BURMA TO BOOYSENS, WITH A SPANNER

John Myers is well known in classic circles as the man who designed and produced the first South African car (beating the GSM Dart by a few months) but the Protea was just one highlight of this talented mechanic-cum-racing driver’s career – a career that involved everything from surviving the bombing of Coventry and servicing tanks in Burma to taking a class win in the Kyalami 9 Hour.

 “A good curry every day and four spoons of sugar in your tea!” That’s what Indian-born John Myers puts his health and longevity down to. Given how mentally lucid he is in his 94th year, that advice is hard to dispute.  A Capetonian for the last 25 years, John spent the bulk of his automotive career on the Reef selling and servicing Volvos and Renaults. He also built a string of racing specials and indulged in stock car racing before creating the Protea sportscar. And he was quite a hotshot in his day, competing in several 9 Hours (at both Grand Central and Kyalami) and winning the Pietermaritzburg 6 Hour.

But his automotive interest and flair for all things mechanical began 6 000 miles away, when he took up an apprenticeship at Daimler in Coventry, shortly before war broke out. He was just 17 years old, having moved from India with his family two years before. At the time, Daimler was producing technically sophisticated (it had four-wheel drive) armoured cars and other war-related machinery, which made it a target of German bombers when Coventry was razed in November 1940. The catastrophe left John without work so he signed up for the army and was instructed to join the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) as an apprentice mechanic.

Once qualified, John’s Indian upbringing (he was fluent in Hindustani) saw him posted to India, which would involve a nine-week round-Africa voyage to avoid the U-boat filled Med.  It was an enjoyable stopover in Durban that would plant a desire to return once the war was over, but more on that later. First, he had to see the war through with a posting with the South Wales Borderers, which travelled to Burma to support the invasion. John’s role was to support the unit’s problematic Bren gun carriers and he also worked on a range of tank engines, including a five-bank, 30-cylinder Chrysler unit and a supercharged two-stroke, twin-six cylinder motor.

After the war, the army’s promise to fund a diploma in automobile engineering at a Chelsea college fell through after the military declared that the fine print on his contract made him ineligible. “They said it was only for conscripted soldiers not those like me who had volunteered,” recalls John, who wasn’t happy. “I said, ‘You know what you can do with the Union Jack and if you have any problems I’ll come and help you.’ ” That disillusionment with the establishment, and a job offer from well-known South African car dealer Sydney Clows, who was recruiting mechanics in England, was all John needed to return to South Africa on a more permanent basis and he sold his Excelsior Manxman motorcycle to pay for the passage out in 1947.

“It was £80 for the ticket and I arrived in Cape Town on the Winchester Castle with £8 to my name and then had to spend £6 on a rail fare to Johannesburg.” Once there he started work at Stanley Motors on Faraday Street, servicing Austins, Jeeps and Hudsons. “In England I’d earned £9.10s a week and here we were getting over £12. I thought I was bloody well off!”

Shortly after arriving John had his first taste of racing although it wasn’t exactly what the RAC (which controlled motorsport) had in mind. “I started ‘crash ’em and bash ’ems’,” says John. “It was Friday night stock car racing at Wembley, the local track, and they used old mine shaft cables to create fences.” John raced a stripped-out 1936 Ford V8 4-door and was paid £10 a night for his efforts but not to take the chequered flag. “You weren’t supposed to win, you were supposed to tip someone over!”

Around the same time he bought a 350cc Triumph motorcycle and converted it for trialling. “You couldn’t get off-road tyres so I used to buy Dunlop Universals and use a red hot bar to burn out every second tread knob.” The Triumph would fuel a love of trialling for decades – he owned a Greeves bike for years – but John was also hugely active on four wheels, initially in a special called the ‘Hudz’ that he and friend Wally Perry bought a year after he arrived in Johannesburg.

Known as the Red Peril, this was the ex-Bert Bruce Burroughes Hudson Special that Wally – who already had an eight-cylinder Hudson Special known as the Flying Banana – had admired in action at East London’s Earl Howe circuit as a teenager. Their joint purchase was railed up from the Cape but the pair were dismayed at its state. “Our first race was the first St John Crusader 100 race near Germiston airport and I had to take two weeks leave to get the car ready – it was in a bad way and we realised we had been ripped off.” In that time John fitted a Hudson ‘super power dome’ cylinder head from a local scrapyard but this item – which was part alloy and part cast iron – proved problematic and the car retired in a cloud of steam after the engine seized, just eight laps in. “It was maybe just as well as the thing had no bloody brakes!”

The pair elected to rebuild the car completely, junking the six-cylinder for the straight-eight out of the Flying Banana and up-rating the rest of the car, with bigger brakes, a water pump and a track rod to locate the front axle, which was prone to rotating under braking. “These days they talk of going back to the drawing board but in those days you went back to the scrapyard and you found something more suitable,” chuckles John. “When we finished it was good for 128bhp and could spin its wheels in second gear!”

