WhatThe History of South African Saloon Car Racing Part 4
WhereSouth Africa
CommunitySouth Africa National

Part 4 – SA ingenuity stars in a halcyon era

The latter 1960s proved a halcyon era in South African Production Saloon Car Racing history – it was a time of spectacularly powerful giant killing Ford Escort turbos, supercharged Renaults and special Alfa Romeos that rewrote local racing record books forever. 

With the racing split between the more showroom-based Group 2 Onyx Production Cars and free for all modified Group 5s, the latter South African Saloon Car Championship took a knock when Ford pulled 1967 champion Basil van Rooyen and Koos Swanepoel's Mustangs out of the series. 

Meissner built a new shape Cosworth 4 valve Lotus Cortina for Swanepoel and Peter Gough, while van Rooyen convinced Alfa Romeo to let him take over its until then uncompetitive GTA and run it with a 2-valve long stroke engine. 

Basil bored and stoked the standard 1600cc GTA lump up to 1833cc to deliver a handy 190bhp, but the new crank’s severe journal offsets interfered with the block’s water galleries. No problem; the Superformance team piped the cooling water around the outside of the block to accommodate the engine’s cooling needs. 

Van Rooyen soon found six seconds a lap at Kyalami to break his own Mustang V8 lap record and he led the way on his GTA debut at Meissner’s home circuit Killarney in Cape Town, but he went off after contact with Gough's Cortina. Back home at Kyalami though, Basil took the Alfa Romeo GTA to its first win on local soil. 

With van Rooyen and Gough at each other’s necks, the consistent Scamp Porter stole the ’68 championship, but it was all change once again and big news early in 1969 was that Meissner had scrounged an all-new Ford Cosworth FVA Formula 2 engine to race the new season. 

Only 40 units of the superb little 168kW 1596cc gear-driven twin-camshaft 16-valve dry-sump four-pot jewel complete with Lucas fuel injection and Lucas transistorised ignition were ever built. Remember that was 1969 when points and condensers ruled the ignition roost and what the hell was fuel injection? Developed by genius English engine builder Keith Duckworth, Jack Brabham had already proven the engine to be indecently quick when he smashed the old Silverstone Formula 1 lap record in one of his FVA-powered F2 cars during shakedown tests.

Stellenbosch tuning wizard Meissner wasted no time in acquiring an FVA and promptly added another 15kW by stroking the crankshaft to increase capacity to 1676cc, while also upping compression ratio from an already tall 12:1 to a heady 12.5:1. The team quickly slipped its new pride and joy into its Lotus Cortina for Peter Gough to drive, but just as quickly transferred the new lump into a new into an all-new Ford Escort GT just one race later, for the balance of the '69 series. 

Goughie’s trailblazing Meissner FVA rocket was the first Ford Escort to race anywhere in the world – it was later road tested to 100km/h in an incredible 5.3 seconds and could pull 9500rpm at the bottom of the old Kyalami main straight, which translated to around 240km/h! Ford suits took close heed of Peter Gough’s progress in the Class Y Escort, which soon proved quicker than the mighty Class Z Willment Ford Fairlane on shorter circuits and the car ultimately proved the precursor to the mighty Escort BDA, which would later so dominate in world rallying.

The Meissner gang may have arrived expecting to dominate Class Y, but that certainly did not happen quite as expected as van Rooyen’s Alfa Romeo was still a thorn in the Escort’s side. Basil however moved over to race in South African Formula 1 and in a complex deal, Arnold Chatz took the GTA over midway through the season as both he and Gough gave Olthoff’s Galaxie far more than just a run for its money.

A little later in the ’68 season, Puddles' Adler unexpectedly pitched up at Kyalami’s Autumn Races with an Alconi Renault R8  supercharged by a Viscount airliner's cabin pressurising compressor! The car could well have arrived on to the scene far earlier had it not kept bending conrods on the dyno. The reason? “We never realised that the rev-counter was under-reading,” Alconi tuning wizard John Conchie and the other half of the Conchie-Adler Alconi brains trust admitted. “We thought we were revving the car to 8000rpm, when in fact it was turning at 9500!”  

Needless to say, the supercharged Alconi R8 managed 180bhp on the dyno at 8000rpm and Adler proved sensational on the car’s debut as he pushed Gough to a new absolute Kyalami saloon car lap record on his way to second ahead of the previous year's Lotus Cortina and Mustang. Puddles then went on to beat the flying Escort in Salisbury, Rhodesia. 

