Peter Jefferis Conor Hughes: 1935-2012


Peter Jefferis Conor Hughes 1935-2012

One of the most legendary characters in Kenya’s motoring history has died. Peter Hughes, pioneer of the vehicle assembly industry and a motorsport champion  of world renown for many decades, was 77.

Industry leader

Official history will record his most distinctive achievement as the establishment and development of Associated Vehicle Assemblers (AVA) in Mombasa, initially a small independent company ranged against three major world manufacturers – General Motors, Leyland and Fiat - who simultaneously set up assembly plants in Nairobi and Thika in the late 1970s.

Through his stewardship and drive, AVA became the industry leader, assembling for Toyota, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Mercedes, Volvo, VW, Honda, Scania, Subaru and many other leading global marques.  The AVA plant, which is still run by the management team Peter Hughes built, was frequently rated in the top ten of motor manufacturers’ worldwide operations for its quality control.  More than once, re-engineering tweaks developed by AVA and their Kenyan distributors were so effective they were adopted internationally by source manufacturers.

In one pilot build of a new model,  a source manufacturer sent AVA an incomplete kit of a double-decker bus which had a number of unresolved design problems. When international experts arrived to show Kenyans how to assemble the vehicle, they found AVA had already built it, perfectly.  They had fabricated the missing components themselves, and solved the design problems.

On another occasion AVA had to call a source manufacturer to admit they were unable to build the body of a particular car to a diagonal symmetry closer than 2mm. The manufacturer was astonished: they had never managed an accuracy closer than 5mm at their own main factory.

AVA was a founder member of the KMI, and Peter Hughes served as chairman. He was an ardent believer in Kenya’s potential to be a regional source supplier for international brands through assembly and progressive manufacture.

Motoring roots

Peter was born with high-octane blood, as the son of  the ineffable Irishman “JJ” who brought the Ford brand to Kenya, established Hughes Ltd and, through marketing initiatives that have passed into folklore,  captured a never-to-be-equalled 52% share of the market in the midst of the Great Depression.   His mother was Dorothy Hughes, MBE, of the well-known Hughes and Polkinghorne architectural practice and designer of many of Kenya’s landmark buildings, including St Mary’s school, where Peter was buried alongside his parents on September 19.

He leaves his wife, Carole (they had already celebrated their 50th anniversary) children Michael, Tony, Siobhan and Patrick, four grandchildren, and friends beyond counting all over the world.

Motorsports champion

Peter fully emerged from his parents’ very large footprints by winning  the Safari Rally in 1964 when the event was, by both fact and universal recognition, the Everest of world rallysport. At an international party thrown by Ford in St Moritz to celebrate their international champions that year, Peter drove his Safari car down the world’s most hair-raising bobsleigh track – the Cresta Run  – preceding and exceeding the antics of either Cool Runnings or Top Gear.

In subsequent decades he was no less a champion in motorsports administration,  as chairman of the AA’s motorsports committee, Kenya’s representative to world motorsport’s governing FIA, and as event chief in the Safari’s most successful years in the World Rally Championships, among many other roles and positive influences.  He was a founder member of the KMI.

He harnessed his motorsport skills to promote the quality of Kenya-built vehicles, with projects that scored a string of national, Africa and world rally records.

Personal values

Peter, who lived all aspects of his life at max revs and high speed (he even walked quickly, and thought even faster) was a complex character, combining “old school” principles with modern vision and dynamism. He was at once a perfect gent and a firebrand; a traditionalist in ethics and a radical thinker in action. His core values included honesty and loyalty at whatever the cost to himself, a fearsome work ethic, fighting spirit and impeccable good manners.  He never sought limelight, status nor even thanks of any sort and never used a moment of time nor an atom of energy on his own welfare. He had no time for pettiness or grudges, and had a particular aversion to the self-important or pompous.  His compelling questions were: what really matters? what works? what works even better? what helps? what does most good?

Peter was not a natural  orator, nor can he be accused of coining any immortal sayings.  The most eloquent testimony to the sort of man he was comes from what he did NOT say.  He never said “you owe me one”, or “I’m too busy”, or “I told you so”.  Never.

Rare quality

The official  distinctions of Peter’s life are considerable, but they do not reflect his real magnum opus - to inspire and mentor and promote others, wherever he found special talent or determination. His greatest quality was one of the rarest:  true leadership.  Many hundreds of the many more thousands who mourn him now, will reflect that at some crucial point and in some subtle but vital way, he personally and fundamentally changed their lives for the better.

Stopping Peter Hughes from working 24/7 always looked like a mission impossible and, when he did retire, ill-health quickly robbed him of the time he had so mightily earned for personal leisure - with his grandchildren, on less-mown parts of a golf course, at the Jockey Club.  Apparently that self-indulgence was not written in his life’s purpose.

That is the sadness his family and friends will feel most.  For otherwise few men have less to fear (which ever way round it works) from the epitaph: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game.”

By Gavin Bennett

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