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Nairobi to Namanga and back: Petrolheads with a cause

The Birth of Great Run: In the world of petrolheads, a “run” is simply a drive from here to there, and possibly back to here.

It has nothing to do with the Olympic Games — even though “run” is also a word whose meaning our Olympic athletes seem to have forgotten.

However, depending on the degree of organisation, there could be an element of competition. The Paji and I introduced a mutual acquintance called The Jaw (or simply Jaw) into the picture.

Our three heads agreed that a run would be a good idea. Creative juices were at an all time low that day, and so, lacking a better name, we decided to call our gig “The Great Run”. The name stuck.

Precedents, Precautions and Preparations: Ours is not the first run in history; it is not even the first run locally, but it was certainly the first to be — almost — commercialised over here.

It was shaped in the fashion of the world-famous Cannonball Sea-To-Shining-Sea Trophy, better known as the Cannonball Run, in the US. Other runs of note are the Gumball 3000 of Europe and… ummh… yeah.

There were a few issues to be careful of. While the Cannonball and Gumball runs involve competitive driving, foresight demanded that we eschew this line of thought.

Introduce a clique of restless Kenyan drivers in high-powered vehicles to a driving “competition” and you will have opened a veritable can of legal, administrative and life-threatening worms. For evidence of this, refer to Subaru Fest’s Gymkhana Challenge.

We had to have something with gravitas. We needed a sponsor to endorse our arrangement and lend an air of legitimacy to our project. We needed participants. We needed a route. We needed to divide these responsibilities amongst ourselves. Most of all, we needed money. This is how it went.

The one sponsor we got pulled out at the last minute. It followed that costs had to be covered out of our own pockets, but I will confess: costs were covered mostly out of The Paji’s pockets.

The Jaw handled the fruitless phone calls demanding sponsorship and sought entities that would provide “background support”, such support being the printing of T-shirts and stickers for the participating drivers and their vehicles.

I adopted a managerial position: the key responsibility being standing around looking important while actually doing nothing. The Paji and The Jaw are two very patient men, I must point out here.

Three weeks, it took us — them, rather. Three weeks to establish an online presence, gather a sizeable crowd, find a route, do a recce, print T-shirts and stickers, find (and subsequently lose) a sponsor, and identify the unwitting beneficiary of another last-minute occurrence: a charity addition to our list of requirements.

You see, we may love cars, but we also give back to society. Note: We were told to say this by someone who whispered to us that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is fashionable in big companies, so talk of charity will help you snare an unsuspecting firm with money to lose… I mean… spend.

July 14, 2012: This was the date of The Great Run. The starting point was at a fuel forecourt in Parklands, Nairobi, and the variety of hardware present was enough to warm the cockles of any auto-oriented heart. I could not have hoped for a bigger turnout, especially considering my “managerial” approach to the whole thing; but the response was enormous.

There were Nissan Skyline GTRs, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions and countless Subarus, in various forms, shapes, colours, ages and degrees of tune (later in the run, also various states of mechanical soundness, but let me not dwell on this).

There was a Hummer H3 (!!), which I would have chased off were it not for the fact that its (mostly human) contents were instrumental in making our event a success then and afterwards.

There were a lot of other cars, but the ones that stood out the most were a father-and-son pair in a Mk IV Toyota Supra and a Nissan 350 Z “Fairlady”. Time to drive.

The Event: Had we got a sponsor, we would have had the money to make maps and print navigational details for everybody, and this shortcoming was felt within three gear changes from the starting point.

In spite of the instructions I shouted at the gathered crowd just before departing (We are going to the Tanzanian border!!), after the start some of the cars left in several different directions and it was with a sinking feeling that I assumed maybe people were heading back home after collecting their T-shirts. The Jaw insisted I should have more faith in human nature.

And I should have. There were no deserters (at that point). I took a wrong route myself, my excuse being that I was trailing one of the “lost” vehicles.

Our first unintended meeting point was 10 minutes from the start when it transpired that one of the cars had a six-cylinder engine, but, ahem, was only running on five — spark plug issues.

(To protect the privacy of owners, drivers and participants, certain details will be omitted). Everybody had stopped in a long queue behind the stricken car, on the side of the road. I was last to arrive at the scene, approaching it from the wrong direction.

More Drama: The run was not without incident. The burnt spark plug was just the first of several. When turning off the Mombasa highway to enter Kitengela, two cars got lost (again) and went on towards Mombasa (Mr Not-Sponsor, are you reading this? We need maps!). They were reined in in short order.

One of the cars, a blue Lancer Evolution (VIII or IX, it was hard to tell), suffered a heart attack. Pumped full of steroids, the extremely capable tarmac athlete over-exerted itself and got a myocardial infarction, haemorrhaging to death.

