A handful of dust

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There is some talk of a new street rating circuit in Cape Town. If it happens, it will be far removed in character from the region’s old Pollsmoor track, scene of the 1937 Grosvenor Grand Prix…

South Africa’s 21 post-war Grands Prix counting towards the world championship – three at East London and 18 at Kyalami – have been well documented. What is less well known is that a trek by pre-war racing drivers to the southernmost tip of Africa started as early as 1934, for it was on December 27 of that year that the first South African Grand Prix was staged at East London.

The inaugural race was won by an 8CM Maserati driven by Whitney Straight. A huge success, it was followed by four further Grands Prix at East London in 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1939; three at Cape Town’s Pollsmoor circuit in 1937, 1938 and 1939; and two, both in 1937, at the Lord Howe circuit near Johannesburg.

The 1937 Grosvenor Grand Prix held at Cape Town’s Pollsmoor circuit captured the imagination of that city’s motoring enthusiasts, for eight British and continental stars including Ernst von Delius and Bernd Rosemeyer in their awesome Auto-Unions arrived in that fair city to do battle on the newly constructed circuit set in the heart of Cape Town’s elite Constantia wine growing region.

Even though there has been speculation that a future South African Grand Prix might take place on a new street circuit in Cape Town’s waterfront development, the notion of a contemporary race occurring on a circuit barely three kilometres from the historic Groot Constantia homestead would today be unthinkable. The Cape Town city fathers would not allow it and the residents in the vicinity would be up in arms about the noise and congestion.

However, this was certainly not the case on January 16 1937, when the Grosvenor Grand Prix was staged at the Pollsmoor circuit, 17 km SSE from the centre of Cape Town. In those years, the name Pollsmoor may have had romantic connotations but its present day image is more sinister in that the track is the site of Cape Town’s main prison, a choice of location (alongside Constantia’s vineyards) which has puzzled local citizens for years. Of particular interest right now is the fact that newly-elected South African President, Nelson Mandela, spent part of his 27-year prison sentence incarcerated at Pollsmoor in a cell 100 metres from the old start/finish line.

The Grand Prix was the brainchild of British tycoon, Mr AO Edwards known to friends and colleagues simply as ‘AO’.

Edwards, chairman of London’s Grosvenor Hotel, had extended his business interests to South Africa and founded Grosvenor Motors (a Ford dealership) in Cape Town; Dominion Motors in East London: and a finance company in Cape Town, known as the Union Dominion Trust Ltd. His property portfolio included blocks of flats, factories and warehouses in the Cape Peninsula. His Cape Town headquarters were at Union House, Queen Victoria Street, and it was from there that the Grand Prix was planned.

Edwards appointed two local men to organise and plan the circuit and the event Frank Robb and Dave McKnight. Robb was to be general manager and legal adviser while McKnight, a former city council roads engineer who had become Edwards’ property supervisor, was given the task of designing the circuit and liaising with the contractor. Dr Frank Robb would later become chairman of the Royal Automobile Club of South Africa, a position he held for many years.

A local contractor, Owen Wells-Jones, was awarded the tender to build the circuit and the venture was apparently set in motion when Edwards, who was in London at the time, telephoned Wells-Jones and asked: ”Can you build me a motor racing circuit?”

Wells-Jones responded in the affirmative.

“Then start at once,” came the reply. And so began a hectic race against time to build a circuit capable of hosting an international Grand Prix.

However, a great deal of time and energy had already been expended in finding a suitable location and an area at Steenberg seemed to fulfil all criteria. It was close to the centre of Cape Town and offered no great constructional difficulties; it was bound by mountains on one side, by the ancient vineyards of Constantia on another, and by the blue oceans of False Bay on another: a dramatic setting indeed.

Within a week of Edwards’ call, work started at Pollsmoor. The whole area was covered in sand dunes, wattle and pine, but it did not take long for a team of 500 men and a fleet of graders and trucks, working day and night, to clear the site.

A circuit plan, drawn by McKnight and sent to Edwards in England, was returned with only a few minor amendments. Work on the track commenced in earnest.

Twenty-five thousand tons of stones of uniform size were packed to form the base, which was covered by 7600 cubic metres of gravel. Steamrollers toiled for days to prepare a level surface that would take speeds of up to 320 kph.

Built in less than six months, Wells Jones’s masterpiece was 8.3 metres wide on the straights and up to 15.2 metres wide in the corners. A 12-metre wide run-off area surrounded the circuit. An innovation was a spectator belt between nine and 24 metres wide, sloping up from the run-off strips. This absorbed a further 100,000 tons of earth, and a grandstand was also constructed. The track itself cost £25,000, but the whole project sucked up £70,000.

