I do not consider myself to be an obsessive car fanatic.But I have spent a lot of time thinking about cars, dreaming about cars and, in fact, working on cars. My hands and pockets bear the scars.
We lived in Gweru, Zimbabwe (Gwelo, Southern Rhodesia) when I started driving at about the age of 12, which puts the year at 1963 or thereabouts. The Beatles had burst on the scene and I went to my first party at Tiffy Murch’s house where I heard “Twist and Shout” for the first time.
My dad took me driving in his work vehicle, which was a Land Rover Defender 90 (a short wheel base). We all called it a Jeep. We would go for driving lesson behind the Kopje of Gwelo, where there were dirt roads through the bush. In Rhodesia the legal driving age was 16 but most of my friends were learning to drive early and the rules were quite relaxed.
My dad loved Vauxhalls and owned at least 3 that I can remember. The first sedan I drove was his Vauxhall Victor, which he bought new and traded in after about 5 years. There were no bucket seats in those days so you could fit three people in the bench seat in front. There was a column gear change where the gear lever jutted out from the steering column. It was my teenage vehicle as well when I passed my drivers license at 16. My dad was pretty liberal about lending it to me.
My dad also bought an aging Isuzu bakkie (pickup). It was a noisy un-glamorous diesel but I even went on a couple of dates with it. I don’t have any pictures so lifted one from the Net – ours was a pale green – it was probably an Isuzu Bellet.
But I didn’t have my own car until much later, in Durban and at the ripe age of 23. I was married with a son and was bussing and walking until a dear friend Wendy persuaded her mother to part with her beloved Wolsey 1500 for the sum of R200. I loved and slaved over that car. It was a 1959 model and so was already 15 years old.
We lived in a flat above a mechanic Vossie Vosloo and he tutored me in the arcane arts of mechanics. The car was solid, with walnut dashboard and leather bucket seats. If you thumped the body with your hand it hurt. But it was prone to overheating and I replaced a cylinder head on the pavement outside, going through several gasket sets over the years. I haunted spare shops in the search for elusive BMC parts. But “Lady Braxton-Hicks” got us to Rhodesia and down to Grahamstown and was very adept at putting the baby Paul to sleep. One turn around the block and he was out for the count.
There were no seat-belts and babies were housed either in a carrycot on the seat, completely untethered, or a very primitive baby seat which was more designed to stop the child from wriggling than any safety considerations.
The pictures I found on Google are not a parody – these were the seats we used! As soon as a child could stand they usually stood on the back seat so they could see. No kidding. By the way children were often left to sleep in the car as well, while visiting
My next venture into car purchase was brought about through a friend, Jolyon Wilson, whom we were visiting in White River. In the heady days of the 1970’s youth counter-revolution and search for alternative lifestyles there was an incredible nexus of elevated living around White River in Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumulanga. There was a flourishing colony of artists and craftsmen. Jolyon found me a VW Kombi 1600 for the sum of R600. He and some friends painted it yellow and it became a faithful and iconic symbol in our lives.
It is a bit galling to see what astronomical prices these Kombis are fetching. Mine was the original split-screen version, not the Brazilian made version which had an extra window at the rear. My school pupils at Queensburgh Boys High began calling it the ‘Bread Bin’.
I used the bed-board and a double bed mattrass which fitted across the benches in the back and ‘hey presto’ a playground for the kids and a place to sleep. By today’s standards appallingly unsafe but one should also consider my Bread Bin travelled at an average 60 km/h on long trips and dropped down to 40 uphill. It was not a ball of fire.
I became well acquainted with the VW 1600 motor which could be removed with 4 nuts. I would balance the engine on a single jack under the sump and push the body forward. With a bit of luck but usually with some muscle grunt the drive shaft would slide out and the engine was out. It was customary to have the sub-assembly refurbished, there were firms that specialised in doing just that, and you could reassemble the whole thing in one weekend. I did that twice with the Kombi and with other Beetles in subsequent years.
An entire sub-culture built up around the Beetle and despite all its faults it brought power to the people! I could tune the timing by ear. You just had to loosen the distributor, switch on the ignition and rotate the distributor until you heard the spark and then advance it slightly – engine tuned! But it was a notoriously bad idler so one had to develop the technique of ‘heel-and-toe’ as you came to a halt you had to brake and pump the accelerator at the same time. It was also not the most stable of cars and would roll with very little persuasion.
