The Past and the Future

The Africa Concours d’Elegance, now in its 50th edition in the annual series, is an annual event held on the last Sunday in September at the Nairobi Racecourse grounds and has become the classiest event on the Kenya Motor Sport calendar.

The first anniversary of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club (Kenya) in 1971 was a matter of great pride for the members and drove the committee to plan an event to celebrate the organization’s first birthday. Inspired by the stylish lines of the Giulia coupes and Spider sports cars of the late sixties, the committee took note of Concours d’Elegance events held in many countries around the world.

A decision was made to hold a Concours d’Elegance for Club members with their Alfas in the grounds of the Spread Eagle Hotel (which is now the Safari Park Hotel & Casino). Twelve well prepared cars were presented to the judges by their costumed owners. After comparing notes the officials declared Perry Mason who had been wearing an Ascot outfit to parade his 1600 GT the winner.

To the delight of the Alfa Club committee, the Concours gained instant popularity with members requesting an annual event. When the time came to plan the Club’s tenth birthday celebration, the decision was made to hold a Concours d’Elegance open to all makes and types of cars.

Coinciding with this ambitious step, the venue was changed to the Embakasi motor racing circuit. Help was sought from Peter Hughes, a former Safari Rally winner who was at the time the manager of the Safari Rally and a top motor sport administrator. He was enthusiastic about holding an event to highlight car care and to develop the classic car movement in Kenya. After agreeing to be the Chief Judge, he said, “I expect we will start with a small entry and I would be happy to have 15 cars.”

The Concours d’Elegance generated great interest from newspapers, radio and TV and 25 cars were judged by Peter Hughes and his team of officials. The Alfa Romeo Owners Club used the starting grid and main straight of the racing circuit to line up the competing cars. Making use of the space at the race track, the organisers required the competitors to drive their cars along a line stopping at judging stations for the assessment of the underside, the external finish, the interior and boot, the engine and ending with a basic road safety check. This system differs from the judging process at the majority of Concours d’Elegance events around the world which have parked cars judged by officials walking around them.

After a car competitor is called for judging he, or she drives up the giant Total Quartz inspection ramp for judges to mark the underside. The ramp is overlooked by a grandstand and is a popular viewing location for spectators. This is also a focal point for press photographers and TV crews.

The experience gained in preparing cars for judging helped Alfa Romeo Owners Club members to win the first few events held at the Nairobi motor racing circuit. This monopoly was broken by the 1928 Ford model A of Guy Bromley, which ended the Alfa Romeo domination of the overall winners’ list. Each year there are a significant number of quality entries from members of the host Club and Alfa Romeo cars usually win at least two classes.

The Concours continued to attract more car entries and spectators. Classes for motorcycles were introduced together with catering facilities. The motor trade took note of the growing following for the Concours and the organisers allocated space along the edge of the track for new car exhibits.

The future seemed very bright until the legal status of the motor racing circuit land was changed from recreational to commercial to make way for the expansion of the industrial area. Losing what had proved to be a popular location for the Concours was a bad blow for the Alfa Romeo Owners Club. By this time Peter Hughes had retired as chief judge after serving for ten years and Vic Preston Senior, a legendary motorcycle and racing and rally driver had taken over this responsibility. At his suggestion, the Concours organizers approached the Jockey Club of Kenya for the use of the Nairobi Racecourse for one weekend each year during a gap in the horse racing season. Negotiations were successful and a partnership came into being in 1988 with the Jockey Club hosting the annual Concours which has continued to be organized by the Alfa Romeo Owners Club.

