History on Wheels

I jumped into the front seat of the olive green limousine, took the right-hand steering wheel with awe, stepped on the metal pedals eagerly and with a dizzying speed, I found myself instantly in 1937. It was a rare spectacle to relish. That was just a week or so ago, at Sheergrace Arena, in the periphery of the bustling Uyo Christmas Village, Akwa Ibom State.This is a 1937 Ford Prefect. Yes, 1937. You may never have heard nor seen such a vintage jalopy before. My parents, I guess, were not born when it was manufactured in Britain, bought by a wealthy Akwa Ibom man, and shipped to Oku Iboku, in Itu LGA. Last week, some 83 years later, the same Ford Prefect stole the show and became the star attraction at the First Akwa Ibom Classic Motor Show.
Not a surprise altogether. Ford Prefect, even in 1937-Britain, was not everybody’s car. It was a premium machine, the upmarket version of Ford cars. And for it to arrive what is now Akwa Ibom State, at a time when car owners were perhaps less than half a dozen, must have presented a spectacular ambiance and feeling for natives.
Other classic cars exhibited for the delight of holidaymakers included a 1959 Datsun BlueBird, a 1960 Peugeot 404, a 1962 MGB, a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, a 1965 Mini Cooper, a 1965 Mercedes 300 S, a 1970 Porsche 914, a 1970 Landcruiser FJ40, a 1970 Land Rover, a 1973 Citroen Safari, complete with its functional pneumatic suspension, 1970 Landcruiser FJ40
and a 1977 Ford Bronco.

Also at hand were the 2007 Chrysler 300 Limousine, initially owned and brought into Akwa Ibom State by Samuel Peters, former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion; three other Mercedes Limousines, including the model that General Murtala Mohammed, Nigeria’s assassinated former Head of State rode on the day he was killed; a 1989 Ford Mustang 5.0, a 1995 Mercedes 500 Beast, etc. Of the five top cars of the 20th Century listed by Wikipedia, four were (and remain) on the ground in Akwa Ibom.

But the king of the exhibition was the 1937 Ford Prefect. It stood out in all its majesty, tall and upright. It had a beam front axle, transverse, semi-elliptic springs front, four Armstrong lever shocks, and backed up with mechanical brakes. With the only 3-speed gearbox, it ran at a top speed of 60 mph. It had no water pump or oil filter and wait a minute, no trafficator lights. Joseph Bell had invented and patented trafficator lights in the mid-30s, but they had not been commercialized or used in any car yet. The first trafficator was used on a 1938 Buick. For the Ford Prefect, the driver had a flag hung on a pole, called semaphore, which he waved frantically to indicate the direction the car would turn.

Behind this historic motor show is a versatile man of complex passion. A preacher, Christian educationist, American trained engineer, and President of the respected Nigerian Christian Institute, Uyo, Ekemini Mkpong is a chip off the old block, the scion of the famous Okon Effiong Mkpong family. He is literally and incredibly married to these ancient cars. His fleet is thirty-something now and counting. He is found anywhere he hears of an old broken-down car. He goes to bed thinking about old cars, wakes up straight to his private workshop, to tinker with the latest arrival of a dilapidated car. Part of the workshop near the NCI is a veritable junkyard, where scraps are sorted and recycled for better use. This workshop should attract Universities, Polytechnics, and their undergraduates of Engineering.
“It’s wonderful that I can do what I like…I feel privileged to be in love with these abandoned cars”, he told me in his sprawling workshop. His wife had a tough time all through the Christmas holidays extracting him out of the Exhibition for family and village get-togethers. “Sometimes I have to bribe my wife with gifts to secure some time out in the workshop with my classic cars”, he said laughing.

Although most of his classic cars are sourced locally in Akwa Ibom State, he has now extended his tentacles up North to far-away Plateau State, where he recently acquired the Citroen Safari.
The moment he told me he got the classic Ford Prefect from Oku Iboku, I went to work tracking this wealthy Akwa Ibom man who could afford a Ford Prefect in 1937. Lo and behold, I came face-to-face with a name I have never come across and should be strange to many Akwa Ibom people. Uwa Esara. He was a cocoa trader, palm produce trader, and (you may not like this) a slave trader. He built the first-storey building in Oku Iboku, a brick and wooden structure that testified of his wealth but looks like a museum piece now.

As his business flourished, his influence also expanded. He had access to the high and mighty, among them British colonial administrators, important natives such as Justice Egbert Udo Udoma, and many white clergymen, such as Reverend Alexander Cruikshank, a very influential Scottish missionary, who retired after serving 55 years in Calabar and Oku Iboku axis. Esara would have had a hand and probably no resistance in naming the still-existing primary school in Ikot Ebiyak, Oku Iboku, after Reverend Cruikshank.

However, the only headache Esara would have had was with his
one-in-town Ford Prefect. Roads in 1937, even in nearby Calabar were narrow, dusty, and next to bush tracks. But that was not his biggest problem. His real and ultimate headache was that, at that time, there was no fuel station anywhere in what is now Akwa Ibom State. To buy fuel for his luxurious car, he would go to Calabar by canoe in the company of able-bodied men who hanged around him. A story was told of how one day, on his way to Itu, his fuel dried up. The rich man simply parked the limousine somewhere by the bumpy road and trekked for the rest of his journey, until three days later when someone canoed through the creeks and swamps to buy him more fuel.

There is a raging and unresolved controversy about the first Nigerian to own a car. Some say it was Herbert Macaulay, the pioneer nationalist. But the make of the car is not known. Others claim it was Reverend Ransome Kuti, the father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the famed Afrobeat musician. But the make of the car is also not known. What is certain now is that Uwa Esara of Akwa Ibom State was one of the first Nigerians to buy and drive a premium car.

Good old days!

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