A veteran collector in South Africa

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One good effect which the war has had is that of enabling us to learn something of the enthusiasm that prevails overseas for real motor-cars, in countries and continents where conditions are less nostalgic than they are here. In the article which follows, Jeffs Watson, of Johannesburg, describes his collection of ten veteran cars which he has got together. Incidentally, it may interest German spies to know that his MSS. arrived safely on twelve separate airgraphs during the height of the African campaign. In view of the increasing interest in veteran motoring in this country and the number of persons now preparing or preserving such cars for after-the-war events, Mr. Watson’s remarks will be read with interest. It is significant that he reckons to have saved one-third of Africa’s pre-1914 cars, whereas over here we have over 180 pre-1905 cars alone registered with the Veteran Car Club. – Ed.

At the outset I must ask English readers accustomed to the glut of veteran cars which appears to be an inherent part of English motoring, to realise that in South Africa there were relatively few cars before the Great War and there are certainly very few of those now left – still fewer in any condition which would justify their forming the subject of an article. To the best of my knowledge the pre-war cars still “alive” in South Africa number less than thirty, of which I propose to write concerning my “First X.”

During the Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg in 1936, a local newspaper, The Sunday Express, decided to organise a race for cars at least twenty years old, to be held on October 3rd. The route, a total of about 35 miles, was to be from Johannesburg to Boksburg and thence back to Johannesburg via Germiston, the finish to be in the Empire Exhibition grounds. My brother and I heard of the race one afternoon, and simultaneously of the existence of a Ford “T” touring car old enough to enter. The owners of the car, two enthusiastic young people, were prepared to loan the car, but later decided to enter it themselves. On this sad blow my brother and I started a hike through Johannesburg in an unsuccessful effort to locate a veteran. Eventually we heard through a friendly scrap dealer of the existence of a Mrs. Engel in Turffontein who had some old cars. We rushed out there immediately, and in a large garage met a fantastic pair of cars, one a large red touring Italian “Diatto a Clement,” and the other a light American Metz 2-seater, both cars perfectly preserved, having been under cover and very little used. We were, however, badly disappointed to discover that Mrs. Engel, whose husband had imported the cars before the Great War, was reconditioning them for the race herself, the Metz, in fact, to be driven by her daughter, a university student. Seeing our disappointment, however, she offered to contact another daughter, a Mrs. Slabbert, of Krugersdorp, to whom they had given a sister Metz some years previously.

Some telephoning elicited the information that this second Metz existed still, but had been abandoned to the elements in a field about three years previously.

A visit to Krugersdorp followed, and to our horror we found a rusty chassis, bonnet and engine, and not much else. However, we had gone too far to feel like giving up, so we arranged to obtain equipment and tow the car in the odd twenty-two miles or so, in very cold weather, with the feeling that it was unlikely that the chassis would stand up to the journey. My costume consisted of an overcoat and various improvised mufflers, one carefully arranged to enable me to breathe the horribly cold air. A flash-light provided illumination of a sort, and so we brought home our first veteran – a Metz of 1913 vintage, engine No. 29196, a “doorless” 2-seater with a 4-cylinder rather conventional engine, but with friction gearing beneath the seat, embodying a differential in the transverse shaft, and with a double chain drive to the rear wheels. The friction wheel had rusted securely to its shaft, and required the help of a blow-lamp to produce the much-needed sliding action which varied the ratios. We were interested to discover when the engine had been dismantled that the gudgeon pins were held in position and their ends separated from the cylinder walls by a piston ring about 3/4 in. wide.

A thorough reconditioning followed, rather crude in so far as bodywork was concerned, since the seats had disappeared and had to be replaced by a pair of Austin Seven bucket seats.

The great day of Mitzi’s maiden voyage dawned, and my brother and I set off through Greenside to carry out tests, I on Mitzi and he playing “equipe” car in my 1934 Austin Seven saloon. Having frightened myself thoroughly with the controls, which were very unusual, we cleared the congested area. The clutch was engaged when pressed down, being held by a ratchet arrangement and was disengaged by being kicked downwards with the heel to release the ratchet. To its right was the foot brake, also complete with a similar ratchet affair, while in the centre of the floor-board was a further foot pedal operating a transmission brake. A hand throttle was added for good measure. There loomed my first hill, and I opened up, to find a few minutes later that the Austin was completely out of sight. This was most reassuring, although somewhat damped on the return journey by the wearing away of the friction surface on our old friend the sliding wheel. This brought about the first of a number of relining experiments, brake lining proving quite satisfactory if held on with enough countersunk wood screws. It also became apparent that the brakes, even when both pedals were used simultaneously, were far from efficient. Mitzi on the road was quite docile up to about 25 m.p.h., but from there upwards displayed a remarkable aptitude for hopping from kerb to kerb with little regard for the driver’s best efforts at restraint, or, for that matter, any other user’s ideas as to his rights.