As an impecunious teacher I had a series of Beetles in various stages of decrepitude. Pictured above is the 1958 Beetle – recognisable by the small back window. Mine was not as smart as the picture above. It had a 6 volt electrical system and the lights were dangerously feeble. Then I had a couple of 1600 Beetles. One of them had holes in the floor as Durban is Rust City and going through any puddle would shoot a jet of water at the passenger’s legs which caused a lot of amusement. The last Beetle was a 1974 with a curved windscreen. They were impressively fast and reliable up to a point. One got to know the foibles! As the exhausts baffles rusted the car began to develop that asthmatic cough recognised by all Beetle fans. I was very fond of all the Beetles.
But I wasn’t so fond of my second Kombi which had been converted into a camper.
It was the 1800, twin carb motor – lovely to drive but a beast to maintain. The motor never ran well and I could never tune it properly. Eventually I sold it as a non-runner.
At the same time as the white Kombi I had a motor bike, a Honda CM400T which I used for daily transport. When I needed the Kombi I fetched it from the parking lot behind the Edward Hotel at the beach front. The year was about 1982 and I could safely leave an unattended vehicle the entire week and fully expect it to be there when I arrived. The same applied to the motor bike. I left it for the weekend and when I returned it was always there. Nowadays I feel apprehensive about parking there never mind leaving a car for days.
My introduction to riding a motor bike was not ideal. I had never ridden a motor bike in traffic. I bought it new from the Honda dealers in Pinetown for the sum of R2400, practised a little in the parking lot and then rode it to my home in Escombe. I arrived home sweating and shaking with fright, having survived the attentions of a fire-breathing green bus and several motorists who hated bikers – or so it seemed. But I soon became a proficient rider as it was my main transport for 2 years, and I was commuting between Durban and Pietermaritzburg (80 kilometers on a busy freeway). I didn’t ever fall off although I had a scare once at night when a truck dropped a load of poles onto the freeway and my partner and I became airborne when we hit one. Fortunately we landed in a straight line.
Although I suffered on cold, wet nights, caught bronchitis more times than I cared for, the joys of a bike made up for the painful aspects. There was nothing like purring along the road on a balmy summer night, smelling the aromas and feeling the temperature change as you descended a hill. I was very attached to my bike and even took it on a long ride to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, together with my brother, Anthony. Neither of us had a bike license and we were stopped and threatened with arrest by cops at Warmbaths. I also baked my hands with sunburn, thinking it was too hot for gloves, and my hands never really recovered from that trauma.
When the excitement of riding the motor-bike was outweighed by the daily trial of getting wet, cold and generally over-exposed, I began to hunt for a car. I was seduced by the practical magnificence of a station wagon in the eminently fitting shape of a Toyota. It was a Cressida GL which had already done 115000 kilometers but I took the risk and was rewarded by more than a 100000 additional kilometers of fault-free motoring, coupled with the most silent engine I have ever not heard – the 18R.
Boring cars designed by committees I hear you say? I owned 3 Toyotas – two Cressidas and a Camry – and in the 400000 kilometers I drove in them . Not exciting cars perhaps but I will never forget the sheer magic of that first drive in the Cressida as the moon was rising.
My partner desired an little Fiat 850 so we bought it together. Little did I know that the engine had been assembled after a service with the timing chain on the wrong way and so I spent many fruitless hours trying to tune it. When it was running it was quite an amazing little car. But when it was not running well a friend christened her Fiatsco.
The next Toyota I bought was a Cressida 2.4 GL station wagon.
Spacious, powerful but very wallowy on the road this car was incredibly reliable but I wasn’t very fond of it, somehow. Maybe it was the puke brown upholstery and the plastic brown dashboard that left an aftertaste but I can’t fault the general reliability.
