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Alfa Romeo: Inside Kenya’s exclusive motor club

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By Wainaina Wambu | August 31st 2021
Peter Wanday Chairman Alfa Romeo Classic Cars Owners club of Kenya during an interview on August 27, 2021 at his home in Runda Meadow. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

Owning an Alfa Romeo means more than just being a car enthusiast. It is a gripping, lifelong love affair. ?

Peter Wanday, for instance, has felt the thrill since the mid-70s when he first spotted one as a boy.

“In the mid to late 70s, Alfa Romeos were doing very well in Kenya and it was the car of choice for the emerging elite,” recalls the chairman of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club Kenya.

“I remember when the Alfetta GTV was introduced to the market. I fell in love with the car. I told myself that one day I’d love to own it.”

Now he is the proud owner of an immaculate 1972 Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV, and is among a select Kenyans besotted by the unique Italian brand.

It is this love that birthed the Alfa Romeo Owners Club 51 years ago, Kenya’s oldest and most exclusive motor club.

As renowned car freak Jeremy Clarkson once put it: “In order to be ‘petrosexual’ you must at some point have owned an Alfa Romeo.”

But Mr Wanday had been put off for a while from owning one. An Alfa Romeo romance has long been said to end in nothing but heart break, pain and draining of pockets due to unreliability issues.

“All these stories that abounded that Alfa Romeos were unreliable, needed deep pockets to run them… it kind of put me off,” he told FS.

Listed automobile firm Car & General (C&G) was once the local dealership for Alfa Romeo and Fiat, terminating the business in 1999 after it flopped in three years.

They had only sold 100 units at an average of five units a month.

“A small enthusiast market, that’s all it was,” C&G chief executive Vijay Gidoomal told FS in May. “We thought we could grow it, make it more of a mainstream business but it wasn’t possible.”

The firm has never touched cars again, diversifying into other multiple mass market businesses and now are famed for popularising boda bodas and tuk tuks in Kenya in the early 2000s.

But again, an Alfa Romeo tryst is hard to resist. In the late 90s, Wanday’s heart ached for the Alfa Romeo 156 introduced by C&G with an enticing offer for brand new cars.

Then, he was also in love with BMWs and bought one instead.

Interior of one of the car's Peter Wanday owns [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

“But as time went by I kept thinking I should keep this Alfa Romeo spirit going,” he says.

Eventually he bought one, a used Alfa Romeo 155, and went on buying others. He currently has three including the 1972 Alfa 2000 GTV, 156 (his daily drive) and is restoring a 1971 1750 GTV.

Wanday says one of the biggest challenges for Alfa Romeo owners is the lack of a dealer or importer of parts. But this has not stopped them.

The community they have built means they can rely on each other for parts, and also importing parts nowadays only requires one to go online.

The cars are hard to come across on Kenyan roads, and this rarity might ground a vehicle for long as one cannot find parts, and not too many specialists exist.

This has turned most of the owners into do-it-yourself mechanics.

Wanday, a civil engineer, describes himself as a hobby mechanic. FS found him in overalls all greased up.

He dispels the myth that the vehicles are unreliable, insisting that Alfa Romeo’s built up to the 1970s were solid though the brand lost its soul a bit after being acquired by Fiat.

There are certain models such as the Alfa Romeo Sud which is described as a rust bucket; others had electrical issues.

But this would change in the 1990s with the 156 which was well received. Also, another merger between Fiat and Chrysler in the 2000s saw the brand get a new lease of life and even returned to rear wheel drive.

Since then we have seen the Alfa Romeo Giulia, a rival to the Mercedes Benz C-class and the BMW 3 series.

However, Wanday reckons the brand’s appeal is also because the cars are not produced for the mass market.

Not more than 100,000 have rolled out of the production plant in recent years, compared to other car brands that average millions annually.

But what is so special about Alfa Romeos? The owners describe them as almost human, having a soul.

At 110 years old, it is one of the oldest motoring brands and gained its pedigree in Europe’s racing circuits.

Enzo Ferarri was once part of its elite racing team before founding that iconic Italian sports car bearing his surname.

“They made their name in the race tracks but even when you are on the road in a commuter car, you feel that sportiness that gets users hooked. That’s why they say it’s a car with a soul – you talk to it and it talks to you.

Niche market

All these years the brand has appealed to a niche market.

Peter Wanday has felt the thrill since the mid-70s when he first spotted one as a boy.[Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

“Alfa Romeo lovers are very interesting people and they say once you drive one you never look back,” says Wanday.

And how has The Alfa Romeo Owners Club managed to live this long?

The chairman says the club is run by a committee that meets regularly and has a purposeful approach that has sustained it since 1970.

Apart from regular social events for members, they hold the Economy Run annually from Nairobi to Naivasha, where the driver with the least fuel consumption gets rewarded.

One of the founders and dedicated members is the indefatigable Bob Dewar, who drives a 1972 Alfa Romeo Spider and is a key cog in the wheels of Kenya’s motorsport calendar.

And of course, they are part of the Concours d’Elegance – an annual motorsport event that attracts at least 10,000 spectators to see rare classic cars battle it out for honours. The event was initially only open to Alfa Romeos but has since evolved to accommodate all car brands and motorcycles.

Last year, however, the event held every September did not take place due to the coronavirus pandemic and its fate is still unclear this year.

Over the years, rare Alfa Romeos such as the 1968 Duetto Spider and the 1967 2600 Sprint have won the overall Concours d’Elegance trophy.

Wanday’s 1972 2000 GTV has also won in the Alfa Romeo class several times.

Classic car restoration can be a pocket drainer. “Of course it can drain your pocket but it need not be,” says Wanday.

“It depends on the level of restoration that one intends to achieve, expertise you use, sourcing of parts and general condition of the project car.

“But it’s a very fulfilling venture as classic car enthusiasts do it out of passion. We take to it the way some of our colleagues take to golf or other sporting activities.”

He notes there’s a lot of satisfaction derived from classic car restoration after the years of patience it takes to restore.

Restoration means picking a grounded car and putting it back on the road. There are different levels depending if you want it as a daily driver or a show car.

There are purists who want it to look like it just emerged from a showroom.

Wanday is a petrol head whose passion for cars began when he was barely 10 years old as a “spanner boy” for his father’s mechanic.

The first car he bought when he started working was a Volkswagen Beetle 1303 (Brazilian model) that he found grounded somewhere in Githunguri, Kiambu County.

And his garage is impressive.

“A good herdsman doesn’t count his flock,” he chuckles when FS asks how many modern and classic cars he owns.

Apart from the three Alfa Romeos, he also owns a pristine restored Mercedes Benz 1968 W108, two classic BMWs (including a rare convertible E30 series) and an array of motorbikes, including a 1956 BSA.

As a hobby mechanic, over the years his garage has all the necessary tools including for panel beating and body spray. Friends sometimes “dump” cars there seeking help in restoration.

He admits cars are his only hobby and he has spent millions restoring and also importing parts from the UK and Germany, but would not have it any other way.

“Many of my friends play golf on weekends and try to get me there, but I refuse and instead spend my free time tinkering with my cars.”

“I think my golf friends spend more than me, flying for the weekend to the country’s best golf courses.”

His 1972 model can fetch up to Sh4 million in Europe, but he has never entertained the thought of selling it even after offers.

Were he in the market for a modern car, he says, it would still be an Alfa Romeo.

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