Heritage Day: SA’s 120 years of motoring history

<B>MOTORING JOURNEY:</B> The very first car to land in SA arrived 120 years ago. <I>Image: QuickPic</I>
<B>MOTORING JOURNEY:</B> The very first car to land in SA arrived 120 years ago. <I>Image: QuickPic</I>

Cape Town - South Africa has a long and proud motoring tradition, and for more than a century have been a leading developer, and manufacturer, of a wide variety and range of vehicles for local conditions and exports.

Yet, unlike countries like Japan, India and China, South Africa over this prolonged period has failed to establish a successful SA car brand. Yes, there have been numerous efforts to do this, but ultimately they have all been unsuccessful, in great part due to unfavourable economic conditions, lack of investment and a relatively small market.

Still, over the years the local industry has produced some memorable and very special vehicles, and has also been instrumental in the development of trendsetting models… special SA-specific Minis, BMWs, Fords, Opels and GM products which have rolled off local assembly lines.

To go into detail will entail writing a book, so herewith a snapshot of some of the special models which forms part of SA’s proud motoring heritage.
120 years ago…

The first car in South Africa, a Benz Velo imported by businessman John Percy Hess, arrived in Port Elizabeth at the end of 1896. 

The “horseless carriage” was then transported by train to Pretoria (as there was no benzene in the country for its engine) where on 4 January 1897 it was displayed to Paul Kruger, the then president of the Transvaal Republic.

READ: First car in SA - Happy 120th anniversary to the horseless carriage!

Soon after the first Ford, a 1903 Model A, arrived in South Africa, and this car was in fact the first Ford sold outside North America. With the mass-produced Ford Model T arriving about a thousand cars went onto local roads annually by 1910.

In 1924 Ford opened a plant in Port Elizabeth, followed by General Motors in1926, also in PE, Motor Assemblies in Durban. Just prior to the Second World War an assembly plant for Chrysler was built at Paarden Eiland near Cape Town and completed in 1941.

At much the same time Stanley Motors, importers for Hudson and Willys, commissioned a plant at Natalspruit near Alberton, known as National Motor Assemblers (NMA). 

This plant opened after the war, followed in 1948 by the commissioning of the Motor Assemblies (MA) plant in Durban, assembling Chrysler, Dodge and De Soto vehicles, and Car Distributors Assembly (CDA) in East London.

In 1949 the South African Motor Assemblers and Distributors (SAMAD) plant in Uitenhage, assembling Studebaker products, was established, and in 1955 Leyland opened its Blackheath plant in the Cape area.

While South African customers pre-war tended to opt for American cars, due to their soft springs and ride height on the poor quality roads, European cars were increasingly favoured after the war, with brands like Volkswagen, Volvo, Peugeot and Borgward gaining a foothold on the market.

During the 1960s and ’70s, due to the government’s local content legislation, even more manufacturers invested in local production, with facilities established close to Pretoria, in Silverton, Rosslyn and Brits.

Under the Local Content Programme many exclusive South African models, using local parts and accessories, were produced and also established a budding garagista industry, designing and building niche market sports cars...

The garagistas

The Protea:

The two seater Protea sport car, designed and built by John Myers, Rowland Fincher and dr. Alec Roy, was South Africa’s first production car. It was built in Johannesburg by GRP Engineering between 1957 and 1958. Either 14 or 26 units (sources vary) of the fibreglass bodied cars were completed before production ceased, and only four restored cars still exist.

Dart and Flamingo:

South Africa’s most successful sports cars were the GSM (Glass Sport Motors) Dart and Flamingo. The company was founded by Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner in 1958, with Verster de Wit designing the attractive roadster and coupe. The Dart was also manufactured in Kent, England by GSM Cars where it was known as the GSM Delta due to Dart being a registered trademark of Chrysler. GSM Darts and Flamingos were mainly sold in South Africa and England, although some also made it to Canada.

Eagle, Scarlatti, Phoenix, Caracal:

Other South African entrepreneurs also tried to emulate the short-lived success of GSM. 
The two-seater Eagle Sports car was first shown at the 1973 Rand Show. It was a kit car based on a Volkswagen chassis with VW mechanicals, and was built in Pinetown by Bill Badsey. It wasn’t a success.

The Ford-based Scarlatti, built by Scarlatti Cars in Benoni, was available from 1980 to1989, and only a prototype of the Phoenix, supposed to be South Africa’s answer to sports cars like Ferrari and Porsche, was built during 1987. 

The Caracal’s history is quite interesting. 

In the mid-1970’s Intermotormakers (IMM) struck a deal with to assemble Lotus and Lamborghini models in South Africa.They did assemble around four dozen Lotus Elise and Eclats, and about the same number of Lambo Countach and Espadas, but then politics and regulations interfered. 
In 1990 IMM founder Gerrie Steenkamp and ex-rally driver and boat designer Nic de Waal styled the Caracal, with components from the Volkswagen Golf 1.8 GTI. Sadly, after only two Mk1 and two Mk2 prototypes the operation folded. One running example, an Mk2 with updated styling, was unveiled in 1996.

Hi-Tech Automotive Perana Z-One, CAV

At one stage in the late ‘nineties Hi-Tech Automotive in Port Elizabeth, founded by Jimmy Price, was the biggest low volume car builder and design house in the world. 