We then experienced the mixed blessing of a Leyland Marina 1.8 which came to be affectionately known as Brown Dog. Tough, simple and ugly she was everything best about British cars of the 1970’s – a tough gutsy engine and no finesse at all in any other aspect. The ugly round tail would stick out and one would bounce around on the springs of the seat, hanging on to the steering wheel for some stability. I spent long hours tinkering with the engine and got to know every quirk. She became Paul’s car when he was a student and was stolen for a joyride by some prick. She languished unknown to us at a tow-truck operator’s premises for more than a year. All she needed was a new battery and the replacement of a stolen carburettor part and she fired up.
Every now and then I succumb to a longing for the rugged, all-purpose chuck things in the back and ride anywhere kind of feeling when looking for a car.
The first of these was the Isuzu. I first clapped eyes on her in Pietermaritzburg and bonded instantly. She had a canopy with a full door and I instantly thought of camping trips and useful stuff. She was very reliable and comfortable and did in fact cart a lot of stuff for our big new garden.
She drove like a car, sounded a little bit wheezy but was sprightly. I only felt like trading her in when I discovered the signs of rust inside the door.
I have a friend called Russ Wade, who infected me with a special brand of lunacy for cars. His father had owned an NSU Ro80, one of the first models imported into South Africa, in 1969. Thirty years later Russ had accumulated a proud collection of just about all the remaining Ro80 s in the country.
I deeply desired to own one and when Russ decided to emigrate to the States I became the recipient of 3 Ro80s and enough spares to sink a battleship.
Why was this car so special? For a start I was quite capable of going outside just to gaze at it as one would a sculpture. It was a work of art and particularly revolutionary in style when you look at some of its ugly contemporaries. The designer eventually moved to BMW and designed the first big 7 series. Apart from that it was car of the year in 1970 and racked up a number of firsts.
I copied the above picture from a Tumblr site to show you the overall lines of this beautiful car. There is more than a hint in style of the big BMW 7 series
The NSU Ro80 was the first large front-wheel drive saloon. It has discs all round. It has in-board discs in the front, meaning the brakes were halfway between the engine and the wheel. But even more revolutionary that that, was the fact that it was the first rotary engine – with the unfortunate name of Wankel after the inventor. The engine had a asymmetrical cylinder with three chambers which spun around an axis and there was only one spark plug. So the normal compression-firing-exhaust cycle was done essentially in an orbit or rotation. The user experience then was quite different and exhilirating to drive. As any Mazda rotary fundi will tell you there is no end to the revolutions – the engine will happily rev to 9000 with a popping noise in the exhaust which can turn into a high-pitched scream. Mazda bought the rights to develop and extend the rotary engine’s promise of great efficiency.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Wankel, problems with the rotor tips meant that there was insufficient sealing and the engines became dogs to start. They were also not fuel efficient and so the huge promise ended when Audi bought NSU and squashed the rotary project.
So there I was with three 30-year-old cars and having to commute every day. I neglected to mention that one of the cars was a non-starter. A violent 70’s orange she never started for me.
The black NSU pictured above drove like a dream, once it had started, and I caught myself once on the freeway doing 100mph (160km/h). She was so streamlined that she settled in lower and the engine became almost silent. It was an uncanny experience, from which I was jolted by the realisation that the side-shafts and bearings were 30 years old. My sons in the car had also become silent so by general concensus we decided to drive a bit slower.
Sometimes the cylinder would become choked by too much oil and the engine would stall suddenly. So the drill became: jump out the car with spanner ready; unscrew the single plug which was extremely hot; unplug the petrol lead to the carb to get some petrol; clean the oil off the plug juggling and swearing at the same time; replace everything; hop into the car and turn the key. The starting would never happen immediately as the starter motor had to spin the rotor quite fast so there would be a ‘wawawawa’ whine and black smoke pouring out of the exhaust before the popping of the firing motor, On two occasions I stopped traffic at a busy intersection while everyone watched my antics instead of driving as most of them were trying to identify the car. Another time I had to get son, Paul, to a Matric exam so the stress levels were pretty high all round when I had to clean the plug and start!
Now because my friend Russ is barking mad and a designer to boot, he dreamed about perfecting the Ro80 design and creating a coupe out of what was a very big and spacious saloon. So he designed and commissioned a body shop to cut about 80 cm from the middle of the body and, joining them together again, create a two-door coupe. He spent quite a lot of money on the project and he also fitted a Mazda 13B rotary engine. But he decided to keep the original gearbox and clutch, a decision which he regretted afterwards as there were problems.
