WhatThe History of South African Saloon Car Racing Part 5
WhereSouth Africa
CommunitySouth Africa National

Part 5: V8s rule but the Fuel Crisis looms

As reported last week, tuning wizard Basil Green, somehow convinced the Ford Motor Company of South Africa to share his dream of producing a Capri with a 5-litre V8 Mustang engine to create an incredible homologation special for the man on the street. And any race driver's dream on track.

The Basil Green Ford Capri Perana V8 Perana followed hot on the heels of the Edenvale businessman’s bumblebee-striped Zodiac-powered Group 2 Cortina Perana V6, which was already performing well in the Onyx Production Car series with Bobby Olthoff at the wheel. The Cortina Perana's triple-40mm twin-choke downdraught Weber carburettors saw that cast-iron OHV V6 spin to 7500rpm so easily that it even had world Ford Motorsport boss Walter Hayes in South Africa to get to the bottom of its success. 

The Cortina was just the start – Perana had built 100 street versions to see to it that the V6 could win races and buoyed by that car’s success on and off the track and with the might of Ford behind him, not only was the little Edenvale tuning shop very soon churning out an alarming number of mainly yellow and red Capri Perana V8s to satisfy street demand, but the team was flat out preparing a car that would change local saloon car racing for good.

To be sure of success, Green acquired a highly modified 350bhp Gurney Weslake Formula 5000 Ford 5-litre V8 and shoehorned it into the relatively small Capri’s engine bay. The team flared the race Capri’s wheel arches to accommodate the knock-on centre lock racing wheels and massive racing tyres, big brakes and special wishbone suspension, added a significant power bulge to the bonnet to accommodate the four twin-choke Weber IDAs below, bolted a neat spoiler onto the bootlid, and the rest.

Freshly painted in Gunston orange and brown and with a giant Z181 plastered on the door, If ever anyone had taken a gun to a knife fight, it had to be the day tha V8 Capri first arrived to race at Kyalami. Quite literally a Capri built out of a Ford GT40 and albeit running a class below, as you’d have read last week, Peter Gough’s incredible Formula 2 Cosworth FVA Escort, Arnold Chatz’ much-massaged Alfa Romeo GTA and Puddles Adler’s Alconi Renault R8 supercharged by a Viscount airliner’s cabin pressure compressor had all been fighting away for the overall lead. But that was all over.

Ofthoff lopped 2.3 seconds off Gough's lap record as he powered away by upward of four seconds a lap to dominate on Z181’s debut as he ended up 41 seconds ahead by the time the 1970 Kyalami Summer Trophy chequers flew to ease the opposition’s pain. Olthoff went on to win as long as the Capri Perana kept running, but the days of free-for-all racing were numbered as new rules were coming for ’71 in an effort to promote closer, fairer racing with the carmakers quite literally throwing money at winning in Saturday in an effort to sell more on Monday…

So for 1971 it was out with the old, in with the new as good old Group 5 was canned and with the Argus Newspaper Group in as title sponsor for Star Modified Saloon Car Series up north and Argus Modifieds in at the Cape, Group 2 rules were adopted for the top class and showroom stock Group 1 proposed as a future feeder series. Local rules however allowed for a little more scope for modification versus the older local and also international Group 2 specifications.

Other big news for the start of the 1971 season was that for the sake of safety, roll cages and full race harnesses would be compulsory in Modified Saloon Car Racing, despite the fact that most drivers still practiced in shorts and tee shirts. The main focus was however on the transformation from free-for-all Group 5 to the new Group 2 rules, which meant that the mad development rush of the past few seasons was curtailed. 

Z181 was retired as work began on a few new Capri Peranas, which while they appeared much the same to the naked eye, the cars bore far more semblance to their standard kin under the skin. Behind the V8 bash up front, few Capri V6s arrived on the scene for Ronnie van Rooyen and Alain Lavoipierre to take on Arnold Chatz in a more sobered-up Alfa Romeo GTA and later a 2000 Berlina, with a menagerie of Ford Escorts, Renaults and the like in the classes. 

The class system was intriguingly also changed to A, B, C, D E and F, in place of the old U, W, W, X, Y and Z, which were then adopted for the new Group 1 in a bit of a volte face.

1971 heralded the start of a Ford Capri Perana V8 dogfight between Basil Green’s 'works' BG Gunston machine initially campaigned by Bob Olthoff and then by Capetonian Koos Swanepoel against his old Cortina and Mustang rival Basil van Rooyen in a privateer Perana. Basil indeed eventually ended up driving the BG car after taking the ’71 class A title in a Machiavellian couple of seasons fought out to spy versus spy intrigue and some pretty astounding stories as the rival camps chased glory. 

Van Rooyen was however not content to just be another in a sea of Capris and he soon hatched his own plot to bring some real opposition to Ford. Basil had followed namesake Green's Perana act very closely and he set about to develop another hot limited series South African homologation special to suit those quite unusual local race regulations.

