By Stuart Grant with photography by Etienne Fouche
Piranha: A small fish species that, relative to body mass produces one of the most forceful bites measured in all vertebrates. This immense power is generated by large jaw muscles and combines with finely serrated teeth to make them adept at tearing up flesh. It’s also the most fitting of names for a small vehicle building outfit that, founded 52 years ago, started generating immense power and status by shoe-horning in muscular engines to create the ultimate at tearing up tarmac and putting South Africa on the international performance Ford map.
Myth number one is that the incorrect spelling of Piranha was a mistake. In reality it was rather a clever way of getting around licensing issues with another company already having sewn up the rights to use it. Myth number two is that Basil’s surname is Green. It is, in fact, Greenstone. The Green, that he still uses today, stems from his boarding school days at Marist Brothers. Again it was a simple solution to a problem. With the seniors at school referring to juniors by surname it became difficult to differentiate between Basil and his brother. In a random selection process Basil took on the name Green and his brother, Stone.
Green left school in Standard 8, joining a trade school and earning a certificate in engineering. From there it was off to take up a job in the then Rhodesian mining field in the late 1950s. While there he read an English newspaper and stumbled across an advert that not only set him on a different path but also led to his changing the face of South African motoring for good. The advert sought to fill a spot as race manager on a privateer Formula 1 team using Cooper Climax cars. He applied for the position and cracked the nod on condition he went and spent some time learning the ins and outs of the motor at the Climax factory.
Although being part of a team of this nature meant Green filled the role of everything from mechanic to transporter driver he had time to get to grips with the details of the Climax engines and became an expert in their building – often even freelance building for other operations using the same mill. A move back to South Africa initially saw him employed as service manager at Lucy Motors Fiat in Joburg before buying his own BP service station in Commissioner Street, where some extra service bays meant he could modify race engines and develop what would become his BG Speed Equipment business.
With casting patterns by Bobby Leishman, Basil cast a wide range of bolt-on performance parts for street cars, ranging from cylinder heads and manifolds to alloy wheels. These together with the obligatory Speed Equipment louvres enjoyed a massive following, and were even exported to Rhodesia and the UK, where they were retailed by Winkelmans.
As a test bed for so many of these modification products Basil took to the track himself in the early 1960s – if you are battling to find his name in the race programmes, add the ‘stone’ to his name in the search engine. His initial car was an 850cc Mini bored to 1000cc but this was soon followed by a Ford Anglia. Of course this too was modified, with a 1500cc Cortina engine added. Not a standard one though – the capacity increased to 1640cc and it was fitted with an inhouse-designed and cast twincam head. Although seriously quick the reliability was an issue as the head was porous – this was later solved by adding a Wynn’s radiator repair additive to the water system. No amount of Wynn’s could fix the car during the 1966 9 Hour at Kyalami, though, when a massive crash left the Anglia a pile of mangled scrap. Unscathed, Green figured the best thing for the car was to rip out the mechanicals and fit them to a Fiat 600 he’d had lying in the yard and go drag racing. Of course this proved a success and the gutted out Fiat took the Top Eliminator class win at Rainbow on debut.
Willie Hepburn, Corrie Potgieter and George Gordon were employed to continue the shoe-horning (a favourite being the squeezing of Chevrolet V8s into Austin-Healeys) while Basil focused on growing the business and developing new performance engineering ideas. One such idea he experimented with was the fitment of a Ford Zodiac V6 engine into a Cortina MkI. This proved an issue in the weight distribution department but salvation came in 1967 when Ford unleashed its MkII version of the popular sedan. With some extra room in the engine bay the team could move the engine further back than with the MkI. They took it racing, and although blocked by the rule makers as a saloon entry, it showed some good form in the sportscar class against the likes of the Dirk Marias Sunbeam Tiger.
Ford South Africa took note and when it realised Bobby Olthoff didn’t have a competitive ride for the new season, turned to Green. Motorsport and marketing went hand in hand and Ford wanted to sell its new Cortina saloon, so competing in the sportscar class was a no-no. What happened then was a masterstroke: build 100 road-going units to homologate the V6 Cortina! Add a name to the car (Green can’t remember if his wife or daughter came up with Perana). Trounce the opposition on track. Job done.
It was a job done so well that Ford offered full backing and warranties on the Peranas, which were sold at R2 950 via the Grovesnor Ford group. On track the Olthoff/Green exploits didn’t go unnoticed with Joe Putter, the Gunston F1 team manager, concluding a deal to run a Gunston Perana Cortina V6 for Olthoff. An added bonus was that Gunston ordered a bunch of V6-powered Cortinas for its reps – these were however based on the Ford Cortina XL rather than the GT like the rest of the Peranas.
