The Protea, South Africa’s first home-made car
The first South African-made production car, the Protea, was assembled by three British men working in South Africa in the 1950s: Coventry mechanic and racing driver John Myers, Yorkshireman Roland Fincher, and a Scottish manufacturing chemist Alec Roy.
Myers worked at Daimler in Coventry, England in 1939 making four-wheel drive Dingo scout cars. One night, while he was off-duty, the Nazis dropped over 600 tonnes of bombs on the factory and he was subsequently sent to India and Burma, where he worked on amphibious "Duplex Drive" military tanks. After the war he emigrated to South Africa as part of a scheme to recruit "Pommie" mechanics.
The first Protea was made in a corrugated iron garage in Johannesburg, designed after Lotus sports cars but with a unique space frame and swinging front axle. The body was made from fibreglass even though no-one in South Africa knew how to use this new material properly at the time.
In order to find weak points in the chassis they hired a muscular labourer to jump on it.
“Many years later a computerised analysis confirmed that we had created a nearperfect design”, Meyers told me in April 2015. They used an engine, dashboard and steering wheel scavenged from a Ford Anglia, redesigned to fit into the space frame, and Myers made his own coil springs, telescopic dampers and axles.
Their small Ford Anglia engines only produced 36hp but they were very reliable and reached speeds of 128km/h. With a streamlined body and various engine modifications, Myers increased the engine power to 54hp and achieved speeds greater than 160 km/h.
The prototype was first displayed in Johannesburg in 1956.
They originally cost £695 and became very popular among sports car enthusiasts. But Myers and his friends were soon forced out of business by the excessive customs and excise tariffs charged on all imported parts and only 14 of the original Proteas were made.
The Protea preceded the GSM Dart and Flamingo in Cape Town by two months but they regularly raced against one another. “It was a pity that we did not share ideas and benefit from one another’s knowledge and experience," Meyers told me. “But in retrospect we should have concentrated our efforts on making bakkies, using the same chassis, gear box and engine, as they would have been more profitable as they are exempt from customs and excise taxes.”
• Mike Bruton is a retired scientist and a busy writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
The front view of the Protea car, South Africa's first home-made car.
Coventry mechanic and racing driver John Myers.