The Pollsrnoor circuit was 7.56 km long and consisted of four straights running in parallel, bound at either end by a series of tight bends, providing an ideal spectacle for viewers. A punishing course, it allowed speeds close to 320 kph along the straights but no more than 50 kph through the hairpin bends.

At least 100,000 spectators could be accommodated and car parks were designed to house almost as many cars as were registered in Cape Town at the time. Approach roads alone required 17 km of construction work and 16 km of wire fencing was erected.

The nearby Steenberg railway station, previously insignificant, had its moment of glory on that day in January. It became the most important station in the Cape when South African Railways ran a 10-minute service throughout the day to cater for the expected rush.

Entries for the Grosvenor Grand Prix were received from eight overseas and 10 local drivers. The two most exciting entries were the sleek, 16-cylinder, rear-engined Auto-Unions driven by Bernd Rosemeyer, then the reigning European Champion (the equivalent of world champion), and Ernst von Delius. Rosemeyer was flown to the event by his wife, the famous airwoman Elly Bein horn.

From the 19 entrants, there were four withdrawals — George Anderson, Vernon Berrange, Hooper in Earl Howe’s 3.3 Bugatti and Ralph Rohr. The latter had been entered in Mario Massacuratti’s Eagle Racing Stable Bugatti, but the car was in poor condition. Together with lifelong friend Louis Duffett (former competitions manager of the RAC and later the AA), Roht tried in vain to sort out the Bugatti during practice. There were disagreements about certain modifications and, following a sleepless night before the race, Rohr thought it wise not to tempt fate and withdrew his entry.

Known to all simply as ‘Mario’, the ebullient Italian immigrant and civil engineer Dr Mario Massacuratti was a largerthan-life character who owned the Eagle Racing Stable (ERS) attached to a service station close to the circuit, An advertisement in the race programme described ERS as “importers and suppliers of racing cars, racing tyres, racing plugs and racing fuels.” It also offered “racing tuition given by experts.”

Mario imported five racing cars, two Bugattis, two Maseratis and an Alfa Romeo. Four of these were entered for the Grand Prix: his own Maserati (a notoriously difficult car to handle, and which killed Tex Kingon many years later during a 1950s East London Grand Prix); an Alfa Romeo for Roderick; and Bugattis for Rohr and Bothner.

When war broke out legend has it that Mario escaped over the border to Mozambique after a high speed chase in a 4.5-litre Bentley rather than face a lengthy period of internment in South Africa. Apparently Mario visited South Africa during the 1970s and brought out a sleek new Maserati coupe for the trip.

Race day dawned fine but gusty as the 15 entrants prepared to do battle over a distance of 335,5 km 45 laps of the circuit. A substantial programme which sold for one shilling contained some interesting advertisements, among them one for an Austin Cambridge Ten saloon from F Robb & Co for £175; tents from the SA Canvas Co for five guineas; a double room and private bathroom from 31s/6d in one of London’s best hotels, the Grosvenor House in Park Lane; and an offer from A&A Reed of Cape Town for DKW Wonder Cars, ‘Brothers of the Racing Auto-Unions’, for £197/10s.

Stanley Reed, son of one A Reed and nephew of the other, whom many Cape Townians remember for his multiple victories in his rear-engined, Auto-Union inspired Citroen special during the 1950s, vividly recalls sitting in one of the Auto-Unions as a teenager when the cars were on display in the showroom of the family business prior to the race. He also recalls how easy it was to roll the Auto-Unions across the floor because of their hard rubber racing tyres.

The organisers had arranged to send off each starter with his own national flag and the Auto-Unions with a flag bearing the the Swastika. First away was Neville Clayton’s MG as the South African flag fell at 14.30. The rest of the field roared off at the predetermined intervals and, 39m 40s later, the silver Auto-Union of scratchman Bernd Rosemeyer howled off the line in hot pursuit. When Rosemeyer started Clayton had already completed nine laps, van Riet and Chiappini eight each.

Auto-Union race boss Baron von Oertzen’s strategy was that Rosemeyer should save his tyres and minimise wheel changes while von Delius was ordered to go flat out and to change tyres as often as he was flagged in. After 10 laps Rosemeyer was flagged in but ignored the signal and shot past the pits at 290 kph.

When he finally came into the pits after 16 laps his wheels were changed and he was refuelled in 41s. Off again, he proceeded to lap at 132 kph, even though he found it difficult to breathe in the dusty and windy conditions, due to an earlier tonsilectomy.

In the meantime, Duggie van Riet had taken the lead on handicap and Mario’s Maserati had retired with cooling problems. Kay Petre and Hans Ruesch were both easily holding their respective positions.

