Once upon a time there were no motorcars, and a young man’s proudest possession was his shiny new American bicycle.
In his book Early Motoring in South Africa RH Johnston records that Durban ladies used to be able to go shopping by rickshaw, and horse-drawn buses were available — men sat upstairs in the open air and women were seated inside.
In Johannesburg weddings that featured bicycles made for two were not unknown.
Then came the motorcar. A “buzz, a whizz, a cloud of dust, a blood-curdling yell … then silence, and a smell, and life was changed forever”, Johnston writes.
He takes the reader through the history of the motorcar in SA from the early days, when one afternoon, on January 4 1899, to be exact, Pretoria citizens gathered with President Paul Kruger in Berea Park to see a carriage travel along a road without the aid of horses, donkeys or oxen.
As Johnston says, this was phenomenal progress, bearing in mind that only a year before a bicycle took part in the Jameson Raid and was regarded as something ultra-modern.
The car that day in Berea Park was imported by John Percy Hess of Pretoria from Carl Benz of Mannheim, Germany, Johnston writes. State secretary Willem Leyds accepted the offer of a ride on the Benz Velo, which, after a slight jerk, moved off smoothly, to the cheers of the crowd. Kruger, however, declined to participate.
A week later the car was put through its paces on the cycle track at the Wanderer’s Club in Johannesburg.
A report by The Star at the time was laudatory, saying the motorcar “can be considered to be the locomotive of the future”.
After further demonstrations on the Reef, Hess sold the car for “a considerable sum” to Mr AH “Coffee” Jacobs, a leading tea and coffee merchant of Johannesburg, Johnston continues. Jacobs used the car for advertising purposes and any customer who bought a pound of coffee or tea could have a viewing of the vehicle free of charge.
Garlick’s department store grabbed the headlines when its cycle supply department ordered a Royal Enfield Quad, a four-wheeled motorcycle. The driver sat on a bicycle saddle above the engine and steered the vehicle with handlebars. It was on sale at “a reasonable” price of £110.
One of the drawbacks of early motoring was that the owner had to import his own petrol from the US. That was until Vacuum Oil stocked a small supply of petrol and lubricating oil at its Cape Town depot.
By 1910 the popularity of the car was well established and even the prime minister of the Cape Colony at the time, John X Merriman, proclaimed that though the old Cape cart was reliable in crossing rivers as well as on muddy roads and in bad weather, “going along good roads, there is nothing to equal the motorcar”, Johnston writes.
Cecil John Rhodes bought a specially appointed dark brown Wolseley a few months before his death in 1902. When he was confined to his cottage in Muizenberg the car was used to carry messages and fetch oxygen.
According to Johnston, Shimwell Brothers, a motorcycle firm in Durban, ordered the town’s first motorcar in 1901 from De Dion-Bouton in Paris.
(Incidentally, one the Shimwell brothers posed with his bride on a bicycle made for two on their wedding a day).
A later De Dion two-seater model was fitted with a 700cc engine costing £120. It could attain a speed of 30miles/hour. It had three forward speeds, and excelled at hill-climbing.
A Johannesburg town engineer, a keen early motorist, travelled to Durban and back in 3½ days. When provincial registration was introduced in 1914, he was awarded the JJ1 registration number. Later, in 1940, the Johannesburg municipality reallocated the number to the mayoral car.
SA became the first country outside North America to sell Ford motorcars, Johnston says.
A South African, Carl Youldon, on a visit to New York in the early 1900s, saw Henry Ford demonstrate a new make of car from a small showroom on Broadway. It was lightly built but well designed, with two cylinders under the floor. The price of US$850 was regarded as reasonable at the time. Youldon placed an order for the car to be shipped to SA, and the first Ford reached Johannesburg in 1904.
A very practical car was the Holsman, a high-wheeler designed for the rough rural roads of the US, which were similar to conditions in SA. One was ordered by a Pietermaritzburg dentist, who drove it home from the railway station.
Fred Schnetler, in his book A Century of Cars, says Gen Jan Smuts was one of many South Africans whose preferred make was the Buick, because of its better finish. Smuts bought a new Buick in 1909, which he apparently drove “with great gusto”.
Other popular cars before the World War 1 were the Maxwell, the E-M-F, the Flanders, the Hupmobile and the Studebaker.
President MT Steyn of the old Orange Free State did not drive but was driven in “a most elegant Star tourer”, and Sir Frederick de Waal, the first administrator of the Cape province, was driven in “a lordly Panhard et Levassor”, Schnetler writes.
American cars had by then become popular, as they had a simpler design than British and European makes. Also, as Schnetler says, they were made in such a way that the village blacksmith “could get them going”.
During the 1920s both Ford and General Motors set up assembly facilities in Port Elizabeth.
Chevrolet made its debut in SA in 1919 as “The Wonder Car”, Schnetler writes. From the early 1920s fierce competition raged between Ford and Chevrolet, and many were the heated arguments between Ford and Chevrolet owners on the merits of their respective cars.
An important milestone in the 1920s was the Model A Ford. Schnetler says it is unlikely that a better mass-produced car was ever produced.
Then General Motors brought out the famous Stovebolt Six Chevrolet, which upstaged the Model A Ford. But Henry Ford retaliated by creating the remarkable Ford flathead V-8, which Schnetler describes as “the best-performing car the man in the street could buy in the thirties”. Its performance enabled one Sylvester McKenzie to drive from Durban to Johannesburg in seven hours nine minutes in 1934, a remarkable achievement at the time.
It is not surprising, then, that the Ford V-8 was the preferred car of bank robber Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie & Clyde notoriety). Barry even wrote a thank-you letter to Henry Ford praising the V-8’s performance
The box-like cars of the 1920s gave way to more streamlined vehicles in the 1930s, when Detroit introduced the concept of “style”.
The manufacture of motorcars gave way to armament production at the end of the decade, when World War 2 broke out.
Early Motoring in SA by RH Johnston was on offer the Westgate Walding collectable books auction recently.
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