Yes, it’s that time of the year again

The year is 2011. Mercedes-Benz have as their absolute flagship a sports car: the SL 65 AMG Black Series. Developing 660 hp from a twin-turbo 6.0-litre V12 engine, the thing costs a jaw-dropping £250,000 (Sh37.5 million).

But even this price is nothing compared to the £350,000 (Sh52.5 million) SLR, undercutting the McLaren by the price of a small Ferrari (almost).

Incidentally, the SLR has less horsepower, at 626 (from a 5.5-litre supercharged V8). A case of shooting oneself in the foot, wouldn’t you think? Thankfully (at least for Daimler AG, owners of all things Mercedes), the SLR is no more.

Now, the SL Black, even at this stratospheric price, has flaws: it is very uncomfortable, what with the low profile rubbers and unyielding suspension, and the turning circle of a freight train. Its traction control system makes sure you’ll not be going anywhere at anything close to full throttle (self-defeating in a 660 hp car), and turning it off will cost you another car’s price in tyre bills alone.

And, the SL’s roof does not come off, yet it is based on a car that was a convertible from the very start.

Just in case you are wondering, the answer is no, I have not been driving the Black Series AMG, and this is not a review about it. I have not even seen one in the metal. Yet.

Rewind. The year is 1965. Mercedes-Benz has an SL, but this one is not a Black Series, the particular car is not even black: AMG, the skunk works division within Mercedes, has not even been founded yet. This ’65 drop-head SL (W113 to insiders) has half the number of cylinders the SL Black has, and probably makes about one-fifth of the horsepower.

I doubt if it costs as much either. It is a combination of a lot of things: a convertible, a cabriolet and a spider, but it is not a targa top and yet it is a roadster.

Just in case you are wondering what all those labels mean; it has only two doors and is an open top (cabriolet) whose roof can be stashed away underneath a tonneau cover that lies aft of where the back seats should be.

It also has a detachable pagoda-style hard-top (convertible), which leaves the windows independently “wind-able”. Both can be gotten rid of to yield a spider (à la Fiat, Alfa or Ferrari), but it does not have removable roof sections like Porsche and Honda’s NSX (targa roof). Nor does it have a solid rear roof section or roll-hoops (roadster), though it lacks a fixed roof and side protection. It is called a 230 SL.

Back to the present. Gai Cullen has one — the 230 SL, that is. So who is Gai Cullen? She is a woman, and not one to trifle with either. She happens to have a fleet of armoured vehicles at her disposal, besides the SL, and two vintage motorcycles: a 1960 Triumph Tiger Cub and a Harley-Davidson. She is the chief operative at Wells-Fargo. But I am not here to discuss the lady, let us go back to the Benz, her Benz.

It is blue, what some would call sky-blue, but like with foreign names, I am not good with colours either. It has a 2.3-litre in-line six multi-port fuel-injected engine that swills petrol. Since mass air flow (MAF) sensors had not been invented in 1965, the fuel delivery system on this one is mechanical, and needs constant adjustment depending on the prevailing barometric air pressure.

Miss Cullen has had hers tweaked accordingly. The camber on the wheels looks amusing: the front have positive camber while the rear have negative. The maintenance that has been done (and was still being done when I saw it) is nothing short of spectacular.

Though, it must be said, the fact that the 230 SL was built by a highly motivated clique within the ranks of the finest automotive engineers from the 20th century has plenty to do with its relatively pristine condition.

The car is evocative of TV shows like The Saint and the early James Bond movies; Sean Connery and Roger Moore in other words, though these two gentlemen tended to use the Aston Martin DB4 and Volvo P1800 in their roles as spies. The 230SL got its fifteen minutes under the helmsmanship of one Sophia Loren in an “arabesque”, whatever that is. But you get the point; the car is from that era. Sadly, like the AMG Black, I did not get to drive the 230 SL either.

So what am I on about? Ms Cullen will be bringing her two bikes and the SL drop-top to the Concours D’Elegance this coming Sunday. The event comes hot on the heels of the 2011 Total Motorshow, which ended just ten days ago, and in turn, precedes the Johannesburg show.

