Old cars acquire new look as economy drives Kenyans into tight spot

Cars for sale at Yohana Automotive along Kiambu Road on June 5, 2023.

Photo credit: File | Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Every time Vincent Omollo sees a newer, bigger car model on the roads, he imagines himself driving it. He has contemplated selling his 2006 Nissan Teana and getting another one but his bank account won't allow him.

So, he has opted for the next best option; modifying and repairing the 12-year-old car to make it look decent.

But even that doesn't come cheap.

"My car is old. I spend so much money on repairs. There is a long list of things I need to repair," he says, noting that he recently spent Sh200,000 on repairs alone, which included buying new springs at Sh25,000, tyres at Sh51,000, new shock absorbers at Sh35,000, labour costs, and paintwork, among others.

"I want a more spacious and fuel-efficient car, a car that I can comfortably use long-distance and carry my family of seven," says Mr Omollo who is almost in my 50s.

There was a time when Kenyans changed cars every few years, but the high cost of cars and the tough economy which has eroded purchasing power, have driven into conservative spending habits.

Yvonne Nduta who held onto her Toyota Allion for over a decade says owning a car nowadays is a luxury that fewer people can afford with each passing day.

"You have to plan especially when you have financial obligations. If it’s not a do-or-die situation, you do not need a new purchase," says the 38-year-old.

She recently sold the Toyota Allion, which she describes as her "first baby" and bought a 2016 Subaru Forester, a recommendation from her long-time mechanic.

"I had to for my three children. I wanted something bigger and more comfortable. I am hoping the Subaru will serve me for the number of years the Toyota did because cars nowadays are just very expensive,"she emphasises.

And as drivers hold onto their cars for a long time, sellers are suffering.

"Stock just isn't moving!" says Faith Waraki who has been selling cars for more than 18 years now.

She tells the BDLife that people are currently opting for quick car checks to see what needs to be maintained and repaired, rather than thinking about the budget for importing or buying a new car.

Flopped curve

The high cost of cars has made Kenyans shy away from getting newer models, which has caused the sales curve to fall, especially since the pandemic.

A Mazda Demio (petrol engine) manufactured in 2017 is currently priced at an average of Sh1.4 million. A few years ago it cost less than Sh1 million, while a Toyota Landcruiser V8 currently costs about Sh12.5 million.

Charles Munyori, the secretary general at Kenya Auto Bazaar Association says car importation has slowed down as Kenyans find it hard to cope with the high cost of living.

"Dealers who shipped in cars when the shilling was at 160 units to the US dollar are now staring at huge losses which we estimate at upwards of Sh 1.2 million for some of the units,’’ Mr Munyori points out.

"Any car below Sh1 million would sell faster than those that cost more," he adds.

But few newly imported cars cost less than Sh1 million.

Second-hand cars are popular among the middle class and small businesses with Japan being a main source market, accounting for 80 percent of the vehicles.

Automotive Expert and STEM Mentor Faith Waraki at Car Soko Limited yard in Nairobi on April 10, 2024.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

The option

To make them look newer, other car owners are exploring improvement (customisation) to what they already have. By customising a car, they improve its performance, make it more aesthetically pleasing and sometimes enhance its safety features.

"The goal currently is the addition of accessories to the vehicle or a facelift where you can change the front and the rear of the car, giving it a different newer look," says Ms Waraki.

"We were having companies racking in good profits with doing customisation inquiries even before the dollar rise," she adds.

For new owners, Ms Waraki says, "There is a lot of awareness that has come on what car to buy. They are going for vehicles whose spares can be sourced locally so they don’t deal with the stress associated with importation. Also, they go for affordable cars whose repairs and maintenance are not a nuisance."

David Muchai, the manager of Shay Automotive garage in Nairobi, says a majority of his clients have their old cars and have become more careful drivers to reduce wear-and-tear and are delaying the car servicing intervals.

"Many drivers are careful so that the damage is not costly since they don’t also want to spend much money on service," he says, adding, "Unlike in the past when they used to buy a new car after five years, they are now buying it after 10 years or more."

Suspension changes top the list of repairs made at his garage.

"Very few are major like accidents because people are more careful, so the repair is mostly because of the bad roads."

Despite the harsh time, there are downsides to having an old car and postponing service.

"The basic thing to listen for in your car is that if you hear strange noises it means something is wrong. With mechanical work, it starts as a very small problem that leads to a major breakdown. For instance, it might be a knock-on effect such that if you don't do the bushings, it affects the anti-roll bar then affects the ball joints and goes to the hub, then the shock absorbers and the engine mount. Three or four months down the line, the bill is huge," he cautions.

"If you allow your car to run past the servicing due date something will go wrong. Chances are your oil is dirty, which means it is not doing its job of lubricating the engine, the car will overheat and when it does, the gasket will blow up and the engine will collapse. If you don't change your plugs when they are due, the car won't have complete combustion and that means the car won't burn fuel efficiently, so you'll use more fuel and that will affect performance and your fuel consumption,"’ he adds.

He adds that the downside of holding onto a car for decades is it becomes less fuel-efficient and costly.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.