When talking Volvo in South Africa a few names crop up. The older generation will remember names like Arnold Chatz piloting the Swedish brand in race and rally events while many might have bought a vehicle from Lawson Volvo in the ‘60s and early 1970s. But when Volvo pulled the plug in South Africa citing apartheid and sanctions as the reason, although more likely because Lawson were not able to pay for the CKD kits, one man stepped forward as Mr Volvo – Tom Campher. We paid a visit to the modern Tom Campher Motors restoration operation in Johannesburg and as luck would have it, the man behind the name was there, enjoying some family time in SA before returning to Canada, where he now lives.
Tom Campher was born in Engcobo, Transkei in 1926 to non-motoring parents – his father never owned a car or even a driver’s licence for that matter. By 1933 the family had moved to Pretoria and Tom was enrolled at Sunnyside Primary School. High school was completed at Affies in Pretoria and his first job as an inspector for the Public Service followed.
His daily transport was initially an ex-military Royal Enfield 350cc side-valve motorcycle, which he later swapped for an overhead-valve Norton 500cc, which he remembers returned a consumption figure of 80 miles per gallon. Besides commuting he also used this machine on the weekends and was part of one of the earliest Sunday ‘breakfast run’ clubs. Together with about ten members on British machinery like Vincents, the crew would explore the scenery outside Pretoria and Johannesburg on regular occasions.
Tom moved to four wheels in 1948 when he purchased a 1942/43 model Skoda. Four years on he noticed an advert in the local paper for the staging of the first Pretoria Motor Club Lourenço Marques Rally and decided this might be something he’d be interested in doing. He tried his hand at racing the Skoda at Grand Central but with the Public Service not paying huge salaries there wasn’t much cash around for racing cars. Rallying proved a way to break into the motorsport environment on an achievable budget, and with your daily car. He almost didn’t make the event though, rolling his Skoda prior to the event. With very little damage done in the accident he pushed the car back onto its wheels, only for the open door to thump the ground as it landed back on its wheels and break the door hinge. Unperturbed, he thought of entering the rally like this but a word from the legendary motoring scribe Sy Symons saw Tom remedying the problem come rally time.
Unlike later rallies the 1952 event saw all competitors starting from Silverton in Pretoria. Tom would share the driving and navigating with school friend Vic Lucouw, and he learnt his first big rallying lesson after the first driver change when Vic climbed into the passenger seat and the pair got lost immediately – Lesson 1: Always be the navigator. Eventually they got back on track but never managed to catch up the time lost as they fought the mainly dirt roads from the capital, through Swaziland and on to LM. Getting lost and having to change a broken leaf spring (luckily they had a spare in the boot) midway through Swaziland, the pair finished in sixteenth place, halfway down the field.
Truly bitten by the rallying bug Tom made plans for future events. He would work out how to get a suitable car and navigate for a chosen driver, with one stipulation being that Tom would drive the special stages on the rally – like the Polana Hillclimb stage.
In ’53 he returned with an MG TD, where he was part of an MG trio that took the Team prize. As an established name on the rallying scene Tom was able to get various loan cars for the various rallies and a diminutive DKW coupé was next on the list. A real giant killer, the DKW with Tom at the wheel took the under 1600cc class Polana Hillclimb honours in 1954, despite only having 900cc and 3-cylinders to call on. With DKW he tried his hand at circuit racing again but felt a touch silly as he spun in practice, not realising that the brake shoes had been relined and needed some bedding in. In the race he was more successful, finishing third.
DKWs and Borgwards became firm favourites for Tom, with a highlight being victory in the Vaal Gold Cup Rally, sharing a DKW with Jan Aukema. Volkswagen was next on the list of machines to rally, and in Tom’s case it was a Capital Motors sales representative’s Beetle that was used. Success was immediate with Tom and Naas Rabie taking the LM Rally overall spoils, and Volkswagen the team prize – this despite having to wait for an elephant to cross the road just outside Barberton at 3am. None of the other competitors saw the big animal and put it down to too much wine the night before.
One would think this success would have made Capital Vee happy but Tom received a phone call a few days after, saying, “What have you done? The phone at the sales department won’t stop!” The point was further backed up by an advert placed by Capital Vee that showed off the rally results and then capped it with: “In short supply but well worth the wait.”