On the 34th lap van Riet lost the lead to Earl Howe’s ERA and the order was then von Delius, Chiappini, Fairfield, Petre, Ruesch and Rosemeyer. On the 40th lap, Howe who was then leading by 0.8 km, pulled into the pits for a plug change to the dismay of the crowd who expected von Delius to dash into the lead. But he too pulled in for a tyre change and to take on more fuel. The English aristocrat got away first, only to be reeled in by the German on the next lap.

In the meantime, Ruesch – who had delayed a tyre change – suffered a blow out coming out of Mac’s Waggle, the first lefthand bend after the start and finish line, named after Dave McKnight and still visible today. Undaunted, he continued to the pits at undiminished speed. When von Delius passed Earl Howe on his way to victory, Rosemeyer was a short distance behind, driving like a man possessed. With one lap to go he was rapidly catching the ERA and just managed to snatch second place by a mere 10s, setting the fastest lap of the day in 3m 14.1s. It was indeed a thrilling finish and the crowds broke the barriers to mob the exhausted drivers, causing Roderick to be flagged off with four laps to run.

Von Delius had covered the course in 2h 31m 39s at an average speed of 129.3 kph and Rosemeyer’s time was 2h 31m 14s an average of 129.6 kph. Had they started together, Rosemeyer would have won by 25 seconds, but he had given his team-mate a 2m 6s start. Von Delius had four tyre changes, while Rosemeyer had managed with two.

Howe’s actual time for the course was 2h 45m 6s an average speed of 118.36 kph. He thus averaged 17.9 kph under his handicap average, against Rosemeyer’s 21.5. In effect the handicapper beat Howe. He was given a 13m 42s start over Rosemeyer and took 13m 52s longer on the course.

The Swiss Ruesch drove a superb race, but he too was handicapped out of it. Kay Petre’s driving in her 1.5-litre Riley was a lesson in neatness and skill. Towards the end, her engine started misfiring, forcing her to make several pit stops. She eventually crawled into sixth place.

Duggie van Riet was the first South African home in seventh place at an average Speed of 98.6 kph, having led from the 13th to the 34th laps before Howe overtook him and that in a six year-old car with a capacity of only 747 cc. His efforts won him a £100 special prize.

Now in his 80s, and until recently still the owner of the little Austin before it went to a new home in England, van Riet recalls how he actually overtook Rosemeyer in Dead Man’s Toe, the Austin being more nimble than the big Auto-Union, With glee, van Riet recalls how Rosemeyer’s face reminded him of the fabled look of disbelief on the face of the Red Baron when he was shot down in World War One!

There were only seven finishers and the results of the Grosvenor Grand Prix read as follows: 1, Ernst von Delius – Auto-Union (129.3 kph, handicap 2m 06s); 2, Bernd Rosemeyer – Auto-Union (129.6 kph, scratch); 3, Earl Howe – ERA (118,36 kph, 13m 42s); 4, Pat Fairfield – ERA (118.2 kph, 12m 04s); 5, Hans Ruesch – Alfa Romeo (121.9 kph, 5m 47s); 6, Kay Petre – Riley (105.1 kph, 24m 7s); 7, Duggie van Riet – Austin (98.6 kph, 3m 11s).

Von Delius won £750, the Grosvenor Floating Trophy and a replica. Rosemeyer won £250 and a plaque; and Duggie van Riet won £100 for being the first South African home. To put von Delius’s prize money in perspective, it was then the equivalent of the cost of three new American sedans or 1.07 per cent of the total cost of the circuit – not bad!

As a race the Grand Prix was a spectacular success, as a financial venture a dismal failure. Whereas Edwards had spent £70,000, only £12,000 was taken on the day largely due to an alarmist attitude that built up in the press and over the radio during the preceding days about possible chaotic crowd conditions. Only 32,000 spectators turned up and the caterers suffered heavy financial losses, being left with half their stocks.

Edwards, however, was undaunted and two further Grands Prix were staged at Pollsmoor before the site was turned into a transit camp during World War Two and eventually into Cape Town’s main prison.

The 1938 event was won by Earl Howe in an ERA, followed by Piero Taruffi and Luigi Villoresi both in Maseratis. The 1939 race was won by Franco Cortese in a Maserati with the Hon Peter Aitken second in an ERA and Steve Chiappini third in a Maserati.

Today a motorway, known as the Blue Route, cuts across what was part of the old circuit about 100 metres due east of Mac’s Waggle. The bend, forlorn and greying but still clearly visible from the motorway, bears testimony to a bold venture of yesteryear.

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