The Classic Motorcycle Rally
Week-end Record Breaker – Gordon Collins.
by Jock Leyden
We stood at the bar in Merrivale Hotel, the four of us, Baron Boyel, Len Streeter, Julius Wharton and myself, wet, bleary-eyed, dishevelled, muddy. We were on our way back to Durban from Johannesburg after a week-end press test of a new car. Through the night we had ploughed and snaked through the mud and rain and were having a quick one to celebrate having hit the tarmac at last.
Outside we heard another car pull up and in came a tall, blue-chinned fellow wearing a cloth cap. He gave us a friendly greeting and introduced himself as Major Stewart Fraser, export manager of the Riley Motor Company of Coventry. He had stopped when he saw our mud-covered Willys, for along its sides was the legend in large white lettering, "Durban-Rand-Durban Press Test". Yes, in those days an 800-mile run like that was quite a gruelling test, especially when squeezed into a week-end. The roads were bad when dry, and often impossible in the wet.
As my three companions were the motor editors of the Witness, Mercury and Advertiser (now Daily News), we were soon plying the Major with questions about the cars he was trying to introduce to this country, and he was anxious to get our advice on the subject as well. Briefly, we put it as simply as this. There was only one way. "Break all the inter-town records and you'll sell your Rileys".
South African motorists had been brought up on such logic for years. They reasoned that if a car could stand up to record-breaking on the things we called roads, it would stand up to every-day use - yes, even if they never ventured on these roads themselves!
"Get Gordon Collins to drive for you. He's the best in the country," we told him as we said, "Cheerio". The Major, who was an Australian, by the way, thanked us, and we continued on our journey to the coast.
Now, who was this Gordon Collins of whom we had spoken? Perhaps it would be better to go right back to the beginning to give the complete story of one who was the most colourful of all South Africa's record-breaking motorists.
Born in Stellenbosch in 1907, young Gordon lost his father when he was 15 years old. His mother was a Miss Hofmeyr. His maternal great grandfather was Professor Nicholas Jacobus Hofmeyr, one of the founders of Stellenbosch University and Theological Seminary. His great-grandfather on his father's side was also a minister, but of the English Church - William Barrow Collins. With such an intellectual lineage it was no surprise when he matriculated at 15, but Gordon must have been brought up mindful of the old adage about "all work and no play", for he distinguished himself at every sport he tackled, playing for the Stellenbosch High 1st Rugby XV, winning the mile at the school sports, taking the Western Province junior tennis title, and playing off a 4 handicap for Stellenbosch Golf Club senior team when still a lad of 15.
Everything seemed set for him to go on to an illustrious career at University, but for one thing Gordon wanted a motor-cycle, and to get the wherewithal to buy it, he took a temporary job in the offices of the United Building Society in Cape Town.
He just loved the "Sloper" BSA which he rode daily, morning and night, from Stellenbosch to the city. Most people who sampled that model on rough stuff never spoke highly of its handling qualities, but Gordon couldn't have noticed this deficiency, for soon we heard of him giving exhibitions of trick riding at Cape MCC events. He was a star turn whether he performed alone, doing all sorts stunts, including standing upright on the saddle - the hardest of all tricks, he says - or with his brother as partner - John Barrow Collins (later to become a leading architect in the Cape and Mayor of Stellenbosch).
Gordon and the BSA were in great demand all over the Cape, for he put on a spectacular display. Spectacular, that is, if you didn't know that he had once walked on the roof of a speeding railway train to win a bet. Another time he had jumped off as it trundled along at 40 mph He won this bet, too, but lost nearly all his clothes in the process.
He entered his BSA in the 1927 Durban-Jo'burg race, coming up from the Cape in company with famous - almost fabulous - Big Bill du Toit, the scratch man, and Feinstein, another Harley stalwart from Bloemfontein, and, believe it or not, the BSA got to Durban half an hour before the big twins. Things looked promising, but in the race misfortune struck early. Before Maritzburg a spectator's sidecar outfit pulled across his bows and he crashed heavily, breaking a collar bone.
Perhaps, after those adventures, racing his new Rudge on the Rietvlei one-mile speedway was tame. But he livened things up by breaking all records for this, as well as for the sand races at Muizenberg, Strand and Blaauwberg Beach, and the Durbanville Hill Climb.
Then, when Sir Malcolm Campbell brought his Bluebird to Verneuk Pan to try for world's honours, our Gordon went along too with a 500 Rudge and a 1 000 cc Brough for his friend, Big Bill du Toit to ride, in attempts to set South African figures for motor-cycles. With the Rudge he was clocked at a mean 91.23 mph average for the kilo, and Bill got the National unlimited class 5 mile record at 91 mph. Campbell could do no better than 217 mph (Segrave's record stood at 231) but he did get the World's 5 kilo and 5 mile records at 216, and 211.5 mph.
