South Africa is a young (though rapidly expanding) country of vast distances and sparse population, hence, not unnaturally, the American car reigns supreme for everyday use. It has, however, recently been seriously challenged, both in the towns and for cross-country travel, by the popular English cars of 1-2-litre size, on account of their recently much improved suspension systems, their low running costs, and the exorbitant price and scarcity of new American models.
In spite of the above statement, which holds true for perhaps 95 per cent of road users in South Africa, there exists still, albeit scattered in the various big centres (often a thousand miles or more apart), a small band of enthusiasts who manage to keep the various aspects of motor sport alive.
As far as out and out racing itself is concerned, prospective competitors are handicapped first by a scarcity of suitable cars, not to mention incredible difficulties in obtaining spares or really satisfactory machine shop service when these are required. As a result all races are conducted on the individual handicap system, the only possible way of attracting maximum entries for each event. The racing cars themselves run to three types. There predominate “stripped” MGs, often slightly tuned, and these cars have proved to be outstandingly reliable in use, hence the next step has been taken in some cases, and single-seat bodies fitted. The really outstanding example of a purpose-built MG is that of Frank Brodie, most experienced and most consistently successful of local drivers. This car is always immaculately turned out, has a professionally built body shell, and is really potent. Although exact comparisons are not possible, it is believed that this car is as fast as any of’ the more famed “TC”-base cars that appear in English competition motoring. Other MGs do not quite reach this high standard.
The second large group of racing cars are “home-brewed” specials. American engines used to predominate here, but have gradually fallen from popularity, and now quite successful specials are raced based on, for example, Fiat 1,100 components, Citroen, A40, and other medium-size units. Again the standard both of construction and performance varies, but the very best is in every case felt to be up to the best “overseas” standard.
Finally (and again these vary in their condition and “originality”), there are small numbers of pukka racing cars that have, by one means or another, come out to the Union. Thus one of the finest Bugatti collections in the world, both by its variety and by reason of the exceptional way in which it is maintained, is that belonging to Geoffrey “Tiny” Hindle, comprising a GP “3.3 ” car, a Type 51 and a Type 37. These cars, however, are not regularly raced, and in view of the spares position one must sympathise with the owner, who does not care to risk what represents the culmination of years of careful restoration work in the arduous and risky business of racing. It is true, nevertheless, that for this reason many suitable cars are not raced that would be great attractions on the local circuits.
Maseratis, the evergreen Rileys, and one or two other cars that have been built for racing, do still appear. however, and when, as sometimes happens, their engines suffer extensive blow-ups, then after a few months they appear again as (I quote from examples), Bug-Ford V8, Maserati-Chevrolet, and Graham-Talbot. Though some may deplore this “sacrilege,” yet it preserves for further use cars which would otherwise be complete writeoffs in the circumstances.
There is one “early English perpendicular” ERA in active use here, and it is a striking commentary on the sport in South Africa that this, the fastest car raced here, would be one of the very slowest in European GP racing.
A new trend has been seen recently. though, with the importation (by devious channels) of one or two Coopers, and this is a move which it is believed will find increasing popularity in the future.
Difficult as is the position with regard to racing, the sports-car world is just as barren. MGs sell well, deservedly so, and find a ready market secondhand, for demand exceeds supply. They are the only English sports cars seen in any numbers. Allard, Jaguar and such like vehicles have come in only “by accident,” as it were, and although the very occasional example is a crowd stopper whenever parked, yet the sad scarcity of such cars deprives enthusiasts of ever seeing them in action. One of these days currency restrictions may be eased, and then perhaps more will be bought. Meanwhile, in the adjacent territory of Southern Rhodesia some few of these cars are being imported, and may in time find their way into the Union.
Finally the cult of the vintage survives among a dwindling, though fanatically keen, minority of motor enthusiasts. All the difficulties of spares and maintenance apply with equal force to these folk, and even the incentive of cheapness does not apply as in England, for the initial cost of a good vintage Bentley, Vauxhall or Sunbeam will run to two or three hundred pounds, and even then there is often more to be spent on the car. “Rough” versions of the same will still fetch a hundred pounds or more, and a fortune in loving care can he poured into the task of restoration, and it is only a labour of love, for a good post-war popular car can be bought for the same £200-£300 (English 10 hp.) or for £300-£400 (American). Even a modest hundred pounds will buy rather rough 1938-40 models, big or small.
In spite of the economics of vintage motoring proving so bleak, it is both a surprise and a pleasure to see the occasional Bentley (quite a few “Red Label” 3-litres and “4..s “), and the rather rare “80/98,” or “twin-cam “Beam,” some of which are in active use. It is quite amazing the grip which the Bentley, in particular, has upon the cult here, and a rare, beautifully kept 8-litre, an even rarer “blower 41/2,” and the famous, one off Baker-Carr, Brooklands. car “Smokey,” have all found their way to South Africa.
This then is the picture of the enthusiasts’ motoring in South Africa, and when one remembers that trips to watch a motor race, or to compete in it, represent often a thousand-mile return journey (sometimes twice as far) over the course of a weekend or a day or two longer, and when in addition our vintage friends persist in using their mid-‘twenties models for this purpose (no prospect of obtaining a spare of any sort should trouble intervene here !), then you will know that, small though they are in numbers, the little band makes up in keenness what it lacks in convenience and amenities.