WhatThe History of South African Saloon Car Racing Part 9
WhereSouth Africa
CommunitySouth Africa National

Part 9: Challenge was SA’s biggest race era

Perhaps South African motorsport’s most exciting ever series, the mad Manufacturers Challenge is an incredible story. It may have been all over in just two years, but those seasons of wild machinery, brilliant racing and huge controversy would come to a crazy head in one of local racing's most famous accidents. 

It all came to be with the late 1978 announcement of a brand new, typically SA born-and-bred race formula to thrill local racers and fans alike. South Africa after all had a unique bent for unusual saloon racecar formulae, but this no-holds-barred rule book was something completely different.

The plan was to recreate the glory days of the Ford Capri Peranas, Chev Can Ams and the like and this time, rather than limit the technical under the skin goings-on and force hundreds of street cars to be first be sold in order to qualify to race, competitors would have a clean sheet to work off. Never mind that most international factory touring and sportscar teams were already using high-tech engine, drivetrain, suspension and brake bits in their Group 5 and 6 race programs.

So, by combining aspects of those finest international technical bits in homegrown specials bristling with the best of good old South African race and prep all technology – kind of in a super-high tech boer maak ‘n plan kind of a way, South Africa would soon play host to the fastest saloon car racing class on the planet in a free-for-all new series designed to ignite new interest in local saloon car racing … 

The all-new South African Manufacturers Challenge called for 'silhouette' racers, which basically meant that the racecars should at least retain semblance of the appearance and the basic shape of the road-going models they were supposed to represent. Certain body panels including the roof dome and floor pan were to come from production cars and any available engine and drivetrain components could be used – so long as they came from a car in the purported silhouette's range, or from a marque within that carmaker’s family of brands.

That soon had SA’s leading motor manufacturer race teams dreaming up the wildest combinations, which would become reality in the most exciting racing machinery ever to grace South African racetracks. BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Fiat and Mazda all very soon announced plans to compete. 

Each of them took a wildly different path to achieve the same winning end. BMW, Chevrolet and Ford opted to go the conventional route and slotted the most powerful possible engines and sophisticated racing hardware into existing highly modified, locally manufactured chassis. 

BMW scrounged a sweet sounding 24-valve twin-cam straight-six Group 5 M1 race engine from BMW Motorsport in Munich and squeezed that into a 4-door 530 run so successfully run by Eddie Keizan in the Star Modified series and added full-race suspension and Batmobile-like flares and wings. Add Ian Scheckter in the driver’s seat and the BMW was soon lapping Kyalami under the magical 1 minute 30 second mark – which meant a lap speed of over 100 mph, which has until then been the sole domain of super-quick racing GTs and sportscars.  

The Chevrolet Dealer team reacted with similar aplomb and under Geoff Mortimer’s guidance, hunted down one of Basil van Rooyen's old V8 Chevy Can Ams, plundered is Trans Am 5-litre V8, from which they plucked the good old four-barrel Holley and replaced it with four-twin-choke downdraught Weber IDA carburettors. They stuffed that and all the Can Am’s running gear into a common garden Chevair shell that was subjected similar surgery to the BMW and hey pronto, it was soon setting lap times close to the BMW. Chevy also doubled up as Willie Hepburn built a similar Rekord V8.

Ford on the other hand opted for its Group 5 European Touring Car Capri racer’s Cologne V6 heart, but that took some time to reach fruition, so in the interim, it ran a winged and widened BDA-powered Escort for South African rally champion Sarel van der Merwe, who made up for the nimble little car’s lack of power with spectacular sideways displays that would delight race fans across South Africa.  

Fiat and Mazda however adopted a totally different approach. Basil van Rooyen took charge of the Fiat project, skived a 131 Mirafiori floor pan and roof off the production line, built a hybrid spaceframe chassis around that and added a few token body panels to the mix to keep that ‘silhouette’. There may have been a badge, grille and headlamps off a stock 131, but the Fiat was an out-and-out racing machine that took full advantage of the rules (or lack of them).