After his "Verneukery", Gordon was hailed all over as "The SA record breaker". He found this most embarrassing, being billed as such even on his first ride on the Hartleyvale dirt track, in a match race versus Stan Collins (no relation), the champion. Gordon had never ridden the dirt before, so had to learn as he went around. But he must have learned fast, for he won!
Soon he found that his motor-cycle racing was paying him better than his office work, for dirt tracking was booming in those days. His office salary was £7/10/- per month, and he was picking up around £200 more for bonus, appearance and prize money on the tracks. No wonder he decided to forget about going to University. In 1929 he was nominated to represent the Cape MCC in the 1930 SA TT races. But a crash over a fallen rider on the dirt put paid to his journey to PE.
Transferred early in the new year to Johannesburg, he was soon out on the new dirt road short circuit at Natal Spruit. There he was pitted against such recognised top-notchers as Sarkis, Lind, Scott, Long, Murray, Wolfe and Arundel. Such a line-up guaranteed all the thrills to satisfy even the most case-hardened spectator, and the one who produced most heart-stopping moments was the lad from Stellenbosch, who beat them all, and set new track records every time out till he bought a packet and suffered a fractured skull.
This little knock may have given him second thoughts about motor-cycle racing, but, while recuperating he had time to give his first thoughts to doing some speed work in a car. In the 1930s there was no big scale organised racing for cars. The only racing was unofficial record-breaking between towns, and Natal Spruit.
Being a Cape Province product stationed in Johannesburg, it was natural therefore that he should first think in terms of a fast run between those two cities. Then the record stood to the famous Chrysler driver, Gerry Bouwer, with a time of 22 hrs 51 mins, but there was quite a history to that road before 1930. From all accounts, it would appear that the first to tackle the Cape run of close on 1000 miles (it varied from year to year because of the deviations, etc.) was Thomas Black, who in 1916 drove his Chev to the Rand in 72 hrs 16 mins.
Some three years elapsed before J Gallais, accompanied by T Smith, the motor editor of the "Cape Times", took an Overland over the road in a nice round figure of 60 hours. But the men who really started inter-town record-breaking on an organised scale were the Hunt brothers of Johannesburg. These wide-awake agents were seeking ways of publicising their new "490" Chevrolets, and hit on speed runs as the most obviously spectacular way to demonstrate their wares. The state of the roads in the Union in those days being such that any car that stood up to the hammering of a successful speed test was recognised as just the job for our roads.
In 1922 Percy Hunt, Dave Owen and Harry Rosenthal, driving in turns, astounded the country by reaching Johannesburg in 42 hrs 32 mins, not only dealing the old record a tremendous wallop, but, to the consternation of all, "beat the mail train's time for the Cape to Rand trip!" Now that was something! A motor car beating a train? Incredible!
Just for variety, down went Dr Vercuil to stage a solo effort in 1924, but though he was unsuccessful over the recognised distance he carried on to Pretoria, his home town, which he reached in 55 hrs, and claimed a record for that. A really stout effort for a one-man show, all things being considered. Just to prove that one man could do it, H P Rose, manager of the Cape Town Hupmobile Depot, set off accompanied by a mechanic named Thome, and so well did the Hup go, that they stopped at Kimberley for a sleep— and still broke the record, lowering the time to 38 hrs 28 minutes!
The same year - 1924 - T Van Rooyen and L Fick set off in their 1919 model Studebaker and reached Johannesburg some 35 hrs 38 mins 13 secs, (don't forget the seconds!) later. Their time was 2¾ hours less than Rose's, and, just to shake things up, they told reporters of the loss of 2 hrs 15 mins en route. Their car ran into a mine shaft near Klipdam as it was speeding through the night, and they had to seek the aid of natives from a nearby compound before they could extricate it from the muddy ground. No doubt they sang "Don't go down the mine, Daddy", all the way home after that.
There were many attempts in 1925, and after one unsuccessful run which ended a mere 25 miles short of his destination, H P Rose stated that a time of less than 30 hrs was beyond any man or machine.
Notable as being the first effort by a British car was that of Capt. G F Callender and C W Koller, who very gallantly tackled the trip in a 15-hp Crossley, and, despite the small capacity, took the record away from the American cars, their 35 hrs. 30 mins. being 25 minutes less than that taken by the Stud Boys. They were not to have it their own way for long, however, for only a month later a newcomer named Gerry Bouwer trundled a Chrysler "60” from the fairest Cape in all the world to the richest reef in all the world, in a time that took everyone's breath away—including that of Mr Rose, no doubt—for it was well under the magic 30 hours - 26 hrs 13 mins to be exact.
