This has been the question on the lips of most motoring enthusiasts after Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero was chauffeured to his swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday in a vintage limousine complete with a customised number plate — NCC 1.
At face value, the car easily passes for a classic Rolls Royce. But a dig into the archives reveals its exact model – and the controversy that surrounded its acquisition nearly half a century ago. In early 1966, the now defunct City Council of Nairobi decided to buy a ceremonial vehicle for its mayor, then Charles Rubia, for a whopping £10,850.
Nathan Kahara, who served as Nairobi Mayor between 1980 and 1983, says the council settled on a Rolls Royce from the United Kingdom. The vehicle, he says, was to come with several motorcycles to be used as police outriders in the mayor’s motorcade.
“Mr Rubia and President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta were not in good terms,” recalled Mr Kahara. “When the vehicle was just about to reach Mombasa port, Kenyatta ordered that it should be returned.”
The feeling among Kenyatta’s men was that the mayor would have a prestigious motorcade that would have rivalled that of the Head of State, explains Mr Kahara.
The Daily Nation of February 10, 1966 reported that Kenyatta intervened following a request by then Minister for Local Government, L. G. Sagini.
“In consideration of the circumstances connected with this matter, His Excellency the President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, has stopped the delivery of the car to Kenya,” read a dispatch from State House.
And with that, the vehicle was returned to London. However, the fate of the motorcycles remains unclear, with Mr Kahara suggesting they could still be lying idle at the NCC garage from where Kidero retrieved the vintage car.
“The vehicle was returned but the outriders were not,” Mr Kahara told Sunday Nation. Prior to this, though, a heated debate took place on the floor of the First Parliament with MPs tearing into the city councillors over the purchase.
The Hansard report of March 10, 1966 shows that it was former Cooperatives and Social Services minister Ronald Ngala who fired the first salvo.
“The decision of the NCC to buy a Sh217,000 mayoral Rolls Royce has angered every taxpayer in Kenya,” stated Mr Ngala. “This expenditure is a gross, careless squandering of public money.”
He noted the council had accrued a debt of Sh161 million at the time of the purchase. Mr Ngala went on to claim that a special driver had been flown to London at a cost of Sh30,000 to learn the mechanics of driving the car.
“This is daylight robbery of the taxpayer’s money,” he charged. Mr Ngala further claimed that Mr Rubia had personally pressed for a Rolls Royce model and exerted pressure on Mr Sagini to allow the purchase. He also claimed that the car would have a TV set and a bathroom before he was cut short by other members.
Former MP Japhat Zacharia Kase weighed in on the debate terming the purchase as going against the wishes of Kenyans.
“I can side with any group to get rid of that car even if it means stoning the car,” charged Mr Kase. He further questioned the need for outriders, saying the mayor would compete with Kenyatta. “Do we want the mayor of this country to have piki pikis (motorbikes) like the president?” he asked. “Who is the mayor of this country? Just a councillor like any other councillor.”
Spirited attempts by former Attorney General Charles Njonjo to calm the situation by pointing out that Mr Rubia had agreed to convene a council meeting to discuss the acquisition — following a meeting with Mzee Kenyatta — fell on deaf ears.
Martin Shikuku, who bragged that he was the president of the poor, urged the electorate to vote out the corrupt leaders. “If the car is not here, it should not be allowed into this country,” he said.
Mzee Kenyatta intervened 24 hours after the debate and stopped the deal. The council then settled for the Vanden Plas Princess, a vehicle they said was less prestigious but of similar design. And according to Mr Kahara, the vehicle has luxurious seats and can be converted into a boardroom.
The vehicle was used by Mr Rubia and other successive mayors, including Isaac Lugonzo, Margaret Kenyatta, Andrew Ngumba and Mr Kahara. The car was grounded in 1983 after the council was dissolved and replaced with a commission.
Following the reintroduction of multipartysm in 1992, the new mayor, Steve “Magic” Mwangi, had the limo brought out of mothballs and used it briefly before he abandoned it following several embarrassing breakdowns.
According to the website www.vandenplas.com, the Rolls Royce engined Princess 4-litre “R” was the culmination of a deal, in the early 1960s, between British Motor Corporation (BMC) and Rolls Royce, to produce an upmarket executive car, using the 3,909cc Rolls-Royce F60 engine.
Originally, the intention had been for Rolls-Royce Limited to produce a Bentley car in larger quantities, and at a lower price, to satisfy the younger/executive market. The original development cars were assigned the prototype name of the Bentley Java, and an un-named Rolls Royce variant was also considered.
“Some original buyers felt that the body style should have been redesigned more than it had been to announce the fact that this was the ‘Rolls Royce’ engined version as distinct from the BMC engine Princess 3-litre,” says www.vandenplas.com. “The only really noticeable difference, at a casual glance, was the removal of the rear tail fins, which were a feature of the 3-litre cars.”
They sold nearly 4,500 units before the car was discontinued. Like in Kenya, the car remains a jewel to current owners.
The website further describes the cars as comfortable today as any modern car. “The body style is, well, dowdy and boring, but so are all the Mercedes vehicles of the same vintage. Spare parts are also obtainable, especially in the USA.”
A Vanden Plas Owners’ club was formed in 1980 to encourage members to maintain the cars in good running order and appearance. The club also offers technical support as well as selling spares through their magazine.