Enterprise

Family businesses' passion for classic cars

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If you are driving very fast, a split second is all it takes to crash and die. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Fortune, so the saying goes, favours the brave. An update to that maxim to fit the 2022 modern man or woman would be fortune favours the patient. Because patience is the currency in the restoration of vehicles, more specifically the much-adored classic cars.

If then you are a man not known for your Biblical patience, or a woman who comes from the so-called microwave generation, you might consider giving the classic car restoration a sharp swerve. “This business has taught me patience. This is one business that requires a lot of time. If not, you will cut corners,” says Bharat Pitriola, the 33-year-old proprietor of Diastar Auto Care Ltd and owner of many classic cars.

READ: Retirees shaping Kenya's vintage car market

Theirs is a family business, with Diastar being officially opened by his (Bharat’s) father on July 4, 1996. Before that, his grandfather was running things from home.

“I have been in this business for the past 12 years now. It is a generational business started by my grandfather.

“It has come down the bloodline and when the bug bit me, it stayed bit.”

If you thought this chaebol was unique, you would be mistaken. Another classic car restorer, with a bias for Land Rovers, is 30-year-old Dalmas Mwiwai of Mud Rovers Kenya.

“I have been in this business for the last 15 years. We are a family business,” he says.

Classic cars are displayed with a patina that tells its own story of servitude, the worn seats and rust specs much less a bug than a feature. With their rarity lending credence to their history and originality — they just don’t make them like this anymore — classic cars represent the wizened imperfection of age, rather than the plastic surgery perfection of modern cars.

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Dalmas Mwiwawi, an electrician at Mud Rovers in Karen during the photo session at the garage on November 25, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NAIROBI

In other words, these machines are hard to find, but the restoration skills are even harder to get. The question most classic car owners have is, “Who is working on my car?”

Currently, Diastar has 20 employees. “We don’t want to lose that personal touch with our clients. It is much more important to the client who is building the car,” says Bharat.

Classic cars are those premium products for the itinerant rich — a lifestyle experience that can be acquired at a certain price point. Only, that is not entirely true.

What’s happening at the moment is that classic cars are going up in value worldwide. People are pulling out their folk’s cars and revving them back to life.

“Anyone can drive a new car, but when you see a classic car on the road, it’s a different kind of knock,” Bharat says. Besides, knowing that its value after restoration shoots up doesn’t hurt either.

Mud Rovers, which boasts of both returning and new clients specialise in Land Rovers, doing the mechanical, upholstery, electricals, bodywork, and painting.

The demography of their client base is mostly young people, those in their early 30s to mid-40s. In a year, they restore two or three cars, but “the third car should have minimal work”.

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Bharat Pitrola of Diastart Auto Garage poses for a picture next to a Mercedes 280SL “pagoda” being restored at the garage located in Industrial Area on November 26, 2022. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU| NMG

“The problem with this business,” says Dalmas, “is that you can underestimate the work needed to be done while you have already agreed with the client on the total cost. At that point, you have to take the hit.”

Bharat knows all about taking hits. Time, to him, is money. Just look at how much of it is needed to restore one car. That’s why they only restore two classic cars per year.

“It takes a lot of time. The least amount of time I have ever taken is maybe six to eight months. Some restorations have gone on for three years.” It’s easy to get the impression of ‘not-everyone-can-do-this’ quality to their work, with that glint in his voice that suggests he knows what it’s all about. But he agrees that the power shift is changing. The younger people are now steering the classic car business. “They want a classic car with comfort.”

The ebullience of youth with the elegance of age. “However, the number of women clients is still low. They too might like classic cars but the restoration journey is quite difficult.”

What is the process of restoring a car?

“First you bring the car for assessment and evaluation. We find out your end goal. That will determine our price. We also tell you the worth of the car when it’s done, before listing the parts needed. We provide options, giving the client the steering of the process.

Then we strip the car, get the local parts and what is available outside, start the bodywork and voila.” Voila. Keeping the customer in the loop, he says, is very important.

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Land Rovers in various stages of restoration and service at Mud Rovers in Karen on November 25, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NAIROBI

“There is something I have been taught and that is we never cut corners. When the client is showing off his car to someone, he will get you more customers. And if it is something you can’t do, be upfront. Don’t make false promises.”

A prospective client should know, Dalmas says, that these projects are expensive. “If you see a restored car and think that is fancy, know that it didn’t come cheap. If you are still willing to plunge in, realise that this project is from the first bolt to the last bolt.”

With a workforce of 13, their main struggle as Mud Rovers is the compliance of the customer. If the customer goes broke, the car gets stalled and has to be parked, leading to limited space for taking up further jobs. “But people choose us because of our specialisation and having a friendly environment. If a customer gets into a fix, we send one of us to help them rather than assume or send a flatbed, which will incur the extra charges.”

Bharat says the future can only get brighter. “The market can only get bigger, because a classic car, unlike other cars, is an investment. Once you drive it off the garage, its price, like fuel, only goes higher.”

“The one thing that we know is that we are still going to keep up with the latest cars. We have the equipment and facilities to deal with hybrid and electric cars.” And when they do become classics at one point, they will already be ahead of the curve with their old hand forged through decades of experience. “Once you put your mind to it,” he says, “We will make your classical car dreams come true.”

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Dalmas, who describes himself as a family man who drives a ‘1000 CC Vitz’ (his words), says: “I am only trying to keep the running costs low.” Especially because of the nature of their business, which is time intensive and rather expensive, you need to take care of the hundreds before the thousands take care of themselves.

“This business has taught me never to underestimate a client. Or the job,” he adds. And with the classical grace and élan of his touch, he buries his head deep underneath the Landrover’s bonnet.

A small job, he says, is the biggest job.

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