LETTER FROM AFRICA

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[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, even while he is not motoring abroad and is on a different Continent, keeps touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

This really is rather ridiculous, here it is the beginning of March, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and you have to keep in the shade to avoid sunstroke! I was amused to read in the March issue of MOTOR SPORT that our Production Manager had taken up flying and especially the remark that some of the “die-hard motorists began wondering about air travel”. I can assure you that one of them was not me, the world of motoring is still far too full to find time to take up another all-absorbing hobby. On the odd occasions that I have been involved with private light-aircraft I have never found the aircraft side of things at all fascinating, though the indirect motoring connections have been.

A short trip in a friend’s “vintage” Miles Falcon was enjoyable because of the splendid four-cylinder Gipsy engine, one that we used to think would make a good power unit for a vintage special. On another trip with the late Jim Clark in his modern aeroplane (I cannot even remember the make) we flew above the very straight A11 road on the way to Snetterton, cruising at about 135 m.p.h. and I remember saying how much more fun it would have been if we had been in a Lotus 30 cruising up the A11 at 135 m.p.h. Even with commercial air-line flying I find the best part is the acceleration along the runway at take-off, for big jet-planes do get up and go once they are rolling. I cannot find much appeal in private flying and while the world of motoring and motorcycling, and racing in particular, is still progressing there is more than enough for a full and enjoyable life. I find one and a half hours in an air-liner quite sufficient, so the 22 hours spent on what seemed to be a round-the-world trip, to get to South Africa was my idea of exaggeration, but once started on such a trip it’s a bit difficult to back out.

Here at Johannesburg, and in the surrounding country, I find it interesting and surprisingly tolerable, though people quite rightly point out that Johannesburg is not exactly the best part of South Africa and I should do this and do that, and go here and go there. What does fascinate me is the size of the country when studying a map, and it’s a good thing I haven’t got the E-type out here or I would be taking off on some interesting looking long-distance motoring. Next time perhaps. Even in this one small industrial centre there is plenty of activity, and though sporting motoring does not exist on such a vast scale as in Britain or Europe, it is very strong and growing all the time. What is noticeable is the interest and activity in exotic motorcycles, a subject on which I touched briefly in the January issue of MOTOR SPORT. That article, by the way, seemed to spark off as much correspondence from readers as the subject of TR Triumphs. Fast motorcycle enthusiasm seems to exist in all walks of life and in all age groups, and most of the letters finished up by pointing out that the 750-c.c. Honda four-cylinder has one overhead camshaft, not two as I suggested. When I wrote that article I had not ridden a Honda 4, though not for want of trying to get my leg across the saddle of one. I had barely adjusted myself to South Africa before I found myself being lifted up on to a Honda 4 (it is a very big motorcycle), and I was away, the surge of power from the transverse four-cylinder engine being fascinating. The five-speed gearbox was nice and the ratios were good, and screwing it all on and up to 8,000 r.p.m. in the gears it surged forward but not as impressively as I had anticipated. At 85-90 m.p.h. it was beginning to run out of urge, and there was little more to come in the way of acceleration, but speed would build up to 110-115 m.p.h.; it would have to be a good one that would do the anticipated 125 m.p.h. The disc front brake was powerful enough, but there was no self-wrapping effect or servo so it required some muscle-work with the right hand to stop things violently. As a touring machine, suitable for non-motorcyclists, it is undoubtedly ideal, but as a motorcycle it was a disappointment and was too big and too heavy, and like some fast cars it preferred straight lines to corners, showing a marked reluctance to being laid over for bends.

Quite by chance I was able to borrow another exciting Japanese machine soon after the Honda 4, and this was a Kawasaki Mach III 500, that intriguing three-cylinder two-stroke 500-c.c. machine that looks about the size Of a 250-c.c. machine. The first time I saw a Mach III was in Germany last year, and it was the sight of two megaphone silencers on the right and one on the left that caught my attention. It was in traffic going to the Nürgburgring, and when the road cleared we had a bit of a burn-up. I was in the E-type and we had a drag-race up to about 80 or 90 m.p.h., and I was very impressed by this unknown motorcycle. I later found it in the car park and from that day on a ride on one was high on my list of priorities. Thanks to Peter Bosson, an Englishman who has a speed motorcycle shop in Johannesburg, I was able to spend a day on a Kawasaki three-cylinder machine, and what a revelation it was. I am pretty blasé about acceleration, having done many standing-start quarter-miles in under 12 seconds, but this Kawasaki was very impressive on the road. If you took it up to 9,000 r.p.m. in 4th gear and then hooked it smartly up into 5th gear it fairly leapt forward, and 110 m.p.h. came up without really trying or getting flat on the tank. I had been warned that it was best to have it pointing straight if I was going to give it a big handful of throttle, and to keep my weight well forward or I would be riding a mono-wheel. While it was definitely light on the front end, I found this no trouble at all, sprint-bike experience I suppose, and I really enjoyed the liveliness of the handling, it was a real sports motorcycle that seemed to enjoy giving of its best if ridden with the same lively spirit. I think it could easily throw an inexperienced rider on his car and it would probably enjoy doing it. Whereas the Honda 4 was a nice touring machine the Kawasaki was a real motorcycle.

The Sunday before the South African Grand Prix I went to a drag-race meeting near Johannesburg and there must have been half-a-dozen of these Kawasakis competing, all standard road-going bikes. The fastest did the standing quarter-mile in 14.23 sec., but I raised a patriotic cheer when a fully equipped but breathed-on Norton Commando did 13.64 sec. Drag-racing in South Africa is growing, but about two years behind England, so that fastest time was made by a Formula 5000 Lola-Chevrolet V8 in 10.83 sec. Best of the “funny-cars” was a rear-engined type Fiat 500 with the driver sitting where the air-cooled vertical twin engine used to be, and up the front under the scuttle, was a Ford V8 Cobra engine. When it took off it seemed to give a little vertical jump and then it was gone, in 12.80 sec.