He and Wally also fabricated a new body and got their friend Curley Cornell (a pre-war Maserati racing driver) to spray the car in American Racing colours – white with blue wheels.  Their next competition outing was the same race but at the new Grand Central Circuit in November ’49 and the car amused the crowd by turning salmon pink as the day wore on. “Cornell hadn’t cleaned the gun out properly!”

John and Wally campaigned the car at the Burman Drive hillclimb in Durban and at Lourenço Marques, where it ran a big end bearing in practice in Wally’s hands. Keen for Wally to get his starter money for the race, John discreetly took the car to a local garage where he removed the offending piston and con-rod so that Wally could at least start the race! The Hudz was a well-known car in our racing heritage but sadly its subsequent owner is believed to have destroyed it in the sand dunes of the Northern Cape.

By the early ’50s John had moved to Pretoria and opened his own petrol station-cum-garage although he did so on a shoestring. “We hardly made any money on selling petrol and had to work on cars out in the open,” adds John who called his business Skylon, a name inspired after he saw the Skylon radio mast in news coverage of the Festival of Britain in the early 1950s. “It was mounted in such a way that at night with the floodlights on it had no visible means of support and I thought, ‘Hey that’s my garage – no visible means of support!’ ” At the time John earned extra cash by driving up to Salisbury in (then) Rhodesia to buy MG TCs to sell on. “We’d pick them up for £150, bring ’em back and sell them for £250,” says John.

He later moved back to Johannesburg and took up a position with Marston Motors, which sold Armstrong Siddeley cars and Guy trucks. One of John’s jobs was to take a team down to Durban to drive back bare truck chassis to Johannesburg. “They were governed to 30mph so the journey would take 16 hours. You had to sing at the top of your voice to keep warm in winter!”

On the racing front John campaigned a friend’s Cooper 500 and a Peugeot 202 he had bought and modified before entering it at Lourenço Marques. He also raced a Healey 100 in the Pietermaritzburg 6 Hour but his next big milestone was the Protea project. This was South Africa’s first true home-grown car, which began in ’56 after he teamed up with Alex Roy and Bob Fincher to form GRP Engineering.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Protea was a GRP (glass reinforced plastic – better known as glassfibre) two-seater sportscar that featured a lightweight tubular chassis and was based on Ford Anglia 100E mechanicals. Of the three partners, John was the only one on the project full time – living in a flat above the workshop in Booysens – and he designed the body after being inspired by cars such as Jaguar’s D-Type. “I made a mould in cement and plaster of Paris and I remember it was quite a messy business to get it right.”

The running gear was a mixture of modified Anglia components, and John’s own engineering, while the engine was a tweaked version of the flat-head 100E unit. “It had a doubtful 36bhp in standard form but I read American hotrod magazines and got ideas on how to improve. In the end we were getting nearly 90bhp,” explains John. Ford was the only company prepared to supply engines for a reasonable price although John initially had eyes on Coventry Climax’s overhead-cam unit. “I contacted them to see if I could buy an engine but they said I would have to order a minimum of 100. I thought, ‘Jesus, it will take us ten years to make 100 cars!’ ”

The prototype took six months and John recalls having to make a plan to get the first mould to set. “We’d put colour into glassfibre but couldn’t get it to harden. I ended up wrapping a string of Christmas lights around it and enclosing the whole lot in cardboard to heat it up.” He also stress-tested the chassis which had over 300 welds, all completed by John. “There’s a bloke up in Johannesburg building a replica at the moment using plans I gave him and he’s used someone at the university to test the chassis strength with special computer modelling,” explains John, who adopted a rather different approach back then. “I put a completed chassis on bricks and got the heaviest labourer I could find to jump up and down on it.”

John and partners debuted the yellow prototype at the Spring Motor Show at Milner Park and had a lucky break when Robert Hudson and his wife Mick, who were so taken with it, sponsored the company to the tune of £10 000. The cash helped fund a production run of 14 cars, which started off with a list price of £659, although no two were alike.  “As is usual with your own design, you learn as you go and I frequently thought, ‘This is a bum idea so I’ll modify this and modify that.’ ”

There was a 15th car built for John Mason-Gordon and based on the mechanical bits from his Triumph TR2, which John Myers had campaigned to second place at the Pietermaritzburg 6 Hour in 1958. “The Triumph was a very twitchy car and I think I went through the Link every which way except backwards – in the end the flag marshal would jump out of the way whenever he saw me approaching.” In Protea form those TR2 bits were a lot easier to handle and John won the race a year later in the car’s debut.