The day of the race dawned and we set off, the trip being punctuated by the feminine costume which my brother had donned for the day, becoming entangled with the drive-shaft. He was fortunately wearing football shorts as well, since after he had been cut loose, the skirt was present as far as a “hello” went, but very absent as to a “goodbye.” After rather a hectic trip back through Johannesburg’s Saturday afternoon traffic we finished fourth behind the sister Metz. This impressive result was due to incredibly bad handicapping and arrangements generally.

After this effort Mitzi came home with us and provided amusement at odd weekends, her acceleration on more than one occasion proving superior to moderns, to the horror of their owners. One of her best stunts was to start from cold on two swings in an incredibly effortless fashion.

Mitzi’s next public appearance came on a Sunday, November 21st, 1937, when the Junior Car Club held a sporting event at the Howe Circuit which included 60 minutes on the Circuit at exactly 30 miles per hour, a modification of the normal reliability trial idea. I entered Mitzi, who suffered from fuel starvation, managed about 27 miles, and gave a lot of fun to all and sundry, including some plutocratic citizens who sat in and on a S.S. 100 drinking beer while doing their 30 m.p.h. with enviable ease.

Incidentally I discovered that completely undamped fully elliptic springing was a lot of fun when given a chance to play with bumps at speed. I’ve seldom slept better than I did that night!

Mitzi subsequently made another appearance on the Howe Circuit when the J.C.C. ran a veterans’ race as a light interlude to a day’s serious racing. On this occasion a spring steel strip on the flywheel snapped at full speed, neatly severing the throttle control, so that my passenger had to lie alongside the engine and work the carburetter butterfly by hand. It is fortunate that he was too busily engaged to notice our pace.

My only veteran remained Mitzi until 1939, when a friend of mine came into my office with the news that he had seen “the oldest car in the world” on a Main Street scrap heap. I scoffed at the idea, having scoured the scrap dealers pretty thoroughly. A visit, however, showed the car to be no other than a 2-seater German Adler of about 1909 vintage.

Protracted negotiations ended in the car becoming mine in August, 1939, for the sum of £4 10s. She was in very bad condition as far as bodywork went, having spent about thirteen years in the open. I arranged with some cartage people to tackle the by no means simple job of getting the car down off a ten-foot high heap of second-hand piping and on to the truck. The feat was eventually achieved over the summit of the corrugated iron fence, the car being gradually levered down and finally run down a sort of improvised slipway. I warned the cartage men that the affair would finish up with a wild rush, which duly happened, the cab of the truck providing quite a fair buffer.

After a certain amount of cleaning up the engine started, but ran erratically, and seemed to indicate the need for a major overhaul, which was commenced. Simultaneously the bodywork was attacked and with the aid of a good Hollander carpenter, was made rather more presentable. A great deal of new timber and plywood had to be used, and the job at the present time is far from complete although proceeding slowly. The Adler’s engine is No. 3490K and is quite straightforward and in line with the design of that time – a 4-cylinder, non-detachable head, originally twin-ignition – plugs, magneto and coil, of which the latter had been discarded. The gearbox is a four-speed job with gate change outside the dummy right door. Beneath the usual massive brass radiator hangs a still legible number plate bearing the Germiston number TG 254. Among its more interesting points can be numbered a camshaft with separate cams individually screwed on, and a genuine Stepney wheel – well rusted. The Adler’s arrival did much to promote family interest in veterans, and many wildgoose chases followed.

One fortunate day I mentioned a trip in search of a model “T” Ford, to Tiny Hindle the Bugatti enthusiast, who staggered me by saying that his nextdoor neighbour in Sandown, a Mr. Rheinold, had a veteran standing in a shed, which seemed to him worth while investigating.