With his 16-valve FVA engine was already under threat, Meissner did not want to take any chances in the face of Alconi’s supercharged Renault R8s and Chatz’ ever-improving Alfa Romeo GTA. Willie knew he needed a two-litre to compete, but Ford did not build one that suited the regulations requiring engine blocks to be readily available in cars on South African showroom floors and Ford’s biggest 4-cylinder was still a 1600. 

An ace at finding loopholes in racing regulations, Willie soon discovered a clause that allowed engine blocks to be cut and welded. The Stellenbosch team cut a 1560 block just above base of its sleeves and welded in a taller portion of another block to create enough meat to allow the merged lump to accommodate the stroke needed to achieve that 2-litre capacity. 

Meissner then bored his new block out and welded in four standard Massey-Ferguson tractor cylinder liners, before machining a new stroker billet crankshaft.  The next challenge was to find a cylinder head. No problem for Meissner, who promptly sand-cast his own head with two valves per cylinder instead of the FVA’s four-valve set-up, with the camshafts also shifted further apart to accommodate a pair of massive valves. 

Result? Meissner’s own engine proved quicker than the FVA. Both engines developed around 220bhp, but the FVA achieved that figure at 9500rpm, while Willie's jewel did so at 7500. Meissner’s mill however churned out 15% more torque to allow Gough and the Escort to go on and break every track record in the country. 

Gough and the Meissner Escort ultimately won the ’69 SA  championship at ease, but the real racing was in the smaller classes X and W. Geoff Mortimer and Scamp Porter’s works Renault R8s fought it out for 1300cc class X and the two even switched cars as they worked together to chase the class title, while a young privateer by the name of Jody Scheckter and Spencer Schultze’s Renaults and Gordon Briggs’ 996cc Broadspeed Ford Anglia thrilled the crowd in the litre Class W.

The leading cars developed an unheard of at the time 100bhp per litre, Alconi’s blown 1300cc R8 was  pushing the limit at 139bhp per litre, while Meissner’s stroked FVA Escort and the bored out Alfa Romeo GTA nudged 108. The 1300cc Class X Renaults produced 128bhp and the litre Class W Anglia and Renault made around 100bhp.

Moving on to 1970, Ford decided to soldier on with 1969 champion Peter Gough in Willie Meissner’s Escort, but there was a fresh threat on the block with news of Basil Green preparing a new BG Ford Capri Perana V8 for Bob Olthoff to race in the top Class Z for 1970. 

Still racing Class Y, Gough had things his own way early in ’70 but Ofthoff and Green soon had the open Class Z Capri Perana V8 sorted and Bobby waltzed to a 41 second win on debut at Kyalami’s Summer Trophy over Gough and Chatz in the ever-improving GTA. Olthoff lopped 2.3 seconds off Gough's overall saloon car lap record, not that it really mattered as he raced in a higher class.

The shockwaves of Z181’s 350bhp Gurney-Weslake modified 5-Iitre V8 thundering down Kyalami’s main straight at 285km/h reverberated all the way down to dreamy Stellenbosch, but Willie Meissner and his team proved wide awake as always as he plotted to keep his Class Y car ahead. Meissner was already playing around with a roadgoing Capri 1600 – one of the first cars ever to be fitted with a revolutionary new device called a turbocharger, which based on a supercharger but driven by exhaust gasflow, was invented to overcome altitude sickness in airplane piston engines. 

The monster charger designed to work on 6-litre turbodiesel Volvo truck however had its challenges when applied to a tiny 1600cc petrol engine in another new phenomenon called turbo lag. “You don’t know what turbo lag is until you've tried to waken a turbo designed to work on a big diesel truck with a little petrol engine,” Peter Gough recounted with his familiar wry smile. “But once it was wound up, nothing could stop it.”

Brilliant as ever, Meissner plucked his recently homemade 2-litre out of Y151 and replaced it with a little 1300cc Ford Kent crossflow engine fitted with a giant turbocharger as he devised a stunning solution to that massive turbo lag problem. The angry sounding little turbo engine’s boosted charge was fed into a shiny aluminium sphere – a sort of plenum chamber that was plumbed into the car’s boot as a boost reservoir, with the wastegate-regulated and steam restrictor valve-controlled charge returned to the inlet at constant pressure!

