There is a crackle of anticipation and excitement in the air. Across the breadth of Nairobi and its environs, vintage car and motorcycle owners are counting down the days to the return of the most prestigious event on Kenya’s motorsport calendar – the Golden Africa Concours d’ Elegance.
Even more special, the 2022 edition will be the Golden Jubilee of the grand showpiece, marking half a century of the event being held annually in Kenya and a return after the pandemic hiatus.
As a select group of 70 vintage car and 40 motorcycle owners either pull their hair out or pat each other on the back depending on how the work on their machines is going, the clock is quickly ticking down.
One of the die-hards will be defending champion John Wroe who will be seeking to outdo himself by entering four cars in this year’s Concours.
Mr Wroe, who has a huge collection of vintage cars, sits outside his home off Nairobi’s Ngong Road. A Rolls Royce Boatail, 1934 (a previous winner) has its front tyres on a ramp as his team goes over the car, inch after inch.
This ‘34 Rolls Royce’s story is one of intrigue. It was imported to Kenya in the 1950s and a farmer called Bobby Colt used it to deliver milk in Kiambu. Five years ago, as Colt was leaving the country, Mr Wroe got his hands on it.
The Pebble beach Concours – the most prestigious in the world – also thought the milk-cart-Rolls Royce has an interesting story and wanted to have it at their event.
“I was proud that they asked. It was an honour to be thought about,” Mr Wroe says.
The White Ford Model A 1930 that is the defending champion also sits in Mr Wroe’s garage and will be coming out all revs to retain the title last won before the pandemic put Concours on hold for two years.
The other two are a shamrock-green 1928 Ford pickup and a blue Ford that Mr Wroe proudly says ferried the late Vice President Kijana Wamalwa and his bride Yvonne on their wedding day.
A lot of history lies at Mr Wroe’s home. He points out a car – another Ford. “Robert Redford drove that car during the filming of Out of Africa,” he says before walking on to the next one. He has 22 vintage cars in different states of repair.
Mr Wroe was a car enthusiast as soon as he was out of his toddling years. “I used to swing as high as I could at Mrs Bodie’s nursery school to see what kind of cars were across the fence,” he says.
He is now retired from an over 40-year-old firefighting business and credits the restoration of these classic cars as his now ‘job.'
He taught himself almost all there is to know about cars with the help of his mechanic, Joseph Kamau, who will get to drive the '28 Ford pickup during the car show at Nairobi Racecourse this Sunday.
Veronica Wroe, his daughter, has taken up her father’s love for cars. She lost to him in the 2019 Concours d’ Elegance.
“She’s not very happy about that,” Mr Wroe says chuckling, adding that he has tried to entice his other children into his sport by even ‘bribing’ his son with a Triumph TR4 on his 21st birthday.
Asked about the expenses incurred, Mr Wroe gets modest. “I don’t drink. I put my money in my cars,” he says.
For the 1934 Rolls Royce, however, Mr Wroe paid a princely sum of 20,000 pounds (Sh2.75 million) with restoration work to follow. He has however paid as low as Sh50,000 for a ‘sunken into the ground white Dodge’ he loved and bought.
They have weekly meetings with Mr Kamau and a checklist and average their weekly car costs at Sh30,000.
However, he says the expenses are only part of it, “The headache is to get the parts if you do get them.” Despite a growing market for vintage cars in Africa, Mr Wroe does not sell his ‘babies.’
For a car that wins the overall Concours d’ Elegance, the asking price would triple. But he says he possibly cannot put a price on his cars.
Over the years he has learned to take the competition less seriously and do it for the fun of the spectacle.
“Whether I win or lose, my joy, my prize is in the work I’ve done,” he says, adding that he does not envy the job of the event judges. He gives a philosophical analogy of judging between an elegant older woman and a beautiful younger one. “Who wins?”