A quick trip out revealed a 1911 G.W.K., TJ 2745, which was added in August, 1940, to the stable at a cost of £2. She is a light English rear-engined 2-cylinder, 2-seater, Type “B”, chassis No. 60, made by G.K.W. Limited, (Grice, Wood & Keller), Home Works, Datchet, Bucks. The engine is an 8.6-h.p. twin, set across the chassis, its flywheel providing one surface for a friction gear, which drives an offset propeller shaft to a spur gear differential, and a very pretty piece of rear axle – much beautiful aluminium. The car was dirty and rather weather-beaten in spite of being under cover, but it was obviously worth an effort, so I arranged with a fellow enthusiast to obtain, legally or otherwise, a builder’s truck belonging to his firm. The G.W.K. was duly loaded and we set off for home, the car swaying happily on its springs and occasionally lurching forward as the Diamond “T” braked too hard. Once home and safely off-loaded we set about trying to get the engine going: in spite of more water than oil in the sump, she started, but knocked rather a bit, so once again I felt a “teardown” called for.

Most of the bits were in fair condition, but the crank-case needed a great deal of welding as there were signs that a connecting rod had been unduly curious to see the outer world. The case was turned over to one of our local wizards known far and wide as “Juno,” who did some commendable patching. The crankshaft ran in two large ball-bearings which I replaced as they appeared somewhat loose. I also replaced the camshaft drive and magneto drive chains which were slack. I noticed the rear axle felt a bit stiff, so opened up, to gaze in horror on a pinion minus about 1 1/2 teeth, and a crown-wheel with two cracks in it. These were promptly hurried into Juno’s care, and more careful welding done. On my rebuilding the axle, it turned perfectly freely and without noise, which was a great relief.

Turning to the front end, I found that if the car were raised on a jack the wheels feel inwards a couple of inches. Here again Juno’s magic came into evidence, and I had both stubs built up at the points where the wheel bearings ran and where the kingpins passed through.

In between these major operations much sandpapering and repainting was proceeding, and finally, with two of her original tyres on the front wheels, the G.W.K. was tried out. This voyage introduced me to the sump arrangement, which was common practice in those days, in which only about one-half pint or so was left in the engine at a time, more oil being pumped in every mile or so.

My first half-mile looked much more like a destroyer laying a smoke-screen! Handling the G.K.W. is at once unusual and pleasant in the extreme. The clutch pedal disengages the friction drive when depressed, the drive being kept engaged by a spring. The “gear-change” is a right-hand lever in a progressive gate giving four forward positions, neutral and reverse. Her handling is, however, complicated by a Bowden controlled air-valve at the driver’s right hand which has to be opened and closed more or less as the throttle is varied. Failure to co-ordinate results in either an over-rich mixture at any appreciable throttle opening, or a stall when the throttle is closed. The clutch pedal also actuates a transmission brake when fully depressed, there being no separate brake pedal. The hand-brake is, of course, outside the body against the dummy right door, and works on the rear wheel drums. The steering is light, high geared and accurate and makes the car very pleasant to handle. The stubby bonnet, of course, provides merely sufficient foot-room for the front compartment, while behind the driver is the unmistakable “putter putter” of a side-by-side twin, which gradually becomes a soft clank when one has absent-mindedly forgotten to pump any oil for a mile or so!

The G.W.K.’s performance as regards hill-climbing is quite good, being from what I can recall about equal to that of the 1934 Four-speed Austin Seven sedan, which I mentioned earlier.

While these operations were progressing I had been keeping a watch on another ex-Engel Metz then owned by E. G. Williamson’s garage, painted red, named “Fire Chief” and used as a decoy in their showroom. The firm eventually went out of business and through the good offices of one, Bernard Cronin, “Fire Chief” became mine for £4, in March, 1941. Her specifications are exactly the same as Mitzi except that the bodywork is very complete and includes a hood and windscreen, the latter a large American cloth affair with celluloid window. The engine number is 28835. The car has remained “Fire Chief” and has an astonishing turn of speed in the region of 55 m.p.h. Her brakes at the moment do not stand up to more than 5 m.p.h. with any consideration for the public! Her condition is so good that the only other item needing any attention is the friction wheel which suffers from a flat spa. I have never quite discovered the reason but “Fire Chief” possesses amazing compression which is quite apt to catch out an unwary would-be “cranker ” who finds himself unable to pull “over-compression.”

