Paul Onditi has always had a passion for classic cars, particularly Citroëns. Yet he did not know at the outset that vintage cars would have tremendous investment potential, nor that his passion would eventually lead to his owning a corral-full of classic cars.
“It’s a lifelong story,” says the well-known Kenyan artist whose interest in vintage cars is not widely known among his peers in the local art world. Yet he does not see his love for classics and passion for painting as conflicting pastimes.
Owning a Citroën is what he calls “a childhood dream” even though he did not see many classic vehicles while growing up in Kendu Bay, Nyanza.
“But Tom Mboya had a Citroën,” he says while seated in one of his latest projects, the Kwa Wangwana Restaurant and Wine Garden, which is situated in a leafy suburb of Nairobi.
“I never saw him drive it since he died before I was born. But his widow used to pass by our place in their Citroën on her way to Rusinga,” says Onditi.
There were several others in his neighbourhood who had a Citroën, a car whose futuristic features also appealed to the young Mr Onditi.
“As early as the 1950s, Citroëns had power steering which only Mercedes Benz and Volvos had,” says the artist-restaurateur who currently owns seven Citroëns.
The remaining six out of his current total of 13 include a Volkswagen Kombi, Volkswagen Valiant, Saab 900 Turbo Double, Fiat 850, Opel Kadett and a 1998 Mercedes-Benz W140. The maximum number of classic cars that he has owned at once is 14.
But his heart will always belong to the Citroëns, along with his wife Christine and his children.
One other reason for his devotion to the Citroëns is its futuristic style of ‘sleeping’ whenever the car is turned off and the back end of the body ‘collapses’, hiding the rear wheels. Then when the vehicle is started up again, it immediately ‘wakes up’ as if it was coming to attention and the driver was royalty or a dignitary of some sort.
But Mr Onditi did not start collecting classic cars in his youth. Nor is it a hobby that he recommends everyone with money should seriously consider taking up.
“It is not wise to just go out and buy old cars. But if you’re prepared to do the research and keep your eye on the market, collecting vintage cars can be a good way to invest,” he says.
“You should only buy a vehicle that won’t depreciate. If you buy a classic, you may have to wait a few years, if you’re patient it’s bound to appreciate significantly,” he adds.
For example, he says, that Land Rovers will soon be going out of production, which is bound to mean that after some years they will accrue in value substantially.
The implication being that even if you have an old rusty Land Rover, it is wise not to sell it. And if you see one on the market, it might make sense to snap it up right away.
Not so with a Toyota, he remarks, since its value is bound to diminish after five years.
Mr Onditi admits the vintage car market is a niche market.
“It may be small, but you can be sure the demand is there, so long as you have the right commodity,” says, the collector who has not yet reached 40.
The challenge is to know which ‘commodities’ are most marketable. And that is where research comes in.
“You have to know the history of your vehicle to know if it’s a classic or not,” he explains.
For instance, Mr Onditi bought a rusty old Volkswagen Kombi with 21 windows that most people would consider “scrap metal”.
But he knew better. He had done his research and paid Sh200,000 for it a few years back.
“Even before it was restored, I was offered Sh1.2 million for it. And now it’s selling for Sh3 million online,” he adds.
The very first classic car that Mr Onditi could afford was the Citroën DS 21 that he bought for Sh150,000. He was still living in Germany at the time, having gone there to be with his future wife and to attend art school at Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main. But he had returned to Kenya for a visit in 2006. That is when he took the leap and fulfilled his dream for the first time.
“I had to buy it in instalments. Fortunately, the owner was my friend. I even left the car with him while I was away,” he recalls. When he was able, he ultimately invested Sh1 million to restore the car.
“But I have already been offered Sh3.5 million for it by someone who wants it badly,” he says.
Mr Onditi does not buy his cars all at once. Nor does he repair them straight away although he has one mechanic who works for him full-time and only does body work, meaning panel beating and painting. He also has a mechanic who fixes engines and other internal issues, but he only works when he is called.
“I can handle minor repairs myself,” he says, although he admits driving his classic cars, while being one of his greatest delights, can also be difficult.
“Sometimes the car will break down in the middle of the road, and if it’s a Citroën, it can’t be easily moved,” he says.
But leaving the car where it ‘died’ can elicit rude comments from other drivers who have no patience for a man with ‘dirty hands’ driving an ‘old car’.
“Most of them don’t know the value of these classic cars,” says Mr Onditi who has scathing remarks for the so-called ‘tenderpreneurs who cannot even change a tire but measure a man’s worth by the kind of trendy new car he has got.
One may well ask how Mr Onditi, an artist, can afford to own 13 classic cars, three of which are in working order and which he can often be seen driving around town.
First of all, he says, he never buys a car without first researching its history and considering its investment value.
“I don’t just buy a car with the idea of keeping it forever,” he says.
One reason for that is he has to repay the bank loans he gets in order to buy most of his cars. Taking up the sport of buying and selling vintage cars does not necessarily mean the buyer has to be a rich, although a retiree looking for a fascinating hobby might enjoy the challenge.
Mr Onditi says he had to establish a trusting relationship with his bank. What is more, he has never defaulted on one of his bank loans. But he has had to sell some of his vintage cars, all of which went for more than twice the price of what he bought the vehicles for. Among the cars he has sold were his bronze Citroën CX Prestige, his Opel Kadett and one VW Kombi.
The day we met him at his Kwa Wangwana Restaurant, it had recently rained, so Mr Onditi showed up driving a 1996 Land Cruiser. When asked why he was not driving one of his classics that day, especially when he knew we would be talking about them, his answer was simple and clear.
“I’m a practical man,” meaning it’s not the weather for driving a classic car.