This was the same Bouwer who was to put Chryslers on the South African map in a very big way in the next few years, breaking all the inter-town records, as well as a Cairo to Cape one, and setting national figures for long distance runs at Verneuk Pan.
But there was no peace for the record, and P Ferreira pitched up in a Peerless in 1926 to snatch it back with 48 minutes to spare, reporting that it might have been less, only he had brake trouble! Bouwer must have undone his brakes on hearing this, for he used his same car in 1927 to put a 22 hrs 51 mins mark on the record board. Ford's didn't like all this Chrysler monopoly and sent Morton with a V8 to attend to the business, and he slashed Gerry's time by 23 minutes. The game was getting somewhat hectic.
That was the record that Gordon had his eye on when he set out from Cape Town driving his own Oakland Roadster in September 1930. With him was C E Watts, and it says much for his trust in Gordon's driving ability, for he had suffered a broken neck three years before and had been told by his doctor that a sudden bump would mean "tickets" for him!
The Oakland was absolutely standard, complete with mudguards and windscreen. The only "preparation" was the fitting of an extra 8-gallon petrol tank, and the garage folk at Fraserburg Road had been told to arrange for a fill-up there late at night.
Instead of the recognised route through from Beaufort West, Victoria West and Kimberley to the Rand, the Oakland pair had decided to go via Murraysburg, Hanover, Colesberg and Edenburg to Bloemfontein. The mileage difference being negligible. Before Paarl the plugs cooked, and 28 minutes were lost while new ones were fitted. Then, after Beaufort West, the generator gave up the unequal struggle to supply the big headlights and spot lights, and Gordon was forced to use his dims only. It says much for his skill that that misfortune only knocked him back another 20 minutes on his record schedule.
As soon as it was light he gave the car its head, covering the 140 miles between Bloemfontein and Kroonstad in 2 hrs. 15 mins - fantastic going for a car showing 25 000 miles on the clock. Then a tyre burst and he had all his work cut out to keep the speeding car on the road. Feverishly both set to the job of replacing the wheel. That done, the starter refused to work, and another 25 minutes slipped away before the Oakland did. Meanwhile it was dark again and there was the nightmare drive on the "dims" all the way to Johannesburg. It was not surprising, therefore, when they lost their way twice before reaching their destination - the City Hall, where the clock hands stood at 8.32 pm, 24 hrs 32 mins after leaving the coast. Not a record, but considering all the circumstances, a most memorable drive.
This served to whet his appetite for road work and he took his Oakland down to Bloemfontein for an attack on the record from there to the Rand. Willemse was his passenger, and all went well till near Kroonstad when the fan belt broke, losing him 30 minutes. Speeding to make up time some miles later he had another hectic few moments coping with his car when a tyre popped at about 75 mph. Just to add to the excitement it was a holiday week-end, so he had to be careful of the traffic, but, for all that, he was clocked into Johannesburg by Emil Millin, the Motor Editor of the "Sunday Times", 5 hrs 15 mins after leaving Bloemfontein.
Haak's, the Willys agency in Johannesburg, imported some "Silver Streak" roadsters, and Gordon, with his eye on more records, bought one. Here it is as well to mention that he was an amateur driver the strictest in sense of the word, using his own car, and confining his speed attempts to his weekends. That work did come first, believe it or not, was evidenced in his rapid promotion in his building society job. He was assistant manager at 25. But, we are getting ahead with our story.
With the Willys to which he had fitted a streamlined tail, he broke all records at Natal Spruit after some hectic dices with his rivals in Fords and Chevs. Then he reckoned he was ready to have another crack at the Bloemfontein - Johannesburg run, sure too that he'd knock a chunk off his previous time with the Oakland. The Willys streaked through the 280 miles in 4 hrs 15 mins, averaging 65.9 mph, the fastest run that had ever been done in the Union to that time.
The Ford people weren't taking that sitting down and Van Til went out the following day to do the 217 mile trip to Pietersburg in a record 3 hrs 17 mins.
Things were warming up, and letters started to appear in the papers in which the writers asked how "special" were these cars which averaged such speeds. Haak's reported that the only non-standard fitments to the Willys was a pair of snubbers on the rear axle, and, for £5, offered to convert any other owner's car to "racing specification a la Collins Silver Streak”. This included taking a 1/32 in skim off the head to raise the compression ratio.