The team downplayed the car’s potential by disguising the engine to appear much like a stock crossflow lump, so no one would have guessed that the tiny overhead valve 1300 was pushing 230bhp at a much lower 6800rpm than the 9000rpm that some state of the art normally aspirated rivals needed to muster some 100bhp less power! 

Turbocharged racing technology had arrived with a bang in South Africa – nobody else anywhere in the world had overcome the challenges of lag so effectively, leaving Peter Gough to maintain that he never drove another turbo car with such immediate response after that. And it worked – Gough won comfortably on Y151’s first outing in its new turbo 1300 guise at Killarney’s March 1970 Cape South Easter races, although the Capri Perana could not make the date and Chatz was still working on Alfa Romeo’s response.

Faced with the prospect of a new 230bhp Class Y Escort and a new top class V8 Capri, Alfa Romeo South Africa stepped in and brought a new GT AM in for Arnold Chatz from its Italian parent’s Autodelta racing arm. Still short on power, the team disposed of the GT AM's classic twin-spark hemispherical combustion chamber cylinder head and replaced it with an all-new sand-cast unit with Cosworth-like squish chambers and steeper valve inclination, while the standard 1750cc wet liners were thrown out and replaced with bigger 1997cc cylinder bores.

The engine proved a revelation and pushed 220bhp on the button, but there were other challenges ahead – the GT AM’s lightweight aluminium fenders, doors and bonnet did not meet local regulations, so the team replaced them with standard steel panels and Chatz was still not happy with the Alfa’s the handling. So he jetted to Milan and then on to Zandvoort and returned with European champion Toni Hezemanz’ suspension tucked into his hand luggage. 

Pietermaritzburg’s Easter races finally saw the long-awaited battle between the three most anticipated cars ever to race in South Africa. Chatz was happy that the short and twisty Roy Hesketh suited his untried GT AM on its debut against the 1300 turbo Escort that had already won and the Alfa immediately proved a worthy rival as Arnold diced with Gough’s hissing and popping turbo Escort, which ultimately took the win after Olthoff retired when his Perana dropped a fan belt.

Olthoff broke the lap record as the Class Z V8 Capri Perana delivered its expected superiority at Hesketh once again for the Natal Winter Races a month later, but there was excitement in Class Y as Conchie and Adler inserted up-and-coming Jody Scheckter to their supercharged Alconi Renault R8. The young upstart went on to beat favourite Gough’s turbo Escort, while Chatz had a lucky escape when the Alfa GT AM’s locally lightened flywheel exploded and the shrapnel narrowly missed vital aspects of Arnold's anatomy! 

The Alfa got the better of Gough in the Class Y battle in Cape Town, but Chatz fell back with clutch issues to leave Gough to a home win, while Olthoff trotted into the distance to win in the big Perana,  while Geoff Mortimer took overall 1970 SA Saloon Car Championship honours in his Class W Renault.

All along and away from the harsh spotlight, the Onyx Group 2 Standard Production Car Championship ran alongside the big bangers and was proving ever more attractive to privateer drivers, tuners and race fans alike. Run on a regional basis to keep costs to a minimum, the Transvaal championship soon attracted larger fields and more interest than the national saloon cars as club meetings drew up to 20,000 spectators keen on door handle to door handle action. 

Natal soon followed with its own local Group 2 championship, but Cape regionals stuck to trusted, if outdated handicap racing. Onyx Production Car racing was always very close and competitive as it drew most of the big names to mix it with several handy privateers, many of whom really came into their own in endurance races. 

Near standard Alfa Romeos, Volvos, Fords, Minis and the Renault R8 in particular, delivered some incredible results while chasing the international 9 Hour race's illustrious First Saloon Car award, which Scamp Porter and Colin Burford claimed with an incredible fourth overall in 1969.

The nature of South Africa’s highly vaunted premier National Saloon Car Championship was however changing fast as professionalism set in. The modified Group 5 class was fast becoming the battlefield of the Alfa Romeo, Ford and Renault works teams as the carmakers poured money, time and effort into their racing programs, often to the detriment of the racing. 

Officials were considering new regulations to curb boundless progress, but the racers were as always chasing the edge – come back next week to read all about the next incredible era in the saga of South African Production Saloon Car Racing…


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