What had seemed a severe setback turned into a blessing. Compared with a crowd of 2,000 spectators at the motor racing track, the first event in the Jockey Club grounds drew over 4,000 motoring enthusiasts and their families. The car judging line was laid out in front of the spacious racecourse grand stands and the motorcycles were allocated the parade ring. The garden setting and the spacious grounds and spectators facilities of the Nairobi Racecourse have a strong appeal. In recent years the Concours has attracted a crowd of 10,000 motorist enthusiasts and their families and the organisers usually receive for judging the maximum field of 70 cars and 40 motorcycles specified in the regulations

Over the years an amazing variety of cars have captured the top prize. Among these are a 1934 Fiat, a 1934 Railton, a 1951 Daimler DB 18 Barker, a 1972 Jaguar E-Type and several MGs. Champion motorcycles include a 1915 Indian, a 1925 DKW, a 1937 Moto Guzzi GT and a 1954 Matchless. Owners of classic cars and motorcycles from Tanzania and Uganda started entering the event in the 1980s. Driven by this interest from outside Kenya, the organisers started to try to attract entries from further afield.

A concerted campaign bore fruit in the late 1990s when the British Airways Classic Vehicle Club started entering a motorcycle air freighted from England each year. In 2000 Heathrow based Edward Pengilly made Concours history by becoming the first overseas winner with his 1955 BSA. Interest from South African classic car and motorcycle enthusiasts developed and two Mercedes sports cars from Johannesburg contested the Concours in 1999. Ronald Operman showed a 1971 Mercedes 280 SL and Bill Nortier drove his 1962 Mercedes 190 SL down the judging line in the sports car class. They were sponsored by DT Dobie, the Kenya Mercedes agent and Daimler Benz to mark the 50th anniversary of the appointment of DT Dobie to represent Mercedes cars and trucks in Kenya. Bill Nortier’s sports car gave him the lead, but his score was matched by the 1934 Railton of Diccon Wilcock. In accordance with the Concours rules, the advantage was given to the older car and Bill Nortier narrowly missed becoming the first car winner from outside Kenya.

Contact was established with the Vintage Motorcycle Club of South Africa and the Club started entering the Concours in 2003. The debut appearance at the Nairobi Racecourse was an outstanding success. Johannesburg based Rex and Tessa Hamilton captured first place with their gleaming white 1930 Ivory Calthorpe. The Vintage Motorcycle Club of South Africa has contested the event every year since 2003 and the Club’s competitors have earned many prizes. In 2004 the late Michael Milner Smythe, the Chairman, was the outright motorcycle winner with his 1922 Douglas. This victory was followed in 2008 when Ivor Carlson’s 1934 BSA Blue Star was the best bike. In 2010 it was the turn of Philip Gordon who showed his superb 1915 Indian.

Making use of the spacious Nairobi Racecourse grounds, the Alfa Romeo Owners Club and Concours sponsors have added a variety of spectator attractions including a children’s centre, live band music, and a free fall parachute drop. Following the tragic death of Vic Preston Snr., the Alfa Romeo Owners Club invited Bill Parkinson to be the Chief Judge. Bill is a retired rally and racing driver who won both the Touring Car and Track Driving Championships during his years as a competitor. Parkinson excelled in running the Concours to a strict schedule and introduced a parade of all the competing cars and motorcycles. These are driven along the front of the grand stands after the completion of judging and are given a standing ovation by the crowd.Fly pasts have been arranged throughout the day by Bill Parkinson which are highly popular with spectators. They also enjoy visiting the Auto Expo which consists of 28 motor trade stands on the inside of the racecourse in close proximity to the car competitors’ paddock, judging line and the car and motorcycle judging areas. Auto Expo is flanked by the Motor Sport Arcade which showcases the various forms of motor sport in Kenya ranging from karting to rallying. Each year the Concours regulations are approved by the Kenya Motor Sports Federation (KMSF) and since 2006 the event has been recognized and sanctioned by the FIM-Africa. As interest in motorcycles has grown, Bill Parkinson recommended the appointment of separate Chief Judges for cars and two wheelers before he retired after heading the assessment of the Concours machines for over ten years.

Other Chief car judges over the years have been Brian Nicol, Michael Hughes and currently Chris Eden with Robert Gow as his motorcycle counterpart. As the judging draws to a close, spectators pack the main grandstands to view the Starehe Boys Centre band lead the parade of all the Concours cars and bikes, the podium prize giving and the grand finale entertainment before they head for home.