MOTORING PAR EXCELLENCE

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Words and pics by Stuart Grant

Back in the March 2019 issue, I doffed our cloth cap to 60 years of the mighty Mini with a look at a 1275E variant, one of the last versions made at South Africa’s Blackheath production plant. But when the chance came to join in the 60th celebrations at the Knysna Motor Show, I teamed up with a trio of Mini’Formance-prepared cars on an epic 2 500km road trip in the big daddy of locally assembled Minis – a 1967 Cooper S.

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I know what you are thinking… a Mini isn’t exactly a Gran Tourer made for swallowing up the kilometres. But hey, in the 1960s many a family would have holidayed in similar cars (probably not even as fancy as a Cooper S), so who was I to complain? And besides, it promised to be an adventure.  

At 6am on Friday, following some choking of the twin 1¼-inch SU carburettors, I arrived at the starting point – the Grasmere One-stop. Soon I was joined by a cream race-prepped Cooper S sporting a very cross-sounding crossflow 7-port aluminum head and twin Weber carbs, an 1100cc MG Midget and a MkII 1000 that was freshly built to 1275cc Cooper S-spec and enjoying its run-in drive. In true economy-run style, all the cars were filled to one click on the automatic stop, so fuel consumption could be measured. In the case of the Cooper S pairing, this meant adding juice to both the left- and right-side tanks.

As the autumn sun rose, we set off for Bloemfontein. The Cooper S pairing, fitted with longer 3.1:1 diff ratio, proved the most comfortable at the speed limit but word from the owner of the MkII was that the standard 3.44:1 was not overly busy and more than up to the task of highway cruiser. The Midget also seemed up to the task – that was until 30 kilometres from Bloem, when it rolled to a stop… it seems a 25-litre tank is just not large enough. But this was not entirely unexpected, and a Jerry can in the boot had been pre-loaded with 10 litres.

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What this little delay brought to the fore was that everyone seemed to have an emotional connection with the Mini – almost every car that shot past hooted, trucks honked and the occupants waved. Nearby road workers came up and started up a conversation by calling me ‘Mr. Bean’ – a name that was shouted at us in almost every town we passed through or stopped in thereafter. Although clearly unaware of the differences between a Cooper S and Mr. Bean’s ride, this showed the global appeal of the Mini and, of course, Rowan Atkinson’s onscreen character.

Back on track, we ambled into a filling station in Bloem. Again, first click was the rule and the calculations had all four of us sitting between 7.5 and 7.7 litres per 100km. If you do a trip in an old banger like these, be prepared for the paparazzi – petrol attendants and other travellers whip out the cell phone cameras and ask a million questions. And you know there’s something on the go in the classic world when you stumble across other classics at each stop en route. Here it was a Sunbeam Rapier that the driver had bought the day before in Pretoria and was heading for Knysna before taking it home to Pringle Bay in the Western Cape. The petrol attendants also mentioned seeing a pair of old race cars strapped onto some trailers heading the same way.

From Bloem the dual carriageway became sporadic, with overtaking lanes the order of the day. The A-series-powered gang impressed, all able to pull past trucks, buses and other cars with ease and without the need for stirring the gear levers. Colesburg was the next stop and also where we spotted the next classic: one of only a dozen or so South African-made Fiat 131 racing homologation specials that was being towed down to the show and would be staying on for the week to take part in the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb.

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In the fuel-consumption competition, it was down to literally a few millilitres’ difference between all four cars. From Colesburg we split onto the N9, passing by the likes of Noupoort, Nieu-Bethesda and on to our overnight stop in Graaff-Reinet. Accommodation was booked on the way down and somehow we missed the fine print about it being 30km past the historic town, on a farm… which could only be reached by driving along a 6km stretch of dirt road. There was nothing to do but put the Cooper S rally credentials to the test and hit the rough stuff. The quartet excelled. The evening was spent checking over the cars, turning a few chops on the braai and taking in the expansive star-filled sky and sounds of the Karoo.

