Porsche used its racing exploits around the world to not only gain exposure and media coverage, but also to improve the performance and reliability of its road and race cars. Here we look into the first part of a two-part mini-series covering Porsche racing in Southern Africa.
Racing in Southern Africa in the 1950s and 1960s was a colourful affair, contested by all manner of drivers, in a range of machinery that was as diverse as one could imagine. As early as 1936 the mighty 6.0-litre V16 Auto Union C-Types competed in the South African Grand Prix at East London, as well as in Cape Town and Johannesburg, evidence that motor racing was an extremely popular sport in the former British colony. After the Second World War, the sport picked up strongly with returning ex-servicemen and enthusiasts, and this competitive spirit amongst the locals was witnessed by the increasing number of home-grown specials that appeared on the scene. In fact, the ingenuity demonstrated by some competitors was so effective that the product of their work saw them offering the international competitors some stiff opposition.
In Johannesburg in the early 1950s, local Volkswagen agent, Lindsay Motors (later to become Lindsay Saker Motors), acquired the national marketing and distribution rights for Porsche in South Africa. This step would have a profound effect on the growth of the marque throughout the country.
Johannesburg businessman, Ian Fraser-Jones, or Frones as he was known to most, was a fast-rising racing driver and founder member of the Sports Car Club of South Africa. Frones was making quite a name for himself on the racing scene in South Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola during the 1950s and early 1960s. It was while on a business trip to America that he met well-known Porsche driver Ken Miles, and as a result of that meeting with Miles, Frones was persuaded to up his game. While still in America in late 1957, Frones placed an order on the Stuttgart factory for a Porsche 550A-1500 RS Spyder to be delivered to Lindsay Motors in Johannesburg early the following year.
The media reports about the Porsche in the newspapers and local sports car magazines at the time attracted a significant amount of interest, as it was the first pure racing machine of its kind to arrive in the country. The first event scheduled for the new RS Spyder was just a week after its arrival, where it was to compete in the Union Day Handicap at Grand Central circuit, just north of Johannesburg, on 31 May 1958. “I was the first driver to race a Porsche in South Africa,” Fraser-Jones said in an interview with the author.
According to South African law at the time, the Porsche Spyder had to be registered for road use at the Licensing Department in Johannesburg, but when Fraser-Jones tried to get the car registered, the official pointed out that it had no bumpers. Ian and his wife, Jeannette, countered with the fact that although it didn’t have bumpers it did have lights and seats, and it made an awful noise. Ian remembers putting up a tremendous front, complaining to the licensing official that he had been taken for a big ride by the people in Germany, and told the licensing official, “The Germans sold me this car, and look, it hasn’t even got any upholstery and no windscreen wipers,” prompting the official to offer his sympathies. With a smile, Fraser-Jones commented later, “If the official had been observant enough, he would have noticed in the newspapers the next Monday, that I was winning everything in sight in this Porsche.”
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the new Spyder was plagued with a few niggles in the lead up to its first race. Suffering from a carburettor misfire, Lindsay Motors Porsche mechanic assigned to the Fraser-Jones car, Alois Klesse explained, “In the beginning we had problems with the petrol and so we mixed our own using methanol and benzoyl to get the octane higher, but if you didn’t drain it quickly enough or left it standing a bit, it separated. This could have been the cause of the car misfiring, but eventually we got it sorted out.”
With the fuel problems solved, the Porsche Spyder was pronounced fit and ready for action on race day but, as one local newspaper speculated, the attentions of the crowd would be equally split between the assembled race cars and the Witwatersrand University Rag Queen and her princesses comprising 35 shapely drum majorettes. The Porsche Spyder was listed as the fourth car on scratch, the scratch car being a 2.0-litre supercharged ERA, which meant that Frones would have his work cut out in his first outing with the new racer. The Porsche’s estimated lap time at Grand Central was expected to be in the order of 1 min. 44 secs. but Frones surprised many by recording a best lap of 1 min. 40 secs. and he finished third in the open class, showing the car’s true potential.
The Spyder’s next outing was the National Race Meeting held under the auspices of the Mashonaland Motor Car Club at Salisbury’s Belvedere Airport on 29 June 1958. The circuit consisted mainly of two straights which ran at an angle to each other, being joined at each end by a series of curves including: Beppo’s Curve, Duke’s Delight and Tombstone Corner. For these long-distance away races (Salisbury was 609 miles or 980km north of Johannesburg), the Spyder was towed to the circuit in Frones’ specially made trailer, which he pulled behind the family AMC Rambler. One of the two Porsche mechanics, either Alois Klesse or Hermann Schmidt, would follow in a Volkswagen Kombi loaded with tools and equipment, racing tyres, spares and a Carrera engine, while the 356 Speedster was driven up by road in a three-car convoy by the other mechanic.