A trip to Port Elizabeth had resulted in my meeting a magnificent veteran in the shape of a 1911 Model “T” Ford 2-seater owned by Mr. P. J. Landman, whose daily transport it had been up to the end of 1936, when the authorities objected to re-licensing on the grounds that she had only two-wheel brakes. My efforts at the time to add her to my stable were not successful, but in October, 1941, following gentle pressure from time to time by Harold Clark, of our Port Elizabeth branch, Mr. Landman weakened and gave me the car. With the assistance of the S.A. Railways, “Mrs. Grundy” made the 600 odd mile journey here safely, a black 2-seater, about the first model with front doors, much brass work, registration CAB 3. She had been bought by Mr. Landman, Senior, and remained in his family until she passed into my care. The engine is the famous Model “T” 4-cylinder 22.5 h.p., No. 87448, epicyclic gearing, foot control to the gears and hand throttle. Her handling of any hill is masterful in the extreme, and she appears to get up into the 40-50 m.p.h. region in most effortless fashion. I had only to do a certain amount of polishing up and cleaning of the carburetter before she could be used. Actually I have since discovered that the rear axle emits some rather distressing growls on over-run and I am now planning a close investigation. An astonishing feature is a rear exposed cylindrical fuel-tank with a capacity of no less than twelve gallons. Her epicyclic gearing is, of course, a most satisfying affair – the technique for getaway being to tread hard with left foot and yank the throttle. The resultant roar is music!

After the G.W.K. and Ford had been put on their wheels, I was asked to assist a “War Fund” Show, which meant a journey of about seven miles across the city. I drove the G.W.K. and Bernard Cronin the Ford. We proceeded in fairly orderly fashion, much comment from all and sundry attending our passing. At our destination the event was to be a triangular race of a few laps round a midget car track, the third car being Tommy Ellis’s 1910 Flanders. I had, of course, arranged that the first lap or two would be “pulled,” to put up an interesting show from the point of view of the public, but it was not long before it developed into a flat-out race, the Ford winning comfortably with the G.W.K. a gallant third, her 8.6 horses having done the best they could.

About this period I had been making some efforts aided by my father to get possession of Mr. Charles Whitehead’s 1898 Albion Dogcart. He would not part with the car, but gave the name of a Mr. Wood, of Maritzburg, who had a steam Toledo of about the same age. Unknown to me, my father entered into negotiations with Mr. Wood, and with the assistance of our Durban manager, Freddie Mathews, the car was sent up “on indefinite loan.”

The Toledo arrived here in February, 1942, a buggy type outfit with tiller steering, single-tube tyres, boiler under the seat, more cocks and taps than one could ever credit, and a twin-cylinder engine driving a central chain to the rear axle. I have in mind the idea of trying to save the tyres by injecting raw rubber to seal the numerous indications of porosity, but how successful this will be remains to be seen. It would be a pity to discard the single-tube tyres, as they are naturally irreplaceable.

I have not made any appreciable headway in getting the car running, partly on account of great ignorance of steam arrangements and partly as my efforts are confined to week-ends, shipping keeping me fully occupied at other times. A contemporary handbook, however, has a great deal of data on this car and similar light steamers of the period, such as the Locomobile, which it resembles closely, so there is every likelihood that the resurrection will be achieved some fine day. I have in the interval been dosing the leather hood with neatsfoot oil in the hope of softening it sufficiently to avoid complete replacement. Incidentally, I may mention that these steamers averaged about 7 m.p.g. on petrol and about 1 m.p.g. on water, so that any ideas of being useful under petrol rationing conditions are optimistic in the extreme!

In the scouring of city’s scrapyards for beaded-edge tyres I encountered a dealer called Goosen who reported two old cars in Pretoria. Investigation revealed these to be two twin-cylinder Renault 2-seaters in appalling condition, lying out in the open, where they had almost taken root. They had been the property of a Dr. Koch, and were sister cars, although there was a difference in age of about two years. I could not resist, and in February, 1942, for £6 10s., became their proud owner. The one was TP 215, a 1909/1910 model, type AX, chassis 17825, made by Renault Freres, 15, Rue Gustave, Billancourt (Seine), France. The bodywork was almost non-existent, but the engine and gear-box had been removed presumably for repairs which had not been carried out; one front wheel had also yielded to some over vigourous cornering.

The other car is TP 323, a 1910/1911 model, also type AX, chassis 25182, complete in all respects including hood, but in a very badly weatherbeaten state. Both cars have an interesting looking drip-feed arrangement as their sole dashboard “ornament.”

