By Graeme Hurst
John Myers is well-known as the creator of South Africa’s first sports car, the Protea, which was a highlight of a rich and varied automotive career, both on and off the track, as he recalled with CCA back in September 2016. In 2018 I caught up with him again to find out more about two saloon cars he helped develop and race that were so quick, one broadsheet hack refused to believe his claims… until John gave him the keys to try them for himself!
“That little Fiat can’t do 90mph!” That exclamation by the Motor Editor of the Rand Daily Mail back in the mid-1960s sent John Myers’s blood pressure over the redline after the blood, sweat and tears he and good mate Angelo Pera had put into making their Fiat club racer fly – as Kyalami regulars in the early 1960s knew only too well. “So I gave him the keys to try for himself and he came back and said: ‘Bloody hell, it can!’” recalls John today. That was after a stint around Kyalami that had the motoring hack coming out of Club House wide-eyed and on three wheels.
The car in question was a humble two-cylinder mid 1950s Fiat 500 ‘Cub’ – affectionately known as the Topolino, which is Italian for ‘Little Mouse’. Only the example John campaigned was known in the pits as ‘Mighty Mouse’, having been heavily tweaked to deliver 50bhp in place of the rather meagre 16.7bhp originally available in one coming off the show room floor.
The Fiat wasn’t the only car that thrilled saloon championship fans back in the early 1960s, as John and Angelo were equally famous for their hotted-up Renault Dauphine which, after years of fettling, ended up being good for 100mph… something the same Motoring Editor disputed with the same predictable result. “He said: ‘Bollocks, it won’t do 100mph’ so I said: ‘Ok, have a go in this one too’ and he came back again saying: ‘Well I’ll be damned, it can!’”
The results from the sequence of good-natured dares were published in two successive Saturday editions of the paper’s motoring pages in September ’65. By then the Dauphine had competed in three 9-Hour races and scored more than 25 class wins over the previous three seasons. And it sat in sixth place in the SA Saloon Car Championship log that year.
The two friends (who are both now in their mid-90s and still in contact) met through the racing scene on the Reef in the 1950s. By the early ʼ60s John was working for Volvo agents Lawsons Motors (after production of his Protea cars ceased) and campaigned a Volvo 122S for the company. Angelo had his own garage in Craighall and was a skilled engineer-cum-racing driver, hugely adept at extracting extra grunt from otherwise ordinary engines on a budget.
He bought the Fiat for R120 back in 1957 and soon set about tuning it by boring the 570cc block out to 690cc to accommodate Renault pistons (using rings which Angelo turned himself) and polishing the head to increase gas flow. The suspension was lowered and the wheels widened to 4 ½ inches – a big change from the standard 2 ¾-inch width.
He and John also lightened the car. “We took out most of the interior and made the passenger door and the bonnet out of fibreglass,” recalls John.
Their first time out at Grand Central had them lapping the circuit in 2min 40secs. More drastic changes followed. “Angelo converted it to run with a dry sump to avoid surge. He engineered a way to run a scavenge pump mounted on the timing chain cover which delivered oil to a tank under the scuttle from where it went through an oil cooler before going back to the engine.” Other engine tweaks included running a 1½-inch SU carburettor that John recalls coming off an Austin-Healey and beefing up the compression ratio to 9.1:1, in place of the standard 6.7:1. To ensure that none of the added horses were lost en route to the rear wheels, Angelo also machined a set of straight-cut gears and fabricated his own propshaft with hardy spicer joints instead of the standard car’s fabric discs that would’ve been torn to shreds on the first lap.
The various tweaks worked, with the lap time at Grand Central down to 2min 17secs before racing moved to Kyalami. There it quickly gained a reputation for scaring much bigger opposition, lapping at over 70mph on a regular basis and pulling over 90mph down the straight.
And the little Fiat wasn’t limited to Kyalami; John recalls racing in Mozambique in the Fiat, where he outfoxed some of the opposition. “There were two Honda 600s on the grid… delightful things with four separate carburettors – and they were quick. I decided I needed to get rid of them so I went down the straight and pretended to be on the limit – but then braked late and took the bend on the inside and they shot off into the sand dune. Afterwards the stewards wanted to turn my car over to see if there was a second engine underneath!”
The pair campaigned the little Fiat regularly but it needed a lot of fettling between races. “It was forever bending conrods and they had to be straightened after each race. One day I came in and he had thick sheet of Duraluminium. I asked him what he was doing and he said: ‘I’m making a set of new conrods as I’m tired of straightening these bloody things’. He engineered the new conrods to run without shell bearings and had the crankshaft hard-chromed,” recalls John. “It never gave any trouble.”
John and Angelo’s competitive efforts with the Fiat lasted for a good few years, underpinned by a cheap and plentiful supply of parts. “People used to leave them outside the shop – ‘there you go you can have another for parts.’”
John and Angelo’s antics with the Fiat led the pair to set their sights on something more suitable for the famous 9-Hour, which John already had under his belt with his efforts in the Lawson 122S back in ’61 and a Volvo 544 before that when the fixture was still at Grand Central.
