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Blast from the past: the retro cars in Addis
Left: Classic cars around La Gahare in 1960’s, Dagem Worku’s VW Beetle around Martyr’s Monument

Blast from the past: the retro cars in Addis

'Out Of The Past' was the name of the store, and its products consisted of memories: what was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp.” These are the opening lines to Gil Pender’s novel in Woody Allen’s Midnight to Paris.

There is one such store located on the narrow bole road. It was hand-built by artist Osman Mohammed who had collected the antique objects in his store over many years. Ras Africa Design is full of antique radios, wooden television sets, rotary phones, old cameras, various coffee presses, a typewriter, and leather suitcases. Classic songs croon from a record player. Osman is an artist and fashion designer. The space is part workshop, part showroom. Curious passerby’s enter the shop, walk through surveying the various knickknacks, occasionally ask questions and others more familiar with the store enter to enthusiastically greet Osman.

Osman’s collection, evident of his strong passion for preservation and restoration, extends to larger objects, occasionally seen right outside his store. A gold-colored convertible Volkswagen Thing is a unique addition to the charm of Ras Africa Designs. Osman has been purchasing and restoring vintage cars for over a decade.  He estimates over 66 cars have come into and passed from his possession in a 10-year period.

What may have begun as a hobby has grown into an intense obsession for many. An interest in cars that began in childhood, growing up with cars at home, observing his father, uncles or older brothers tinkering with engines, marveling at the design or sound of the motor, the smell of the leather interior … this youthful exposure may attach cars with an association to manliness and adulthood.

Dagem Worku drives a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle previously owned by his father. His father was a mechanic and he had grown up around cars. He had learned how to do simple maintenance and traces his love of cars to his mechanic father. “Cars make me happy to drive. I don’t know how to describe it.”

Osman has a similar experience. Growing up around cars, he says, imprints on young boys. “The interest may be adopted from family but your nature also plays a part.” Having learned auto-mechanics after leaving high school, he was confident to purchase his first classic car, a Fiat 850 for 5500 Birr.

“Volkswagen owners don’t complain much. It has a light motor. It’s easy to fix,” he says referring to the prevalent rhetoric of how often the old cars, especially VW Beetles, break down.

Addis Alemayehu is a car collector that agrees with that sentiment. His black Citroën DS, prominently featured in a recent TV advertisement for Habesha Beer has many fail-safes in case of a breakdown. In the event of a battery malfunction, it has a manual crank that restarts the engine. If a tire happens to burst, it smoothly drives with three wheels. “They are built reliably. They combine beauty, strength and power.”

“I feel nothing about new cars,” says Addis. A fundamental element of this preference of vintage over modern is design. Classic cars were designed before the advent of computers with design capabilities. Simple pencil drawings allowed for elegant shapes reflective of the time of place of design. Modern production techniques are largely constrained by aerodynamics and crash tests that limit the weight or shape of a car. Mass production has meant production focuses on meeting annual targets, maximizing profit and efficiency.

According to article ‘Why Do People Still Love Classic Cars?’ by Ian Davies, classic car designers were essentially artists. “Classic car production was largely a manual process performed by craftsmen using simple tools complemented by decades of experience to create panels by hand and by eye. The results of this are creations that have withstood the hardships of daily usage and weathered the passage of time.”

Modern cars have a more centralized electrical make up that a layperson cannot simply understand. As Davies puts it, “most components are controlled by a central electronic brain, which takes inputs from the driver, and then filters them through systems such as the drive-by-wire throttle system, the traction control, electric steering, electronic clutch, the torque vectoring system, the ABS system, and so on. All of these systems are designed to improve efficiency and safety, but on some level, they often rob the car of its feel and character. Older machines, in contrast, are the real deal. They are delicately balanced mechanical systems comprising hundreds or thousands of individual parts, all tuned to work together in harmony.”

Classic cars attract the attention of most people on the street. It is a select few that bravely purchase a classic car and the number narrows when it comes to handling the attention, especially women. Osman and Addis acknowledge that there are women driving classic cars in the city, but they doubt their interest has extended beyond admiration. People frequently comment and ask questions they wouldn’t care to ask had it been a modern car. “Who is this guy? There’s a story behind this car. It has to do with personality,” says Osman. “I meet at least 20 new people because of my car. It helps me in my fashion career, too. It exposes me to new things and new people all the time,” says Osman.

Classic car owners honk at each other or greet one another on the street. There is an immediate kinship formed, a common language that unites them. Classic car ownership creates a community of likeminded individuals. This is fostered even more with the multitude of social media groups that allow them to discuss their passion. There are groups for hardcore fans on Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram. They share pictures of new purchases or cars they admire and discuss the minutiae of car maintenance. To the person unfamiliar with car-speak or uninterested in knowing cars so well, their coterie can be mind-numbingly boring. But allow a car enthusiast share their love and their enthusiasm is infectious.

