Doug Kemsley ON WHEELS


How the wheel turns. You can’t but help gawping at the gigantic new structures going up in blue chip industrial building sites in our part of the Eastern Cape. That the most impressive of them are motor industry-related, prompts the realisation the industry here is on the up.

Whitney Straight Maserati, 1934 period. Pic supplied

Can Nelson Mandela Bay, perhaps, once again claim its previous title of ‘the Detroit of Africa’?

The Merc factory in East London keeps multiplying in its enormity and is exporting impressive numbers of important new models. Can you miss the big facilities of the Chinese motor makers to the left and right of the N2 as you enter NMB?

Ford is producing more and more high-tech motors, Vee-Dubbs in Uitenhage is alternating with Toyota as SA’s best-selling brand and Isuzu moved in flawlessly when General Motors, for the second time, dumped us as its home in Africa.

It’s a big step-up from, say, seven years ago.

1934 Maserati

The numbers will certainly be there, but what’s the quality scorecard going to say? The last type of reputation our motor industry is going to need is one of churning out sardine cans on wheels not suitable for Africa’s special demands from conditions and drivers.

I’m not counting the well-established motor manufacturers here, who are largely producing world class quality vehicles and something we should be pretty proud of.

The Far Eastern models from Japan and South Korea are largely brilliant too, but we have also experienced some pretty ropey models from the giant far-away Continent and Eastern Europe.

Remember, the first one in SA was the old Dacia, a regurgitated Renault imitation from Rumania-or-somewhere. It was old technology, never stopped peeing engine and gearbox oil, was styled like a Draculamobile and was so underpowered it couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.

Next thing, the Lada Niva arrives from Russia. I took one on a 4×4 comparison test with some of SA’s locally developed toughies, through the unforgiving Richtersveld region. After barely 43km all four shocks had either blown their seals or had ripped out of their mountings and the propshaft liberated itself. I stuffed the keys behind the sun visor, left it just there in the outback under a halfmensboom and invited the Johannesburg importer to fetch it himself.

Then, in my early days in Port Alfred I noticed a one-point-five-ton Chana with a very thin-lipped driver in control. Looking closer, it was clad with decals to the effect, “No resale value”, “shocking after-sales service”, and to which a passer-by had added in Koki, “bloody lump of junk”.

This Chana was nobody’s China, it seemed. The importer, whom I happened to know, asked me to do her a favour and have a chat to the owner, as I was in PA anyway. Wrong! This fire-spitting local kept forgetting I was not connected with the importer and gave me a real workout. Had to fully agree with him, but no more such favours.

General Motors has divorced us, but I just happened to be talking with the owner of Daewoo at the new model Matiz launch in Seoul, when he ‘married’ GM. Yes, as we stood there, he received a call from the then boss of GM to say that it had cleared the way to acquiring the whole of Daewoo. He was a very happy man and many bottles of Sodju were on the house.

Now Daewoo was never my favourite brand because of its poorest all-round quality of all the South Korean marques. Within months SA had the Chevy Spark – the little Daewoo Matiz in disguise.

It’s not all bad news coming out of the Far East motor industry, and their economies would have their handbrakes hard on if it was.

Besides, the West and some of its motors and motor people also have nefarious deeds to answer for – blue cars that burst into flame, Deutsche diesel exhausts that don’t come up smelling of roses and airbags that are more like whoopie cushions.

Come to think of it, Detroit is not doing so well either. Visit the Detroit Motor Show and you will find it surrounded by hundreds of abandoned high-rise buildings all boarded up and decaying. The once great motor city is dead because the City Fathers and the mighty US motor industry did not see eye-to-eye.

There’s a massage for our local government lot in there…

On the Eastern Cape adrenalin ride, there’s good news too. It’s getting quality international and national motorsport events for enthusiasts with the Grand Prix circuit in East London and Scribante Circuit in NMB sporting full programmes.

A little further afield, but within easy reach of us, the Knysna Speed Festival and Jaguar Simola Hillclimb happens on May 4, 5 and 6 and later in the year, a big international event will be the SA Historic Grand Prix Festival in November on the East London Grand Prix Circuit.

Some of the actual cars that competed 80 years ago will be shipped in from all parts of the world to compete in this remarkable Anniversary event.

No Sir. The Eastern Cape motor team is no longer at the back of the grid.

By Doug Kemsley

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