The truck draws attention wherever it goes, drawing curious eyes the way a dusty window attracts graffiti artists.
Whether on the road, a car wash or with a mechanic, the question, even when not posed, is almost always the same: how could this truck be functional?
Perhaps a good place to start is its name: Present. It is a most curious name, but when a vehicle bears registration number KGW, and has been working just fine for the past five decades, could there possibly be a more fitting name?
“You get used to people coming up to the truck, and they want to take a picture with their phones,” Humphrey Muturi, the owner, says.
You cannot hold it against them, this is, after all, an Austin, one of the most iconic vehicle brands ever produced.
Muturi’s truck could very well be the last of its kind in the country, or at least the last one of its generation.
We met Muturi at a garage just outside Wangige town in Kabete Constituency, Kiambu.
He delivers the lorry here every weekend for a check-up, not that the old girl has any complaints, but one has to be sure because age has its own attendant problems, he explains.
Tuesday and Friday are full days, Muturi drives to Nairobi’s county market before first light.
He returns with shipments of banana and mangoes and whatever else is in season for delivery at Wangige Market.
His customers are a loyal group, and have been for years, ever since Muturi’s father, the late Walter Kimani, convinced them that the truck was up to the task.
Touching the fender, the logo, and running a hand down the length of the body has the feel of crossing the sea, or hearing the sound of echoes, shreds of history.
According to genealogy handed down her previous four owners, Present was initially owned by the East Africa Railways Corporation in the early sixties.
After independence, the truck was bought by an African man of means. The log book would change hands two more times before mzee Kimani bought it.
Rescued is more like it because when he bought the lorry, it was within inches of its life. The truck was in good condition and only needed minor bandaging.
The old man, a hard-driving businessman with an eye for a good bargain, knew he could recoup the asking price – around Ksh100,000.
The engine had never been altered and the needle pushed to the 65k/per hour mark.
The thing about driving a vehicle as unusual as an Austin is that you don’t know what to expect on the road.
Muturi has since made peace with the curious onlookers, but encounters with traffic police officers are unpredictable.
“I have been stopped several times on the suspicion that the vehicle is unroadworthy,” Muturi says.
“I always have the safety belt fastened; my papers are up to date and everything, from the lights to the windshield wiper- is functional, and that throws the officers off.”
The talk always turns to the registration number, Muturi continues.
Not too long ago when on an errand in Gilgil, after a police officer carried out an inspection, he took a picture while leaning on the driver’s door.
Before trips proved untenable, Present made frequent forays to far-off places such as Meru County.
The truck runs on petrol, and as competition from diesel-powered lorries grew fierce, Muturi and his father abandoned the route.
These days, he fills up the week running short errands such as transporting household goods for people moving houses and delivering cattle to the abattoir.
The Austin Motor Company was founded by Herbert Austin in England in 1905, and boomed during the Great War as a leading manufacturer of hardy trucks.
The company merged with Morris Motors in 1952 but still kept its separate identity until 1987.
The discontinuation of the production line dealt owners of Austin vehicles a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, spare parts became hard to acquire, but the closure of the Austin marque pushed the ardour for vintage Austins.
Before he died, Muturi’s father introduced the young man to six of his friends, all elderly men who had owned Austins. The intention was for them to assist Muturi acquire spare parts from their atrophied trucks. Now, all but two of the men have since died.
“I realised I might get to a place where I won’t find spare parts for my truck,” Muturi observes.
In the past, he sourced for parts on the internet through e-markets but the prices were prohibitive.
Luckily, a few months ago while on business in Ngong, he came across a long abandoned Austin lorry and bought it right off the stones.
But Muturi doesn’t anticipate problems for the truck. His father preached care and grooming; he wouldn’t allow hard cargo such as stones to be heaved into the lorry; rather, they were passed from hand to hand.
The lorry has few marks or dents, and when it leaves the carwash, it has a shine to it that belies its age.
About three years ago, a man approached Muturi and offered to pay Sh2 million on the spot for the lorry.
He declined, but the offer introduced him to the possibility of a good sale on the vintage car and collector’s item market.
While not willing to part with what has now become the family heirloom, Muturi once drove the old Austin to the Concours d’Elegance, the premier showcase for retooled classics in Nairobi.
He hadn’t entered the lorry for the event, so he parked it off the venue.
Cars dating back to the 1920s – Ford, Volkswagen, Mini Morris, trotted out before judges. The Austin wouldn’t do in such glamour unless after a thorough retouch, Muturi concluded.
Maybe the old lady was meant to live on the road until something happened; so far, she had done well for herself, and still does.
When the moment comes, he will know, Muturi says. For now, he will be doing 40-50k/per hour on the highway and when the spirit grabs him, when the cabin is empty of cargo, maybe floor it to the maximum 65k/per hour.
It will still be slow enough to give the phone-camera gang time for a keepsake.