Sports car endurance racing in South Africa reached a peak in the 1970s when the Nine Hour races that began in 1958 moved from the old Grand Central circuit to the newly-constructed Kyalami track in 1961, which attracted an influx of overseas cars and competitors led, in the main, by David Piper. In 1965, the Rand Daily Mail Nine Hour Endurance Race spearheaded the South African Springbok Trophy Series that included three-hour races in Cape Town (Killarney), Pietermaritzburg (Roy Hesketh) and Lourenço Marques. Variously over the next eight years, additional races were held in Welkom (Goldfields), East London (GP circuit) and Bulawayo. But the racing – held in our summer months, which was part of the appeal for European-based teams – came to an abrupt halt at the end of 1973 when the OPEC global fuel crisis brought about an immediate ban on motor sport in South Africa. But not before a legend was born…
In 1972 a works prepared Group 2 Celica was imported by Toyota South Africa to take part in that year’s Springbok Series. But tragedy struck on the eve of the race when during practice a typical early-evening Highveld thunderstorm led to a sudden build-up of water on the approach to Crowthorne Bend at the end of the circuit’s long main straight and Brian Ferreira, driving a Mini Cooper S, aquaplaned off the track. Scamp Porter, then Toyota’s competitions manager, was behind driving the Celica and slid off into the Mini, causing the little saloon to catch fire. Porter extricated Ferreira from the burning car but, sadly, the Mini man succumbed to his injuries in hospital shortly after. Back at the track, Rob Thomas also went off at the same place and crashed his Chevron into the Celica, practically writing-off the car. Acknowledging the sadness of the accident, the decision was taken to still race.
Porter had a wreck on his hands. However, a solution – albeit a challenging one – was at hand. At that time Wesco was the majority shareholder of Toyota SA and the wife of the company’s financial director happened to own a pastel green Celica. The story goes that while sitting under a hairdryer, Mrs du Preez was talked into handing over the keys and sacrificing her personal transport for the company cause in exchange for any Toyota of her choice. The Celica was whisked away to the competitions department workshop for an overnight transformation, the racing bits having already been stripped from the original. A new axle had to be made up to replace the one bent in the accident, and the facia needed replacing. Miraculously, within 24 hours the car – now resplendent in Toyota blue and white racing livery – made the starting grid as final touches were made to the windscreen that had been flown in on a hurriedly chartered flight from Lourenço Marques.
Alas, there was no fairy tale ending. Unsurprisingly, the car was not properly sorted and it failed to finish due to transmission failure and dropped out of the following Cape 3-Hour with a broken oil pipe. However, a sign of things to come was to be seen in the subsequent races in Lourenço Marques and Welkom, where in the hands of Cape Town’s Koos Swanepoel the car won the prized index of performance at both events. It might have been a hat-trick had the car not crashed at the Roy Hesketh round after Koos was forced off the track.
Ignoring the threatening global fuel crisis, a buzz of excitement filled the air as the 1973 Springbok Series got under way with the Nine Hour at Kyalami. Although the entry list included Porsches, BMWs, Lolas, Gulf-Mirages and Chevrons competing for outright victory, it was the coveted index of performance battle that captured everyone’s attention. Toyota engaged Swanepoel and Garth la Reservee to share driving duties in the Celica, the young Natalian not quite as quick as his more experienced co-driver, especially in the dark, but he had just driven the car impressively in a Hesketh 6 Hour and – importantly – was consistent. As the race progressed, a war of attrition took place amongst the big guns but the spectacular BMW CSL driven by Jacky Ickx/Hans-Joachim Stuck eventually took control. Then the ‘Batmobile’ lost a wheel, handing the overall race and index leads to the Scheckter/Watson Chevron B26. When mechanical problems hit the B26, the clockwork-like Celica – powered by the smallest capacity engine in the race, 1 588 cm3 – rose to the top of the index chart, a position it held to the finish. It made only three pit stops for driver change, fuel and tyres and posted an index of 101.68 per cent, beating the recovering BMW’s 99 per cent into second place.
On to Cape Town two weeks later, by which time the government’s motor sport ban was in place and the race was cancelled, but authorities relented when it was pointed out that the required racing fuel was already in the country and was not a drain on national reserves.
Despite having run faultlessly at Kyalami, the Celica was fitted with a new engine for the Killarney race. Porter had reworked the dry sump lubrication system but otherwise the car was little altered save for tweaks to the steering and suspension. The facia switchgear had also been simplified from the toggle switch infested Japanese original. I drove with Koos between practice and the race and marvelled at just how standard the car felt. Koos commented on how he immediately felt comfortable with the car and was impressed with the ‘real sports car handling’, being very forgiving and ‘goes where you point it’. The ventilated disc/drum brakes – yes, drums at the back – had proved to be remarkably robust (pads/linings had comfortably lasted the distance) and if the pedal did go a bit soft, exercising the self-adjusting handbrake restored efficiency.