Most of the vehicles produced there are exported, notably to the US and UK and the main distributor of the cars built by Hi-Tech is Superformance. Cars produced here include the MkIII Shelby Cobra, the Noble M400, the Superformance Daytona Coupe, Superformance GT40 continuation series, 1963 Corvette Grand Sport continuation series, a Lotus Seven replica and the Optimal Energy Joule (a South African company set to build electric vehicles which unfortunately did not go into production) 

Another development was the Zagato-designed Perana Z-One but production never came to fruition after the economic meltdown of 2009, with the Z-One now re-badged as the 378GT Zagato.

Another low volume car builder, Cape Advanced Vehicles (CAV), also produces GT40 replicas for export markets.


Production specials

For a decade, from 1968 to 1978, the country had what was marketed as “South Africa’s Own Car”. Built by General Motors in its Port Elizabeth plant from 1968 to 1973 the Ranger essentially was a mixture of parts from GM products, featuring an Opel Rekord body shell with a Vauxhall Victor FD grille, and internals from various Vauxhalls and Holdens.

South African Rangers featured a stylized springbok logo until 1970, and the European model was sold in Belgium and Switzerland. This version was produced by GM Continental SA from 1970 to 1978 in Antwerp, Belgium and GM Suisse SA in Biel-Bienne, Switzerland, also produced Rangers from 1970 to 1975. A few Rangers were also sold in the Netherlands.

The Ranger was probably the closest the SA industry came to producing a pure South African car, but forty years ago, in 1976, GM also introduced a locally developed and built Landie Defender competitor called the Chev Nomad.

Powered by a 2.5-litre engine, it only had rear-wheel drive, but its low mass meant it could trundle far off the beaten path.
Following the Nomad example, the Interstate Motor Company of Pretoria in 1978 launched its Trax products with locally designed chassis and a choice of engines. Production was eventually moved to Swaziland but ended in the early ’eighties.
During the ‘sixties up to now many special SA-only models - too many to mention – have been designed and built locally. 

Notable models include the Renault Alconi models of 1965-1969, the Mini Mk3 (1969-1972) with Riley Elf body shell, the Mini 1275E and the Austin Apache (1971-1978), specifically designed in South Africa.

GM produced the more powerful Ranger SS and the “Little Chev”, a Firenza Can Am with V8 engine (1973), as well as the Chevair – a variant of the Opel Ascona featuring the grille of the Opel Manta and a four-door body – built from 1976 to 1981. Oh, and of course the Ford Fairmont GT (1970-73).

Then there was the Basil Green Perana cars; starting with the Cortina Perana (1967-72), the Escort Mk1 Perana (1968-74), the Capri Perana’s (V6 and V8, from 1968 to 1972), the Granada Perana V8 (1973-74) and later the XR3 Perana and Sapphire Perana (up until 1996).

The fledgling BMW SA introduced the 530MLE, the actual precursor to BMW’s M-cars, in 1976, followed by the M535i in 1980, and the very special M1-engined 745i, built from January 1984 through April 1987.

A photo posted by Zachery Dunn (@zdunn31) on

During this period Ford (Samcor) also produced some interesting muscle cars, including the Ford Cortina XR6 Interceptor (1981 to 1983, made famous by the Stander gang) followed by the “Animal”, the Ford Sierra XR8 (1984) with 5.0-litre V8 Mustang engine.

Toyota had a limited run of Corolla SR5 Black Hawk and Silver Wolf models in 1980 and 1981, while Alfa Romeo produced the 3.0 GTV6 from 1978 to 1986.

BMW SA introduced its sought-after 333i in 1986, while the highly popular Group N racing series spawned more specials from BMW and Opel (the 325i Shadowline and the Kadett Boss and Superboss models) in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The highly contested hot hatch market in the ‘nineties saw the introduction of many SA-only sporty derivatives, such as the Mazda 323 EGi, the locally developed turbo-powered Opel Kadett 200ti, and the Nissan Sentra and Sabre 200 STi’s (the Sabre with a SA-specific nose section).

Samcor’s move towards Mazda-sourced models in the ’90s also saw specific SA designs for the 626 and Ford Meteor/Telstar products. 

However, with most South African manufacturers taken over by their parent companies by the end of the ‘nineties and early 2000’s it also meant the end of the specials (a pity, really).

Bakkie influence

Being situated in Africa, the local industry had to cater for customers’ special needs, and South Africa contributed hugely to the development of pickups worldwide.

In the early years the big Ford and Chev pickups ruled, but after the fuel crisis of 1973 smaller Japanese bakkies became popular, leading to the introduction of double-cab vehicles in the early ’eighties.

Besides bakkies, South Africa was also instrumental and influential in the development of bakkie-based SUVs, such as the Fortunrer, Everest, Pajero Sport, Trailblazer and Pathfinder, and a local outfit, Sani Industries, already designed such a vehicle, based on the Nissan mechanics, back in the ’eighties.

The practicality of double-cabs has now caught on worldwide, with a plethora of manufacturers on the verge of launching their competitors into this market segment. Currently the South African motor industry produces more than half a million annually of all types of automobiles. It contributes close to 10 percent of South Africa’s economic output, and accounts for almost 12 percent of manufacturing exports.

Nearly 300 000 people are directly or indirectly employed in the automotive sector, making it one of the biggest sectors in the country. One can surely be proud of our motoring heritage and what the industry has achieved over the last century.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Brought to you by
Voting Booth
Who do you feel was at fault for Verstappen and Hamilton's Italian GP crash?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
25% - 1423 votes
43% - 2412 votes
They were both at fault
32% - 1780 votes