HEROES IN THE DUST – 1

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Words and Images by Johnnie van Wyk

In Part 1 of our South African rally series, we delve into the details and atmosphere found in the local 1960s rally scene.

During the 1960s, National Championship rallies usually ran from Friday night through to Saturday afternoon. For ’63, the SAM 400 started in Pretoria on Friday evening with a field of 78 entries made up mostly of enthusiasts in their slightly modified road cars. A typical regularity rally, it took in 400 miles on open public roads with the competitive parts in twisty gravel roads such as Breeds Neck, Rankins Pass or De Tweede Spruit.

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Ewold van Bergen/Rex Wakely-Smith Datsun Bluebird P410 –1963 SAM 400 National Rally.

The route was unknown to the competitors (‘blind rallying’ as it was called overseas) and the schedule was only provided to each crew an hour before their individual start times. The route schedules were ‘tulip’ type drawings with accurate distances (to a 100th of a mile) and featured set average speeds. There were no special stages, but sections of the rally had high average speeds set that were virtually impossible to maintain and tested the driving and navigating skills of the crew to the limit. Marshals clocked each car on arrival; the car had to stop dead at secret marshal points that were not indicated on the route schedule. Sliding into a marshal point after a tight section, the crew would hold the scoreboard out to the marshal as a cloud of dust caught up, showering the official and the scoresheet with debris. Somehow the marshal could see enough to record the exact second the car became stationary.

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A Fiat comes to a dusty stop at a marshal point.

Scoring, compared to the ideal theoretical time, was to the second and seconds early or late were scored as penalties. To avoid public road traffic, rallying was done mostly at night and the combination of tight competitive sections, long hours and navigation precision tested endurance of both crew and car. And yes, there were farm gates to open (and close, so as not to give the following car an advantage); sometimes teams would really work the shut wires to make it more difficult!

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Rallying is more than just driving flat out – Barnie van der Walt getting ready for the Nite Trial .

Deep in the night you would get a flash of light from the left side of the road. These came from the headlights of a hidden marshal’s car lurking behind a bush. There was no need to stop at these as the marshal recorded the time and car number as it flew past. Crews were typically allowed 5 seconds outside the ideal time with no penalty here, but the general practice was to run the same amount of time early to allow for slowing down for a marshal or a gate or other unforeseen delays. Regulations forbade stopping in sight of a marshal (you were penalised for early arrival) to ensure an even flow of rally cars through the route. I remember DKW driver Piet (Beloftes) van Rooyen had a trick up his sleeve to fool the the marshal: simulating movement by holding the car stationary with the handbrake but keeping the front wheels spinning. When the correct time came up he’d release the brake and pull into the control.

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DKWs like this Daan Prins/J van Wyk, 1971 SAM 60 entry were popular rally cars and had a few tricks that could fool the marshals.

Mechanically driven and variable odometers allowed navigators to run as close as possible to the measurements of the organiser’s route schedule, but for accuracy they’d add or subtract distance and adjust the variable odo factor at intersections that were shown on the schedule. Top navigators would give the driver a time check three times a mile, depending on the speed, typically running three to five seconds early to cover for eventualities.

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Note the odo cable on the Scott/Harkness Lotus Cortina . The crew representing the Sable Club (Rhodesia) on the 1969 Total Rally .

Well organised events allowed enough time at refuel points to minimise road racing but as any time lost on tight sections had to be made up along the rest of the route, often resulting in some serious catch-up driving. Dust-covered crews would arrive at the finish washing the grit out of the teeth with a beer or two (or three) and sharing war stories of the event, of course.

Entry lists of club events were typically in the forties, and nationals often ran into sixty or seventy crews. There was a clear hierarchy starting with club rallies, then provincial and eventually the nationals. All rallies had to be presented to the AA Motorsport Committee for approval and run by national regulations, but at the core were motorsport clubs such as Pretoria Motor Club (PMC), South African Motorsport Club (SAM), Rand Motor Club (RMC), Sports Car Club (SCC) and the Western Province Motor Club (WPMC), as well as the Rhodesian clubs such as Mashonaland Motor Club and Mozambique’s ATCM. Inter-club rivalry was fierce, especially when it came to the Lawsons Trophy (sponsored by the Volvo agents, Lawsons Motors), awarded for an inter-club competition. This was a regularity rally and gymkhana combined.

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Volvo 122S of Dave Erasmus/Martin Joubert throwing out a dust screen on the SAM 400 .

As competition increased, so did the technicality and required car preparation. Manufacturers such as Volvo, Renault and Datsun started getting interested in the sport as the European successes of the Minis on the Monte Carlo Rally and the Peugeots on the Safari Rally drew the interest of advertisers. However, this didn’t really trickle down to the competitors and for the most part it was simply a case of being enough fun and adventure at reasonable risks and cost. Sponsorship was in its infancy and this was reflected in the names given to the rallies – how’s about the Cats Eyes, Rally of a Thousand Hills or the Cape Double Twelve? All awesome, but there was one corporate that put its money where its mouth was and that was Total, with its must-do annual Total Rally.

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A little bit sideways – the Harry Fekken/Omri Prinsloo Ford Escort on the SAM 70.
  • Check out the next installment in Part 2 – coming soon.

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