Cape Town - There’s little doubt that South Africans are a passionate lot when it comes to motoring. But have you ever wondered when and where it all began – and if we ever managed to actually produce an SA-built car?
You might be rather surprised to discover how enterprising we really can be when ‘push comes to shove!’
You have to start somewhere…
South African historians suggest that in 1897 – January 4, to be exact – Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler’s horseless carriage – the first of its kind anywhere in the world – was about to be demonstrated in a public park in Pretoria, in the Transvaal.
Powered by a very early internal combustion engine, the event was witnessed by 3000 intrepid locals, all anxious to see the mechanical marvel that was about to take the world by storm … ‘for the honour of being the first people in South Africa to have set eyes on that which, no doubt, will supersede all locomotion before the end of the century,’ … so read the publicity poster of the day.
From that day forward we were mad keen – hook, line and sinker!
COOL FROM ANY ANGLE: We reckon Batman may well have had one of these to keep the public safe from harm. Pic: Dave Fall
South Africa did have roads of a kind, thanks to the pioneering spirit of people like Andrew Geddes Bain, and by the time the Union of SA came into being (1910) the car had proved itself as an independent means of propulsion – for those that could afford one, at least.
And yet, according to Fred Schnetler, an astute motoring scribe and colleague – sadly no longer with us – suggested in his book A Century of Cars (ISBN 0624036235), that by 1920 only 12 763 passenger cars and 3 503 commercial vehicles (mostly European in origin) had been registered by the authorities … but Henry Ford was about to present his famous Model T in completely knocked-down form and assembled in a newly-built plant in Port Elizabeth …
Other major American players around that time included Hupmobile, Chrysler and General Motors (incorporating such illustrious brands as Chevrolet, Pontiac, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Opel and Vauxhall, among others).
Protea by name
Amazingly a few more years were to roll by before a true South African car manufacturer came into being: now the almost forgotten brand called Protea; less than 20 were made, which were loosely based on the British Swallow Doretti with a Triumph TR powerplant fitted under the fibreglass bonnet.
Trouble was it was too expensive and actually cost more than the eponymous Doretti…
Arguably the first local manufacturer (1958-1964) to make a real go of producing a successful sporty little number was the rather nimble GSM Dart, built in Paarden Eiland, Cape Town, by Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner, two entrepreneurs of the nicest kind.
Feather in the cap
A feather in their cap was securing the services of Verster de Wit, a South African -born vehicle body stylist on the Sunbeam Alpine for the British Rootes Group (a sterling car company of the day, latterly taken over by the Chrysler Corporation of America).
Meissner cleverly utilised used a mixture of Ford 100E and 105E suspension mechanicals fitted within a tubular frame.
Fibreglass was the choice of body covering (tough and light) on the Dart (known as the Delta in the UK due to rights reasons) and Flamingo models (illustrated alongside); tuned Ford 10 side-valve motors powered up the lusty early models; while lively Cortina 1500cc GT motors propelled the Flamingo usually seen in 2+2 coupe guise. Most were sold to local enthusiasts – but a couple of GSM’s did make it to Canada, apparently.
Alas, by the mid-60s internal financial turmoil had put the GSM marque out of business once and for all.
But this isn’t the end of the story, as far as dedicated South African car designed and built marques are concerned, because around the corner was to come the Basil Green Capri Perana (V6 and V8), Rangers, Trax and the fisherman’s true friend - the Chevy Nomad(!).
Perhaps more about those local interest marques another day!