My Life & Cars – Shami Kalra, Omologato founder and car enthusiast

A childhood surrounded by German metal has influenced Shami Kalra’s car choices, while a passion for motorsport has fuelled the meteoric rise of his Omologato watch brand

'My uncle was very influential in my life when it came to cars. He was a Mercedes-Benz dealer in the 1970s and when he came to visit he was in 450 SEL 6.9s, 280 SEs, the R107 SLs, all the cool stuff. This was the time when waiting lists ran into years, so he did well. Whenever he turned up in something new it was an event in our house. Everyone had Ford Cortinas and Consuls and all the usual stuff, but he’d turn up in these cool cars. It wasn’t only Mercedes, he’d arrive in BMW 2002s and one of the first Mk1 Golf GTIs. He always had German cars around him, I guess that rubbed off on me.

It rubbed off on my father too, because we had a Golf when I was growing up and he bought himself a W124 230 E Mercedes when I was 17 and said he was going to buy me my first car. ‘Great,’ I thought. As a 17-year-old. What’s more important? Then one morning he said, ‘I’ve bought you your first car.’ It was a 1758cc Austin Maxi automatic in what I can only describe as 1970s sh*t brown. I always wanted a VW Beetle, but this was a car and the start of my driving career.

It didn’t hang around long and I quickly found a 1955 1200cc Beetle. It had a hole under the rear seat but generally it was in pretty good condition and I drove it everywhere for everything. I loved it.

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I did some restoration work on it, had it resprayed and kept buying parts for it. It was a true first-love car. I couldn’t get enough of it. Until one winter when it started leaking so much I couldn’t drive it anymore and swapped it for a 2CV. I loved the Citroën’s quirkiness. It wasn’t conformist, it was just really cool, and for two years I enjoyed every mile in it, but when I got a proper job and had to start commuting, it had to go and I bought a Golf. 

I had adored my Beetle but my VW affiliation started with that Golf, and the 16 or 17 I had between 1988 and 1994. I couldn’t get enough of them. I started with a 1.3 C and by the end progressed to the icon: a Mk2 ‘big bumper’ eight-valve GTI. Naturally it was stolen, because it was the ’90s and no hot hatch was safe, and this coincided with our first child being born so I went all grown-up and bought a Mercedes.

It was very comfortable and all the rest of it but my mind kept rolling back to those Beetle days and the evening when I was out with my younger brother driving nowhere in particular, as you do when you’re 17, and we stopped at AFN Chiswick, the Porsche dealer, to look at the 911s and 928s parked inside.

It was midnight so the police stopped and asked what we were doing on the forecourt, explained how we would never be able to afford anything from here and to move on. It was my ‘How dare you speak to me like that’ moment. It always stuck in my mind and I had a wry smile the day I bought my first Porsche, a 987 Cayman S.

It was three months old, pretty much brand new and I just couldn’t believe it was mine. 

Porsches had been around the family at times – my uncle had a couple of 944s and my cousin had a 911, my neighbour a 930 – and I’ve loved the brand since that first day of Cayman ownership. I think I’m on number 15 now, everything from a Panamera to a Macan, and now, very fortunately, a 991-series 911 GT3. I’m also one of those owners who does the unthinkable and drives his cars, and it doesn’t appear to have impacted its value. 

To this day I regret selling my Cayman S. I loved that car and it’s not helped that the owner is local to me and I still see it around. We were doing OK as a business and I didn’t need to sell it, but we needed a new kitchen and various other things so it went. I don’t think there’s a better car than a Cayman S if you want an everyday sports car. The chassis is absolutely brilliant.

A car I regret buying is another Porsche, a 944. It was so disappointing. Growing up in the ’80s it was one of those aspirational dream cars, a proper, ‘Wow, I have to have one of them.’ And then I did and I just couldn’t see the appeal. It didn’t feel special enough, or feel like a genuine Porsche. I also didn’t like my 1982 911 SC. It was rotten so I spent time and money restoring it, painting it duck-egg blue with orange Fuchs wheels and giving it a restomod before I even knew what that was. Someone paid me around £45,000 for it, and to this day I couldn’t see the appeal, or rather the value these things reach. I’d rather have a nice 997 Carrera with a manual gearbox – it’s modern enough to live with but has a hint of a retro look about it.

Before this Porsche love affair I bought a Series 1 Lotus Elise, and like my Cayman S I’ve regretted selling it to this day. When I sold the Cayman I had a GT3 too, so while the loss was hard to stomach I still had a Porsche in my life, but when I sold the Lotus, that was it. I had nothing to replace it with. I will have another one day, although I’m worried about the direction Lotus is going. I do wish they would find a way to bring an Elise to market for around £30,000.

Selling a car was also one of the biggest influences on my career. I was working as a designer, designing merchandise for automotive brands, and things were OK. Business was steady. But like all things, one day it wasn’t and everything had to go. I was in my office staring at £9.61 in our bank account, with my wife asking what we were going to do. I didn’t have an epiphany, but I did start playing in Photoshop with some motorsport liveries on watches, looked at a couple and thought, ‘I’d buy that.’ So Omologato was born on a Friday night. By the following Thursday we had sold £1000 of watches.

I had been a fan of motorsport since my teenage days. My dad had a meeting at a racetrack and brought me along. He had no interest in the sport but I was hooked. The noise, the excitement. I couldn’t get enough of it. Then I got into karting but I was too late to do anything professionally, not that I had the money to get involved, but I was still addicted to watching it.

When I started Omologato it was out of necessity, but I never thought it would take me to those places I always dreamed of working. I started with two designs and a 30-day free trial for Shopify and this year we had Juan Pablo Montoya racing at Le Mans in a car supported by Omologato, and next year we’ll be running in the Paris-Dakar, too. We’re the official timekeeper at Monza and are under discussions with other circuits around the world to establish further partnerships. But with everything I do I have to maximise the opportunities. I don’t just want to sit back and see the logo on a car or at a circuit, I need to bring the relationship to life. It’s what inspires our next designs and products.

This year has been tough because nothing can replace being at a motorsport event, but Omologato has had one of its best years and we haven’t stopped planning and investing for 2021. One of the toughest parts is not being able to meet new people and make new relationships – these provide great inspiration. It’s been just as hard not being able to get out and drive somewhere cool. Driving still gives me the same buzz today as it did when I passed my driving test and my father handed me the keys to that Austin Maxi. It always will.’

This article was first featured in issue 280, December 2020

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