1957 saw Campher/Rabie repeat their LM win, this time sharing a DKW. He also teamed up with Tony Woodley to rally a Ford Taunus wagon and Borgwards, which led to Tom buying his first and only new car, a 700cc Lloyd. This was done through Apie le Roux, the distributor for Borgward and Lloyd. Woodley and Campher, under the team name of Campherwood also campaigned what they called the Hillbeam – a Hillman fitted with a Sunbeam power unit. Woodley noted that winning rallies was no thanks to the driver but rather all the navigator’s doing. And Tom was clearly a top navigator. His consistency in the passenger seat could be attributed to a device he came up with which he calls his ‘Jukebox’. This Jukebox was a biscuit tin filled with a 10 foot long paper scroll on which was written the times for every tenth of a mile between zero and 4.9 miles for every speed and half-mile per hour speed between 20 and 45 miles per hour.
In 1962 Tom resigned from the Public Service to join Woodley at Sampie Motor Assemblers in Johannesburg. This is where Datsun trucks were assembled before the firm moved to Rosslyn and Daihatsu dipped its toes into the market with small bakkies. With organisational methods learned in the Public Service, Tom applied them here but the operation folded in 1966. Campher was offered a job at Datsun in Rosslyn, which, although closer to his Pretoria home, he turned down in favour of one as a Lawson Volvo Field Representative.
Having read every bit of Volvo information he could lay his hands on, Tom hit the road in a Volvo 122S, looking for potential Volvo dealers throughout the land, then once found, training them and making sure they kept up the standard. He points out that he generally went everywhere in excess of 70mph. One occasion, while exiting Vryberg he noticed a sign saying ‘Mafikeng 100 miles’. The rally bug bit and he put foot, only lifting once when he noticed what looked like traffic officials on the side of the road. He arrived in Mafikeng 20 seconds late according to the 100mph average he’d set himself as a stage.
Earning a living meant that Tom had hung up his rally gloves and ‘Jukebox’ by this time and when he left Volvo in Johannesburg to set up a dealership with a friend in Pretoria the work load increased. With the demise of Volvo in SA this partnership didn’t pan out and Tom was forced to rethink his plan. Volvo was gone but when longtime friend and fellow previous Volvo employee John Myers pointed out that there were still 25 000 Volvos registered in the land, Tom found inspiration.
He found suitable premises in Northcliff, Johannesburg and set up Tom Campher Motors operating a fuel station as well as buying and selling Volvos, including offering spares and servicing. He took out a two-line advert in the local press reading: ‘Volvo cars bought and sold and serviced.’ Where he could, he bought up all the existing Volvo spares. VSA continued to bring in new spares until the 1980s, which Tom was able to access but when for political reasons this stopped, Campher had to look for an alternative. The solution came from two Swedish gents and meant registering a business outside South Africa – in Tom’s case he chose Swaziland but the parts still arrived without hassle at Jan Smuts airport on a regular basis. Another way to circumnavigate the politics was to source parts through Greece.
Clearly this was no plain sailing though and the stress of operating the business took its toll on Tom. Thankfully his sons Vic and Gerhard stepped up to the plate after doing their army time and offered to get involved. Vic headed up spares and Gerhard the workshop before the pair eventually took over the operation from Tom in full. Tom moved to Belfast, Mpumalanga to enjoy some trout fishing before moving to join his daughter in Groot Brak and now resides in Canada.
He returned to rallying in the 1990s, this time strictly as a driver in a few Pirelli classic car rallies with a Volvo 122S – the car he ranks as one of the best and most solid items ever built.
Tom Campher Motors, continues today. Under the curatorship of Vic and Gerhard it has moved up the road to Auckland Park and with Volvo officially back in the country is an official Volvo dealership. That doesn’t mean the oldies are forgotten though, with the new cars from the Swedish firm sitting between immaculate examples from the past. And they offer classic Volvo spares and restorations too. With renowned Volvo builder Howard Bates behind the operation, Tom Campher Motors is churning out restored or refreshed vehicles. During our visit we counted two 122s being fully restored, another original example getting mechanically sorted as per the client’s brief and Vic’s P1800 race car being fettled for the next round of the championship.
Oh yes, and there’s a 144 being redone for Vic’s son – passing the passion on to the next generation of Campher.