A problem here arose in that about 38 miles separated my home from the cars. However, I did some scrounging and finished up with permission to use a mattress merchant’s flat truck which was taking a load to Pretoria and was due to return empty. I met the truck in Pretoria, went out to the site, and started the job of loading. I found to my horror that the cars were about 3 to 4 ft. longer than the width of the truck, and a great deal heavier than I had thought. However, by much heaving and bribing of passing native boys, we managed the loading. The cars lay side by side across the truck with about 1 ft. 6 in. or so overhanging on each side! When I viewed the outfit loaded I had visions of long years behind bars. It was too late to change plans, however, so we set off by back roads to dodge the gendarmes; a steady drizzle did its best to make matters more cheery, but we survived the trip and got the cars home. I have not done much towards rebuilding, but am quite confident about the better of the two cars, although I foresee a great deal of labour before the other car is likely to run. Incidentally, the “complete” car produces a fair spark if cranked energetically enough. Cranking in itself is a feat, as the compression is very much present. The plan of the car is a 2-cylinder in-line engine leading into a “progressive gate” gearbox. The famous Renault bonnet covers the works, followed by a typical rear-mounted radiator, and a 2-seater body with a hood but no doors or windscreen. The car has its tyres and tubes still mounted, but time and weather have done them little good. The weight of aluminium between engines, gearbox and rear axle must be incredible and gives the car a very Grand Prix sort of look (in spots!).

A chance encounter one Sunday at tennis led my father off on the trail of a 1912 Humberette Twin, then the property of Natal Motor Industries, the Humber agents in Durban. They had intended to use the car for advertising purposes, but abandoned the project. The car was bought for £10 in April, 1942, and railed up to Johannesburg. “Hubert” is a neat 2-seater air-cooled twin, made by Humber Ltd., Coventry, with conventional gearbox (progressive gate) in good general condition, but rather neglected and needing a windscreen repair. Registration is NDE 27, engine E6442, car No. E6443. The engine will start from cold on two swings of the crank, day or night. The gearbox appears to need attention, one or two gears feeling very vague, but the car generally is rather intriguing and has great possibilities. A large Air Force friend of mine took “Hubert” out for a run, and returned with the gearshift lever held aloft. However, he was forgiven, as an obvious bit of bad brazing had been the cause and not mere ham-handedness.

After the Humber episode the year passed off without further additions to the stable, although much fruitless investigation was carried out. However, 1943 started out by the acquisition in January of a 1910 Fiat touring car with flush-sided torpedo body, which I had met in 1936 in the Sunday Express race, driven by Peggy Shepherd. The car had retired to Sandhurst, where it lay under a shed on Mr. D. J. Grant’s place. In exchange for a £7 cycle, to be given to an old native retainer, the car became mine. The intention was to drive her home, but a leaky water pump and a sump full of water necessitated a tow. The car, TBE5, is a Fiat, engine No. 13432, made by Fiat, Torina, Italy. General condition could hardly be better, the engine starts with a swing and tyres are astonishingly good. The wheels are not original, having been altered at some later date by someone who could appreciate the convenience of the Sankey “steel detachable.” Electric lighting has been added and the fuel system changed from pressure feed to vacuum, a piece of vandalism to be done away with if it is possible to get the pressure system working again.

I have since done quite a bit of cleaning and polishing, and readjusting of mixture; a longish run was made only a week-end or two ago with every evidence that “Edward” was enjoying the run as much as his passengers.

The clutch, a cone affair, is one of the smoothest operating one could ever wish to find, although it resents overmuch slipping and revving. The gearbox is perfect, each gear buzzing pleasantly and completely smoothly, a pause of about 5 to 10 seconds in between changes appearing to suit the scheme of things admirably. Her hill climbing is very satisfying, although acceleration is slow. The engine seems to pull steadily at what seems ahout 100 r.p.m., each power impulse thoroughly audible and able to be felt.

This is a record of the “First X,” quite likely to extend further with favourable luck, but at the moment providing a major headache in finding accommodation for so large a family without encroaching on the “spare bedroom.”

I have, however, found with the passing of years that people who can really appreciate a veteran are very few and far separated. Conments vary from opinions that mental decay has set in, through friendly tolerance to appreciation by an isolated few, but I am continuing undeterred and in the hope that one day a band of veteran enthusiasts and collectors will exist out here, as it does in England, Europe and America.

I would be grateful if any readers of this article who may be acquainted with any of the types of cars mentioned would write giving me any information they may have at their disposal. I would also be glad to hear from any veteran collectors who have the energy to put pen to paper.

I would finally mention that if any fellow enthusiast sees this article and is in Johannesburg, I would be more than happy to meet him (or her!). My name and address are unmistakable in the Johannesburg Telephone Directory.