Usually upon arrival in Salisbury, the trio of cars would head for a workshop belonging to a friend, where the Speedster’s pushrod engine was removed and replaced by the 4-cam Carrera unit, not a simple task according to Klesse. Driving both the Speedster and the Spyder alternately, Frones won four events at the Rhodesian race meeting (in the process equalling the lap record in the Spyder). Johannesburg stockbroker and driving partner, Tony Ferguson, was second driving the Spyder in the Sports Special and Racing Cars Handicap.
The following event, the International Motor Race meeting in Lourenco Marques (Maputo today), Mozambique on 27 July 1958, was a favourite for the teams as well as the army of enthusiasts who followed from South Africa. For Frones and the team, preparations or repairs to the Porsche could be carried out at the VW dealership in the city where the mechanics had access to a professional workshop with lifts. Run over the short 1.7-mile Avenida da Republica circuit, the course weaved its way through the city which included a stretch along the sprawling esplanade that overlooked the magnificent white beach and the warm, pale blue Indian Ocean. The drivers, though, would not have time to admire the picturesque view along the 650 yard straight where they briefly reached 125mph, before a 90-degree right hander fed them back into the city. This event proved even more successful for Frones and Ferguson in the Porsche Spyder as they scooped no less than six victories out of a possible seven races.
The Pietermaritzburg 6-Hour race was held at the Roy Hesketh circuit, about 50 miles (80km) inland from Durban. Located along the Indian Ocean coast, Durban is a popular holiday destination in South Africa which is well known for its rickshaw rides along the city’s esplanade. These two-wheeled buggies carry two passengers and are usually pulled along by a Zulu runner dressed in elaborate traditional tribal colours.
It became a tradition in the late 1950s after this 6-Hour race, for the drivers to make their way down to the Durban beachfront where they would commandeer a group of rickshaws and race each other around the market place in what became known as the Rickshaw Grand Prix.
One driver then introduced the idea that they should do a wheel change during this race. This, unfortunately, is where the plan began to unravel as the buggy’s wheel bearings were not of the modern sealed type, which resulted in thousands of ball bearings rolling all over the market place. This catastrophe was met with gasps from the rather forlorn looking rickshaw owners, as they could just see the repairs facing them the next day.
The drivers then returned to the Roy Hesketh circuit in Pietermaritzburg the following day for their prize giving, but Frones unfortunately had his foot bandaged as Tony Ferguson had driven over his foot the previous night with his rickshaw! However, it was all taken in a good spirit as the rickshaw owners were of course compensated for the use of their buggies, and the pie-cart owner did a roaring trade that night, which was no bad thing.
“I have persuaded Lindsay Motors to enter a car in the 9-Hour at Grand Central. Would you like to co-drive with me in a Porsche?” was the message Ian Fraser-Jones left with Tony Fergusson’s secretary late one Friday afternoon. When Ferguson returned to his office in Johannesburg on the Monday morning, he immediately called Fraser-Jones exclaiming that he had received this cryptic message the Friday before and asked if he had understood it correctly. His answer was, of course, an unequivocal ‘yes’.
Within the Lindsay Motors organisation, the two Porsche mechanics, Alois Klesse and Hermann Schmidt, were assigned to motorsport duties and it was their responsibility to prepare any customers’ cars for racing. This was a new activity for the company, and in an effort to gain valuable publicity, the dealership allocated its own 356 Speedster sales demonstrator for Ian Fraser-Jones to drive in the inaugural South African 9-Hour race on 15 November 1958. Normally the daily drive for Lindsay Motors’ sales manager Erich Hamp, the Speedster was a standard production car, but for the 9-Hour race, a 4-cam Carrera engine was ordered from the factory.
But why, one might ask, did Fraser-Jones not want to drive his own potent RS Spyder in the 9-Hour, because it was by far the fastest race car in South Africa. Lindsay Motors mechanic Hermann Schmidt recalls, “The Spyder RS engine would only last approximately 1000 hours before it needed overhauling, and the crankshaft especially would need checking. As the 356 Speedster was a Lindsay Motors car, any wear and tear would be for their account, and besides, the Porsche distributor wanted to advertise the 356’s reliability and speed, because the public could view the very same car in the showroom the day after the race.”
The Carrera engine was duly fitted into the 356 and the car prepared at the Lindsay Motors workshop. The only other modification needed was the fitment of bigger Carrera brakes together with a factory fibre-glass hardtop for better aerodynamics. The standard 356 brake drums were 40mm wide and not up to the rigours of highly competitive endurance racing. But as the Carrera’s front drums were 60mm wide, they would require longer studs. The Speedster’s 40mm wide rear drums on the other hand remained unchanged but these would need 20mm spacers to align them with the front wheels. On the drum backing plate were holes with a small funnel that guided air to the brakes to aid cooling. The brake shoes with special linings were flown in from England, and so on the morning of the race, after fitting the new brake shoes, Klesse took the Speedster for a 30-mile run up the main road to bed the brake shoes in so that they would stand up to the heat during the race.
