics and a radical thinker in action.

His core values included honesty and loyalty at whatever the cost to himself, a fearsome work ethic, fighting spirit and impeccable good manners. He never sought limelight, status nor even thanks of any sort and never used a moment of time nor an atom of energy on his own welfare. His compelling questions were what matters, what works, what helps, what does most good?

The official distinctions of Peter’s life are considerable in abiding passion - to inspire, mentor and promote others. That is the sadness his family and friends will feel most.

For otherwise few men have less to fear from the epitaph: “For when the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game.”

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