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Part 3: SA old school fight off racing upstarts
With local racing back on the up after a few dodgy post war years, South African Driver’s Champion Bill Jennings started the new season with a bang back on home soil as he made it three False Bay 100 wins in a row when he won Cape Town’s New Year’s Day 1957 season opener at Gunner's Circle in his Riley Special.
It was no mean feat for the ingenious driver and his brilliantly self-engineered little Jennings Riley Special – he once again had to go mano-a-mano for the win as he beat Horse Boyden and Lindsay’s F1 Cooper-Bristols. Jennings and Boyden fought it out as Horse set the fastest lap in the Scuderia Lupini car, but Bill used every ounce of his lightweight special’s famous nimbleness to pull another brave move around the outside of the red Cooper on one of the Circles fastest bends.
There were a pair of subcontinental Geoff Duke Formula Junior Trophy races in February ’57 too, where Ian Fraser-Jones drove Gigi Lupini’s Cooper Porsche to win the first race at Grand Central, while Norman Lunderstedt’s Lundy Vincent-HRD Special took the second victory at Salisbury-Belvedere three weeks later.
Three international meetings once again attracted overseas visitors to race in South Africa in 1957 as Dick Gibson brought his Connaught A-Type on tour and Lord Louth his black D-Type Jaguar, while New Zealanders Ronnie Moore and Ray Thackwell arrived with a pair of new F1 Cooper Climaxes. The Connaught and the Jaguar may have added a certain flair to those events, but it was the little Coopers that would go on to show the way to South Africa’s racing future.
While Enzo Ferrari at the time proffered the advantages of carts behind horses six thousand miles to the north, Moore went on to prove the potential of his new-generation rear-mid-engined Cooper-Climax beyond reasonable doubt as he stormed to van Riebeeck Trophy honours at Eesterivier, but Bill Jennings had his venerable Riley Special back in front to take the chequered flag first at the 1820 Settlers Trophy at Grand Central.
There was great anticipation for the Coronation 100 at the all-new purpose-built Roy Hesketh circuit near Pietermaritzburg, where Tony Fergusson’s Cooper Norton beat Syd van der Vyver’s BRM-Norton and Ian Fraser-Jones in the Cooper-Porsche. Fergusson won again at the Union Day Trophy at Grand Central, before going on to make it a hat trick at the East London Winter Handicap over Bill Jennings, Don Philp, Les Miller and Roy McDowall, all driving MG Specials.
Fergusson’s East London victory was however hollow, as the treacherous Esplanade racetrack claimed the life of South Africa’s first Drivers Champion Dougie Duff in an accident on the day before Edgar Hoal later succumbed to his injuries from another crash in that race. Coming just months after Allan Shiers’ fatal accident there too, the incidents spelled the end of racing on the Border Esplanade circuit.
In other races that year, Denis Cockerell drove his Peugeot Special to Settlers Trophy honours off a packed grid at Pietermaritzburg’s ever popular Roy Hesketh, beating Harry Pierce in his lovely MG Special, Doug Serrurier’s BRM Climax Special and Vic Proctor’s Climax Special. Jimmy Shield then took another one for the old school when he steered his raucous supercharged 2-litre ERA to Mashonaland 100 victory in Salisbury.
Harry Peirce then lifted the Grand Central Blue Riband Trophy with his MG Special and there was one more major race at the end of October 1957 as several SA drivers travelled up for Heany Summer Handicap in Rhodesia, where they found a local lad by the name of John Love had just acquired Bill Jennings’ triple SA Drivers Champion Riley Special. Love promptly went onto win the race from Fergusson and Mike Stafford’s Cooper T41 Climax, but a hard year in Southern African racing ended on a tragic note too, when Stafford died in an accident in a later race.
The 1959 season started with the final Gunners Circle False Bay 100, which attracted a varied and quite eclectic field to end another era. Jimmy Shield's ERA, Ian Fraser-Jones’ Cooper-Bristol, Flip Viljoen's Boffin-Studebaker V8 Special, Jimmy de Villiers D-Type Jaguar, Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner’s GSM Dart-Fords, John Love’s Jennings Riley Special and Tony Fergusson’s Cooper Norton were among a packed entry list.