This permanent drag-strip, which encouraged spectators to have a go during the interval, was south-east of Johannesburg, beyond the derelict gold mines. Although the town grew up as a result of gold mining, it has now outgrown them and become a busy industrial town, the mining activities having moved to other parts as the ground was bled dry of its valuable ore. All around the south of the town are great mountains of mining deposits, a brilliant yellowy-gold in colour, though authority is insisting that they are covered by grass for they view them as an eyesore. I found them fascinating, but I suppose you would get tired of them if you had to live with them.

Many of the streets in Johannesburg have gold-mining names, such as Nugget Street, Claim Street, Gold Street, and Quartz Street, but when I saw Twist Street I wondered if that was a natural follow-on to the gold rush. Many of the districts have names imported direct from London, such as Hyde Park, Belgravia and South Kensington, and as South Africa drives on the left of the road there is little feeling of being in another country, except for the heat, the preponderance of Japanese vehicles (what is the British Motor Industry up to?), and the leisurely tempo of life compared with similar big towns in Europe. It is fortunate that the tempo of life out here is pretty leisurely, for the South African motorists, both white and black, do not seem to have become conscious of the fact that there is other traffic on the road. Few people seem to dodge to avoid an accident, and cars, buses, vans and lorries just seem to bump gently into each other with little personal injury but a lot of bent tin-ware. It would seem that servicing and maintenance out here is pretty rudimentary for vehicles are always stopping with some mechanical fault and in the most awkward places, so that the overall pace of the traffic is pretty slow by European standards.

Johannesburg has two excellent systems of road identification. First the streets have two names on each corner, one hanging from a post away from buildings, so that you can see it as you approach by car, and then the street name is repeated painted on the kerbstone so that if a van or bus obscures the hanging street name you are looking for, you can cross-cheek by taking a look downwards as you turn a corner. The other road system identification is that all the main roads have numbers, from one to about 28 or 30, and these numbers are displayed on large green boards mounted high up on a post, lamp standards or trees. Below the road number is a letter denoting which direction the road is running, north, south, east or west, and I found this a godsend at night when navigating across town without a map. You arrive out of the back streets at a T-junction on road 24, for example, and one board says 24-E and the other 24-W. It is all so simple and easy, and if you have a map of the town you can pinpoint places so easily by the numbe rsystem. When a friend was looking for the garage where the BRM team were working we merely had to tell him to take 1-N and follow it until it crossed 8-E and 8-W.

Enthusiasm for motor sport (and MOTOR SPORT) is very strong in South Africa, even though it is sparse and spread-out compared with England, but it is obviously growing all the time and racing circuits are beginning to appear in a number of places, so that the South African racing fraternity can plan quite a full season of events, though it means covering some pretty big mileages between circuits. There is quite a strong Vintage and PVT movement out here and I just missed a Sunday-morning gathering at which four Bugattis were among the assembled company; however, I met up with various members and on the Sunday morning after the race went to the prize-giving garden party in a very nice Talbot 105 tourer with Peter Theobald, who is a very keen vintagent as well as being a Steward at the Grand Prix and a founder member of the organising body. The weather was superb for open-air PVT motoring, but you need a tonneau cover over the seats when you leave the car, or you could never sit down again, the sun is very hot. On another morning I called to see A BMW enthusiast who has a Type 319/55 two-seater that he rebuilt from virtual scrap, having found it with a tree growing up through the bonnet and the whole thing having been under water at one time. It took him seven years to rebuild it and since then he has done a big mileage in it, but it still scintillates and the engine compartment was a joy to see, for he has fitted a 328 cylinder head to it. He is in the process of rebuilding a very original 328 BMW that was imported into South Africa in 1939, which belongs to a friend of his, and while we sat in the sun talking BMW and the forthcoming Grand Prix various friends and neighbours joined us. In the conversation there was a certain amount of leg-pulling about not taking seven years to rebuild the 328, because Al Gibson is a meticulous engineer and a craftsman to whom perfection is only just good enough. When he told me about some of the parts he had made for his Type 319 during the rebuild it was almost unbelievable; things like the chrome bezels on the instruments, and the bodies for the carburetter air-filters, for example, which he turned up on his lathe. He also had the engine and gearbox from a 1911 Hupmobile in his workshop, undergoing an overhaul, and a four-cylinder Porsche Carrera engine, which showed a nice touch of versatility.

In the workshop of the fellow who lent me the Kawasaki III a vintage AJS motorcycle engine was having an overhaul ready for a new event next month. There used to be a motorcycle race from Johannesburg to Durban, some 400 miles, on the open roads, which was still being run as late as 1936. The ideal vintage movement are holding a commemoration run, restricted to bikes up to 1936, and enthusiasm is running high for this event, even though it will now be on good tarmac roads instead of the original dirt roads.

There are two official languages in South Africa, English and Afrikaans, so that all notices and signs are put up in both languages. I was amused to see that Afrikaans for road or carriageway is PAD, a very different connotation to our use of the word PAD in present-day slang where we refer to a house or home. Consequently to see signs reading PAD closed, or PAD being built was rather funny, but it was just too much when I joined a dual-carriageway and the Afrikaans sign said DUBBEL PAD.

While I did not see much of South Africa during my stay, I did learn about Johannesburg and the surrounding districts, and what I saw I liked very much. I feel that South Africa is a country that I shall have to explore and get to know like I know Europe, but for the time being it is back to the European rounds, to old friends and familiar circuits.

Yours, D. S. J.

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