WhatThe History of South African Saloon Car Racing Part 6
WhereSouth Africa
CommunitySouth Africa National

Part 6: Showroom racing rewrites rules

When the Fuel crisis hit late in 1973, motor racing come to a standstill. It also spelled the demise of the muscle car, both in the US and here in South Africa, which in turn brought to an end the great V8 era of the Peranas and Can Ams to a close both on road and track.

It took a few months for the world to find its feet after that initial shock, but when racing eventually spluttered to a start again later in 1974, it was all change. 

Local race officials had brought in a new two-tier saloon car racing format in an effort to curb the free-for-all big money Group 5 at the end of 1970 as the modified class was pruned back to a slightly hotter version of the old Group 2 Onyx Production Cars, alongside an all-new Group 1 standard production class.

The new showroom stock Group 1 rules called for all cars to remain ‘as standard’, which implied that they would pretty much race in the form 500 or more of them had rolled off the dealer floor. The manufacturer (or competitor who wanted to race a car in the series where the carmaker was not involved) was required to fill out a Recognition Form A to record every last technical detail of the car, off which Form race scruitineers and controllers could check all competing cars complied. 

The Form A document covered every technical specification of each competing model variant, from curb weight to compression ratio, piston and conrod mass to the standard gear ratios and the rest. The exhaust system had to run the along same route as the standard pipe, from the stock manifold back, but silencers were free, while suspension mounting points remained standard, with castor and camber alignment limited within a tight range.

Group 1 cars had to run on the standard wheel rims the car came with and only South African produced road tyres were allowed. Classes were set according to engine capacity, valve train, carburettor of fuel injection configuration, but turbocharging was not allowed. Interestingly, Group 1 adopted the outgoing Group 5 class nomenclature, with Class U being the initial top class above V, W, X, Y and Z; while Group 2 classes were set as A, B, C, D and E.

Considering that many of the outgoing Group 5 cars could relatively easily be dumbed down to the new Group 2 spec, for want of a better phrase, while the old Onyx Production Cars needed even less work to make them competitive in the new class, never mind that a new sponsor was on board in the new Star Modified Production Cars (and the Argus series in the Cape), most upcountry competitors opted to go the Modified route, which meant that Group 1 was pretty much stillborn in the Transvaal.

It was a little different down in the Cape however, where the far more affordable Group 1 got going almost immediately on a regional level and there was soon a most interesting field of cars competing. Koos Swanepoel, Denis Joubert and Inus Heunis headed the entry list in a gaggle Ford Capri V6s, fighting it out with the likes of Willie Turck, Brian von Hage and Piet van Niekerk's rotary Mazda RX2s and Rocco Joubert in a lumbering BMW 2.8L.

Behind them, James Andrews’ left-hand drive Alfa Romeo Giulia Super, Tony Horner’s Fiat 128 Gert Ferreira’s Datsun 140Y, Niel Bobrov in a Ford Escort, Tommy Gash’s Austin Marina and Alistaire Cochrane's Mini GTS fought it out. The lCaope Town rules were quite loose and a club atmosphere prevailed as always at Killarney, but the racing was good and the faithful crowd loved Group 1.

Still, nobody really cared for Group 1 up north, where it was all about Star Modifieds. But then two things happened to fundamentally change the SA racing scene. Firstly, AA Motorsport decreed early in ’73 that all competing cars would need to have been in production until at least five years before the new season started from 1974, which immediately culled a significant proportion of the ageing Modified field. 

And then the Fuel crisis hit. Which basically obliterated motor racing altogether.

Now add the new hunger for fuel economy and the need to for carmakers to market that quantity while still looking after prospective car buyers’ performance motoring needs in a petrol starved world, and all of a sudden, Modified racing was no longer the answer to many a racer’s dreams. 

But hang on a second — what about those Group 1 rules from a few years prior and which were working so well down in the Cape? In a nutshell, there could simply not have been a finer antidote to cater for the vacuum in the market for top-class competition than what Group 1 offered.

Group 1 racing was precisely what happened as the sport emerged from its fuel-starved hiatus as regional championships came back into vogue and the Transvaal Group 1 Production Car and Championships soon came to being alongside the existing WP series. The negative climate created by fuel restrictions soon also attracted SA racing’s big names to race in a series that relied more heavily on driving skills than anything else…

There were a few races up north towards the end of 1974, notably the AssEng 200 at Kyalami that quite literally attracted the cream of South Africa’s racing crop. Basil van Rooyen, Arnold Chatz and Geoff Mortimer strapped into a trio of recently launched showroom standard Alfa Romeo Alfettas to take on a gang of wailing Mazda RX2 rotaries led by Tony Viana and backed up by Rick Davis, Eddie Hellyar, Brian von Hage and Peter Thompson up front in Class U. 