So when Stewart Fraser contacted Gordon asking him if he'd go for the records in the little British car, the lad with the rimless glasses agreed at once, making only one stipulation - it had all to be done over week-ends or long week-ends. His bosses didn't like his record-breaking, but they couldn't complain if it didn't interfere with his office routine. So down to Durban he went in January 1932, accompanied by a factory mechanic named Brown. The car to be used was a nifty little 1 089 cc ohv 4-cylinder sports job, and he found it great fun to drive after the big American tourers.
The all-comers' record stood to the credit of V J Morton with a Ford, and the light car record was held by Durban garage proprietor, E McCrystal (now living in Port Elizabeth) in a 7 hp baby Austin.
But here again, as in the longer Cape run, there was quite a story attached to the runs on this 404-mile stretch of road. As in the former, it was the enterprising Hunt brothers who started it off. True, in 1897, Frank Connock and R L Jefferson were credited with the first "up" trip. Driving an 8 hp Rover car, they did the journey in 5 days. An epic journey that, and the first "down" run on record was the 4-cylinder Gladiator car driven by F C Dumat and F Whittaker. They sped to Durban in only four days in 1904.
But the first organised record attempt was by Percy Hunt riding an Indian motor-cycle outfit with Tony Jordan in the chair. That was in 1915. A year later the redoubtable Percy Flook, who won the Johannesburg race in 1919 and 1923, took a Triumph motor-cycle through to a new record in which he described the most nightmarish ride of his whole life. Believe it or not, in 1919 a claim was put forward by the Studebaker concern stating that two years previously Whitehead, one of the agency directors, accompanied by Mr Langley, of "The Sunday Times", Mr J B Ritchie, and a native (presumably to open and close the gates en route!) had done the trip in 18 hrs 16 mins.
Whereupon Paddy Adair, who was making Vauxhalls hum in Reef hill climbs, put forward his own claim to have gone one better in 1914; in a Prince Henry model — which later became, of all things, the personal car of the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in France — he claimed he had done the 400-mile bone-shaking journey in 14 hrs 5 mins. A Wolseley crew "officially" did the illegal run in 15 hrs 15 mins in 1920.
Sidecar outfits, solos and cars all got busy on the job, and not all the attempts were successful. A British combination held the honour for a short time, before Big Chief Hunt, of Wigwam House, sent his braves, Owen and Rosenthal, to recapture it. A week later the palefaces from the British camp had it back, so out came the Indian again to take the scalp back with a time of 14 hrs 50 mins for the three-wheeler class. The business developed into a three-man show over the next couple of years with Tommy Nichol on the solo Power-Plus Indian doing battle with the cars of Paddy Adair and H P Rose.
In those early days it was regarded as the thing to continue the run to Pretoria. To-day's road-users have just no conception of what it meant to man-handle a solo motor-cycle or combination over those roads. Tyres were small-sectioned and often suffered concussion bursts on the dried-out wagon ruts; forks were spidery and on the worst going often were but a blur when viewed from the saddle. The latter was usually hard and bottomed on the bumps, sending a succession of staccato pile-driving blows to the base of the rider's spine every time he landed on it. There was a lot to be said for machines equipped with footboards! If the Durban-Johannesburg race was hard work, this was sheer murder, and if the truth be told this was a truer test of man and machine than the classic road race which was split into two days and later had time allowances made for traversing the towns en route. These breathers, which were to stop speeding through towns, gave men and engines much-needed time to recuperate. Some of the old-time racing men swore that if all the Johannesburg races had been straight through races the record book would look much different to-day.
At first the speed dashes were timed by official observers from the clubs, who travelled in the cars but when things got too hot, because of police activity, it was left to motor editors of newspapers who were only too happy to co-operate, knowing that thereby they'd get in on a "scoop".
After the Johannesburg to Durban car reliability trial in 1920, in which he finished ninth, H P Rose was incensed by newspapers calling it a race and just to show everybody what his car could do in a real speed event, he decided to set about the record during his homeward-bound journey. With four passengers, one of whom was "a guide" named Pauletti, who featured in the same capacity in later runs since "he knew the road like the back of his hand", so we are told. In view of the fact that the "road" was not much better than a track in parts, and in one Durban-Johannesburg race a competitor went 60 miles out of his way, a guide was probably worth his weight in petrol. Anyway Rose got to Johannesburg in 14 hrs 41½ mins, so he must have felt happier about putting the newspaper reporters in their places.
A spectacular showman was Paddy Adair with his 30-98 Vauxhalls, in which he performed mighty deeds on the road and in hill climbs on the Reef. Once, for good measure, he raced an Avro biplane, piloted by Capt. Ross, on Jan Meyer's Hill. They gave the crowds thrills aplenty in the process.