These enthusiasts meet for weekly breakfast or other form of social gathering. The Ethiopian Motor Sport Association organizes an annual car show for vintage and classic cars, which allows them to meet and bask in mutual admiration. This gathering digs up all vintage cars imaginable. 1970s Porsche, 50s Fiats, Audis, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Mustangs, Rolls Royces, BMWs, Volkswagens, Saabs, Alpha Romeos, Fords … the list is endless.

Both Osman and Addis have honed their repairing skills over the years. Having taken apart each part of the car, cleaned, serviced, painted and reassembled, they become well attuned to the anatomy of the car. They rarely visit a garage or a mechanic.

Their purpose is to restore the car to its original condition. They determine if the car they are about to purchase can be returned to factory conditions. They check the engine, the interior, ensure it has its original parts or parts that need to be replaced. They must know the lifespan of each part of the car. Each action taken has to elongate the life of the vehicle.

Addis likens the experience of restoration to raising a child. “It’s taking care of someone. It’s a lifestyle. A project, properly restoring one car can take years. It requires love, interest, passion.” He had started driving with his grandfather’s Fiat 850.

Thinking of cars as tools of transport, moving from Point A to Point B limits the social and personal possibilities of vehicles. For purist classic car owners and collectors, taking care of cars has everything to do with attention – what Henry James would call, “finely aware so as to become richly responsible.” In an increasingly modernized world that routinizes our daily activities for the sake of ease and efficiency, pleasure has been stripped from everyday actions.

The focus Osman would give to every stitch in his upholstery or Addis’s precise assembly of an engine bestows them with a sense of responsibility that frequently extends beyond the car. “Modern lifestyle makes people lazy. There is a lack of attachment to things. Nobody is required to seek knowledge about each part,” says Osman. They must make the effort. Each step is considered, measured. Value must be given to things. Above all, one must be passionate.

Just like his shop full of memories, Osman relates the love of classic cars with nostalgia. He recalls the cars his father owned and loved and how he hopes to pass this love to a younger generation like Dagem’s. “Cars were not use and throw, like modern ones made for profit. These cars were made to last a lifetime.” Says Osman. Addis opines that they were meant to extend beyond the owner’s lifetime. They must pass down to the coming generation. They are a piece of history. Purchasing classic cars is less a financial investment and more a practice in historical preservation. Addis’s Citroën puts him in a uniquely exclusive club of past Ethiopian owners like famed author Paulos Gnogno and former President Girma Woldegiorgis.

These cars are not meant for driving. Osman primarily uses a bicycle to get around town. He had owned a 1959 Opel Record he says would be impossible to find today. Popular with wedding parties that would rent it during their celebratory cruise around the city. “I sold it to a lady who had said it reminded her of her father. I regret that sale now.”

Most classic car owners are highly selective of potential buyers. In fact, there is etiquette to asking to purchase a car. One does not simply walk up to a car they happen to admire and ask for a price. There’s a delicate dance to admiration itself. Osman had visited an owner for months, developing a friendship and even carefully washing the car. “You must make sure the car won’t be abused. The buyer has to be capable of taking care of it. They must understand. They must respect and value the car.  Asking for a price outright is like asking to borrow your wife.”

There are car owners that refuse to let strangers touch their car, let alone drive it. Osman attentively watches how a person enters a car, searches for key scratches at the door and at the ignition, how they treat the leather of the seats, how clean the interior is, how careful they are about how the car is washed. “It tells of a personality. This is proper work. It has to be respected. Some buy cars because they have the money or have seen others do it. They let anyone wash their car and go to the garage. Don’t do anything themselves. If they washcloth used is dirty, has sand, it sands off the car paint over time.”

The price of vintage cars has skyrocketed in recent years. The price of a VW Beetle, one of the most commonly found old car in the country, has risen from a mere 5000 Birr to over 70,000 Birr in the past decade. Most refuse to sale them after restoration, having formed an attachment. The love is not about making a profit. Besides the amount of money spent on purchasing a vintage vehicle, restoration itself can be quite expensive. Addis estimates 200,000 or 300,000 Birr can be spent in trying to find parts alone. And this is discounting the time and effort day-to-day maintenance takes.

People think it’s stressful and expensive. Why not just buy a Vitz, they ask. But I get satisfaction from it,” says Addis. He had received disapproval from girlfriends unwilling to drive long distances in the event of a breakdown or malfunction. “I don’t mind that it’s messy or dirty. I still fix it myself. The obsession won’t leave you. You talk to the car while driving. It’s invigorating.” It’s an obsession close to addiction, akin to disease.

To Osman, it is a lifestyle choice. He describes this purist restoration of cars as refreshing. “It brings me joy. It is a restorative feeling.” The cars outside his shop rotate based on the season or his mood. “It’s about choosing what makes you happy in life. This makes me happy.”