Meet Ramani Ponnambalam, wife of the doyen and gentleman of motor racing in Sri Lanka, the iconic Bri Ponnambalam; yet Ramani has also proved her uniqueness by rising to the apex of her business career; an eminently successful career-woman, still makes the time to reach out to the less fortunate; keeps fit by walking daily around Independence Square, playing Badminton and yes, is simply passionate about Classic Cars and Mercedes Benz in particular. An elegant lady full of poise and confidence with an eye for detail; no wonder then the male dominated Classic Car Club unanimously elected her the President!
Dyan: You are perhaps the only lady in Sri Lanka who heads a ‘Car Club’ – whether it’s a Vintage, Racing, One-make, or indeed even Classic Cars – a rare honour indeed. Ramani you are a trail-blazer! The MOTOR magazine is honoured to conduct this interview. Do please share with us your rich and varied experiences to date.
Ramani: I attended Bishops College and hail from a family of three girls; we lost our dear father in a motor accident when I was just 9 years; my father was, and continues to be my role model and my hero in life; he, Mr Neville Wijekoon was very much into business; being the first Sri Lankan director of Hayleys. And following his business steps was one of my goals; personally I had many hobbies; was much into sports; I swam, and played Table Tennis for Bishops, and later on in life became a keen Badminton player.
Dyan: Great formative years Ramani despite the personal tragedy of losing your wonderful father; but tell me when and how did the ‘car bug’ hit you as you had and continue to be smitten by cars, cars and cars!
Ramani [smiles] It was from the time I was around 9 years when I met Freddie Alles who later became my brother-in-law; Freddie loved everything about cars then that rubbed off on me. Freddie continues to be absolutely passionate about cars, classic cars in particular; by and by I became interested about racing cars too, more so when I met Bri and admired his motor racing exploits; I then married Bri…
Dyan: And the rest is history! Ramani I gather that you are also onto helping the needy and less fortunate.
Ramani: Yes, I am fully committed to Church activities and was Founder and continue to serve in managing the Committees of two Homes for Disadvantaged Children based in Wattala. Getting back to Classic Cars, do you know that Bri bought a MGTF from the wedding presents we got? Anyway I too became hooked on Classic Cars and Mercedes Benz in particular, as apart from the pre-eminent position the Mercedes occupies as easily the greatest automobile, arguably then and now, the marque exudes an exquisite aura, and with it an unmatched status symbol. And so whilst Bri was collecting Classic Cars, I resolved to scout around for a Mercedes Benz saloon car as possessing a Mercedes was a goal I set in life early on. So when Bri told me about a 190SL available, I told him, “Let’s go and get it; I’ll buy it”; we found the Mercedes, manufactured in 1957, in terrible shape, but Bri was confident of restoring it and so that was my first Classic Car. When Bri was seriously into racing, we came across a beautiful Renault Alpine V6; I thought that it was the ultimate car one could ever get; it belonged to a friend of Bri; that Renault Alpine V6, a 1986 model was the second car I bought with much sacrifice and now it qualifies to be a Classic as it has reached the threshold of 30 years! I then got myself a Citroen Light 15 model, manufactured in 1951 which I looked upon as a nice classic car to add to my stable of cars. And these three Classic Cars continue to be with me and are indeed my pride and joy!
Dyan: Apart from your three Classic Cars, I have observed an incredible collection of awesome Fiats, MGs, BMWs, a classic, rare Bristol and a range of Mercedes Benzes parked around your lovely garden.
Ramani: [smiles] Yes, whilst I stopped with the Mercedes, Citroen & the Renault classics, Bri continued to collects various other Classic Cars as you mentioned; so much so that there’s hardly any space in our garden! We have now reached a compromise: no more purchase of any Classic Cars, from now on!
Dyan: Enough is [sadly] enough, as the cliché goes, now tell me Ramani all about the Classic Car Club.
Ramani: It was way back in 1992 when Mr. Mana Jayawardene along with Messrs JP Obeyesekere, Arjun Deraniyagala, Edward [Bugs] Mason, Asgi Akbarally – all eminent gentlemen and motor racing personalities at the time, got together and conceived the idea of forming the Classic Car Club. Around that time they invited Bri to join, which he did and since a Secretary was also wanted they wanted me to fill in. And so I officially joined the Classic Car Club as a Founder Member and was duly appointed as Secretary of the Club at the inaugural AGM held at the Galle Face Hotel in 1992. The Founder President was the late Mr. Mana Jayawardene. Those were heady days; the Founding Committee devoted so much of time and energy towards drafting out a comprehensive Constitution. In fact I remember listening and patiently taking down notes at the residence of Mr. Arjun Deraniyagala on all about how the Club should be run: the basis of the club, the principles of the club – they took such great pains, literally days and days of going thru even the minutest detail. I learnt so much from those gentlemen who were much older than me – what values they stood for, and how dedicated and professional they were; so being privy to all that from literally 1992 was an enriching experience. I have continued to serve on the Committee from like I said 1992, and was appointed as Vice President in 2015 along with Clive [senior] and now President in 2016. To my knowledge, I am the first lady to be the President of a Motoring Club in Sri Lanka and if that is so, I am indeed proud of it. I am also happy to be the President during the 25th Year of the Classic Car Club as our Committee and myself are planning a ‘Calendar’ where all members will have an opportunity to join in at least one 25th Anniversary event: jam-packed with a myriad events.
Dyan: Being a lady, did you harbor any misgivings of any sort when offered the Presidency of the Club? After all it’s a male dominated culture we experience in Sri Lanka, isn’t it? As a lady, your thoughts?