Always a bit flamboyant, Paddy had a flair for publicity. Often his car was to be seen in the Durban streets for days before his record attempts, and it always attracted crowds wherever it was parked. Not surprising either when you remember that a car that had done the trip down from Johannesburg in those dusty days looked like something the dredger had excavated from the mud flats on Durban Bay. Once Paddy, on completion of a run, let the pencil-happy reporters know he had seen a white baboon on the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. A white baboon? Never heard of it! And started a white baboon chase just as exciting as any wild goose chase and equally unprofitable. Paddy was up to his monkey tricks again—or was he?.
The first to have brought the time down to less than 10 hours was Gerry Bouwer in a Chrysler with Maritzburg's Billy Mills as passenger. The happy Billy had started his racing on Douglas motorcycles and was a useful performer in races in the 1920's. This pair got through in 9 hrs 31 mins.
Then all sorts and sizes and types of vehicles started claiming records. A Sentinel steam lorry even lodged a claim, the driver swearing that he had done the trip in the breath-taking time of only four days!
Durban's Lance Walsh, who was always in the news with his stunts, established the first light car time in a rather snappy little Fiat 509, getting to the Reef in 13 hrs 30 mins and, with Jock Dunn, motor editor of the "Natal Advertiser" as co-driver, turned right round to complete the double journey in 30 hrs 48 mins. Walsh, be it noted, was reputed to have been the first RAF pilot to fly an aircraft off a ship. He later drove a car from Durban to Drummond while handcuffed. Oh, yes, Lance was game for anything.
The last run with a sidecar outfit was thereupon made by the great Alf Long in 1927, who wrestled an Indian combination, with Johnny Driver passengering to the Reef in 9 hrs 27 mins (doing the last 100 miles in 113 mins).
Rose (Hup) and Mills (Chrysler "72" and de Soto) knocked minutes off this in 1928, and in 1929 there was the first of the baby car attempts which became quite a feature of the early 30s. George High, who performed in a Morris Minor in Reef events, left from Durban and with H Patterson as passenger, set the time of 12 hrs 20 mins for others to aim at.
Reg Lucas revived the there-and-back two-way stunt, doing the two-way stretch in 24 hrs 30mins in a Reo "Flying Cloud" and, a month later, Walsh gave that a bang, using a Ford Truck! His "up" time was only 3 mins. outside Mills' roadster record. Undeterred, or maybe spurred on because of the near miss. Lance turned about and he and Dearlove collected the honours for the double trip, the Ford's time being 3 hrs 50 mins less than that of the Reo.
On the scene then appeared Durban garage proprietor, E McCrystal, who dominated baby car racing in Natal for several years. Whether it was at Clairwood Speedway, Hill Climbs, or on the open road, the big man with the happy smile "cleaned up" regularly. Accompanied by a mechanic named Disher, Mac whacked a lump off the Minor's time, clocking in at the Johannesburg Post Office in 11 hrs 48 mins, and it could have been much less for he reported a delay at Colenso, when the police held him up while he paid a R6 admission of guilt for having an inefficient silencer. 1929 was a busy year, for Lucas retook his double-run record, slicing the time to 19 hrs 23 mins.
The following year, Mills and McLeish, his mechanic, livened things up with an 8 hrs 35 mins run in the foulest weather imaginable. Battling, against snow, hail, rain and mud, it was reminiscent of the 1920 DJ "Snowstorm Derby" race. To add to their troubles they encountered high winds around Standerton, where, even on the level, Billy found he had to use second gear. The speed-kings must have been all shook up with this effort, for it was the only 1930 attempt.
But there was renewed activity on the old road in '31. In August, Terry Armstrong, with riding mechanic F M Pratt, lowered McCrystal's car time by 6 minutes. A month later, Sherwood, in one of the first 6-cylinder Chevs, got the all-comers' record with an 8 hrs 6 mins journey and, a couple of weeks afterwards, Teddy Bell, who rode in several of the old DJ motor-cycle races, set out from Durban with his wife, sharing the perils, and got the light car class record, using a Wolseley Hornet. This is the first recorded appearance of a woman on the inter-town scene. The Hornet was some 12 minutes faster than the Austin but had the advantage of 450 cc in engine size.
McCrystal didn't like this at all and got a skimpy body fitted on his Baby. By the look of it he must have sat on the chassis with his mechanic on his lap and called his coach-builder to give them a "short back and sides", for it was the closest fitting body seen for a long time. It did the trick, too, for he took the sting out of the Hornet by clipping 6 minutes off Bell's time. Right after this Willoughby Morton broke the 8 hr barrier, his Ford smashing through to the gold town in 7 hrs 45 mins.