By then Protea as a carmaker had ended. “We were at it for two years until we ran out of money – in fact the only money we made was when we answered a government advertisement to tender for the production of glassfibre and aluminium canopies for prison stoves,” says John, who then teamed up with Geoffrey Collins to re-body a few cars, including a Singer, two Fiat 1100s and a DKW with spare Protea bodies. The pair also produced a range of hard tops for various popular sportscars but he soon went back into the motor trade, taking a sales job with Lawson Motors, the main agents for Volvo at the time.

He continued to race, notably with a seriously hotted-up Fiat Topolino that he even took to Lourenço Marques, where he recalls outgunning a pair of new Honda 600s so well that they ended up in the sand. “Afterwards the stewards wanted to tip my car over to see if there was a second engine hidden underneath.”

It was at Lawsons that John’s racing antics really got serious when he campaigned their products, starting with 122 Amazons although he had raced its predecessor, the Beetle-back PV544, privately before – both in the 9 Hour. And when Lawsons obtained the agency for Renault he added a Dauphine to his list, complete with go-faster goodies bought overseas.

“In August ’62 I went back to England for the first time and old man Lawson asked me to visit the Renault factory in France to introduce ourselves and get ideas for tuning the cars.” He also tracked down performance accessories in Scotland, of all places. “There was a bloke in Prestwick who was making Dauphines go faster than the factory and claimed he could get 100mph,” says John. “He took me for one helluva drive. It was pissing with rain and the Dauphine was wheel-spinning all over the place and when he got up to 90mph I said, okay, I’ll take your word that it’ll do a 100, now let me out!”

Back home John bolted on a raft of performance bits to his Dauphine – including a high ratio steering pinion. His car was well known for coming through Clubhouse with the inside front wheel in the air – something made possible after John stiffened the car’s rear end with a transverse leaf spring to maintain rear traction. “Before that, I was losing two seconds a lap. I would go into a corner faster and come out slower!”

John also had success with a Lawson’s Renault R8 Gordini that he still rates highly. “I was told the Gordinis could rev to 9200rpm but when I started my stint on the 9 Hour I thought I couldn’t take it to 9200 as this was a bloody long race but nobody else was going any slower so what the hell!  If you took it to 9300 a push rod popped out,” recalls John who won his class in the ’64 fixture at Kyalami, with his mate Angelo Pera – the pair taking 6th place on overall index. “After the race we stripped it down and it was perfect. Those Renault engines were brilliant but the bodies were made of foil. Every time we raced it we had to rebuild the car before handing it back to Lawsons.”

By the ’70s John had left Lawsons sales division to head up the company’s servicing operation for its Volvo products which were assembled from CKD kits, initially at Motor Assemblies in Durban and later at Volkswagen’s Uitenhage plant. And when Lawsons took over Renault sales he oversaw production of Renaults at Datsun’s Rosslyn plant in Pretoria, something that became a headache for this gifted-engineer.

“They were doing a bloody awful job. I would go to the end of the line and inspect the cars and you could shut the doors and see through the gaps. They weren’t selling and we had over 600 in a storage yard,” explains John, who put the shoddy quality down to the labour force. “They were all farmer types who didn’t have the right feel to put nuts and bolts together and the Renault 16 was a difficult car to assemble as it was torsion bars all round. I had to train them or each car would have come off the line with either its arse in the air or dragging on the ground.” Having said that, he still rates the 16 highly. “Once we got it right it was a brilliant little car. I used to drive one from my home in Kensington to Pretoria and could easily sit at a 100mph.”

Lawsons later folded after it ran into problems making CKD payments after the Rand was devalued. John ended up working for VSA, a vastly cut-down version of the same business which had a 63-strong dealer network, and which was unofficially Volvo South Africa. There he headed up servicing for cars, trucks, buses and industrial engines. The latter proved somewhat of a nightmare as the units were typically used as building generators. “In those days if a building was over six storeys it had to have backup power from a diesel engine to run the essentials.” That meant John’s customers were all over the city and he recalls having to follow exhaust pipes from the street to locate engines that building owners knew nothing about.

VSA also acquired interests in supplying and bodying Sauro buses to local airports and municipalities and John oversaw the servicing of the brand’s vast under-floor, multi-valve diesel engines. By the early 1980s he was involved in setting up an Alfa dealership before leaving the motor trade in 1986, taking up a sales counter position with the Old Car Shop in Jules Street for a few years.

John and his late wife Christine then retired to The Strand in the Cape in the early 1990s. A well-liked stalwart of the Crankhandle Club ever since, John continues to be a mine of information, particularly around South Africa’s racing heritage and, of course, his Protea. He was even re-united with one of the cars (now in the Franschhoek Museum) to celebrate his 90th birthday. A birthday that came thanks to his upbringing in India and a belief in the medicinal properties of its cuisine.

 


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