It had to finish the trip at the back of a hearse. In real terms, the Evo was pulling hard when an oil seal blew and the car lost all oil pressure and had to retire, returning home atop a tow truck. This was the first DNF (Did Not Finish).

Next victim was another Evo, a grey one. Said vehicle was conducting a spectacular overtaking manoeuvre when the driver found himself on the receiving end of the unfinished work results from an incompetent road repair crew.

The fellows had abandoned the site, leaving it unmarked and with rocks strewn all over the road surface. This put the Evo driver between a rock and a hard choice.

Too late to stop, he noticed some especially daunting bits of landscape right in his overtaking path. If he dodged them to the left, he would slam broadside into the car he was trying to pass.

To the right was a guard rail, beyond which lay an abyss. If he continued straight, he was going to hit the rocks and shatter at least one of his rims.

He chose to continue (wise decision), and his fears were manifested: three spokes and a section of the front offside rim edge were bent out of shape, shredding the tyre into useless ribbons of rubber. Hopeless space-saver spare in the boot… second DNF.

The remaining DNFs were not DNFs per se, they intentionally did not finish; and they were the biker gang.

Heading for the nearest border requires one to cover quite some distance, and balancing a 150kg lump of metal between your legs while moving at warp speed can really sap one’s strength and resolve, almost as fast as some of those cars were draining their fuel tanks.

They begged leave of us and we graciously allowed them to. I would not want to be responsible, by virtue of duress, for the outcome of when a biker man is approaching a sharp turn and tries to apply the brakes only to realise that his fingers have gone numb from the sustained blast of cold wind on them…

Charity: Hawa Children’s Home: The route was very simple. Drive to Namanga and back. It so happens that along this route lies a children’s home just 9km outside of Kitengela town as you drive towards Kajiado.

This was our point of charitable focus and a brief stopover there provided not only a respite from the hard charging on the highway, but also allowed the little orphans to mingle with the owners of cars they would probably like to own when things eventually turn out right in their lives.

The place is called Hawa Children’s Home, and it is run by the Rotary Club and the St Andrew’s Church. It serves as the abode for 24 no-longer-unfortunate orphans of various ages between four and 18, with room for up to 200, and they were the surprised recipients of clothing, stationery and several cash handouts from participants of the Great Run.

Who says we waste all our resources on fuel, eh?

What We Learnt From The Great Run: Most of the questions I receive in my Car Clinic were brought to the fore that day. Performance (about 60 to 70 per cent of the cars had the kind of performance you wouldn’t dare exploit fully), fuel economy — or the lack thereof (Toyota Supra), cost of spares (again, the Toyota Supra), maintenance costs (take a guess. You’re right! the Supra), reliability (the oil-less Evo and a mechanically unfaithful Subaru whose brakes caused the driver untold worry) and ground clearance — or the lack thereof (about 30 per cent of the cars will struggle on unpaved roads).

What can I say? That orange Supra has been modified to the apogee of motor vehicle tuning. Nothing is stock, except, maybe, for the engine block. And I can’t even begin to describe what had been done to the Evo that lost its oil.

Why? Back to my original question: What were we thinking? Why did The Paji, The Jaw and Yours Truly stage The Great Run? It is mostly because we wanted to. And because we could.

We wanted something extraordinary; let us call it a moving motor show. Static shows are fine, yes, but car buffs prefer seeing and hearing these vehicles do their thing in the metal.

To “legalise” the project and keep a lid on potential hazardous behaviour, we formalised the whole affair and included a safety car, which I drove (more drama: as the safety car driver, I had to tail the entire convoy, but returning from Namanga, I found myself as Car Number 3 in a split convoy of about 20.

Unbeknownst to me, out back the Supra had ground to a halt, having lost one expensive tyre to a puncture. I had to turn back. Total mileage at the end of the day: 464km).

An unexpected bonus was the charity. Little did we know that we had opened a channel for philanthropic minds which otherwise did not know where to direct their generosity.

It turned out to be a blast, the only complaints from participants being that we did not spend enough time at the home, and that had they known beforehand, they would have given more (that charity thing was literally last minute, I tell you).

As a result, there has been public demand for an encore. Auto Art the Paji, Jaw the Jaw and I intend to honour that demand.

Missed Shifts: Two elements that should have been there — but weren’t — were a supercharged 5.0-litre V8 coupé (part of the sponsorship package that we lost) and a news reader (not part of the sponsorship package).

I was hoping to drive the supercharged car with the news reader in it, but having been withdrawn from the table, I resorted to a naturally aspirated 3.4-litre V6 vehicle, further plundering The Paji’s already stretched resources.

The news reader is a personal friend who thinks she likes cars, but an entropy in the lines of communication led to her missing out on The Great Run. As a result, rather than having a comely news reader in the passenger seat of the 3.4 V6 with me, I had to put up with a Jaw.

Bring on the next run.