Multiple SA racing champion van Rooyen also found a Ferrari-based Fiat family 2.5-litre V6 that was still in use in the Lancia Stratos World Rally weapon, sent it in to Carlo Facetti's shop to add a sizeable turbocharger for a handy 400kW! The transmission also had to be Fiat-based, so Basil used a Stratos-derived set-up and retained a live rear axle in order to manage its massive grunt, while the fully fabricated suspension was derived from another Fiat-owned concern and a Lockheed race brake system was installed. Best of all, they called the contraption a Fiat 131!  

Mazda likewise exploited that lack of rules to the full – Ken Gillibrand designed a monocoque chassis around a humble 323 Hatch floor pan, to which the team attached running gear it had relieved a Zakspeed Escort of. Then a deputation headed East, from where it returned bearing an outrageously powerful Mazda 13-B peripheral port rotary engine nicked from an All-Japan GT race winner. They slipped that almost next to none other than multiple SA Driver’s Champion Dave Charlton’s driving seat. And yes, they called it a Mazda 323!

So, six of South Africa’s best drivers were all set to race six of the most incredible tin-top machines ever to be built, anywhere in the world against some of the finest overseas cars and drivers in a pipe opener at Kyalami’s Wynn’s 1000 endurance race. Or were they? 

Ford race boss Bernie Marriner’s plan was always to ease into it with that temporary BDA-powered super-rally Escort for Supervan and van Rooyen likewise realised he’d not have his monster ready in time, so he and another multiple SA rally champion and a handy endurance racer, Jan Hettema cobbled together an interim car out of one of Fiat SA’s rapid 131 Abarth rally machines with track spring rates, racing rims and slick rubber. It proved off the pace, but hey were racing nonetheless.

Despite Derek Bell arriving to drive the 323 alongside Charlton and the team working around the clock to try ready the it for Kyalami, the Mazda did not make the start, while the race proved a disappointment for the rest of the Challenge entries, which succumbed to a litany of teething problems following their crammed build programmes. The Wynn’s 1000 however proved a stunning success for Datsun in one of SA motorsport's most dramatic giant-killing victories as a pair of Class D Modified 140Ys ran like clockwork to take an incredible 1-2 as the best of the local and international rivals crumbled…

The South African Manufacturer’s Challenge finally took off at Kyalami’s 1979 season opener as Chevy twins Mortimer and Hepburn stole the thunder in far more ways than one in spite of Charlton’s best efforts in the rapid, raucous rotary '323' and a little spaceframe Volkswagen Golf turbo out of Durban. 

Van Rooyen's whistling and burping Ferrari-powered Fiat 131 finally made its debut at Killarney’s next round Cape Southeaster races and promptly shocked the establishment by taking pole position. Sadly, mechanical problems put an end to Basil’s race leading effort, to leave the Chevrolets to rumble on to victory, but the red car’s performance was certainly not a flash in the pan. 

The turbo Tupperware Ferrari Fiat roared past guttural V8s to lead at Kyalami too, only for mechanical gremlins to once again put paid to van Rooyen’s efforts – the V6 ate its valves when the cam-belt skipped a tooth. Charlton was however having none of it and smashed the lap record en route to taking the Mazda to its maiden win, while sideways Sarel perpetually thrilled the crowd with his BDA Escort antics but the upgraded Chevys were soon back in charge with even more grunt as they went on to collar the inaugural championship.

There was however some concern as the Challenge seemed thin on entries a full year since the silhouettes first appeared. The Wynn's 1000 was once again fast approaching but there was good news - Ford's stunning new 260kW quad-cam 24-valve 3.4-litre Cosworth V6 challenger was finally ready for van der Merwe, complete with a spectacular new highly modified standard shell, Zakspeed suspension, monster wheels and tyres rims and Tony Martin down as Sarel's co-driver. 

The 1000 promised an intriguing race with the wild and wonderful Manufacturers Challenge silhouettes up against five fabulous 8500rpm 250kW mid-engined straight-six racing BMW M1 ProCar coupes. Jochen Mass put one of the M1s on pole in a 1:25.35 lap with van der Merwe the quickest of the silhouettes  at the highest top speed, from Charlton in a much revised Mazda now sporting twin turbocharging.  