In 1968 Ford UK sent a bunch of its new RS1600 Escorts down south but the complexity and strain the Highveld altitude can put on engines had the execs a bit worried about the reliability of the performance twincam engine. Green and Perana stepped up to the plate, removing the highly-strung motor and replacing it with the new 2-litre Pinto engine. This, the Perana Escort MkI, became the first Pinto-engined Escort, a move soon followed overseas. Green sold off the RS1600 engines to local enthusiasts for R695, and a large portion of these landed up in single-seater race car.
Ford was on a
winning streak with new models at the time and the next one to receive the
Perana treatment was the Ford Capri in 1969. The first conversion was to fit
the Essex V6 into the stylish coupé but this was a short-lived offering as Ford
launched its own V6, and Ford SA’s head honcho Ron Scott felt that Ford needed
something a bit stronger to trounce the powerful Australian-derived cars
General Motors were selling. Of course Green’s answer was to wedge a 5-litre
Windsor small-block V8 under the hood and added a few well thought out
modifications like a high-rise manifold four-barrel Holley carb, 280° camshaft
and limited slip diff. This rapid growth meant the Commissioner Street workshop
had become a touch cramped and necessitated a move to new premises in
Plantation Road, Edenvale.
Road Perana Capris were good for a claimed a top speed of 140mph and a zero to 100km/h sprint in 6.1 seconds. No manufacturer number padding was needed back then and Green proved the honesty of these figures running his own Capri to 139.717mph during a Kyalami speed day. Ford UK’s top executive Walter Hayes was so impressed upon driving a Capri Perana that he ordered his own and shipped it to England, while Jackie Stewart gave one a burn around Kyalami before the 1970 South African Grand Prix and gave it a thumbs up.
Of course they hit the track in anger, with the most famous being the Gunston versions run by Green and piloted by Olthoff. Despite only competing in half the season, the Olthoff Group 5 car finished third overall for the year and set a new lap record at every track the circus visited. In 1970 he took the title with 12 wins from 13 races. When the rules reverted to more road-going Group 2 format in 1971, Peranas became the way to go with Olthoff joined by similar machines driven by Basil van Rooyen, Peter Gough and Koos Swanepoel. The same year, the South African Guild of Motoring Writers awarded Basil the Achievement of the Year in the South African Motor Industry.
In 1972, Perana got hold of the new MkIII Cortina and ramped it up by removing the 2-litre 4-cylinder and slotting in a 3-litre V6, and a year later the Granada V6 was removed and the trust 5-litre Windsor added. This gave the Granada Perana South Africa’s Performance Car of the Year and Tow Vehicle of the Year title in ’73. Ford Germany ordered two units as test mules with future plans for releasing such a product to the European market, and Ford International President Lee Iacocca loved it so much he shipped it stateside – even sending his personal pilot to sit and watch the conversion from right- to left-hand drive.
The worldwide fuel crisis that same year dented Perana production, with the number of units being completed dropping from 60 or so down to 6 or 7 – Green and Perana were in trouble. He approached Ford’s Spence Sterling for advice, who offered a Ford dealership where Basil and his team could buy, sell and service Fords. Showroom windows were knocked into the Plantation Road facility and Green set about making the dealership into a star performer, scooping numerous Dealership of the Year titles.
He kept his hand in the performance game though, churning out a few more Perana cars over the years. The Escort XR3 Perana, based on Ford’s front-wheel-drive hatch, differed from previous Green projects as it did not get an engine swap with performance but was rather improved on by the fitment of a pair of twin-choke Weber 36DCD carbs and BG-designed air filter and inlet and exhaust manifolds. Simple but effective, the Perana had a top speed 16km/h and a 0 to 100km/h sprint 1.6 seconds quicker than the regular XR3.
In a similar fashion the Ford Sapphire Perana was a case of re-engineer the existing engine rather than swap it for a bigger capacity lump – although it did come in both 3- and 3.4-litre guises. In both it featured a BG twin carburettor downdraft inlet manifold, camshaft with increased lift and the full exhaust system, including manifold, was reworked. The 3.4 was something really special, with JT Development mods to the sub-assembly seeing an increase in bore and stroke, offset ground crank journals and custom-made conrods. Kolbenschmidt pistons made by Kolbenco were added to suit the increased bore and the results were spectacular, with Ca magazine calling it the most powerful V6 and fastest Ford they had tested to date – 236km/h and a 0-100km/h time of 7.56 was seriously impressive in 1991.
With the Basil Green Ford Dealership becoming part of Motorlink (now Super Group) the Perana story took a bit of a break. The name resurfaced in 2009 with the unveiling of the Perana Z-one (a Zagato-styled supercar, built in South Africa on Corvette running gear) but with only 10 pre-production units completed, AC Cars partnered with the project and the cars were renamed AC 378 GT Zagato.