HEROES IN THE DUST – THE CHARACTERS OF SA RALLYING

By Johnnie van Wyk

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South Africa’s Total Rally was an international event that ran for decades and separated the men from the boys – metaphorically, of course, as there were several female competitors too! A few of iconic characters came to the fore and have remained South African legends to this day.

One of them was Chris Swanepoel. At the final stage of the very tough 1971 Total was at the LM racetrack, there were just five finishers. The well-known Star motoring journalist, Harvey Thomas, approached Swanepoel with the words: “How does it feel to be king again?” Chris, in his typical self-deprecating way responded: “No, Harvey, Hettema is king – I just won the Total Rally.”

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Chris Swanepoel at the Total Lydenburg refuel at the infamous 1971 Total rally.

But by then, after the third Total win (ʼ68, ʼ69 and ʼ71), Swanepoel was regarded as one of the long-distance specialists. With Gus Crous in the navigator seat, they excelled at endurance rallies in Gordinis and Toyota GSLs built by Scamp Porter. The first national win for these two was the 1965 Tour Natal in a DKW. They did quite a few Monte Carlo rallies (mainly as the Total winners), with the best South African result in the 1970 Monte – 15th in Renault’s works Gordini. It was said that Chris often switched the Gordini’s lights off when catching a competitor so that he would not react to him wanting to pass. Many got a huge fright as Chris switched the lights back on when next to them!

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Gus Crous in the 1971 Toyota GSL.

The Muhl brothers in a DKW were the crew to beat in the very early sixties. The entry lists typically included drivers like Ewold van Bergen, Jan Hettema, Francis Tucker, Robin Thompson, Phil Porter, Lambert Fekken, Chris Swanepoel, Gene Bosman, Louis Cloete, Dave Howcroft and Geoff Mortimer. Grinding the mechanical calculators in the seats next to them were the legendary regularity navigators such as Raggy Schjolberg, Robbie Broekmeyer, Mike Hooper, Piet van Rooyen, Rex Wakeley-Smith, Herman Fekken, Alan van Niekerk, Gus Crous and Ralph Behm. None of them were full-time rallyists during the sixties.

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Robbie Broekmeyer in the 144 Volvo (navigating for Francis Tucker), LM 1969.

Jan Hettema’s name features right through South African rally history. He rallied against the Muhl brothers in the early sixties and was a factor to be reckoned with right through to the early nineties. He was a controversial character, and the first rallyist to resign from a normal job when, in 1970, Toyota ran him full time and imported a GT5 Twin cam for him – in fact, manufacturers such as Toyota, Ford and General Motors took him back a second and even a third time. He often preferred to prepare his own cars and although history might judge that those were his less successful years, he did make a Firenza run with the works Escorts in 1975. Hettema was a true enthusiast; even at the peak of his success he took part in many club events and was even a very competent regularity navigator.

Although he had several wins in the original Total rallies (ʼ63,’65, ‘66, ’67 – all 122S Volvos), perhaps two of the most memorable were ones he did not win. In the 1970 Total he won every stage from halfway onwards against Ewold’s SSS, but the Toyota killer won the event eventually. The second was the 1977 Total. Bernie Marriner, who had brought Hettema back to Ford in 1976, tells the story of how he took Hettema to the army testing ground in PE to familiarise him with the new MK2 Escort – which Hettema promptly flipped just as they got started!

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The successful Van Bergen pair, winners of the Total rally 1970.

In the ’77 Total, Hettema and Franz Boshoff beat the multiple Monte winner Sandro Munari in the Lancia Stratos on stage times but were disqualified due to a speeding fine in an open section (although in South African enthusiasts’ books they won). The battered Escort Mk2 in the lovely Southern Sun livery was visual proof of the battle. Hettema participated in six Monte Carlo rallies and two RAC rallies.

And then there was the ‘Klerksdorp Mafia’: mainly Louis Cloete, Pickles Robinson, Willem van Heerden and Japie Stapelberg. Cloete, the 1973 SA champion, preferred muscle cars after his Escort years. The 1973 5-litre Chev Can Ams were built and managed by Geoff Mortimer for Cloete, but in 1975 he preferred the six-cylinder Datsun engine in the 180U. Cloete competed in the 9 Hour right through the sixties and early seventies in Cortinas, Gordinis and with Geoff for Toyota.

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Jan Hettema/Willem van Heerden in the left-hand-drive ex-Mikkola Escort RS1600.

The legendary Fekken brothers, whose preferred machines were Volvos and Escorts, graced the entry lists from their varsity days. Harry had a very successful Total which brought a 6th place and the first privateer. Wammy Haddad used to say Harry always approached the limit from the top end. Lambert, the only posthumous rally champion (1974), was the meticulously precise one and was navigated by Johann Borman in his successful years. Roelof was probably the best exponent of the Finnish flick with his signature sideways approaches to corners – so much so that the Escort service crew rarely had to change brake pads… but just take a look at the shoulders of those Dunlops! Roelof was the only driver other than Sarel to win a national championship rally in a ‘standard class’ car (Alfetta).

Elbie Odendaal, the farmer from Brits and 1971 champion, was mostly seen in a Beetle in the mid-sixties, then an Alfa 1750 (Total rally win 1972) and in his last active years in one of Bernie Marriner’s first Escort Mk1s. It’s very easy to spot him in photos at the cold, snowy and wet 1973 RAC rally… he was wearing short khaki pants! Odendaal was navigated by Christo Kuun in most of his successful years.

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Elbie Odendaal, Christo Kuun, Datsun SSS, Total winner 1972.

Eugene Bosman and Gus Menzies are best known for their finish in the 1964 Monte in Bosman’s Mini Cooper. This pharmacist of Kloofsig with beret and a friendly smile ran a Hillman Minx in the early sixties, then a Mini in local events and was one of the first to rally a sponsored Toyota Corona (mostly navigated by Alan van Heerden).

Surely the most scientific and technical development driver/engineer of the ʼ60s era was Ewold van Bergen. He won the 1960 Total in an Austin A40 (of all vehicles!), but soon thereafter ran Datsuns only. His developments soon had him recognised by the Nissan Motor company in Japan and was entered by the works team in the Montes of ʼ63, ʼ65, ʼ66 and ʼ67 in Datsun P410s (Bluebirds) and a 240Z in ʼ71. He was national champion in ʼ60, ʼ64, ʼ65 and ʼ70 and internationally he twice competed in the Canadian Press On Regardless Rally.

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Ewold and Minota van Bergen checking in at the Pretoria City Hall in TP66777 Datsun SSS TK, 1969.

The best international result was the win in the 1971 European championship TAP Rally of Portugal, against competitors such as Waldegard (911 Porsche), Jean Pierre Nicholas (Alpine A110) and Stig Blomkvist (Saab V4). Ewold started experimenting early on with the Dunlop M&S compounds used overseas and did development work on rally shock absorbers. The cars always had very identifiable Pretoria registration numbers such as TP 71771; TP 66777, TP 111777 and TP 88777.

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