Basil knew what he was looking for – he’d campaigned Green's Peranas in '72 and after even looking around at the likes of adding a little Mopar grunt to Valliant’s Charger, he proposed that General Motors should consider building a car that would prove even quicker than Ford's indomitable Capri Perana on both road and track. GM was quick to appreciate the merits of such an endeavour and immediately accepted Basil.s offer, but it was initially not quite sold on how that should be done.

Basil’s idea was to turn your auntie’s Chevrolet Firenza into a fire-breathing Ferrari-killer on the road and a race winner on track, but GM was not so sure. Still, after much arm twisting, van Rooyen finally convinced the Board that the little Chev was indeed up to handling the excess power of a Trans Am Camaro driveline and so the ‘Little Chev’ Firenza Can Am was born. 

Much in the vein of Green's Capri Perana, van Rooyen had very soon assembled a crack technical team headed by Geoff Mortimer and they immediately set about to develop and build both a production run of road cars and those incredible Can Am racecars too.

Van Rooyen had initially planned to shoehorn a lightweight 307 cubic-inch V8 into the Firenza’s tight engine bay in an effort to meet the 1350kg class weight limit, but the team ran into an issue with 'overbore’ regulations. That however opened the way to the team opting for the 302 cubic inch 4950cc Z28 engine that had powered Mark Donohue to the US Trans Am title in Roger Penske's incredible Sunoco Camaro. 

A far bigger radiator was fitted to best cool the beast and a Muncie 4-speed transmission installed to cater for all that grunt on the road – and significantly more in race trim too. Power was fed through a heavy duty propshaft to a locally developed new rear axle set-up designed by van Rooyen and GMSA and built in PE by Borg-Warner. 

Badged the Chevrolet Firenza Coupé V8 Can-Am, the Little Chev It sat on uprated Koni shock absorber suspension with heavy-duty springs and bigger brakes, while the race cars packed monstrous slick racing tyres on 13" wide wheels. 

In spite of having to make do with that slightly beefier 302 V8 sitting in the Can-Am’s engine bay, the Little Chev’s trump card still had to be an explosive power to weight ratio that helped the standard street cat to a road tested 100km/h in 5.4 seconds – better than a most performance saloons on the market even today and a 230km/h top speed. 

106 Firenza Can Ams were built in the end – 100 street machines, which were sold through the GMSA dealer network and six dedicated racers – the two factory track machines, a pair of rally cars for a Jan Hettema-led stage attack and two more track cars set aside as endurance racers.

In race trim, the Little Chev proved indomitable out of the box – making a fair bit more power and weighting in considerably lighter than the Capri Perana, it proved victorious in van Rooyen’s hands on debut at Kyalami in January 1973. It should be remembered that BG and Ford had pulled out of racing and the remaining V8 Capris Peranas were no longer in the hands of top drivers, but the Can Am soon broke every track lap record in the country as it dominated on track.

So crushing was its performance that controversy surrounded the Can Am as sharp pitlane tongues wagged that GM would not attain its quota of 100 units required for homologation purposes. Those stories proved groundless and Basil van Rooyen and his Can Ams went on to utterly dominate in Star Modified Saloon Car Racing.

Attention soon turned to Basil breaking that elusive 100 mile an hour lap around Kyalami, but the team was however beaten to that honour by F1 stars  Jacky lckx and Hans-Joachim Stuck’s German factory Group 5 BMW 3-litre CSL at the 9-Hour. That after chief tin-top rivals van Rooyen and Australian Frank Gardner’s Chevy Can Am broke its gearbox, Hettema crashed the other Firenza and a third car failed to start after it fell off a trailer on its way to the track!

That left Arnold Chatz and Geoff Mortimer to take the hallowed first SA Saloon Car home prize in a Japanese-prepared Datsun 240Z, in spite of losing out to the similar all-Japan entry of Takahari and Tohlra following a race-long battle that sadly failed to make it past the Kyalami epic. 

Storm clouds had been looming over local and international motorsport with the threat of fuel supply boycotts around the world. Disaster struck in January 1974 when the fuel crisis struck and with the world quite literally hamstrung by striking oil producers, local authorities were forced to ration petrol, minimise fuel station trading hours and impose draconian speed limits. 

And all motor racing was banned while the world scrambled to survive the energy crisis. 

The Fuel Crisis would strike a deadly blow to racing across the world as the sport quite literally ground to a halt before carmakers pulled teams and support. Racers being racers, they clearly soon found a way to compete again – come back next week to read how South African motorsport bounced back as ever.

That should prove a most interesting tale that may very well show us the way forward very soon. It is after all right now the first time since that 1974 Fuel Crisis that the racing stopped and with a little luck, we will also be coming out of this hiatus soon…


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