Birth of an era

2011-05-20 09:32

The history of BMW locally dates back to 1969 when a local company called Praetor Monteerders opened a plant in Rosslyn, near Pretoria, and started assembling a version of the Glas 1 700 sedan. BMW eventually acquired the company in 1973 and became the first fully owned subsidiary of BMW to be established outside Germany.

Three unique models were built by BMW Motorsport and Alpina for the local market. They included the E23 M745i, which was built in 1983 and used the M88 engine from the BMW M1.

The second was the BMW 333i. It was known as the “big six” because of its 6-cylinder, 3.2-litre M30 engine added to the two-door E30 model. Its engine, along with the sporty suspension and low-profile tyres, made it South Africa’s most nimble streetwise performer. Only 210 units were built, with power figures of 145kW and 285Nm of torque.

The third car was the E30 BMW 325is, which was built in 1989 and powered by an Alpina-derived 2.7-litre engine. It was built when South Africa heard it would not be getting the beastly M3. Initially, the car was just a 325i two-door fitted with a body kit and a close-ratio gearbox, but changes were added to keep it competitive.

Hence, the face-lifted 325iS was built late in 1990 and thanks to competition in the production car race series, another version was released in late 1991 called the 325iS Evo. Additions like the smooth underbody airflow, shorter and stiffer springs, thicker anti-roll bar and enhancements to the engine were all made to kick out 155kW.

The cabriolet version of the model was built up to 1993 and the touring version until early 1994.

Following the end of apartheid in 1994 and the lowering of import tariffs, BMW SA ended local production of the 5-Series and the 7-Series so that it could focus on building the 3-Series for the export market. This is still happening.

Alfa Romeo
During 1972 and 1989, there were more Alfa Romeos on South African roads than anywhere else in the world – at least outside Italy. These cars were assembled in Brits, an industrial town outside of Pretoria.

In late 1985, during the international boycott of the South African government, Alfa Romeo withdrew from the local market and closed its plant. It had to bulldoze tons of car parts to avoid paying import duties.

From 1974, the Alfetta models were manufactured at the Brits plant. And South Africa was one of only two markets to have a turbo-charged GTV-6 model. Only 750 units were built before all production ceased in 1986.

Then there was the Giulietta Group One, which was developed further without the permission from the head office in Italy. The car made its exclusive debut in South Africa in 1982. The original Giulietta stirred more interest with local car enthusiasts than it did anywhere else.

The South African version had 105kW of power compared with the 90kW of the stock model. It had a silver strip along the belt line and subtle Group One badging on the sides and boot lid of the car. It also had stiffer suspension, with Koni dampers and GTV-sourced torsion bar springs. Its most distinctive trait was its flat-spoked wheels wrapped in 185/70 tyres.

Chevrolets used to be built from “knocked down” parts of American models that were assembled at the Port Elizabeth plant in the late 1960s. Models such as the Biscayne were eventually made only in South Africa for local and export, along with General Motors’ Ranger.

General Motors also built a unique Chevrolet Nomad just for the local market that was different from the one made for the Americans. The Nomad was originally designed as a station wagon version of the Corvette and later became the station wagon version of the Bel Air. It was classy, stylish with lots of chrome trim, broad bumpers and sharp edges.

The local Nomad was nothing like it. It was an ugly duckling. It was a 4x4 vehicle, bigger than the average car, with truck-like proportions, which made it ahead of its time as sports utility vehicles were not common during those years. It looked more like a military jeep as it was bulky, straight-lined and built to be a workhorse to travel through the country’s tough terrain. Nothing pretty to write home about.

Other unique cars from the General Motors stable were the Kommando and the Constantia. All these cars were later replaced by the Opel models like the Rekord, Commodore and Senator.

» Sources: A History of Production Cars, General Motors South Africa, Wikipedia, German Car Forum and Tuner Specialists by Marc Carnswick

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