When asked what a successful life is, many of us would give answers like financial freedom, a happy family, good career, spiritual growth, or a combination of these and many others you might think about. What you think is right (at least for you) but for Burt Almeida, a successful life can only be attained by only those who listen to their ‘invisible’ and follow their passion, exactly what he is.
I met Burt Almeida on August 24, 2013 hardly a month ago as I write this. We met at the Uganda Vintage and Classic Auto show in Kampala, many vintage and classic car enthusiasts gathered at the Kampala Sheraton gardens to exhibit their cars and others like me were there to marvel at the finest forms of art embedded in these cars. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and together with my friend, Daniel Muhanguzi – a big vintage and classic car enthusiast, we were immediately soaked in exhilaration. We immediately began to see, to feel, to marvel, to analyze and to capture pictures of these cars. We were welcomed by the 1959 Triumph and the 1984 Porsche 911 which actually turned out as the highlights of the event for many enthusiasts. We continued to check out the Mercedes Benzes, there was a Beach Buggy, some 1974 Range Rover KQE, a 1952 Morris Minor, a 1973 Mini Cooper, a 1970 Super L80 SCANIA Fire Engine, a fleet of VW Beetles and behold, the 1925 Ford Model A – the oldest and the only vintage car at the show. It was consuming.
Getting every detail of this Datsun Estate (1979) with the Judges, this vehicle was restored beyond imagination. (Photo credit: Daniel Muhanguzi).Next, Daniel Muhanguzi could not resist getting closer to the oldest car at the show, the 1925 Ford Model A.
Well, every second was rewarding at the auto show and every car was great. As time went on, my excitement lowered and I regained my full senses and began to interview a few classic car owners to get facts about the cars and their experiences to be used for my blogging. One thing came to my attention though; many car owners had brought their cars the previous day and were not present. However, my search was not in vain, I met two very passionate classic car owners who agreed to speak to me.
One was Mohammed Salim, the owner of the 1970 Super L80 SCANIA Fire Engine. I spoke to one of his sons, Merghani, who passionately talked about this vehicle. This is the vehicle that was used in the 2006 movie; The Last King of Scotland and the Salim family bought it in 2009. This car, Merghani told me, has won the love of every member of their family, from their mother to the youngest nieces and nephews and I could never agree more with him because the whole family was at the auto show to show support to this fire engine. The vehicle has a very large horn which makes a robust sound and it sent everyone in awe at the auto show. “Every member of the family has had an input in restoring this vehicle. We have had to hunt for parts in the whole of Europe since the original SCANIA discontinued the production of parts” Merghani told me. Back at home in Sudan, the Salim family also has a Ford Granada and every member of the family is proud of these cars.
This is the 1970 Super L80 SCANIA Fire Engine. Daniel and I would soon discover our suppressed passion as ‘firemen’, I would later that evening introduce myself as a ‘fireman’ to the ladies we met at the coffee shop because the feeling was still hovering in my spirit.
The second interesting person I met that evening was Burt Almeida. I had earlier in the afternoon seen him wiping the last drops of any fluid inside the bonnet of his 1984 Mercedes Benz 280S, so passionate that I could not interrupt him. So later when I figured he was a bit free enjoying his drink, I rushed to him. ‘My name is Rushongoka; you are the owner of this 280S Mercedes, right?’ I made my opening statement. ‘Yes, and I am Burt Almeida’. He replied warmly. ‘I am just an enthusiast and I would like to get a few facts clear about your car and your love for classic cars’ I continued. ‘Yeah, that’s alright!’ He exclaimed as he pulled out his business card. ‘Call me any time and I will give you all sorts of information that you might need’ as he continued to utilize every second to enjoy the moment. ‘Thank you so much, Mr. Almeida and I will call you soon to ask for an appointment’ I concluded as I walked away.
You will agree with me that many people offer their cards to get rid of you and they are never willing to honor their word, but I clearly saw the sincerity and humility in the eyes and the words of Burt Almeida. I had no slightest doubt that Burt would grant me an interview.