That was the way the books stood when Gordon's little sports blue Riley set out from Durban. But first plug trouble delayed them and later they lost 1½ hours with vacuum tank bothers. For all that, they knocked 1 hr 5 mins off the Austin's light car time.
The car was readied for another attempt a few weeks later, and Fraser Jones went ahead about the preparations with his usual thoroughness. To save time, Gordon's friend, Major Halse, flew them down in his Puss Moth, the car being brought to Durban by Brown, who reported on the condition of the road. Collins himself, in his usual light-hearted way, prepared for the final assault by going to a show, getting to bed at 12.45, and 3½ hours later rising for the 5 am start!
Above Field's Hill the Riley ran into thick mist and Gordon's glasses fogged up as they usually did under his goggles in these conditions. He thought of giving up, but asked Brown to take over till they ran out of the murk. That the mechanic was no mean performer was evidenced in the time of 65 minutes to Maritzburg, and when they topped Town Hill the car came out into sunshine and Gordon, who had been scared stiff in the passenger seat, took over again.
Up above, Stewart Fraser aboard the Puss Moth, breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted the little car speeding round the dusty curves to Howick. A system of signalling between the car and plane had been pre-arranged. Brown was to wave a white flag if all was well, a black one if a stop was a temporary one, and red if there was a major blow-up. At Ladysmith and Newcastle the plane landed for the Major to check the refuelling arrangements and film the car's arrival and departure.
The road across the Biggarsberg was in a bad state, and, because of the delay through mist, they had to cut their stops to an absolute minimum, if the record was to be beaten. Away over the Berg into the Transvaal, Gordon had further worries. His guardian angel plane was missing. He began to fear the worst, but it reappeared to his delight when he was nearing Greylingstad and he was able to give a white OK signal. He didn't know that in refuelling the plane at Newcastle a tin of water had been tipped into the petrol tank by mistake, and the whole fuel system had to be dismantled to clear the lines.
Sixty-five miles to go, and 60 minutes to do it in. It was Sunday and more and more cars were on the road. Then, just before Heidelberg, the Riley overdid it on a bend. Gordon fought the slide but the car flipped over into a ditch and he was catapulted over Brown's head on to the veld. As he sat dazed for a few seconds, he came to with Brown, who was pinned under the car, shouting above the din of a jammed hooter, "Come on, you've no time to sit there dreaming!" Some passing motorists and people living in a house close by helped right the car, and as both pronounced themselves to be OK they leapt aboard and were soon going through Heidelberg. It was 12.12 pm - they had 33 minutes to do the 32 miles for the record.
Meanwhile the Puss Moth had passed on and its occupants had hurried to the City Hall, there to bite their nails’ as the minutes and seconds ticked away towards zero hour. And on the dusty yellow road, Gordon was really tearing things up as he raced over those last few miles. At Willow grange Tea Room and later at Jan Meyers Hill he slithered to a locked-wheel stop when he found cattle right across the road, but he was not to be denied, and at 12.40 he pulled up beneath the clock, happy to have beaten the unlimited class record by five minutes in the little British sports car It was a magnificent run, and, if Major Stewart Fraser wanted publicity, he got it now in full measure from every paper in the country.
Gordon Collins in his record-breaking Riley.
Elated, the Riley equipe now started to lay on an attempt on the Cape-Rand record for May. Since he had last had a go at it in the Oakland, Morton (Ford) had brought the time down to 22 hours 38 minutes. As all the previous record-breaking cars had a capacity of almost three times that of the British Riley, Gordon had a truly formidable task on his hands. Just to add to his difficulties, Gillingham pranged the sports job that had been used in the Durban run, and it was almost a write-off. Hurriedly they prepared a matt-green "Army" model for battle, and set off.
Fifteen miles out they ran into thick mist, and Gordon encountered his usual goggle-misting troubles. It was maddening, but he handed over to Gillingham to drive till visibility improved. Fortunately in five miles it cleared, but those five miles had taken them 20 minutes. Road work on a large scale was in progress, from the top of Bains Kloof to the Breede River. Blasting was being done, rocks and rubble were piled high on both sides of the cutting, leaving just a narrow track for road-users to negotiate. This had been anticipated before the start, however, and "Old Man" Watts had gone out to clear the road of all picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and other sundry impedimenta which might make the already dangerous conditions doubly worse. He even rounded up the 400 or so Native road workers to help him, and when the little green car weaved its way through, they stood lining the banks and cheered themselves hoarse.
