Classic Car Africa founder Ken Stewart takes us through the first South African Grand Prix and Border 100.
In 1934, South Africa was put on the motor racing map when the first of the series of races now known as the South African Grand Prix was held. Until this time, virtually no international events had been run outside Europe, and to stage it in far-off South Africa was a courageous venture.
Edward (Brud) Bishop, the energetic motoring editor of the East London Daily Despatch, had been looking for interesting items for his page and set out with his camera to describe the newly completed 15,2-mile Marine Drive, a round course with possibilities as a scenic drive. Having seen it, he was struck by its eminent suitability as a fast and interesting road racing circuit.
In the following weeks, Bishop lost no time in airing his plan for a full-scale race – and it was not long before he was joined in his enthusiasm by others. The ideas crystallised on 30 October 1933, when the first meeting of the future South African Motor Road Race Organisers (PTY) LTD, chairman E.F.G. Bishop, was convened to discuss the holding of a ‘Tourist Trophy’ race on the Marine Drive. It was decided to go ahead immediately: permission was obtained from the various authorities and an intensive publicity campaign was launched to raise interest in running a major motor race of this nature.
With commendable foresight, the organisers consulted motoring personalities in Britain on the suitability of the type of race they proposed, with the result that the name was changed to ‘The Border 100’, an event open to all-comers in stripped racing cars of any type. Bishop had met S.C.H Davis, sports editor of The Autocar, while in England and accordingly sent him paragraphs about his venture, some of which appeared in print.
One can imagine the organisers’ delight when a cable arrived from Whitney Straight, that most successful independent of 1934, offering to enter his modified 8CM Maserati and asking for £700 starting money. Bishop immediately cabled acceptance, although funds available did not run to that figure. Then Dick Seaman, who had just left Cambridge to take up motor racing seriously, signified his intention to compete in a factory-owned K3 MG Magnette.
Whitney Straight and the legendary Giulio Ramoni wait for the start of the 1934 race.
Now the organisers could set about obtaining the necessary guarantees to finance their brainchild. Starting point was a beachfront hotel, where Bishop had just completed a news interview. With the problem of starting money uppermost in his mind, he decided on a bold plan; he tackled A.F.B. Curran, a shrewd Irishman, and host at the hotel. Though not entirely convinced that the newsman was staging “the biggest sporting event the country had ever seen”, Curran nevertheless headed the subscription list with a generous donation of £25.
This was just the right impetus for Bishop’s enthusiasm, and after 48 hours he had sufficient funds to pay the starting money required by the overseas visitors. Newspapers all over the country were supplied with a barrage of news and the organisers worked tirelessly to make the race a success. Other entries soon materialised: Michael, younger brother of Whitney Straight, was to drive his first race in a Railton Terraplane and L.G. Williamson, a Johannesburg-based Briton, entered a Frazer Nash. There were 14 local entries, being for the most part stripped and tuned touring cars with special bodies.
Two weeks before the race, which was to be held on 27 December 1934, all roadwork on the circuit was completed. It was announced that Oswald Pirow, Minister of Railways and Harbours and Defence, was to present the prizes, which consisted of: 1st place: 250 guineas and a replica of the Barnes Trophy; 2nd place: 200 guineas and a gold medal; 3rd place: 50 guineas and a gold medal. In addition, 10 guineas and gold medals would be awarded for fastest lap, fastest race time and the most meritorious performance.
Sending their cars on ahead by sea, Whitney and Michael Straight, accompanied by Dick Seaman, had left England on 10 December in Whitney’s De Havilland Dragon (DH84). Their route was over the Mediterranean to Tunis, Cairo and then down Africa to East London. The vicissitudes of the journey were many and varied, including a forced landing (entailing the dumping of much of their personal baggage), but they arrived safely in East London on 22 December. The organisers heaved a sigh of relief. Their dream was yet another step closer to reality.
Incidentally, Michael Straight was the subject of a cause célèbre in the later years. He returned to the United States in 1937, becoming a well-known novelist and editor of New Republic magazine. In 1963, he confessed that he had been a Soviet spy since his Cambridge days and exposed Anthony Blunt, of Britain’s Royal Art Collections, as the man who recruited him in 1937.
Michael Straights Railton Terraplane.
But we digress too long; a return to East London and the running of the race is indicated.
All was now ready for the big day and spectators flocked to the best vantage points.
The new road on the west bank of the Buffalo River linked up two existing roads to form a closed circuit of 15.2 miles, passing through the built-up area of West Bank village. The race was to be run over six laps of the course, a total distance of 91.2 miles.
Race day was fine and clear and an excellent crowd of 42 000 brought smiles to the faces of the organisers, justifiably proud of the success of their efforts.
The first man off, local man Neville Meyer in his Austin sports, was given the starter’s flag promptly at 3pm and the Border 100 was on! Then car after car was sent off amid cheers from the excited spectators. On scratch, Whitney Straight conceded 22 minutes and 24 seconds to the diminutive Austin and five cars completed the first 15-mile lap before the black Maserati was flagged off!
Making a tyre-protesting getaway that had the crowd open-mouthed, Straight made up one minute 45 seconds over Seaman on his first lap, the race order being Berrange, Meyer, Whitehead, Slabber, Clarke, Case, Du Toit, Rohr, Rosengana, Ross, Michael Straight, Seaman and Whitney Straight. Already the pace had been too much for Clayton’s little Austin and the unlucky Williamson had crashed his Frazer Nash, putting an end to his chances. Apparently he too angled the Leach’s Bay Bridge with too much enthusiasm and shot off the track into the prickly pears in the adjacent valley. He landed under the car, and when the St John Ambulance men extricated him, he looked like a pin cushion. For two days he lay in Frere Hospital while pretty nurses used tweezers to extract the thorns!
The Seaman MG passing Neville Meyer’s Austin at the Potter’s Bend bridge.
After 40 miles (nearly three laps) the lead was unchanged, but Seaman had passed Michael Straight into 10th place. By then four retirements had reduced the runners, these being Rosengana, Van Riet, Gillingham and McKenzie. While private tussles were going on in the field, Whitney Straight was fast making up his handicap, his second lap being at a scorching 96.32mph.
By the end of lap three, Johnny Whitehead’s MG J2 had fallen out and James Clarke’s Riley had moved into third place. Michael Straight re-passed Seaman, who had repeated pit stops, the trouble apparently being a faulty hand fuel-pressure pump. Only by the fourth lap did backmarkers really start catching up with the smaller cars, Clarke now leading from Slabber and Case, with Michael and Whitney Straight fifth and sixth.
Whitney Straight in the Maserati 8CM on his way to victory in the First South African Grand Prix and Border 100.
Then there was a great cheer as the black monoposto tore past into second place at the end of the fifth lap – only one to go! Clarke had asked too much of the little Riley and J.H. Case, a motor salesman from Queentsown, was leading in his home-converted Ford V8. Excitement mounted on the last lap as the Maserati quickly gained on the Ford and overtook it, to pull out a lead of two minutes by the time it roared past the winning post.
Case followed in second place, with Michael Straight’s angular Railton Terraplane third. Berrange and Rohr had the misfortune to fall out on the last lap, the latter rolling his C-Type MG when the radiator cap blew off and he was temporarily blinded by scalding water.
Only seven of the 18 entrants finished the race.
Whitney Straight, Herbert Case and Michael Straight finished 1,2 and 3.