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The Tiggo will have criminals ‘shivering’ with laughter

Hi Baraza,
What is your take on the Kenyan government supplying police officers and provincial administration with the Cherry Tiggo cars? Are the cars the best they can use, considering that countries like the US use patrol cars that cannot be sold to the public, such as the Ford Victoria Crown and Dodge?

Is there any feature of the cars that can make criminals shiver at their sight? Are the cars meant for countries like Kenya, where most roads are not tarmacked? I think this was the reason behind the use of the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Land Rover.

Finally, are the Tiggos stable enough for high speed chases (like the Peugeot 504) or will they roll over, just like the military lorries do even at very low speed? I also fear that they may become old (lose shape) like the ones being used by the Chinese engineers constructing Thika road.

Walkins

You would be surprised that ex-police cruisers can be and are sold to the public in the US (after disarming them of the dash-stored shotguns and computers connected to security databases), especially the Crown Victoria and the Chevy Caprice.

The only reason criminals would shiver would be with laughter at the sight of the government’s cheapness in supplying Tiggos to the boys in blue. Not that they care, anyway.

The Chinese car would not be bad for the untarmacked roads, but their longevity is questionable. And gone are the days of the high speed police chase; nowadays they will just push a stinger into the path of the escaping felon and his goose would be well and truly cooked.

If and when the cops chase down the criminal, he could at least hope that the pursuit vehicle will age and break down some time during the chase (the reputation of China-sourced products).

Hi Baraza,

How does the Toyota Opa compare to the Toyota Fielder in terms of performance, handling, cost of maintenance, resale value, comfort, stability and power? I also want to know why you say the Opa is ugly and yet there are uglier cars, or is it just because beauty lies in the eye of the beholder?

Performance should be better than the Fielder, as is handling, but maintenance costs will depend on how well you take care of it. One on one, the D4 engine and the optional CVT transmission are harder to fix (and will thus cost more) than the equivalent VVT-i and auto/manual gearbox in the Fielder.

Resale value will be next to nothing, but if you can find a fellow Opa-lover, then all the best. Comfort: Very good, for the price and class. Stability: Better than the Fielder, but it is still not an F1 car. Power: 1.8 litre D4 performance, which means about 150 hp.

About its ugliness, just because there are other ugly cars, does that mean I should call the Opa pretty? If four students do an IQ test and one student gets a score of 1, and three others get 0, does that make that one student a genius? No, it is just that three other students happen to be less intellectually endowed. Same thing here; the Opa is still quite unsightly, whether or not Verossas and Wills exist.

Dear Baraza,

I want to move from a five- to seven-seater car to accommodate my family. Looking around, the following appealed to me because of looks, fuel economy, and parking space: Peugeot 307, Volkswagen Touran, Toyota Sienta, Honda Mobilio, and Nissan Cubecubic. I also visited CMC and saw the Maruti 800cc van.

What are your comments on these cars and which one would you recommend?

Muteti

From your list, I would say the Touran is the best seven-seater car. It is the most comfortable, has good power delivery, a six-speed gearbox, is highly versatile, and has Volkswagen’s bullet-proof build quality. Too bad it took an army friend of mine several attempts to get the gearbox fixed at CMC Motors before he was satisfied.

The 307 is also a good car, but with the French known to be unreliable, it may not be the best buy if you have resale value in mind. The Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans are generic Japanese products that I am yet to assess (but I strongly suspect there is not much difference between them).

That 800cc Maruti is another thing altogether. It will seat seven people, yes, much in the same way back in the day my three sisters and I could fit in one red KP&TC telephone booth when making a phone call to daddy at work.

It is not an experience you will particularly enjoy or want to repeat daily. The Maruti is a small-capacity delivery van (mostly for pizzas or inter-office documents), not a Swiss family mobility solution.
Of the lot, I pick the Touran.

Hi,

What is the difference between the 2004/5 Lexus RX 300/330 and Toyota Harrier 240G/300G besides engine displacement? These cars are identical! Which would you go, considering spare parts availability and running costs?

Tony

Besides displacement, the only other difference is the logo in the grille up front. Such vehicles as the Toyota Harrier, Aristo, Altezza, Crown, and Land Cruiser Cygnus (the top-rung 100 VX model) existed because at the time the Lexus brand was not available on sale in Japan, so they were rebranded as Toyota.

Their respective Lexus equivalents were the RX 300, GS 300, IS 200 (and IS 250 in the US), LS 400, and LX 470. There was even a “Lexusized” J120 Prado called the GX 450.

In my world, availability of spares and running costs mean diddly squat, so I would go for the one with the biggest engine and the most horsepower and with the most apportionment (options like leather, climate control, and sun-roof).

For the cash-sensitive types, the diametric opposite of my desire is what they should settle for; the smallest engine with the bare minimum of optional extras.