Grand Central circuit is located just north of Johannesburg and lies at around 5500 feet above sea level, the high altitude itself posing its own challenges for the cars. ‘No Name’ Corner was criss-crossed with skid marks, providing evidence of previous battles on this deceptive and treacherous part of the track, while Devoty Curve had been widened to the outside enabling the cars to corner at higher speeds. There was, however, some concern over the general condition of the track surface itself prior to the race, while two bumps on the main straight just beyond the kink proved to be more than a handful for the drivers at high speed. The day dawned clear and warm on the Highveld, which saw a race-hungry crowd of around 25,000 arriving early to ensure a good position for the day. Two-and-sixpence gained you entry to the race, which included a copy of the official programme at the gate. Being the first such endurance race in South Africa, the excitement was almost tangible, as no long-distance racing had taken place on the sub-continent since the Nairobi-Rand race of 1936.
The Le Mans type start, sanctioned by the Royal Automobile Club, saw the thirty-six cars line up in the pit area facing the track with doors closed, ignition switched off and hand brake on. Activity on the starting grid was at fever pitch as last minute adjustments, instructions and advice was given as the final minutes ticked away. At 14h00 with the competitors at the ready, the flag fell and the drivers darted the 25 yard stretch across the track to their cars. All the drama and chaos associated with a Le Mans start, burst into life, and the first South African 9-Hour endurance race was under way.
By the third lap the lead had changed and despite his slow start, Ferguson surprised all by bringing the #8 Speedster with its Carrera engine to the front of the field. The first of the accidents involved the #7 Porsche Speedster (Schoch/Renton) when it left the track at Members’ Bend in spectacular fashion. Fortunately, no-one was injured and the car found its way back into the race only to be black-flagged for inspection by the officials. The car resumed the race, eventually winning its class.
Such was the pace and performance of the Frones/Ferguson Porsche that by the 63rd lap, it was a lap ahead of its handicap and running like clockwork, lapping at 1 min. 52 secs. At the six-hour mark, the #8 Porsche of Frones/Ferguson was leading by four laps from the #37 Austin Healey of John Love, when news was received that sections of the track surface were deteriorating rather alarmingly, resulting in significantly increased tyre wear.
At 23h00 the hooter went and the chequered flag fell signalling the end of the inaugural South African 9-Hour endurance race. Simultaneously, it acknowledged the momentous achievement by the Porsche team with victory going to the #8 Porsche Speedster driven by Ian Fraser-Jones and Tony Fergusson. They had covered 571.3410 miles winning the event outright and finishing second in the Index of Performance. In a display of showmanship, the organisers launched two rockets as the winning Porsche crossed the line, bringing to a close a very successful first endurance event at Grand Central.
The Daily Dispatch, East London’s local newspaper, announced that ‘race fever’ had gripped the seaside city ahead of the Border 100 to be held there on 13 July 1959. Hundreds of cars jammed the roads leading out to the circuit at 22h30 in an effort to secure a favourable viewing site for the next day’s races. The newspaper reported that £1300 worth of tickets had been sold within hours, and the outer trackside parking areas were ablaze with car headlights the night before the race.
Before the construction the new, permanent race track on the west bank of East London’s Buffalo River, motor races had previously taken place along the city’s esplanade. This temporary race track layout along the beach front had required cars, at one point, to pass each other at full speed going in opposite directions, separated only by a line of straw bales. The new circuit had only just been completed in time for the 1959 Border 100, and had as yet not been used for racing. As a result, there was some uncertainty as to how fast the circuit would be, which served to add a healthy dose of curiosity to the event. More than 25,000 people turned out to watch Frones engage in a thrilling duel with John Love’s D-type Jaguar. Through the twisty bits, the Porsche was faster, while on the straights the Jaguar would pull away but in the end, it was the Porsche Spyder that won the day.
Away races did not pose any special challenges for the Spyder as regards maintenance, as Klesse reveals, “We just took small stuff. If an engine blew you had no chance of repairing it because it was such a complex unit. So, we would take a set of spark plugs, points and a coil, just normal maintenance parts. We did replace the clutch though because the Carrera motor had a special clutch. The wheel bearings for instance, we would take them off and repack them in the workshop, but this is the normal part of maintenance.”
With thanks to the Fraser-Jones Museum for letting Porsche Road & Race use these images. Part II to follow in a few weeks…
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix, Robert Smale, SCC and the Fraser-Jones family collection