Van der Merwe delighted the massive Kyalami crowd as he cannoned into second, but contact with Mass’ M1 caused both to pit, leaving Charlton's biturbo Mazda to take up the chase and pass Hans-Joachim Stuck’s M1 for the lead. The M1s eventually took charge and swept to victory, but the Kyalami faithful were more than satisfied with their heroes' efforts. 

There were however big changes in the off season as General Motors for a change withdrew from worldwide motorsport. Willie Hepburn was having none of it and took the Rekord over to run it off his own bat, while Fiat also pulled out, but Dave Charlton took the 131 over to campaign the 1980 season. Modified Saloon racer Errol Shearsby completed the musical chairs as he took charge of the Mazda 323 seat that Charlton had vacated.

BMW had meanwhile quietly disappeared after the previous Wynn’s 1000 and arrived back on the scene with an out-and-out silhouette racer in the form of a new M1-powered monocoque chassis Capital Radio 535i for Ian Scheckter in place of the old production-based machine. This was one of two main ingredients set to ignite a seismic event in South African racing. The other being Sarel van der Merwe in the Ford Escort Cosworth.

In short, it was BMW versus Ford as South Africa’s biggest name drivers, a multiple reigning race driver's champion who came out of retirement to go up against South Africa's multiple reigning rally drivers champion, in what was set to prove the most famous, most controversial and thrilling rivalry in local racing history. Sarel and Ian may have raced the Daytona 24 Hour together, but it was war in the Manufacturers Challenge – the was simply no love was lost between them.  

Wild Willie Hepburn proved the biggest thorn in the Ford and BMW’s side, but being a privateer meant that the Chevy ultimately could not match the works entries up front. Shearsby's Mazda challenge faltered with the twin-turbo set-up proving as unreliable as it was sophisticated and the Fiat remained more unreliable than successful and was ultimately destroyed in a massive shunt when Charlton left the road at Kyalami's notoriously fast Barbecue sweep. Charlie thankfully emerged unscathed.

That left the Challenge to develop into a monster tussle between Scheckter and van der Merwe, but the writing was on the wall as costs had soared beyond the reach of most competitors and even become a stretch for the carmakers. Only four or five competitive entries ran at the head of the Star Modified field, but the race up front was spectacular as van der Merwe and Scheckter went at it hammer and tongs.

Then it happened. The mother and father of race accidents was always inevitable and ‘the Regmaker’ as it has become known, will forever go down in the annals of South African racing history as perhaps its biggest moment. Kyalami's legendary Jukskei Sweep is a tricky, deceptively fast slightly off-camber bend over a gentle rise, through which cars experience near-zero gravity and it was as such never a favourite overtaking point…

Still, Scheckter and van der Merwe tried to occupy the same piece of tarmac at the same time on that windy winter’s Saturday afternoon at Jukskei – Sarel was slightly ahead as Ian made the move up the inside and the BMW and Ford touched approaching 250km/h.  The result was inevitable – you may well remember the clip, which ran for many a year as part of SATV Sportsvision's leader.

Sarel’s Escort rotated around the nose of Ian’s 535i and the cars went straight off, slewing through the catch-fences and straw bales to slam into the solid precast walled earth bank. Thankfully both drivers escaped unhurt, but the cars were wrecked and that incident would prove the death knell to the South African Manufacturers Challenge. 

The accident itself was not the only reason for the series’ demise – a furious debate had already raged for a few months as teams bickered over the ambits of those lax rules and while BMW continued to develop its next evolution ‘lowrider’ Challenger and Hepburn and Shearsby were eager to struggle on, Ford packed its bags and left and the Fiat was no more.

So, what had exploded to become the country’s most spectacular race series, just as quickly withered away, bringing the curtain down on perhaps the most memorable, controversial and entertaining era in all South African motorsport history. 

WesBank was however poised to take over the sponsorship of Modified Saloon Cars, which would commence a splendid new era all of its own, while Group 1 racing was also going from strength to strength on another level. As we have already covered, that class would also soon go through a similarly spectacular peak and painful demise. 

Come back next time to read how Group N standard production car racing would emerge to run alongside those rejuvenated modified machines and so handsomely serve South African saloon car racing for the next quarter-century…

Issued on behalf of SA Saloon Racing History

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