This is the time of year when the motoring industry tends to let its hair down and rest on its laurels, reminding itself that it ranks somewhere between religion and Hollywood, and just below football, when it comes to sheer fanaticism. This is the time of year when a good number of new vehicle models are launched (but not 2011), and there is a lot of oohing and aahing. This is the time of year when the automotive industry stops working and starts preening. Maybe.

Besides Cullen’s car and bikes, expect to see a Ferrari, and a red one at that, at the Concours: not the F60 Enzo, not even a 599 or a 458 Italia, but a 308 GT4 from way back in 1974 (and we thus put an end to the dullard: “There are no Ferraris in Kenya” argument that I sometimes get in my mail).

The blatantly phallic (and a major contender for the 20th Century’s most beautiful car) Jaguar E-Type is also expected to make a showing, and I sincerely hope it is a V12. That particular model might have had reliability issues, but Concours is about beauty, not ease of ownership. A 1930 Ford Model A should be putting up an appearance too, and alongside it, expect tears of nostalgia from geriatrics who remember that period as the lull between two World Wars.

The Concours D’Elegance is a worldwide event showcasing vintage cars, but the rules governing it are a bit slack. It literally means “meeting of elegance” in French, or what the Americans like to call frog language.

Conjured up in the 17th (or was it 18th) century, the French nobility and aristocracy would meet in a field to compare chariots to see who had the niftiest ride. Just so you know, these Frenchmen are the self-same chaps who invented motor vehicle suspension as we know it, fitting leaf spring setups on their carriages at a time when horsepower was measured by counting the number of animals tethered to the fronts of their carriages.

In the current age and time, static and rolling dynamometers do all the work, determining power outputs both at the flywheel and at the wheels (incidentally, your typical horse makes roughly two-thirds of one metric horsepower).

An industry joke also pokes fun at how the French also invented front-wheel drive and have adhered to the recipe ever since, but I digress.
Interestingly, in spite of being a car show, the Concours D’Elegance is classified as a form of motorsport, which means it falls under the aegis of the Kenya Motor Sport Foundation (KMSF). It is therefore a competition, and a hotly contested one at that.

If you want to participate, which by now is too late, all you have to do is bring a car, any car, a bike or a truck. If you want to compete, however, there are rules, the first of which is your car needs to be older than I am. Anything newer and you lose points.

The car also has to be in good mechanical and physical health, so rattletraps, jalopies, makeshifts, tumble-downs and rust buckets will be frowned upon. Most importantly, the car has to appear at the event under its own steam; if it arrives under the 17th century French horsepower I have just described, again you lose out.

Just to show you how much love this event receives from anoraks; here are a few things you should know. A sizeable proportion of the competing field is not even Kenyan. And, at this point, allow me to introduce one Roger Pearce, a former motorsport czar in the Republic of South Africa.

He has formed a posse that will be conducting what they call an “African Odyssey”, driving the 12,569-kilometre Cape-to-Cairo trip that many have attempted before, up to and including, but not limited to Mahatma Gandhi himself, God rest his soul. Rather than use internal combustion of fossil fuels in a wheeled automobile, old man Mahatma opted for the two pitons God gave him: his legs. The reasons were political though.

Mr Pearce’s choice of transport up the spine of Africa is not some kitted out SUV, nor is it a plush minivan; he is undertaking the journey by MG, a Magnette sedan, built in 1957.

So here we have a man who will drive an ageing automobile, from Africa’s closest proximity to the South Pole to Africa’s closest capital city in proximity to Europe and the Middle East (you will have to bear with me here, I am taking liberty with geography for the sake of making a point).

And that same ageing car will go up against pampered favourites that may or may not see sunlight once or twice a year. Does Mr. Pearce intend to win? I don’t know, but if he does, well… All I can do is wish him the best. Apparently, the whole “African Odyssey” thing came about from a TV show jolly Roger saw back in 2006; a show about the Kenyan Concours D’Elegance.

There is a lot more that can be said about the vintage car show but let us end it there for now.

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