Image and Text contributed by the family of V.J. Khambhaita, London, U.K.
Our father, V.J. Khambhaita (right) was born in Kalavad (Gujarat), India in 1934 but spent most of his early life in Tanzania, initially in Moshi and then Tanga.
In 1953 he joined Riddoch Motors in Moshi as a mechanic and from 1954-1957 he worked at the Motor Mart & Exchange Limited in Tanga as a mechanic and foreman. He then set up his own business by the name of Rapid Motor Garage in Tanga before moving to Gujarat, India. While in India, he took up an offer in 1967 to setup and manage a mechanical workshop in Moshi, Tanzania as one of four directors at J.S. Khambhaita Limited, the construction & civil engineering firm established by and named after our grandfather in 1938, until 1976.
V.J. Khambhaita showed a keen interest in motor mechanics and was introduced to the rallying scene in the mid 1950s by close friend and safari rally driver A.P. Valambhia of ‘Babu Garage’ from Morogoro, Tanzania. Having initially raced in Tanga and Morogoro, V.J. Khambhaita together with his younger cousin N.D. Khambhaita who had already been active in go-kart racing (left in the image) began to enter regional & national events and collectively became known as the ‘Khambhaita Brothers’.
During the late 1950s -1972 period, they represented Tanganyika (renamed Tanzania in 1964 after the union with Zanzibar) with private competitor entries in a range of rally cars – all hand tuned by V.J. Khambhaita himself – to include the Peugeot 203, Ford Cortina (Mark I & II), Ford Anglia, Ford Escort, Morris, Datsun SSS and the Peugeot 504.
The brothers competed in numerous events most notably the Tanganyika 1000, Kilimanjaro 500, Usambara, Richard Lennard trophy and Kenya’s Malindi rally. These were to be springboards for a more challenging and international East African Safari Rally, which had to cover around 6000 km through Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda in 4-5 days and nights of suspension-shattering racing.
Rallying was followed religiously by the East African public and the craze surrounding it was similar to the enthusiasm seen for cricket in India or football in the U.K. Even our grandmother followed the sport. Originally known as the East African Coronation Safari, it commenced in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and quickly gained a reputation for being extremely tough, earning international status in 1957. It was not a race for the faint-hearted, with hazards including big game hunting dotted along a route that was open to public traffic, angry mobs and children throwing rocks at passing cars.
I vividly recall V.J. Khambhaita mentioning one such instance where a village of machete-wielding Masai warriors blocked a night stage through the Kenyan bush. He promptly reversed at full speed, changed direction and took a detour while getting battered by rocks that were coming in thick and fast from local children.
Avid observers will recall the 1962 East African Safari Rally for being particularly difficult as heavy rainfall caused mayhem around the most challenging section at the muddy Magara escarpment, near Mbulu in Tanzania. Many crews found themselves stuck in the mud bath that followed and consequently retired. The Khambhaita Brothers, however, in a group B Ford Anglia managed to finish the 4970 km race intact while some of the world’s best rally drivers and their factory prepared cars littered the roadside in surrender. In recognition of this feat, Hughes Limited – a major Ford dealer in Kenya – congratulated the pair on the achievement of seeing the finishing line when so many had failed. In a letter addressed to V.J. Khambhaita, President & Chairman J.J. Hughes – the man who introduced the Ford Model T to Kenya – congratulated the pair on their…
“Wonderful driving in the 10th East African Safari Rally over Africa’s worst roads and against the cream of the world’s best rally drivers. A car in tip top mechanical condition handled by a driver in first class physical condition is hard to beat.”
The brothers won or finished highly in their class in many Tanzanian and Kenyan rallies both in their own right with other co-drivers and collectively as the Khambhaita Brothers with the family soon running out of space to display the array of trophies, shields and finisher badges/medals. While the brothers never won the East African Safari Rally outright, they certainly tasted success within the various classes and in 1962 they took the best Tanzanian entry trophy.
In the late 1960s, the brothers began entering races independently with other co-drivers, bowing to pressure from family worried about the possibility of losing both brothers in a fatal crash. They did race together one final time in the 1972 East African Safari Rally, largely because the 6350 km route started and finished in Dar-es-Salaam (as opposed to Nairobi). Their sturdy Moshi-registered Peugeot 504 suffered overheating before reaching Morogoro, Tanzania with the brothers subsequently retiring early.
To the brothers, it was always about participation and sportsmanship with a hope of winning the world’s toughest motor rally. It was an era where men were men, even with ladies participating, cars were ‘just’ cars and a sense of adventure dominated motorsports compared to the technologically advanced ‘drive-by-wire’ scene nowadays where tools, maps and instinct have been replaced by the laptop and GPS.
Following the untimely death of N.D. Khambhaita in 1973, the Khambhaita Brothers team would never race again. At this point, V.J. Khambhaita decided to end his rallying career. The family moved to London, U.K. in 1976 where our father remained in motor mechanics and later passed away in 2008. We are left with fond recollections of adventure, photo albums full of priceless moments and more trophies than all his grandchildren combined can shake a stick at. And who knows…a new generation of ‘Khambhaita Brothers’ may still race again.