Monday, October 1, 2018

Pioneer Automobiling in Kenya

Annamaria on Monday

In the first scene of my historical mystery The Idol of Mombasa, Vera and Tolliver are arriving back in Africa after their honeymoon in Britain and Italy.  Among the things they see in the bustling port are Model T Fords being off-loaded from a tramp steamer.  It took quite a bit of research to get that one paragraph to speak with authenticity.    For one thing, the text cites the Mombasa Motor Garage.  There was such an establishment in 1912.  But truth be told, they mostly serviced motorcycles.  Tin Lizzies were the newest thing in 1912, and there weren't all that many of them to begin with.  And they were not the first motor cars in the Protectorate of British East Africa.

That distinction belongs to this French beauty:

This blonde is a De Dion-Bouton, made in France by a company that also manufactured both steam powered cars and tricycles.  (All with tires by Michelin!)  One of the experimental DeD-B vehicles had a one cylinder engine and the passengers sitting in front, facing the driver who sat in the rear seat.

The very first automobile in British East Africa arrived by steamship in December 1903 on order for one George Wilson, a road engineer from Australia.

I don't know about you, but until I began researching the first cars in BEA, I had never hear of this brand.  In 1900. however, it was the best selling automobile on the planet, with four hundred automobiles and 3,200 engines made in a single year.

A crowd on the Mombasa dock applauded as it was off-loaded onto the jetty, but the machine itself could not yet move under its own (you should pardon the expression, for it had an internal combustion engine) steam.

To run it, Wilson had to wait a couple of days for the four-gallon tins of petrol to be delivered from the ship.  Yup!  The only gas for the buggy had to be imported with the car!  That delay came in handy for Wilson, who spent the time reading the manual, which was the only way for him to learn how to operate the car.  He and his wife, working together, finally figured out where to put the oil and how to adjust the levers on the steering column to pinpoint exactly how to get the fuel and spark to combine and start the finicky flivver.  At which point, they might take it for a spin.  But where, there were no proper roads anywhere.  Only "glorified oxcarts."

There were no garages.  And the 1903 De Dion was, according to one source, "notoriously unreliable, breaking down with unparalleled frequency."

Despite the inherent hardships, motoring caught on in BEA.  By the time Vera and Tolliver are setting up their farm and the WWI has broken out, Model T Fords, as seen here above, are being imported.  Even still, it took another twenty-three years after Willson's acquisition for an automobile to make the journey from Mombasa to Nairobi.  Not to say, things were easy in 1926, as evidenced by this photo, taken on the actual trip.

The number of motors - as they were called increased tremendously during the Twenties, which in Kenya were particularly roaring.  People wanted a speedy way to get to the orgies of fastest fast crowd on the planet.  

Speaking of speed.  They even had car races, where the track was plausibly smooth.  Lionel Douglas Galton-Fenzi, left above, became a pioneer of motoring in Kenya.  There is even a monument to him in Nairobi.

On the subject of cars in Africa, here is a progress report on my effort to provide reliable transportation for girls in Tanzania who are being saved from circumcision and early marriage.

We are about 25% there.

If you want to help, you can read about the effort here.

And you can donate by following these instructions:

The link:

Note: In the "Prayer intentions/notes"  field, write "Emusoi Centre-vehicle/Sr. Mary Vertucci"*

To make your donations in the form of a check or money order, send to:

Maryknoll Sisters
Box 317
Maryknoll, NY 10545-0311

Please make checks payable to Maryknoll Sisters, New York with “Emusoi Center-vehicle” on the memo line. *

*Be sure to write in this notation, so that I can identify your donation and contribute another 50% in your name.


  1. I remember it was bad enough getting a Land Rover fixed in Kenya in the early sixties. I can't imagine Wilson's problems in 1903!

    1. Fascinating, isn't it Michael, that Wilson thought buying the car was a good idea. It seems like machine lust. Which is a human emotion that I am sure exists.

      In 2014, on a drive from Nairobi to Voi, the roadway was so bad that the traffic was bumper to bumper almost the whole way, because of breakdowns. We even saw an 18-wheeler lying on its side, because the driver went down the embankment in a vain attempt to bypass the disabled vehicle in front of him. I never knew what the undercarriage of such a behemoth looked like until that day. Motoring in Kenya still has it... shall we say vagaries.

  2. Fast cars, orgies, and Vera and Tolliver, what more could a reader ask for. Cue EvKa.