PRE-WAR PASSION

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By Mike Monk with images from Vynor Smith

Despite its geographical position, South Africa was a popular motorsport venue in the pre-war years and thanks to the efforts of East London’s The Daily Dispatch motoring editor Edward ‘Brud’ Bishop, the country hosted its first grand prix on 27 December 1934. The East London municipality had just constructed a Marine Drive circular road on the west bank of the town alongside the Buffalo River, and driving the scenic route Bishop thought the road would be ideal for staging a motor race. Together with fellow enthusiasts, Bishop formed the South African Motor Road Race Organisers (Pty) Ltd and permission was obtained to stage such an event.

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The plan was for a Tourist Trophy-style race for locals run over six laps of the 24.5km circuit under the title ‘Border 100’, but the concept whipped up so much enthusiasm that it rapidly developed into a national event. Better still, overseas publicity efforts caught the eye of sports editor of The Autocar SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis, who helped elicit overseas entries that, once accepted, raised the event’s status to international level and the race title became the South African Grand Prix. Three overseas drivers took part, headed by American millionaire racer, aviator and businessman Whitney Straight in his supercharged 3-litre Maserati 8CM, his brother Michael in a 4-litre Railton Terraplane and Britain’s Dick Seaman in a works 1087cc MG K3 S/C Magnette. Whitney overcame a 22 min 24 sec handicap to snatch the lead on the last lap and thrill the crowd of well over 40 000 spectators. The race was claimed to have been the largest ever to gather for a single sporting event in the history of the Union.

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The construction of a new link road, the now-famous Potters Pass (named after the Divisional Council’s road engineer), to avoid passing through the township of West Bank, led to the circuit being shortened to 18.27km. The pass was opened on 7 December 1935 and the new circuit was named the Prince George Circuit to commemorate the Duke of Kent’s visit to SA. Held over 18 laps on 1 January 1936, the race once again attracted an international field but it was a local resident who took the chequered flag – the enigmatic Dr Mario Massacurati, driving a Bugatti T35B. The attendance figure was given as 82 000.

Now established as a New Year’s Day event, in 1937 two of the mighty supercharged 6-litre Type C Auto Union ‘Silver Arrows’ headed the entry list in what was to become a race of attrition, with Pat Fairfield in his ERA R4A taking the honours after Buller Meyer’s Riley Ulster blew its motor on the last lap while in the lead.

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Ten Maseratis dominated entries for the 1938 race but it was the previous year’s ‘Almost Man’ Buller Meyer who came home first to become the first South African to win his home grand prix, to the delight of 70 000 spectators.                                                                                                                                                                            

Then, for 1939, grand prix racing in Europe changed its format from the established formula libre handicap style of event to a less complex scratch race voiturette (small car) formula, the rules of which allowed for cars with engines limited to 1500cc with supercharging optional. Without the necessity for handicapping – when the starting flag fell, all cars left the grid – following the race was easier for spectators and it was to become the preferred format in the post-war years.

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The downside of switching formats was that it precluded many local entries and only 14 cars were entered, nine of which were supercharged 6CM Maseratis. But what a quality field it was. Maserati entered two cars for Luigi Villoresi and Franco Cortese, which were backed up with overseas privateer entries from Paul Pietsch, Armand Hug, Louis Gerard and Piero Taruffi. Completing the group were local drivers Buller Meyer, Mario Massacurati and Francis ‘Steve’ Chiappini. Rivalling the Tridents from Italy were four ERAs: Lord Howe in an R8B, Peter Whitehead in an R10B and the Hon Peter Aitken in an R11B were visitors from England, supported by SA’s Roy Hesketh in an R3A. Completing the line-up was a lone non-supercharged Riley prepared by the legendary Freddie Dixon and driven by the notorious Miss Fay Taylour.

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Villoresi was on pole for the 18-lap race, with Cortese and Massacurati making up the front row of the 3-2-3-2-3-1 grid. As most pundits expected, Villoresi shot off into the lead and after all 14 cars successfully negotiated the first few corners he was never challenged, his team-mate running steadily behind throughout. For Taruffi and Pietsch the race was short-lived, the Italian’s car suffering clutch failure while the German’s engine blew a piston, both on Lap 1. Whitehead dropped out on Lap 2, also with piston failure. Massacurati was slowed for a while with clutch problems as Meyer joined the ‘Piston Poopers’ on Lap 3. When Taylour’s engine failed on Lap 4 the race was in danger of fizzling out for the 63 000 spectators, but Massacurati was back to full speed and making up lost ground, while Hug and Hesketh were having a close dice. Gerard, too, was putting in a thrilling drive until he became the sixth (and final) retiree, just after half-distance, with burnt valves. Howe had to pit for fresh plugs and, while Hesketh stopped for two rear tyres on Lap 15, Massacurati slipped by him into third place and set the fastest lap at 104.272mph (167.81km/h) on the next lap – a pre-war record.

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Villoresi won in a time of 1 hr 59m 25.8s at a record average speed of 99.667mph (160.39km/h), followed by Cortese (98.60mph/158.68km/h) and Massacurati (97.08mph/156.23km/h). Behind the Maserati trio came Hesketh, Howe, Hug, Aitken and Chiappini, all completing the full race distance. It was the last time the Prince George Circuit was used.

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And amongst the 60 000-plus crowd was a young lady who was not expecting to be there. Vynor Smith had been holidaying in Europe with her mother and they were travelling home from Italy on the Italian liner SS Duilio. On board were some of the cars and drivers heading for South Africa via the Suez Canal, and during the voyage the pair got to hear of the race and made the decision to disembark in East London and watch the race. And such was the relaxed nature of grand prix racing at the time that Vynor, then around 19 years of age, went around the circuit with her box camera and the photos, which are reproduced here for the first time, captured the spirit of the occasion. After the race, the pair travelled home to George by rail.

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Incidentally, the SS Duilio was Italy’s first super-liner. It made its maiden voyage in 1923 and in 1939 it was owned by the Lloyd Triestiono line, but was laid up the following year. During WW2, it was briefly chartered to the International Red Cross in 1942 before being laid up in Trieste, where it was sunk by Allied aircraft in 1944.

But even as the 1939 race was taking place, war clouds were looming and the fifth SA GP was the last to be held in the country, bringing the curtain down on a memorable golden era of motorsport. The grand prix was revived on 1 January 1960, when the race was run as a non-championship event at the new East London Grand Prix Circuit, a venue that still exists in almost unaltered form. In 1962 the South African Grand Prix was placed on the Formula 1 calendar. Those were the days…     

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