Soon it was getting dark and Daniel and I left to look for coffee. A week or so passed and I had not called Burt, but on one Thursday evening, I could not resist calling this ‘interesting man at the auto show’ so I checked for his card in my archives and rang him. ‘Hullo, who is this?’ the voice echoed in my ear. ‘My name is Wa-Mpiira, the young man at the classic auto show. I am calling to ask for an appointment to meet with you as you promised’ I stated. ‘Yes young man, I remember you. No problem, you can come to my house tomorrow in the afternoon’. ‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘Where do you live?’ I asked. ‘18 McKenzie Vale, 18 McKenzie Vale’ He said repeatedly. The next day, at 2:45pm, on a Friday calm afternoon, I was at 18 McKenzie Vale in Kololo – an upmarket Kampala suburb. I was with my friend, Daniel, who had also been intrigued by Burt at the auto show, so I notified him to come with me immediately my appointment with Burt was fixed.
The gate-man opened for these two young men in disbelief (I think he was used to receiving old visitors and close family friends) but Burt was eagerly waiting for us in the yard. ‘Welcome guys’ he warmly invited us to the front yard of his house and offered us seats under the shade and what would emerge as one of my most interesting afternoons would soon begin. Burt offered us a drink before he could take his seat to begin our informal and effortless chat but very intriguing and mind boggling than most of the formal discussions and discourses I have had.
There were no formal questions like ‘so how may I help you or what do you expect from this discussion’, and other questions of the sort, but our conversation began flowing naturally. After asking informally about the origin of his name ‘Almeida’, he began from there to tell us his ancestry and took us through his timeline.
Burt Almeida was born in Uganda in 1952. His grandparents came to Uganda in 1930 to do business. They were from Goa in India but of the Portuguese ancestry. Goa is predominantly occupied by Portuguese-Indians. Daniel and I had earlier reckoned that he was either from the Spanish or Portuguese descent but inclined more on the Portuguese option, so we got it with close to pinpoint accuracy. He went to Buganda Road Primary School and Kololo SS before he left to study in the U.S. His childhood dream was to become an aircraft engineer but he was offered to study Industrial Sciences.
He continued to tell us about all things from his experience in the US to history and politics and his life philosophy but two things were outstanding. His determination to follow his passion and his love for classic cars (well, which was the reason we were at his house, but his philosophy on life stole the show). Burt finished his studies in the U.S during the terror of Idi Amin Dada so he stayed in the U.S as a refugee. He could later get an opportunity to pursue his dream career as an aeronautic engineer when he was offered a place at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Burt worked his way up to become one of the best Aeronautic Engineers in the U.S, a career he passionately pursued for 25 years before he retired.
His love for classic cars is fascinating and unprecedented; he has never driven a contemporary car. To him, classic cars are the finest forms of art. His first car was a Cadillac 1959 which he bought for 150USD in 1972. A brand new car of the sort would go for 8,000USD but he knows how to identify and acquire valuable cars modestly. ‘Everything on this car was power’ he said. His second car was a Dodge Charger model 1966 which he bought in 1973. The Dodge Charger would later receive a sister car, the Dodge Challenger whose production began in 1971 and together with the Ford Mustang (first model released in 1964), rose to become some of the most popular muscle cars of all time.
Burt Almeida had started the conversation in a calm and still demeanor but his passion and energy grew exponentially as he talked about the muscle cars of U.S and Europe. ‘These are the best cars the world has ever seen and we shall hardly see another generation of cars as concrete as these’ he emphasized. His youthful energy came back and his spirit was completely exhilarated. I could visualize him back in the days racing in a Pontiac GTO (I was amazed to learn that he actually had a GTO, a 1970 model which he bought in 1974) and I soon realized that he had driven or at least knew all of my dream muscle cars; The legendary Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and her sister – the Dodge Charger, Rambler Marlin, Pontiac GTO and Chevy Camaro.
This is what I am talking about if you have been wondering, the 1966 Ford Mustang (in red), 1965 Pontiac GTO, and a 1971 Dodge Challenger (bottom). These have gone down in history as some of the finest muscle cars of all time. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
His love for classic cars is unmatched, clearly demonstrated by some of the stories from his youthful memories. He told us of the story when he left his Cadillac somewhere in Orlando in someone’s yard but he could go back after three years to claim it back. The owner of the yard got relief when this ‘old crap’ was taken away from his yard but for Burt, he was putting his hands again to one of the most precious items of his life. The car which had sat for three years was able to run for 200 miles with nothing worked on it apart from putting a fresh battery. Among other cars he has owned is a Datsun ZX Racer. He passionately talked about the three major car manufacturers in the U.S; General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Chrysler and continued to talk about other car makers like Jeep, AMC and Rambler.
