The Protea, South Africa’s first home-made car

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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: mike­fish­es­bru­ton@gmail.com

Pho­tos: Supplied

The front view of the Protea car, South Africa's first home-made car.

Coven­try me­chanic and rac­ing driver John My­ers.

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