Ramani: Yes, that thought did cross my mind as here in Sri Lanka a lady heading a set-up goes against the norm; yet I thought ‘Why Not’ as I am very much involved with the Women’s Chamber of Industries & Commerce and we like to see ladies in pivotal managerial positions and quite a few are taking up such leadership roles and doing so very successfully! And so I took up the challenge of being President, more so as it is the 25th Year of the Classic Car Club like I said earlier. Our Classic Car Club is also the local body accredited to FIVA which is the international body which is also celebrating its 50th Year since inception.
Dyan: Coming back to your calendar of special events the Classic Car Club has lined up for its members…
Ramani: Many Events Dyan. And this year being the 25th Anniversary Year I want every single member to be recognized. For instance there will be the Heritage Mahagastotte Hill Climb scheduled for Saturday 10th September 2016; those participating, [max numbers already confirmed even before Entry deadline] will be given two nights at Topaz Hotel, Kandy [the cost of the entry fee will cover the expenses] and then they’ll all drive in an orderly convoy to Mahagastotte; as it’s a unique event each of the participants will be given an opportunity to drive up Mahagastotte; each of them would be photographed driving up the hill; remember that this Heritage Mahagastotte Event is not a speed hill climb; a trophy and memento will be given to each participant for taking part and let me reiterate: not for sheer speed or timing as our sole intention being the Classic Car Club is to preserve our Classics in pristine condition!
Dyan: By the way, may I know how many Classic Car Members are registered as ‘Members’ Ramani ?
Ramani: We have to date 247 members. Usually one needs to have a car that has passed 30 years but we do not strictly abide by this rule as at times exceptions subject to approval by the Committee are made
Dyan: By the way I cannot but admire this beautiful and stately mansion you and Bri have made your home with the many classic cars parked around the garden! What’s the history of this classic building?
Ramani: My grandfather Sir Gerard Wijekoon built this house 125 years ago. One interesting historical anecdote was during World War I, Royal College was taken over by the Forces and then Royal College moved in here! At that time this house was a sprawling complex that included Freddie Alles present abode and the garden extended to where the Noritake building now stands, right up to ‘Pithala junction’
Dyan: What a wonderful piece of history! Changing gears Ramani, you told me that you and Bri have not spent huge sums in buying most of these Classic Cars that are parked in your garden and also found in Bri’s Workshop and that both of you mostly bought these then ‘potential Classics’ when they were in terrible shape and that thanks to Bri and his loyal, knowledgeable and dedicated team of mechanics, these cars have been restored to their present glory. What a fantastic couple you and Bri make, Ramani! As I drove thru your gates today I found a shiny new Mercedes Benz SUV parked in your driveway…
Ramani: Let me talk about that Mercedes Benz SUV. My dream, like I said earlier was to own a brand new Mercedes. You see Bri is a member of the Mercedes Benz Car Owners Club and each time I go with him for outings arranged by the Mercedes Benz Club, I tell myself that someday I am going to own a Mercedes as my daily road runner, and I strive towards that goal; I work hard in my capacity as CEO and Managing Director of Macbertan [Private] Ltd and also Director of the Kingsbury PLC & Amaya Leisure PLC both owned by the conglomerate Hayleys Group and also a non-executive Director of Alliance Finance Co. PLC. The factory of Macberton which I head is a leading company dealing with roofing material and roofing solutions such as Macfoil and is located at Jaela. So I thought that if and when I get a Mercedes I should go in for a SUV as it would fit in with my daily running. I used to keep on telling my friends at DIMO that somehow or the other I will buy a Mercedes Benz SUV when they get one. Then when we attended the Frankfurt Motor Show as guests of the Mercedes Benz Club, it was love at first sight when I saw this dark Blue Mercedes Jeep and told the agents there that I wanted to buy this same dark Blue SUV! And another of my dreams has been fulfilled by purchasing this brand new Mercedes Benz SUV.
Dyan: You have impressed me as being a lady, so articulate and meticulous in everything you have undertaken – even this interview you proved to be absolutely punctual; you also said that when you undertake any project you plan and execute it to 100% perfection, that’s truly noteworthy & inspiring!
Ramani: Thank you! Not that I am biased but seriously if you give a lady a job to do, most of them undertake it with absolute passion and enthusiasm and therefore one could expect 100% operational success! So let me appeal to all ladies possessing Classic Cars – you are most welcome to join the Classic Car Club and also serve in Classic Car Committee, especially since I know that they’ll give their best shot!
Dyan: You sound like a bionic lady! How on earth do you find the time with all you numerous pursuits?
Ramani: I am very much into planning my day the day before so that I am not stressed out at any time. Like I said I overlook operations at the Factory and the other companies apart from having sales teams covering over 7,000 island-wide dealers and network of sales outlets, I still find the time for my daily walk around Independence Square, my work-outs in the gym, my rounds of Badminton which I thoroughly enjoy; my social service projects etc. I am a firm believer that whatever I do, I do it well, meaning whatever I undertake I do it to perfection; I am like most ladies, a perfectionist! I therefore would love to see more ladies taking up leadership roles as simply put: They’ll do a great job! Reverting to the Classic Car Club, I would love to see all owners of Classic Cars united as one family from now on!
Dyan: Ramani, you are indeed an awe-inspiring lady to listen & talk to! MOTOR wishes you all success!
Ramani: Thank you Dyan. I would like to take this opportunity to recognize and appreciate Mr. Farih Fauz the Past President of Vintage Car Club for his suggestion way back in 1990 to the late Mr. Mana Jayawardana and other enthusiasts to form a Club for Classic Cars. In conclusion my Best Wishes to Nimal and Team for continued success of Motor, which is much appreciated by Car Enthusiasts like ourselves.