Burt Almeida came back to Uganda in 1995 and has since lived here and in the U.S intermittently. In 2012, he visited his longtime friend, Martin Jerome Alikar, who gave him a 1984 Mercedes 280S that his Auntie would then describe as a ‘piece of wreck’ because it looked so horrible that no one thought it could be restored. This is a car that had been seated in the sun and rain for 14 years but Burt saw the most valuable Mercedes in this ‘piece of crap’. He rolled to the U.S and Europe to hunt for parts and worked on it with precision for a period of over one year, a process that cost him about 25,000USD and this car turned out as one of the best Mercedes Benzes I have seen in life. He has since gotten offers of 35,000USD but expects to reap 50,000USD if he must sell it. But for him, the money is just nothing but pieces of paper, so it has to be someone who would appreciate and maintain it. It would be a total breach of his integrity if he sold his precious car to just anyone because of money.
These are Burt Almeida’s cars; the sparkling restored 1976 Mercedes Benz 280S and the 1978 Toyota Land Cruiser SUV….His ‘doubting Thomas’ Auntie would later see the Mercedes in its current state to her utmost astonishment.
We continued to talk about different forms of art and my notion that one cannot appreciate one form of art without appreciating all other forms would be confirmed by Burt when I found out his love for music. Burt is a pianist and guitarist with a huge appreciation for vocals. He actually has a Rock ‘n’ Roll band and plays once in a while at tranquil places. ’Certain cars go with specific music’ he told us. He loves Rock ‘n’ Roll music from the 60’s and 70’s, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Cliff, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, James Brown, The Supremes, Pink Floyd, The Allman Brothers and the list is endless and his favorite movies date back to the same period. He talked passionately of the 1972 movie, the Vanishing Point, which featured the 1971 Dodge Challenger.
Things had taken shape and by this time, we were no longer only interested in his love for classic cars but we were looking at his philosophy of life as a whole. Everything affects everything else and if you can’t appreciate one form of art without appreciating all the rest, we all confirmed. The love for classic cars, music, and love for adventure, astronomy enthusiasm, fashion, and the general outlook on life, all things were getting connected. ‘The universe has freely given us all things; free air, food, fertile soils, people and all marvels of this world, and the only way we can pay back is to give our finest levels of appreciation to all forms of art’ Burt noted.
About how he feels when he is driving a classic car, he noted that he gets a total solid road feel. ‘When you find a car like my Mercedes and restore it, you will have recreated your car and reinvented your reflection. The car you drive reflects the type of person you are’ he noted enthusiastically. And when asked what he thinks our nation should give more priority, he talked about sustainable power generation, pollution and noted how we are suffocating our planet. ‘We actually don’t need the oil in the Albertine. The Albertine rift has potential of generation much more money from tourism than oil. All the plant and animal diversity is going to be destroyed all in the name of capitalism yet this country has potential of earning Billions of dollars from tourism if the sector was given attention’ Burt recounted. He noted that most of the people have money but have lost who they are. He also noted that he has many friends in Uganda but whenever they meet, he has to trim himself to fit in their conversation because most of them can’t sustain a meaningful discourse.
In the end, what we had thought would be a short talk about classic cars turned out as one of the most meaningful discourses – a discussion with a man who has lived a life of passion and refinement. Two young men in their mid-20s and a pre-independence Burt Almeida talking about classic cars, philosophy, refinement and life for close to three hours (an empirical evidence that we did not fall in the category of his friends he had described earlier). We left his home highly rejuvenated, a rare opportunity that only the ones with an eagle’s eye can spot! Daniel and I would later put the life and refinement of Burt Almeida into perspective over a cup of coffee later that evening.
Tips from Burt Almeida
- You have to look at the condition of the car before putting your hands to restore a classic car
- You must look at the car as a piece of art to satisfy your spirit because you might need to sacrifice a lot of money and time to restore the car
- The car must be kept from the sun and rain. If it’s to be kept for long with being driven, it should be placed on a raised blocks and drained of all fluids because any fluids would trigger chemical reactions and corrosion.
- A vintage or classic car is an investment. If you can put your hands on a muscle car and maintain it, you would ask for any amount in future.
- Most of the contemporary cars are just gadgets, the more the gadgets, the easier you can go wrong. ‘Bentley does not know what do with the cars most of the time. That’s why they sell them far away’
- He recommended classic car websites like ‘counting cars’ and ‘Chasing Classic Cars’ and recommended that everyone should listen to all the albums of Beatles because there much more to learn from Beatles than just music lyrics.