Hi Baraza,

1. Between a 6-litre V8 engine and a 6-litre V12 engine, which one consumes more fuel? Is it engine displacement or the number of cylinders in the engine?

2. I have been seeing exotic modern cars (Aston Martin, Ferrari, Bentleys, Rolls Royce, etc) in Nairobi streets. Where are these cars serviced? It is not that I am aspiring to buy these cars in the near future, a turbo-charged Subaru is good enough for me.

1. Given the extent of automotive engineering thus far, it is neither of the options you list there. Genius and boffinry will determine the consumption capabilities.

Engine management (injection maps, variable valve timing), supplementary innovations (variable intake plena, active exhausts, use of forced induction, injector and plug placement/relationship, cylinder deactivation, charged gasoline injection, etc), the shape and design of combustion chambers, intake manifolds and exhaust manifolds, along with a whole lot of other things will determine the fuel consumption of an engine.

That is why the CL 65 AMG Mercedes-Benz coupe is a 600 hp monster that can still manage 11 kpl.

2. These vehicles belong to individuals who prefer to stay outside the scope of the public eye. I have seen them too. My presumption is that given what it costs to buy one (and the kind of brain power that goes into building one), it is only natural for the owners to send the vehicle back to the makers for servicing.

Either that or factory engineers are flown in with a complete tool kit to service the vehicle from the privacy of the owner’s home.

Hi,

I want to know about the work of the cylinders in a car and why they vary from vehicle to vehicle, for example, some have four while others have eight cylinders. Aside from that, you are always sceptical about the Cadillac Escalade and yet it is still one of the most prestigious vehicles today.

So how do you rate the Cadillac CTS-V in terms of performance, power (which I assume is quite a lot with the over 400 hp), comfort, stability, and fuel economy?

Three cylinders or less are typically used in less than 1.0-litre capacity engines (except the noisy tractor road-building equipment that uses just one but displaces more than 1.0 litre).

Four cylinders (in line) are good for fuel economy. V4 engines are noisy, and prone to vibrations, which requires the use of heavy crankshaft journals and flywheels to dampen the vibrations.

As a result, they make the car nose heavy, that is why they found limited use in cars. They are used for bikes, though. Horizontally opposed or “flat” four engines (H4) provide even weight distribution, and no, they do not wear the cylinders out on one side, as some people assume.

Five-cylinder engines are not much different from 4-cylinder ones.Most provide extra capacity without resorting to enlargement of cylinders. This applies to both V5 and in-line 5 engines. Six cylinder engines have legendary smoothness and good top-end (high rev) power characteristics.

That is why Lexus used them to great effect in their smaller saloons. The top-end power applies to both in-line 6 (Nissan Skyline GTR, Toyota Supra Mk IV, BMW M3) and V6 engines (Nissan GTR R35, Lotus Evora).

V6 engines have the added benefit of being compact, allowing for a more stubby bonnet or installation in a mid-ship platform, what we call mid-engined cars, or rear engine chassis.

Eight-cylinder engines develop huge torque. Straight 8s saw action a long time ago but these died a natural death. It was only sensible to make V8s. W8 engines were recently “discovered”, but since they involve the juxtaposition of two V4s, they do not get much airtime.

Twelve-cylinder engines have very good power and can rev to “abnormal” levels (the V12 in the Ferrari F50 road car could soar to about 10,000 rpm).

That is why they are used in top-end sports and performance cars (Lamborghini, Ferrari, top-flight Mercedes-Benz AMG and BRABUS cars). Sadly, the engine in the recently released Lamborghini Aventador will have the last automotive V12 to be used as manufacturers are now favouring turbo-charged V8s, which are simpler to build, more robust, and meet ever-tightening emissions standards.

Weirdly, some army tanks also use V12 engines, diesel powered. V10 engines share tendencies with V12s.

Beyond this point, most engines take a W configuration rather than V for the sake of length. The W12 engine (a creation of the VW Group and commonly found in Bentley and Audi) is just the mating of two V6s, side by side. The W16 (Bugatti Veyron) is the joining of two V8s.

The CTS-V is America finally waking up to the realities of life. The original 400 hp car was good (which is saying a lot for a Yank Tank), but the 556 hp supercharged version was great (this has never been said of any American car).

The blown CTS-V killed the BMW M5’s lap record for fastest four-door saloon at the Nurburgring, what with the M5 having two more cylinders (V10 vs the Caddy’s V8) and 50 less hp.

This war is not over. BMW have brought out a new M5 (the F10). They have gone back to V8 engines, they have lowered the engine capacity but (the trump card) to compensate for that, the M car now has two turbochargers slotted under the bonnet.

Initial reports indicate the car goes like stink and is so good it could end hunger in sub-Saharan Africa and bring peace in the Middle East — this is of course an exaggeration. The car will actually bring more war as each country fights to be the one supplying the unleaded that goes into the M5’s fuel tank.