Fledgling SA saloon car racing flexes its muscles
After Alfa Romeo and Volvo’s showroom stock production saloon cars stole the limelight at the first Johannesburg 9-hour at Grand Central in 1958, both brands sales quite literally went through the roof and there was significant renewed interest in the second edition of the race in ’59.
The game had moved on a year down the line, when the previously unbeatable Alfa Romeos were outgunned by the latest evolution works entered Volvo Sports, which arrived far better prepared. The Wilson brothers ended fifth overall, with Horse Boyden and my similar car seventh as our Volvos proved faster than the Italian cars, both in lap times and on race distance to beat Alfa’s ‘58 mark four laps too.
That was no mean feat in a field packed with more and even faster racing sports and GT cars to contend with over the previous year, let alone a host of other hot new saloons that made their debuts in the ’59 race. A works entered 1290cc Simca Monthery won on Index of Performance being the car that performed best versus it's handicap time over the nine hours, while Saabs and Fiats also all chased glory.
By the third Grand Central 9-hour, in 1960, the hot saloon brigade had grown even bigger with the arrival of the impressive Fiat Abarth 750, the sweet sounding two-stroke DKW 3=6 1000S, the ultra-fast Renault 850 Gordini, Goggomibils, a Lancia Appia and even a couple of Volkswagen Beetles on the reserve list.
In short, South Africa was caught up in a fresh worldwide romance with the hot saloon car as demand ballooned for more desirable everyday transport — a wan that carmakers splendidly continue to deliver on today, over sixty years down the line.
Back in South Africa, saloon cars began racing on their own in classes established to accommodate the new phenomenon. Factory teams and privateers were preparing a growing variety of production saloon cars to strict new race regulations in varying degrees of modification to present the public with a novel opportunity to understand which models performed best on track. Production Car Racing had begun in earnest.
Race fans flocked to local tracks lured by the chance to see the actual cars they drove fighting it out with models their pals arrived in. Led by a stalwart committee headed by the unflappable Dave Clapham, Series Production regulations were drawn up to Group 2 and Group 5 international saloon car racing specification.
Group 2 was the domain of the beautifully conceived Jaguar 3.8 S, Alfa Romeo Giulietta Ti and later Giulia Super with their respectively unbeatable DOHC mills. Group 2 rules limited modifications — you could gas-flow cylinder heads, grind camshafts to allow longer duration and lift, fit larger throttle venturis and re-jet the standard carburettors, change distributor advance curves and lower the suspension.
The major limiting factors were the requirements to retain standard manufacturer's bits — in other word, no aftermarket parts were allowed, while material also not could be added to any components in the modification process.
Those early Group 2 rules proved a godsend to the likes of Jaguar and Alfa Romeo, both of which sold cars with engines and equipment that had what it took straight out of the box. Both engines employed state-of-the-art domed pistons and dual-overhead camshafts, which timing could be minutely varied via Vernier adjusted pulleys, sitting in hemispherical cross-flow cylinder heads.
No other carmakers at that early stage produced series production saloon cars at such a sublime level of engine sophistication — in fact it would not be until the late 1980s when the Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Golf and Opel Kadett 16-valves arrived packing the level of mass-produced engine sophistication to finally surpass what Jaguar and Alfa Romeo had managed in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
It was however a different story in Group 5 or Modified Saloons, as they would later develop into — an area in which that famous South African inventiveness would soon come to the fore.
Local tuners had a knack of building sophistication into less advanced motors — one did not need twin-cams or cross-flow cylinder heads to come out on top in Group 5, although it did help. Before too long, a host of highly modified racing saloon care were developed and prepared locally — in many cases to deliver performance superior to their counterparts racing in Europe.
See, Group 5 allowed for a fair bit of fettling, but the rules also required a certain number of cars to be built and sold as street cars through the carmakers’ showrooms to the same specification before they could be raced and it did not take very long for the locals to pick up on a trick first perfected in the UK.
Ford's Lotus Cortina was in essence the first homologation special, sold in the showroom in a specification designed to win on track and featuring a splendid Cosworth developed DOHC 'squish' head and wedged pistons applied to a run-of-the-mill Ford sub-assembly. Add Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark on track and the Lotus Cortina soon proved indomitable up north. Hold that thought...
It was at about that time that South Africa’s tuning industry quite literally started to flex its muscles on the back of pioneers the likes of George Armstrong's A&G Conversions, which tweaked normally docile, stodgy Austin A40s into fire-breathing little demons. Armstrong doubled the output of that notoriously sluggish lump to endow it with a new lease on life.
Other tuners the likes of John Conchie and Puddles Adler at Alconi, Willie Meissner in Cape Town and more soon joined the fray, developing overhead-valve machinery sporting engine layouts and cylinder head porting possessing no resemblance whatsoever to the standard product. The parallel development of the South African Formula 1 championship however also started to have an effect on local saloon car racing.
And that's where the sophisticated likes of Alfa Romeo's little production jewel came back into its own. Tuning wizard and ace driver Peter de Klerk’s self-built F1 Alfa Special shared the front row of the grid with John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini’s V6 Ferraris at them’63 Rand Grand Prix, starting ahead of Jim Clark and and Trevor Taylor's works Lotus-Climaxes, before chasing the Ferraris home in third.
De Klerk’s humble Special was powered by a regular 1290cc Alfa Romeo engine sleeved up to 1497cc and modified with a gas-flowed cylinder head, camshafts and a race exhaust system. Quite incredible when you consider that’s just a tweaked version of a regular road-going Giulietta Ti engine — just imagine your regular 2020 Giulietta, Ballade or Megane engine powering today’s F1 Alfa Romeo, Red Bull or Renault?
At that point, Alfa Romeo could not yet use that incredible engine in Group 5 because it had not as yet released its bigger bore Giulia on the local market to meet the SA sport's homologation requirements, but things had changed fast and were going to move on even faster as club races quite easily drew crowds of up to 30,000 enthusiasts.
Still, within five short years, South African saloon cars had evolved from being cumbersome, wheezing old crocks to machines among which some shared their hearts with the Formula 1 cars of their time, while local tuners and race shops elevated the art of development to match the best in the world.
So, the foundation was laid, upon which the incredible coming legend of local saloon racing would be built. Come back next week — this is where it really starts getting interesting... - Mario Lupini
Issued on behalf of SA Saloon Racing History
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