There was a scare in practice when a stripped fifth gear had to be replaced, but in the race Koos and Garth drove the car to another index of performance victory, this time by a margin of three per cent. A single stop for fuel and driver change was the only delay in a faultless run in what was to be the last round of the Springbok Series. ‘The Toyota guys were brilliant,’ recalls Koos. ‘It was effectively the rally team led by Scamp with Gus Crous being the timing man and Willem van Rooyen, Tony van Staden and Brian Aber doing the mechanical work.’ The Celica was retired with honours.
Last year I did a double-take at the 2010 Knysna Hillclimb when there, waiting to blast up the Simola hill, was none other than the blue-and-white Swanepoel/La Reservee Celica. ‘Cannot be,’ I thought, and sure enough after tracking down the driver, Nicci Hanekom, I discovered it was a replica. But what a replica! Apart from a few paint and detail differences, the car is as authentic as any reasonable person could expect it to be, down to the convincing decalling. Nicci was thrilled that someone had actually recognised the car for what it represented.
Nicci has dreamed of racing cars since he was a child and started out with a Renault R8 Gordini loaned to him by racing enthusiast Anthony Corin, a Malmesbury businessman and for whom 39-year-old Nicci works as a farm manager. But the R8 was unreliable and so, having grown up with Toyotas, he looked for a ‘special’ car to race. Inspired by the Celica GT4, he nevertheless came across articles on the Internet of the Swanepoel/La Reservee car and decided it would make for a fun and affordable project. However, South Africa is not exactly swarming with first-generation Celicas but after a year of searching, via the Internet Nicci eventually found a silver-coloured example in Nigel that he purchased for R30 000 sight unseen and started transforming it into a nostalgic classic racer using parts imported from the UK and USA. Under the skin, there are a few differences to the original car.
Initially a modified 1,6-litre single-cam eight-valve 2TB engine was used but now the car boasts a rare Yamaha-developed twin-cam 2TG motor (a second-hand unit found in Vredenburg and bought for R2 500) that has been bored out to 1 628 cm3 and fitted with Wiseco pistons, Eagle con-rods and twin Weber 45 side-draught carbs. The upgrades have helped increase power from 84 to 112 kW at the flywheel and shave 2,5 seconds off Nicci’s Killarney lap times. Rear brakes have been converted to discs, the front struts are height adjustable but the standard five-speed gearbox and limited-slip diff have been retained. The car runs on 19.5x8x13 Carrera racing slicks front and rear. In keeping with the first car’s character, a lot of the replica is standard and its sensible conversion into a race car coupled with the prospect of reliability make it a dependable platform with which to go racing. At around R2 000 for each race meeting, in today’s terms the car is also relatively affordable to run. New-found sponsorship from the Rola Group will help keep the car competitive.
With a season’s competition behind him, the 2011/12 Springbok Series revival meetings enticed Nicci into entering February’s Cape South Easter round of the three-leg series and who better to share the drive with than Koos Swanepoel? ‘Oom Koos’ has proven to be not only a mine of information – his memory is better than an orchard of Apple Macs – but his tuning expertise is as canny as ever. After just a couple of laps in the car, Koos attacked the accelerator linkage with a hacksaw and improved the action to radically improve throttle opening and response. ‘Drives like a new car,’ was Nicci’s reaction. In the build-up to the Cape race, Koos has helped to iron-out some other maladies including brake balance and spring rates to try and cure the car’s tendency to bounce at the back when braking and cornering.
The car was to run in four races during the Killarney International Historic Weekend, the two-hour South Easter enduro and three eight-lap sprint races. Qualifying on the Saturday morning revealed a slight misfire that was thought to be caused by a fuelling problem. Lap times improved in the first sprint race but were still a tad off the expected pace.
For the afternoon’s 22-car entry South Easter, Nicci ran the first hour and the car ran steadily in the searing heat, with ambient temperatures high in the 30s centigrade and track temperatures even higher. Around the half-way mark, the scheduled refuelling stop went without drama and Koos took to the wheel, quickly getting up to speed and driving as smoothly and consistently as he did 40 years previously. Watching him on track was like a time warp. Then the bottom fell out of the comeback dream – literally. Unaccustomed to holding a weighty full load of fuel, the tank worked loose in its mounting and dropped down from the boot floor causing petrol to leak onto the track as sparks flew from the dislodged tank. Fortunately the car was safely pitted and retired without further incident, sadly putting an end to Koos’ nostalgic run.
In a small way, history had repeated itself as the original car had begun its racing programme in dramatic circumstances, only to recover and 12 months later become a highly successful race car. At Killarney in the remaining sprint races the Celica showed its true mettle, running like clockwork with competitive lap times. So, as with the first Swanepoel/La Reservee car, we look forward to the Hanekom replica returning to the Springbok Series next year and making a strong index of performance challenge – and put money on Oom Koos being part of the action.