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The morning was fresh, made even more so by a low-lying layer of mist which sat with us for about 140km. Next stop was a roosterkoek brunch and fuel top-up in Willowmore before blasting past the Beervlei Dam and Uniondale, down Outeniqua Pass and into George. If you’ve never driven the N9, do yourself a favour and make it your next road trip. The tarmac is in brilliant condition, there are plenty of awesome mountain passes, the variety of scenery is breathtaking and there are loads of points of interest along the way.

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Here are a few facts we stumbled across:

  • Graaff-Reinet is the fourth oldest town in South Africa and home to more national monuments than any other town or city in SA. It is noted for its mohair industry and now also boasts a classic car museum and showroom known as Recollection Rides.
  • Nieu-Bethesda, based at the foot of the Sneeuberge, is most famous for the Owl House but for motorists, the mountainous road leading into the village is mind-blowing.
  • Aberdeen, in the Sarah Baartman District Municipality of the Eastern Cape Province, is home to a plethora of Victorian beauties and is one of the architectural conservation areas of the Karoo. It’s named after Aberdeen in Scotland, birthplace of the Reverend Andrew Murray of Graaff-Reinet. At the town’s core is the 1907 NG Kerk, with a spire measuring just over 50m high that is believed to be the tallest in the country. It isn’t straight either, leaning 4.5cm one way due to the weight of the tiles on a wooden frame. There’s an olive tree to the western side that was grown from a cutting taken from the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Another gem is the old post office building, built in 1898 in the Arts and Crafts style. Topped by an octagonal spire (for the MG fans), it was supposedly meant to be constructed in Grahamstown but the builders either mistook Aberdeen for the varsity town or decided they’d travelled far enough.
  • Willowmore too is packed with historical significance, and if time permits, it’s worth taking these in at a rather more sedate pace than we did – try hitching a ride on the Willow Limo, a kart pulled by some comical donkeys. One of the highlights of the town is the time warp Zaaymans petrol station, workshop and spares shop. This is a third-generation operation that sports original architecture and is filled with old petrol pumps, parquet flooring and an old Ford tow-truck.  
  • Uniondale is the next major stop along the route, but before getting here it’s worth stopping at the water tap and Beervlei Dam picnic spot. Yes, in the middle of nowhere there’s a tap. It is ankle-high but well sign-posted and pours out pure Karoo spring water. The story goes that local farmer Meyer van Rensburg, who was grateful for the water that flowed from a spring on his farm, installed it so that thirsty travellers could sample the goodness. Chances are that when you see the 23.145-square kilometre Beervlei Dam, it will be empty. This is because it was built in 1957 to provide flood absorption and the sediments in the area contain excessive salts, which when stored for long periods makes for high water salinity. Any flood water is used as quickly as possible by the downstream irrigators and the reservoir is kept empty for extended periods.
  • Uniondale has a famous ghost story, and also throws in two route options to the Knysna area. Option one is Prince Alfred’s Pass, a scenic road built by iconic pass constructor Thomas Bain between 1860 and 1867. All gravel, it climbs 700 metres in just 14 kilometres, so we thought it best to steer clear in the Minis and headed onto Route 62 and down to George by means of Outeniqua Pass. First built in the late 1940s, it is now a billiard table-smooth tar section with no less than 40 corners and a view over the Montagu Pass. Opened in 1848 following three years of labour by a convict force, this 17km dirt track runs through the Outeniqua mountain range and was used as a rally night stage in the 1980s.
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From George to destination Knysna is just 60km or so on the N2, however if you are in a classic (and especially one with the dimension and dynamic of a Cooper S) then take a left in town and hit the Seven Passes road. Again, we can thank Mr Bain for this section of motoring heaven, although this time he worked closely with his brother-in-law Adam de Smidt. The 75km route used to operate as the main road between George and Knysna, crosses 10 rivers and seven gorges by means of historic bridges, and winds through dense bush, forest, farms and small settlements.

So there you have it. 1 137km of trouble-free motoring in unbelievable cars and a landscape that can’t be beaten. What could be better than that? Driving them home again, of course. And we did just that a week later after watching the 7-port Cooper S compete in the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb.

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In the end I won the economy race, recording 7.4 litres per 100km – just better than the 7.6 achieved by the rest of the gang… not bad considering we maintained the speed limit for the entire journey.


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