There was drama when former Rhodesian heavyweight boxing champion de Villiers crashed the D-Type Jaguar into a lamppost while attempting to pass second-placed Fraser-Jones’ Lupini Cooper-Bristol at speed around the outside. Frones’ comments cannot be repeated, but the incident left Shield's screaming ERA to take the win from Love and the ever present Fergusson.
Moving on to ‘Maritzburg, Love drove Jennings’ incredible Riley Special to yet another race win five years down the line at the Roy Hesketh Natal Easter Trophy, while international visitor Dick Gibson’s modern new Cooper-Climax rammed the message home as he trotted on to take the 1820 Settlers Trophy at Grand Central in the newfangled machine.
Tony Kotze then opened a new era for Cape Town motorsport when he won the first race at the new Killarney racetrack near Milnerton in his Cooper-Bristol, before Jimmy Shield took his incredible supercharged pre-war ERA to yet another old school victory at Grand Central. It would however be a sportscar that closed the ’58 season off with a spate of victories.
Ian Fraser-Jones’ drove his new Porsche RS to win in Salisbury in Rhodesia, at Lourenço Marques in Moçambique and in Pietermaritzburg in Natal to clinch the 1958 driver’s title and he ended the season in style too as he shared his Porsche 356 with Tony Fergusson to win the inaugural 9-hour race at Grand Central in November.
The writing was however on the wall through the international races at beginning of 1959 as Dick Gibson, Keith Ballisat, Derrick Edwards and Don Wagner visited South Africa with a quartet of the latest Cooper-Climaxes. Gibson won the False Bay 100 at Killarney in Cape Town, the Pat Fairfield Trophy at Roy Hesketh in Pietermaritzburg, where a certain Bobby Olthoff made his debut in a Formula Junior Cooper, and Gibson again won the van Riebeeck Trophy at Killarney.
Ballisat then went on to take both the Grand Central 1820 Settlers Trophy and the Pietermaritzburg Coronation 100 at Roy Hesketh. Significantly however, the quick, nimble and clearly most reliable Coopers proved unbeatable as they left the locals scratching their heads and writing cheques to keep the incredibly wieldy little contraptions in South Africa.
With the travelling contingent back home overseas, Ian Fraser-Jones’ Porsche Spyder proved invincible as he sped to victory in Salisbury’s Mashonaland 100, before Tony Fergusson drove the car to win the Union Day Trophy at Grand Central. Fraser-Jones was back at the Porsche’s winning wheel for the rejuvenated Border 100, which opened a thrilling new 4km East London circuit that comprised the best bits of the pre-war Prince George track, and which had the coastal town agog about its racing future.
Fraser-Jones then added the Grand Central Rand Winter and the Salisbury-Belvedere Ray Amm Trophies to his collection in as he trotted to a second SA Drivers title on the trot, but things were changing fast. Les Miller suffered a career-ending crash in his Fatman Special at the Border 100 and while the old school likes of likes of Kotze’s Cooper-Bristol, Tingle’s Connaught and Love’s new D-Type Jaguar were still competitive, Gibson and Ballisat’s wins and the rapidly rising Syd van der Vyver in another new Cooper-Alfa Romeo pointed toward a different future.
Things were also changing rapidly off the track. East London’s never-ending lobby to revive the South African Grand Prix finally came to fruition when the provincial council gave the go ahead for an international race on the new circuit and the RAC gave the go-ahead to once again use the coveted Grand Prix title for the race – you guessed it, on New Year’s Day 1960.
And with String Moss, Paul Frere, Chris Bristow, Dick Gibson and Bruce Halford among others on their way to take on SA’s finest in the Grand Prix, came news of something else, just as exciting for South African motor racing. Race authorities also confirmed that the South African Divers Championship would henceforth race to new for 1960 1500cc Formula 1 regulations, although the local series would be restricted to four-cylinder engines, rather than the V6s and V8s that Ferrari, Climax and others were working on.
And so another incredible new South African racing era dawned. Come back next week to read how locally-fettled Alfa Romeo, Borgward and Ford-powered cars and some incredible locally-developed built machines came to the fore to take on more sophisticated imported Porsche and Coventry Climax propelled Lotus, Coopers and like devices in SA’s unique new Formula 1 championship…
Part 4: South Africa Leads the World
The History of South African Single Seater Racing will be published in more comprehensive form in a new book anon…
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