A special guest post by Lezaan Roos.
Step through the doors of the Franschhoek Motor Museum and you’re stepping into one of the great stories of modern South Africa. A story of the family at the heart of its industrial and tobacco industry, of the renewal of the past through local conservation and preservation – and of a very special slice of motoring history, rescued from dust-gathering obscurity to teach a new generation about the world-class importance of the South African Grand Prix.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
It’s fair to say that the Rupert family have been at the centre of a fair share of South Africa’s recent history. As pioneering entrepreneurs, they launched the tobacco and industrial conglomerate Rembrandt Group, and later oversaw its transition to the industrial and luxury branded goods sectors, with Rembrandt (now known as British American Tobacco) eventually splitting into Remgro and Richemont. The latter is now one of the world’s foremost luxury goods companies under the stewardship of the Rupert family.
Their family name is also strongly associated with preservation and philanthropy – chiefly through environmental conservation initiatives like the Peace Parks Foundation, working to establish transfrontier conservation areas and foster sustainable economic development. They’re also supporters of the fine arts; promotion of education, art, and music, and the preservation of historical buildings.
that museum was a cornerstone of my childhood memories
Here’s where I enter the story. The Rembrandt Tobacco Corporation (BAT) is located in Heidelberg (Gauteng), partly due to its proximity to the railway line at Natal (enabling tobacco exports to Sub-Saharan Africa). Consequently, the Rupert family has poured funds into preserving the town’s history and developing its infrastructure – for example, preserving the original railway station, a fine period piece built of sandstone in Dutch-Flemish Renaissance style that opened in 1895 and fell into disuse when the modern station opened in 1961.
In the mid ’70s the Rembrandt Tobacco Corporation rented the building and grounds from the municipality, fully restored the station and established a transport museum that opened in 1975. This museum was focused around the railway station, but also featured classic, vintage, sports and racing cars, as well as bicycles and motorcycles.
Heidelberg is my home town, and that museum was a cornerstone of my childhood memories. After 18 years away, I visited the Heidelberg Transport Museum in February this year… to find that it had been shut down. All that is left now is an old locomotive (SAR Class 16CR No. 816. 4-6-2 built in 1919 by the North British Locomotive Co.) sitting alone on the platform. What had happened – and where had all the cars gone?
The Franschhoek Motor Museum
I was delighted to learn that the Ruperts had moved the cars to somewhere more fitting – to the new, privately-owned Franschhoek Motor Museum. South Africa doesn’t really have the public funds to preserve every corner of its history in a sustainable way, and in staying put, this car collection was running the risk of an under-funded, under-promoted decline into a rust-streaked oblivion. Enter the private enthusiasts to provide a luxurious home to do them justice – the L’Ormarins estate in the beautiful Franschhoek, beneath the jagged peaks of the Groot Drakenstein mountains.
So what will you find in this Museum? Simple – you’ll encounter more than 100 years of motoring history with a unique and exciting collection of vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles and memorabilia! A significant portion of it is allocated to all things Formula One (F1), thanks to the dedication of three enthusiastic curators – and if you’re really lucky, you will find Wayne Harley, a walking encyclopedia of South African motor history, who will talk you through the history of the museum and the South African Grand Prix.
A specific example of the treasures on offer: the Peter Macintosh archives, documenting the history of F1 from its inception in 1951 (and going back even further, to influential Hakskeen Pan speed trials in 1937). Speed is a hot topic right now, thanks to the recent visit of the RAF fighter pilot Wing Commander Andy Green, coming to Hakskeen Pan for speed trials and the run-up to another attempt (scheduled for 2015) on the World Landspeed Record, called Project BLOODHOUND. Green intends to get behind the wheel of a car that is capable of reaching 1,000mph (1,610km/h), thanks to a bolted-on rocket lifted from a Eurofighter-Typhoon jet.
Other fascinating donations include the John Love collections, comprised of trophies, helmets, steering wheels and suits of six South African Grand Prix Champions. They were donated by Love’s second wife Carol and his children Royce and Bart Love. It’s also worth checking out the Sam Tingle collection – made of not just his trophies but also the LDS South African built F1 car he used (donated to the museum by Dug and Lesley Sorea). In total, the Museum holds ten F1 cars – some winners, some also-rans, and a fascinating sideways glimpse into South Africa’s economic power in the 1960s.
1. My personal favourite is the Porsche 956C. This Rothmans Racing car, currently taking pride of place in the displays, owned by the Rupert Family (in connection with Rothman cigarettes). It was Rothmans, via Gunston, that introduced the first branding on F1 in 1969 – namely, team Lotus 49, first undertaken on a local scale and then by John Player on the international circuit. Porsche dominated endurance racing in the early 1980’s with their sensational 917 to such an extent that the race organizers in Europe and the USA changed the rules, ostensibly in the interests of safety. Porsche then introduced the 956C in 1982, and promptly won the World Championship for Makes three years running.
2. The MERCEDES-BENZ Gullwing is a close second. It’s one of the most iconic cars ever made, developed from the highly successful 1952 300SL racing sports car, whose low-slung spaceframe construction influenced the widespread adoption of those upward-opening doors of the period. For me, it’s also about the sheer look of it (especially with those doors open), and while it’s highly impractical for getting into, I figure that’s a small price to pay. The Gullwing also represented the ‘sport-light‘ design, via ‘Eyebrows’ over the wheelarches – a typical aerodynamic feature of the steel-and aluminium body of the SL.
3. The McLaren F1 – does this even need explaining? South African Gordon Murray, a long-time Formula 1 designer, spent many successful years with McLaren, during which time he pitched the idea of building the ultimate road car. Murray’s concept centred around a three-seater sports car with a naturally-aspirated engine to increase reliability and driver control. McLaren Automotive gave the go-ahead, and at Monaco in 1992, the F1 was launched.
4. The Jaguar D-Type – one of the most charismatic and successful sports/racing cars ever made. Introduced in 1954, its aerodynamic shape included a distinctive tail fin to increase stability at high speed. It took part in many sporting events in Europe before being shipped to Japan for the inaugural race meeting at Suzuka. This rare short-nosed car eventually returned to Britain where for many years it was proudly displayed at Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory. Many aspects of its design have informed the development of road cars of subsequent generations – for example, its extensive use of aluminium.
I could go on, but I’ll stop here. Please visit the Franschhoek Motor Museum website for more info on not only their history but also the sound of the engines and video footage of the cars in action. The Franschoek Motor Museum presents visitors with an opportunity to see the uniqueness of the South African Grand Prix, in the beautiful setting of South Africa’s Wine region. It’s a vital and ever-relevant piece of the country’s history, lovingly preserved by true enthusiasts. Highly recommended.