Nearing Trompsburg, Collins slowed and the Depot Manager there jumped aboard to accompany them into the town, and when he leapt off again he shouted, "Good luck”. A policeman who was nearby heard the shout, put two and two together, and phoned the station at Edenburg, and when the Riley came through he was stopped and charged with reckless driving. Gordon managed to convince them he was on a petro! consumption and not a speed test, and was lucky to get off with a £3 admission of guilt. The time he lost was considerable, but it could have been worse, for the policeman in charge wanted a magistrate to witness the signing of the admission. That was the only awkward moment worth remembering on the trip and the miles were reeled off like speedo clockwork as it headed for Johannesburg, which was reached in 21 hours 10 minutes - a new all-comers' record for the journey.
But there were other roads to conquer and in August, 1932, he turned his attention to the Johannesburg-Pietersburg road, where the Ford and Chev boys had been making records while the sun shone. This had a particular fascination for Gordon, since the averages were the highest of all inter-town speed dashes. Van Til's Ford held the record, and as the authenticity of some drivers' records were suspect, Gordon invited the Ford people, who were friendly rivals, to time him out and in, as well as at intermediate points, to prove that he really did complete the run.
Van Till himself clocked Gordon out of Johannesburg at 6.30 one Sunday. The early morning sun was a real nuisance, forcing the driver to use one hand to shield his eyes. He quipped to Cliff Ford, his riding mechanic, that it was lucky for him he had had lots of experience with girlfriends, so one-armed driving was easy! Despite that, he raced the 98 miles to Warmbaths in 70 mins and got to Pietersburg (217 miles) in 184 minutes, averaging a new record—70.76 mph.
Here they refuelled and screamed off on the return leg. The big side-valve Willys was going like a bomb. Then four miles out of Warmbaths there was a bang when a horseshoe punctured a back tyre. Hurriedly they jumped out, inspected the damage (history doesn't say if they kept the horseshoe for luck!) and decided they would save time if they drove on the flat to the garage in Warmbaths, where a large jack would do the job in a shorter time. This they did at some 65 mph all the way, and only lost five minutes on the change-over.
Thereafter the Willys really went like a silver streak and 188 minutes after leaving Pietersburg they pulled up under the City Hall clock, where the first to shake their hands was Van Til himself, now the ex-record holder. The average of 68.5 mph for the full 434 miles was claimed as a world record for dirt-road racing. It certainly was a most remarkable performance, especially as it was done on open roads, to make it better (or worse!).
But while he had been rushing around the Northern Transvaal, Gerry Bouwer had not been inactive and had swiped the Cape record when Gordon wasn't looking. He had done it in no uncertain fashion either, clipping 2 hrs 6 mins off the Riley's time.
This, decided the week-end record-breaker, was no occasion for half measures. It was a man's job, so he got Haak's Garage to check the big Willys for his 2 000 mile trek. Just to make it interesting, with Gillingham aboard, he decided to see what he could do about lowering Bouwer’s figures on the run down while he was about it.
All went well till Beaufort West, where he was a clear three hours ahead of his schedule, but some miles further on a shock-absorber broke and holed the tank, causing them to stop for repairs to be effected. Storm clouds blew up and they knew they were headed for dirty weather. Sure enough the rain started. All the way to Laingsburg it pelted down mercilessly and he was finding it difficult to drive because of goggle trouble again. Nearing Worcester, a couple of figures stood on the road waving him down. They were from the agency garage to tell him the police had barricaded the road, and they showed him how to by-pass the town, using farm roads.
Fortunately for Gordon he did not know that the reason for the block was a report from up-country that he had killed a man on the road (this was incorrect) and attempts were made to stop him at Laingsburg and De Doorns as well. After the rains came thick fog and he was now battling against the elements, as well as the clock. If he was going to break the record it was going to be close. Then, for good measure, he ran into thick fog at Bellville and if he blessed it for one thing it was only the fact that the traffic cop who had attached himself to his tail was finding it difficult to keep up. Gillingham was counting off the minutes anxiously. So near - and yet? They got there with only three minutes to spare.
Gordon got his record. The traffic cop got driver and mechanic and car, and took them to the police station, where they were lodged in gaol! The Willys representative arrived with a bag full of golden sovereigns -1 000 of them - but still they were held. No charge had been laid against them, and Gordon tried to contact the attorney-general, but it was a holiday weekend and he was away fishing at Hermanus.
Eventually, after being held for a day they were released and charged with reckless driving, when the report of the killing was found to be false. It was quite a shattering experience for any but the hardy.
