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The African Car That Is No More

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It is a Thursday evening in November at a friend’s exhibition in central Johannesburg, South Africa. This is where I meet a rather peculiar man, Ian Schwartz. We speak almost endlessly after being introduced to each other. He looks smart in a blue shirt, with the sleeves folded up, and jeans. The shirt has prints that look like vehicle emblems.

Schwartz is a 57-year-old engineer and photographer who recently wrote and published a book on racing cars that were produced in the 1950s in a workshop in Booysens, an industrial area close to the Crown Mines, 4kms south of Johannesburg’s business district. The book is titled Protea – The Story of an African Car.

Over bottles of beer, cars were the main subject of our conversation at the studio apartment exhibition.

READ MORE: Roads Without Drivers

In January, I ask Schwartz if we could catch up and possibly do a story on Protea, which was originally made from only two prototypes, the Mark I and Mark II­­. The first chassis was built at a friend’s workshop. The drawing of the Mark II chassis is dated April 28, 1957. Both chassis where built from scratch and fitted with different engines from older racing cars. This creation was called Protea; the first sportscar made in South Africa.

These cars were built from scratch, out of scrap, and were ‘special’ to the 60s generation in South Africa. They could not afford racing cars exported from Europe, so they constructed their own in their backyards.

Ian-Schwartz poses in front of the Protea in his garage with the book he published (Photo by Peter Hassall)

Revved by our previous conversation, we meet at his home in Parktown, Johannesburg, to continue discussing the car.

“There was a guy in Benoni, he had a business that made fibreglass cars and there was this thing parked in the corner, so I asked about it. It was a big Afrikaans guy and he said ‘ah, this is a Protea’,” Schwartz recalls.

He found it interesting and returned six months later. However, he found a different person in charge – an Indian man who was the business partner of the Afrikaans man.

It was 2011, and the first thing Schwartz asked about was the car. Luckily for him, it was for sale for R17,000 ($1,400). The car was engineless with nothing but a red carpet inside. At the time, he didn’t know it was produced in South Africa. He went on to research the history behind the Protea and its development, and to also bring the original body back to life.

A Protea Triumph leads a Jaguar XK140 through Clubhouse Corner at the newly opened Kyalami in the early 60s (Photo supplied)

Schwartz then found out about a man named Alan Grant who knew a lot about the Protea and even owned one. They finally met at the Kyalami racetrack on a Saturday soon after.

Because the Protea had never been documented, Grant asked Schwartz to write a book about it and would further introduce him to the mastermind of the Protea, John Myers; a 96-year-old currently living in Strand, Cape Town.

“When I heard he was still alive, I said it was such a bargain and I met him. He’s an interesting guy, he was 89 then and he said ‘look, you are invited to my 90th birthday down in Strand; if I don’t get my wings before then’,” laughs Schwartz.

While doing research, he learned there was a team behind the Protea, namely Alec Roy and Ronald (Bob) Fincher. Another two, Rob and Miriam Hudson, came in later and were the main financial backers behind the car.

Ronald Fincher, Alec Roy and John Myers pose with the MK II prototype chassis (Photo supplied)

Roy was an industrial chemist employed by De Beers at their diamond research laboratory. Fincher was employed by Hubert Davies Ltd, while Myers worked at Skylon workshop in Pretoria, before he became the only full-time employee on the premises, sleeping in the upstairs area of the workshop.

These were friends with the same goal of building a car that one could drive to work and still race on the weekends. Unfortunately, their dream couldn’t be fulfilled. Myers is the only one still alive to tell the tale of the first African sportscar.

“We used to put in about 16 hours a day working. I used to live in the flat above the workshop,” says Myers. “It was a dream, we had the dream but we knew we couldn’t keep on with it. We were all bachelors at the time, working all hours of the night; we couldn’t do that when we got married.”

The home of South Africa’s first production car. John Meyers stayed in a small flatlet upstairs (Photo supplied)

While speaking to Myers over the phone, although he talks slowly and I have to repeat myself now and then, he recalls everything as if it happened yesterday. He recalls overwhelming and horrific moments at the GRP Engineering Company workshop at the corner of 1st Avenue and 1st Street in Booysen’s Reserve.

“It was not a good place to be at night because I kept finding dead [bodies] lying about in the area,” he says.

He remembers a corrugated iron church nearby where they would often find the bodies of dead miners. In most of the pictures shot of the Protea, the church is in the background.

Despite the interesting details of the workshop, I was more excited to hear about his racing.

“I don’t drive anymore because my daughters won’t let me drive,” says Myers.

“One of the last rounds I made I had driven in the six-hour race in Pietermaritzburg the year before and we had come second. So we bought it back and took the running gear out and mounted it in one of the chassis. The others had fibre glass bodies but this one had aluminium. We finished that, we drove it down to Pietermaritzburg, won the race and drove it back again. No problem,” says Myers.

Ian Schwartz’s Protea arrives on a trailer from Benoni to his home in Parktown, Johannesburg (Photo by Ian Schwartz)

Myers says the car – that belongs to Grant – still races in historic events.

The Protea is unknown to most Africans. This might be due to the firm closing after the Receiver of Revenue knocked on their door and told them they did not have a customs duty clearance certificate for the vehicles they had produced and were selling. That was the death of the GRP Engineering Company.

John Myers and Ian Schwartz’s daughter Amy pose next to the MK II (Photo by Zunia Myers)

The Protea turned 60 last year. Myers is sorry that Fincher and Roy are not alive to tell their story and enjoy the attention of the media.

“For the car’s 60th anniversary they came and took me off to the Franschhoek Motor Museum. They took the car out of the showroom and gave me a ride in it because they have a little track, and that was lovely,” he says.

Some of these cars now live in museums across South Africa, a few are stored in collectors’ garages, all of them still live in the drivers’ hearts.

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