So at a later stage I bought Russ’ last NSU for the princely sum of R10000. I loved that car but it had a real overheating problem and could not idle without boiling, despite having an extra oil cooler. But it was stonking fast and I had great delight in traffic light races. The torque of the 13B is legendary and the coupe had become quite light so boy racers never even knew what was blasting in front of them. I had people racing in front just to see what the badge was. As you can see from the photo I kept the badge off.
My favourite response to questions was to ask people what they thought about the origin of the car. They usually said Italian and the next most frequent was BMW which is not far wrong.
The clutch and gearbox were quirky. It was a semi-automatic, meaning it had a gear selection – three forward and one reverse – but it also had a torque converter like an automatic. So you could take off in any gear – I very seldom used first gear as you could take off quite happily in second. The other quirky thing was that the clutch was activated by the gear lever – the knob on the gear lever worked the clutch. That meant there was no clutch pedal and you had to exercise discipline not to touch the gear lever while travelling otherwise you were rewarded with an asthmatic hiss as the clutch released.
The overheating was caused by the unfortunate fact that the engine oil also circulated around the gearbox and somehow the 13B oil pump was creating too much pressure.
I was lucky to have the friendship of a magician mechanic just round the corner, by the name of Brian Hepburn. He has cut his teeth on rotary engines raced by his brother Willie Hepburn. He tinkered with the NSUs and kept them healthy. But in the end I was beaten by metal cancer which is the drawback of living in Durban and a lack of money to restore them to former glory. I couldn’t stand the heartbreak of seeing these beautiful cars succumbing to rust so Brian took them all off my hands and moved to Johannesburg. I saw the black NSU being taken by a flatbed and I had a huge lump in my throat.
I bought a 1995 Toyota Camry 2.0Si. Again totally reliable and uncannily silent. I had to look at the rev counter to see if the engine was idling.
The car was vast and a bit under-powered with a tendency to struggle with its automatic gearbox up steep hills but otherwise very relaxing to drive; not an engaging drive, being a little distant from the outside world. There are some disadvantages to a lack of noise feedback from the engine. I think this was a 1992 model and I am sure if I had kept it we could still be riding it and have saved a whole bunch of money!
The next time I succumbed to the macho feeling was unadulterated indulgence. We saw and we wanted. No excuse. It was a 1997 Jeep Cherokee Sport – 4 litres of straight 6 power.
I just loved that car until she dumped me in Ladybrand with a dead engine management system. The auto-electrician managed to lock the keys in the car so I was faced with an exceedingly heavy and useless piece of metal which was now impregnable. The men grouped around the car suggested breaking a window and then looked at me expectantly, handing me a large hammer. My first attempt rebounded straight off the reinforced glass and narrowly missed pulverising my frontal lobes. Then I steeled myself and shattered the glass in the back door. And with that crash died our bond. Then I called a towtruck, expecting a large flatbed but a normal bakkie with a flat trailer pitched up and I had the dubious pleasure of watching two tons of dead metal bounce behind me during the long and hot trip to the dealers in Bloemfontein.
With a regard tempered by my painful experience I still enjoyed the Jeep. She was pretty invincible, surviving some close encounters with other lesser vehicles with hardly a dent. She could climb anything and the power and acceleration was awe inspiring. I chased down a taxi driver who flashed though a red light in front of me and carried out a few gravity-defying deeds with those long long legs and incredible traction. But the prospect of a major breakdown and the engine beginning to overheat led me to attempt a trade-in from a dealer. It was difficult to find a dealer to take on a perceived gas-guzzler but eventually I traded her in for a Renault Megane, beginning our love affair with Renaults.
The third macho vehicle was a Nissan Hardbody 2.4 Double Cab. I was fond of it but my family didn’t like its hard and bouncy ride and its wheezing engine. It was powerful enough but ended up with the name of ‘suckie-bakkie’ which was not really deserved! She was best under a load and on a dirt road and would probably have kept us going reliably for years but we got restless again and traded in for the Chevys which is the subject of another post!