A variety of machinery through the field included Len Booysen Cortina Big Six and Dave Clapham in a Volvo 164, while rallying’s top men were all out and racing on track too with a young Sarel van der Merwe's Datsun Datsun 160U SSS up against Jan Hettema in a Chevrolet Firenza 2.5, never mind Harry Fekken and Willie Nel's Peugeot 504s 

Down in the smaller classes, Guiliano Verolini’s Dodge Colt, Dan Thomas in another Chev Firenza, Bob Hardy's Datsun 160U and Coenraad Spamer's Alfa Giulia Super fought it out in the midfield, while Adrian Woodley's Datsun 1200GX, Jimi Smith in Mini GTS, Bill Schipper's Escort 1300GT and Peter Pfumfei's Fiat 128 diced in the small class.

There were a few changes as the season progressed as Arnold Chatz switched to an Alfa GTV 2-litre and van Rooyen jumped camps to pedal a RX2 as Mazda  , which stepped its challenge up a couple more gears and also inserted Formula 1 stars Dave Charlton and Nols Nieman and a man by the name of Willie Hepburn alongside Viana in the rotary gang for 1975.

One of the first points of business was the need to set the status quo and the Transvaal contingent headed south to Killarney for the False Bay 100 races to take on a healthy local Cape gang. Former Ford man Koos Swanepoel's Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV, Willie Turck, Brian von Hage and Piet van Niekerk’s Mazdas, the Capris and that large BMW gave visitors Chatz’ Alfa and the Mazdas of van Rooyen, Nieman, Charlton and the rest far more than just a little something to think about and the crowd completely hoarse.

There were a few changes as the season progressed – Sarel van der Merwe joined Arnold Chatz in a pair of new 2-litre Alfettas, but Arnold pulled out to concentrate oin his Modified campaign after destroying his car in a huge Killarney accident. Towards the back of the field, Geoff Mortimer raced a Mini 1275 GTS against Paddy O’Sullivan’s Citroen GX and some big names of the future in George Santana’s Citroen GX, Mike White in a Mini GTS and Graham Duxbury's Fiat 128.

They mixed it with the likes of Clapham's Volvo and Boulter and Woolcott’s Triumph Chicanes, but it was Coenrad Spamer’s trusty Alfa Romeo Giulia Super that emerges ad the first Transvaal Group 1 champion at the end of the year'

There were a few more changes up front in Class V for 1976, with Geoff Mortimer the odd man out in a new Alfetta GT and up against the usual gang of expertly driven Mazdas now including a line-up of champions including Sarel van der Merwe and Hennie van der Linde alongside Dave Charlton and Willie Hepburn. That quintet once again had the crowds on their feet wherever they went, with the regular suspects all up to their old tricks further down the field.

Already incredibly competitive by ’76, Group 1 had attracted the country's best drivers and works teams racing in regional championships, when the racing stepped up another gear on the confirmation of the South African National Production Car championship for 1977.

But while that really set the good old Transvaal versus Province juices flowing flat out, not everyone was happy with a move that further eroded Group 1’s affordable value for money privateer ethos, which the series had set out to achieve in the first place. Still, the tight regulations shifted the focus squarely onto driver ability rather than just budget and the ability to out-tune the rest...

On another front, local tuners had become quite au fait with Mazda’s rasping little litre rotary engine considering its growing popularity in the rebounding Modified Saloon Car championship, which meant the wailing Capellas were hard to beat and that left the top class pretty much a one horse race and race controllers scratching their heads.

The racing was still furious up front between Viana, Hepburn, Colin Burford, Peter Todd and the rest with the regular crowd brawling hard behind, but the real interest that year had to be at the back of the field. Reigning and five-time SA rally champion Jan Hettema was racing a humble Alfasud 1300ti against his stage arch rival Sarel van der Merwe in a Citroen 1200 GX.

In what proved to be a battle of the rally super-egos, Group 1’s smallest Class Y stole the 1977 headlines with a bruising season-long car-bending war that most often exploded into a post-race war of words, protests, appeals, trials and tribulations. The rest of the Class Y gang of Nico Bianco, Louis Parsons, Tony Boncompagni and George Angelopulo's Alfasuds and Mini men 1275 GT men Eric Farmer and Barrie Kruger were meanwhile treated to a display they would never forget up front! 