Lawsons had by then started trading in Renaults and agreed to ‘loan’ the pair a new Dauphine to prepare for the following 9-Hour. That was 1962, the year that John had fortuitously returned to England for the first time since he came out after the War, and he used the trip to stock up on various go-faster goodies.
“Old man Lawson asked me to stop by the Renault factory in France to introduce ourselves and get up to speed on the latest tuning mods. They had a Dauphine and a Fregate in the workshop and showed us various tricks, but I also went to a tuning firm called Autobleu in Paris; they had various bits including a ‘bunch of bananas’ exhaust and a high-ratio pinion for the steering rack.”
He also tracked down a specialist in Scotland. “There was a bloke in Prestwick who was making Dauphines go faster than the factory and boasted that he could get 100mph,” says John. “He took me for one helluva drive in his Dauphine. It was pissing down with rain and the car was wheel-spinning all over the place and this bloke had thick glasses. When he got up to 90mph I said, ‘okay, I’ll take your word that it’ll do a 100!’”
Back home he and Angelo got to work tweaking the borrowed Dauphine, which had its suspension lowered and the location of the rear drive shafts beefed up with a set of custom radius rods. The steering rack got the pinion from Autobleu, which reduced the turns from lock to lock from five to just two. John recalls that mod as being essential. “With a rear-engined car on a track you’re either going straight ahead or you’re on full lock, and with five turns it was never going to make it.”
Under the bonnet, things got even more radical: “Angelo blanked off the side inlet ports on the cylinder head and drilled down through the top so the carb could sit on top of the rocker cover. That meant the bonnet wouldn’t shut – so we wedged it up with stays. Then the armchair experts all said: ‘Oh look they’re using the Kamm effect!’”
All the various tweaks were only finished the day before the 9-Hour, with no time to run the car in. “Arnold Chatz and I decided to drive it around all night to ease the car up before we raced the next day.” The pair came home third in their class and 12th on index. Although the car was listed as a Dauphine 1093, the nomenclature was a misnomer as it was a Renault number relating to performance and didn’t reflect capacity, which was standard at 845cc.
The Dauphine was back for the ’63 9-Hour – this time in the hands of Chatz and Scamp Porter – and it had been a subject of ongoing development in between. “By that stage I’d joined Angelo in business and we used to work from dawn for a few hours before the rush of customers. We had bought a rolling road and we used to test out various changes as we made them.” Some of those were quite involved, such as modifying the valve gear to avoid pushrod bounce, of all things. “We welded flat washers on the pushrods to allow them to run with springs. These were narrow items taken off an old Buick engine.”
Various carburation options were tried and tested while Angelo also went through more than half a dozen camshaft grinds to get a suitable profile. “In the end, we were running it at 54 degrees before TDC and the car went like the clappers. I used to regularly take it to 8000rpm at Kyalami. In fact, it could go to 8200, but at 8300rpm a pushrod would pop out.” It’s hardly surprising to learn that the engine needed work between fixtures. “We had to change the top ring after each race as it had lost its tension. I used to take the ring out and it was so soft I could lay it out flat.”
In that spec the Dauphine was good for 90mph, but cracking the magic 100 mark (the extra 10mph at that speed requiring a substantial increase in power) would only come following a change in class rules. “A year or two after we started racing the Dauphine they changed the formula and did away with the 850cc class, making it 1000cc. I thought, hell we can’t give that many CCs away! So I looked around and found a Renault-engined pickup that was made in Japan… Corsairs I think they were called. These models had bigger blocks and sleeves so we could increase capacity, and Angelo machined them down so the pistons sat proud and fitted into the head. That gave us a 12.5:1 compression ratio and made the car good for 100mph.”
At that time the car was still running on drums, but an upgrade was made possible thanks to a demo car being written off. “I was demonstrating a Volvo 122S to a potential customer and, as we came into Oxford Street, there was our demonstrator Dauphine wrapped round a bloody telegraph pole. So I got on the phone to Angelo and said: ‘You’d better get hold of the insurance company and make a bid on the wreck as it’s the latest model with disc brakes!’”
The little Dauphine was also subject to various other running gear upgrades, including bespoke wheels. “The standard wheels were 15in which were much too high so Angelo bought some 13in rims from Rubery Owen in the UK and had his own inserts cast in alloy at a foundry in Benoni. The combination worked really well.” The pair made further tweaks to the Renault’s suspension to refine its manners on the track. “I used to have big dices with a bloke called Armstrong who had a Mini Cooper. I used to go into Club House corner faster than he did but he’d come out faster than me as I used to get wheelspin inside the rear wheel, even though we were running on 2.5 degrees negative camber at the back.” Angelo’s solution was to add a transverse leaf spring between the rear hubs. “It meant I could get a front wheel in the air in corners, which no other Dauphine could achieve.”
The Renault was actually quite good when it came unstuck on the track, as happened on one occasion when a competitor dropped oil on the circuit. “Coming into Sunset, a Cortina dropped his sump. I was right behind him and had no control after hitting the oil, and ended up going this way and that. When it got a bit quieter I thought, Christ, I’m still here, so I put it into third and got the hell out of there. As I entered Club House I looked back in my rear-view mirror and Sunset looked like a bloody carpark!” Maybe if the Motoring Editor had seen John escaping the pileup on that day he would’ve taken him at his word…