So what happened? Hardy Collins decided to attempt the "up" record on the way home. He had to be back in the office at 8.30 on Monday morning, or there would be some explaining to do. (He didn't know that the story had already been headlined in the Transvaal papers.) So away he set off for the office, 973 miles away, after a quick check of the car and calls to the agents en route, especially his friends at Murraysburg, who, as usual, rounded up an army of umfaans to open and close the numerous gates 20 miles on both sides of the town. In those days failure to do this could result in prosecution. Murraysburg, it is interesting to recall, was the only town through which it was possible to race. In every other town or dorp in the Union, Gordon slowed right down for you'd hardly believe it, he said he appreciated the much-needed rest this gave him.
The news of his coming must have been noised abroad for Gordon recalls that as he raced through at 8.30 am a sergeant of the police was holding the kids back and leading the cheering. Thrilled at the reception, he made the dirt rise in clouds as he rounded the next right-hander in a controlled slide, then tackled the dip that followed, flat out. That did the damage, for on landing, the front left stub axle was fractured, and 15 miles further on, when doing some 80 mph, the wheel flew off and some road menders showed remarkable acceleration from a standing start when it whistled between them like a flying saucer and came to rest in the veld half a mile away. "That," Sam Gillingham laconically remarked as he ruefully surveyed the damage, "had cooked it!".
But things weren't as bad as they might have been, for there was a pushbike nearby, so Gordon didn't have to walk the 10 miles into Richmond, where he phoned for a breakdown van. Being a dorp it didn't take him long to discover either that the local doctor's wife had a Willys, and he was allowed to "rob" it of the necessary parts to allow him to repair his "Streak". This, of course, put paid to his record attempt - the only time, incidentally, when he had not done what he had set out to do - and he just took it easy from there to the Reef, which he reached at 5 am, just in time to get bathed, shaved and dressed in gent's natty suiting and head for his office.
If he had thought his exciting week-end was over, he had another shock when he got to the UBS and was told the Directors wished to see him. They didn't look too happy. That was obvious, and they came straight to the point at once. Newspaper posters proclaiming "Collins Gaoled in Cape Town" didn't please them at all. Even if he was doing his high-speed motoring outside office hours, he was still the assistant manager of the UBS Put in brief, it was "either you give up your motor-racing - or else!"
It was a sad decision for one so full of adventure to take, but he agreed to stick to his figures in ledgers instead of those in record books. And stick to them he did. But Gerry Bouwer's Terraplane got on the warpath again from Cape Town, lowering the record still further to 19 hrs 4 mins.
The itch was too much for the man at the ledger, so he asked the local agent if he would import one of the new aerodynamic Hupmobile coupes and give it to him at landed cost - if he tackled the Cape run again. No sooner said than down to the coast went Collins and Gillingham, on a week-end, of course. No poaching on office time! But, to conceal the whole nefarious business, it was agreed that the only name to be mentioned would be Gillingham's.
In rain and slippery roads the Hup raced the first 130 miles to Touws River in 143 minutes. Some going at 2 am! At Beaufort West a tyre burst halted them for a time, and rain and flooding roads was their lot for miles beyond. At times the water in spruits was so high that the inside of the cockpit was flooded. But they were not to be denied. They got to Johannesburg a full hour ahead of the old time. The Rand papers splashed the story of the wonderful new run by Gillingham "and a companion". Everybody was happy, including the UBS Directors - they never knew.
But it was the end of the road for Gordon Collins and he was satisfied. Road improvements had altered the Cape and Durban roads almost beyond recognition. New deviations, by-passes and cuttings had shortened the latter route by some 100 miles. The records being set up on the Durban road were over a different one than those that the ghosts of the tough old stagers who made South African motoring history had battled. Tarmac was replacing dirt. Our roads were as good as anything to be seen anywhere, and soon would be the superb highways we know today. Gordon knew that the place for speed work was no longer on open roads.
In 1935 he hung up his goggles and applied himself with as much zeal and energy to his job, with the result that at the comparatively young age of 30 he was appointed General Manager. Today, 27 years later, he still holds this position, and his institution is the largest financial house of its kind in South Africa, controlling assets exceeding R500 000 000.
And the record he is most proud of today is the fact that in 1959 he was elected as President of the International Union of Building Societies and Savings Associations, and presided over the World Congress held in 1962 in Washington
Nowadays the old master drives a Mark X Jag with considerable verve and not a little enthusiasm, and if the twinkle in his eyes would seem to suggest that the irresistible fondness for getting up to tricks is still with him, let me hasten to assure you that it is - but he keeps it for the kind that's done at home and not on the open road - conjuring tricks… Want to hear about them, too?
Copyright J. M. Leyden, 1965