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East London’s glorious motor racing legacy | Glenn Hollands

Strange as it may seem, East London’s most prolific sporting moment happened eighty-four years ago. In 1934 East London was a relatively obscure city on the east coast of South Africa. The idea that the Fighting Port, as the colonists liked to call it, could host an international Grand Prix seemed bizarre. The 1934 East London Council was prone to spinning optimistic fibs about state of development of the city. The reality was that the port and the CBD had its limitations – larger ships could not dock and had to be off-loaded by lighter and the open-air market on Oxford Street still included oxen sprawling on the pavement.

This did not deter Edward ‘Brud’ Bishop, the motoring editor of the Daily Dispatch at the time. A slow news day found Bishop annoying his girlfriend by repeatedly driving circuits of the newly constructed Marine Drive loop on the West Bank of the city. Bishop was struck by the idea that the finely curved and banked road would make an excellent race track and immediately set about spinning the concept in his regular motoring column.  With the help of a few well-placed overseas motoring connections, Bishop captured the imagination of young American racer and millionaire Whitney Straight.

When Straight agreed to a starting fee of £700 and roped in his brother Michael as well as British racing legend, Richard Seaman, Bishop’s utopian dream transformed into a motor racing reality. Bishop and his small committee had succeeded in providing the East London public with the rare spectacle of a 2.9 litre super-charged Maserati, a K3 super-charged MG, a Railton and a clutch of other international racing machines, all driven by some of the best racers in the world.

Straight won the first 1934 Grand Prix in front of 42 000 local and national spectators, many of whom had camped out at the track.  The subsequent “pre-war races” from 1936 – 1939 would become part of East London folklore and the number of spectators nearly doubled. A controversial right-wing politician was successfully petitioned to ensure the early opening of a newly constructed bridge. This allowed thousands of fans to cross the Buffalo River and find spectator points around the track. Later the circuit itself would be redesigned to increase safety and reduce its length. In 1937 the Nazi sponsored Auto Union team stunned the local crowds with their raw power. The silver cigar-shaped cars were huge and their massive 6-litre V16-cylinder supercharged engines shredded tyres at such a rate that the German pit crews had barely a moment’s rest. The C-Class Auto Union machines saw the famous German racers Rosemeyer and Von Delius notching 180 miles per hour on the straight. Big name drivers like Richard Shuttleworth would crash spectacularly and spend months recovering in East London hospitals.  This momentum was interrupted by WW2 but not before local racing legend Buller Meyer had whipped local fans into a frenzy with his 1938 victory.

The war had slowed the rapidly growing motor industry, but its end gave cities like East London an opportunity to exploit the shortage of automobiles by starting up motor assembly plants. Motor racing in East London was slow to re-emerge. Everyone recalled the glory days of the pre-war Grand Prix races but the Prince George circuit, as it had become known, had been swallowed up by industrial growth on the West Bank. A major part of the track had disappeared under the newly constructed airport.

By 1950 the race organisers were determined to resurrect the city’s proud motor sport tradition, but were hard pressed to find a circuit. An alternative race track presented itself in the form of the 1.75 mile stretch of road along East London’s beachfront that took in the well-known ‘Esplanade’ and the camping / picnic area known as Marina Glen. The only problem was that it was a stretch of well-used public road.

The Winter Handicap races began on the beachfront circuit in 1951.  On racing day, the roads had to be (illegally) closed and appeals to the spectators to “put a few shillings in the collection box” generally fell on deaf ears. The local dogs simply wandered onto the track and the human spectators were even less disciplined. Despite these minor glitches, the Winter Handicap soon grew in local popularity and then began to attract hordes of winter tourists. Most of South Africa’s big-name racers turned up even though it was a non-Grand Prix event.  By the mid-fifties, racers and journalists alike were beginning to compare the slightly re-designed circuit to famous tracks in Europe including Monaco.

The Winter Handicap races included events for both cars and motorcycles. The first 1951 race saw 33 entries ranging from a 500 cc BSA motorcycle to a 4.2 litre Hudson. The handicap system meant that the slower entries like the popular 747 cc Austins started more than 16 minutes ahead of the fastest entry – known as the scratch car. The scratch entry in the first race was a 3.7 litre Maserati driven by G. Cannell, lapping at an average speed of 65.6 mph. The racing day would start with a van circulating to make sure that the roads had in fact been closed and end with the Race Ball at the Kings Hotel. However, by 1957 three drivers, Doug Duff, Tex Kingon and Allan Shiers and one biker, Anthony Burton, had died on the exciting but deadly circuit and after one more race it was time for the race organisers to start looking for a new track.

After considering the option of a new track in Amalinda, nostalgia and economics prevailed and construction started on a much shortened and upgraded version of the original Prince George circuit on the West Bank. The last Winter Handicap (1959) was in fact raced on the re-opened West Bank circuit to test the new track.

The first post-war South African Grand Prix went ahead in East London on the 1st of January 1960 with 70 000 spectators in attendance. Race cars were now more standardised, first at 2.5 litre and later 1.5 litre, without superchargers; mounted at the rear of a streamlined single-seater body. Stirling Moss driving a Cooper-Borgward was the favourite but was passed by Belgian Paul Frere (Cooper Climax) on the 2nd last lap. The never-say-die South African Syd van der Vyver of Durban was third in a 1500cc Alfa Romeo.

The 1962 East London Grand Prix is regarded as the most important race in South Africa’s history as it decided both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championship. Jim Clark (Lotus) was up against Graham Hill (BRM).  Clark needed a win to secure both championships – anything less meant both titles would go to Hill / BRM, however strong competition was expected from Jack Brabham and New Zealander Bruce McLaren in a Cooper. Hill’s BRM was suspected of having a secret modification – the mystery grew when the car was missing from the traditional Friday displays at the city’s garages.

Even the Friday practise sessions were packed as 10 000 people formed a bumper to bumper stream from the city to the track. On the night before the race, campers braaied around the track and cars streamed in all night to secure a good vantage point – by 10am the next morning there were already 70 000 spectators in attendance – growing to over 90 000 by final practise sessions. The race captured the imagination of the entire country and 12 special flights and several special trains had to be arranged to get race fans to East London. Clark dominated from the drop of the flag but on the 61st lap disaster struck in the form of a catastrophic oil leak. Graham Hill cruised to victory and the championship win, followed by McLaren with South African Tony Maggs third. Grand Prix racing continued in East London until 1966 but never really matched the excitement of the 1962 GP.

The above is a short synopsis from the book on East London Grand Prix history provisionally titled Off the circuit: A small South African city makes Grand Prix history. The book was written by Glenn Hollands and is scheduled to be released in time for the historic GP Festival in November 2018. Copies of the book may be pre-ordered from [email protected] or [email protected]