The Kenya Firm of Hughes Ltd.

The firm of Hughes is famous throughout Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. What were its origins? It was the brainchild of John Joseph Hughes, a twenty-year-old sent to Kenya in 1920 as a buyer for the London firm of fibre merchants Robinson, Flemming & Co. His son Peter Hughes takes up the story: “In his work he travelled extensively among the European settler community, getting to know particularly well the plateau area of the Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu districts. Though automobiles were a rarity and roads were still very much in their infancy, his mode of conveyance was Henry Ford’s wonderful Model T. Mechanically uncanny, the T differed from other vehicles seen in British East Africa before. It was heroic, the ideal ‘bundu gari.’ and it often seemed to transmit this quality to persons who rode in it. To reach places where neither road nor track existed JJ stripped down his T to a chassis and petrol box seat only. It would go anywhere and when he did get stuck, he was always able to pick up the rear end and drag the T out on his own. John Hughes blazed the first trail from the railhead at Kisumu to Kitale. Remote farmers and Kakamega gold prospectors were often surprised but always delighted to receive regular calls from JJ, for he was forever fetching and carrying their badly needed supplies. JJ would often meet their children returning from boarding school at the Londiani railway station and deliver them safely home – no wonder then that his remarkable T was dubbed ‘The Pride of the Plateau.’”


It was clear to JJ that settlers would benefit from having their own Model T Fords. He joined forces with Tom O’Shea in Eldoret, the holder of the Ford franchise. However, the 1920s were hard years for the European farmer in Kenya. JJ had a brainwave – in return for a new Model T, with credit for petrol and spares, a farmer would agree to lease 100 acres of good arable land for one year, He must plough and cultivate it and plant mixed crops as directed. JJ took the risk of a good harvest and was responsible for marketing the produce. He also accepted other kinds of goods in trade to make a sale. These barter schemes were a success and within two years JJ sold 250 Model Ts, or ‘Tin Lizzies’ as they were called.

 Another of JJ’s clever ideas was to engage in motor sport, to demonstrate the ruggedness of the Tin Lizzie. He helped organise the first event, a high speed trial between Nairobi and Nakuru. It was won by Kenneth McIver driving a Model T. He covered the distance, about 113 miles, in 3 hours 56 minutes and 58 seconds. He finished over half an hour ahead of the other rival makes – Rolls Royce Overland, Dodge and Hupmobile. The roads were little better than game paths running about 20 miles south of the present road. McIver was assisted by his co-driver, Henry Charlton, a jockey who sat astride the Tin Lizzy’s bonnet, pouring water into the radiator while on the move.

The car’s fine reverse gear meant that many Kenyan hills were conquered by driving up them in reverse. People loved to personalise the Model Ts. A Ruckstall axle could provide two extra gears. Ken McIver modified his car so that it could do 5 to 40 mph in 15 seconds with a top speed of 60 mph. Fairy Engelbrecht, called thus by his possession of anything but good looks, ran his Tin Lizzie on the Kisumu to Eldoret mail run.  Peter Hughes tells us, “He fitted special shock absorbers, clamp on bumpers, a crank case support and Handy Pandy luggage carriers – racks attached to the running boards. On one occasion in the Kaimosi forest when a front wheel collapsed, he made a new one by hacking down suitable branches with a panga and with a red hot pipe heated on a charcoal fire by the roadside, bored the necessary holes for the hub attachment. The wheel was strong enough to last for two months until a replacement spare became available. This resourcefulness was to stand Fairy in good stead when, in 1936, together with Fred Hopley, he won the Nairobi to Johannesburg road race.” Model Ts could also be adapted to run on kerosene, a fuel cheaper than petrol.

The success of Hughes and the Model T can be shown by sales figures in the 1920s compiled by the Royal East African Automobile Association: Ford 52%, Overland 14%, Dodge 6%, Hupmobile 6% and Chevrolet 5%.