Van der Merwe managed to share the overall title that year with Mrs. Judy Charlton's Datsun 140Y as the ever-present Giovanni Piazza-Musso's Alfa Guilia Super keep them honest all the way. And to add insult to injury, Sarel duly won that year’s SA rally championship too, a feat he would go on to repeat for another eight years on the trot...

Concerned by Mazda’s dominance up front and also that Group 1 would become lost amid the blur of the impending big money free-for-all Manufacturers Challenge, Group 1 controllers took a leaf from the old homologation book with their 2008 rules, which once again allowed for specially prepared cars to compete, so long as one hundred standard production cars of the same specification as the new race machines, were sold as street cars first.

As it happened, Ford’s new Cortina 3.0S and Alfa Romeo’s all-new 2-litre Alfetta had what it took to take the rotaries on as they were, but Fiat saw the opportunity to build 100 special edition 131 Racings, each with the necessary modifications to ensure the cars would be a mighty prospect on track.

Add reigning top class V champion Tony Viana and fellow Free Stater Pop Diedericks at the wheel and the stage was set for a new Group 1 war between the Fiats, a significant Ford line-up comprising Sarel van der Merwe and Geoff Mortimer, as well as Cape racer Tommy Dunn and Richard Sterne's Alfetta GTVs. And all of a sudden, the still very handy if previously lonely Mazda RX2 gang of Dave Charlton, Willie Hepburn, Ralph Lange and Rick Davis among others, had way more than enough on their plates.

The racing was brilliant up front and throughout the field too, where Brian Cook’s lumbering Datsun 280L fought it out with Giovanni Piazza Musso’s faithful Alfa Super, which took that year’s overall national championship, while Etienne Botha's Class X Datsun 140Y GX provided a little rear-wheel drive relief ahead of a swarm of Alfasuds steered by Nicolo Bianco, Louis Parsons, Alan Esterhuizen and Bob van Noord.

Down in the Cape meanwhile, Group 1 racing had become increasingly popular with the Province’s best drivers and Killarney’s faithful fans alike as Dennis Joubert, John Simpson, Terry Thornton and Peter Franzen led the Mazda charge against national campaigner Tommy Dunn and Bobby Scott’s sleek Alfetta GTs. Behind them variety was the soup of the day as Rodney Goldberg’s Chevrolet 3800 and John Brink’s Austin Marina fought over Class W. 

Wally Dolinschek's Passat took on Mini gang Olive Hendricks, Roddy Turner, JB Brink and Tommy and Ephy Chester's quite unlikely Austin Apache a little further back in Class X, while the baby classes saw Pieter Spaarwater’s Chrysler Avenger battled Arthur Ormerod’s Toyota and Keith MacFarlane’s Fiat 128 Rally in Class Y and Alistaire Cochrane and John Kruger’s Alfasud faced Leon de Kock’s Alfa GT Junior in Class Z.

While the racing was deadly serious up front, there was still room for the real privateer in Group 1. For instance, many were most impressed that a certain Transvaal driver arrived in a different colour Fiat 128 every race, but when he rolled one of them, he was most perplexed at what he should tell Hertz happened to his weekend ride. Another Cape racer told his wife that he was taking her Toyota on fishing trips every fourth or fifth weekend. Wonder if she ever knew he was actually fishing for trophies…?

That furious inter-brand action would however falter once again into 1979, as Fiat and Ford pulled out to concentrate on their Manufacturer’s Challenge campaigns, leaving Tony Viana to return to the Mazda rotary fold alongside Charlton, Errol Shearsby, Paolo Cavallieri AKA Pablo Clark, Todd and Jannie van Aswegen against the sole Alfetta GT driven by Richard Sterne Alfetta.

Behind them, Giovanni Piazzo-Musso steered his Alfa to his second SA National Group 1 title on the trot and the venerable Super’s third Group 1 championship in three years, in spite of Brian Cook’s best efforts in his massive rival Class W Datsun 280L, while Willie Hepburn campaigned a Chevair albeit sans his Challenge machine’s 5-litre V8 propulsion. Chrysler Avenger duo Keith Burford and Hein Lorentz fought over Class Y and a fleet of Alfasuds pedalled by the likes of Louis Parsons, Charles Brittz and Mario Travaglini were the cars to beat in Class Z.

The clouds of change were however once again brewing over local saloon car racing as the new decade approached — not only were the cracks about to explode in the Manufacturers Challenge, but the Group 1 powers that were hard at work to spice up their show. Come back next week to read all about that spectacular second half of this splendid Group 1 story...


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