Have wheels, will travel
They don’t build cars like this anymore, or road trips either
IN 1963 a young Roger Freshman convinced three fellow students at Bristol University to drive with him from Bristol, England, across Africa to Cape Town in a car that both he and his daughter would later use as their wedding vehicle.
The motley crew comprised three engineering and one law student, the latter chosen because his dad once owned a similar car and he knew a bit of the 1930 Austin Burnham 16/6 they were to travel in.
Their aim was to drive the vintage car across Africa to Cape Town and there challenge four Cape Town university students to make the return journey.
“We gave a name to our venture: VASTA Expedition, which stood for ‘vintage Austin student trans-Africa’,” said Freshman.
The Cape Town crew rechristened the Austin as “Mugwump”, for “Montague’s university group with unlimited means of propulsion”, rather than the original meaning, which is a fence sitter, especially on political issues.
Before departing, Freshman’s crew modified the oil bath, air cleaner and oil filter, and installed an extra fuel tank and an extra leaf to the rear leaf springs. They also fitted a front bumper to protect the radiator, a roof rack and storage bins on the running boards.
Their main sponsor was Lord Montague, who paid £1 000 to advertise his Montague Motor Museum.
“We had many other sponsors of food, medical supplies, camping equipment, film equipment, spares for the car, as well as financial,” recalled Freshman.
Long before one could just ask Google, planning such a journey required a huge amount of work to plan the route, obtain visas and collect the donations from their sponsors.
At the end, they had so much “kit” they had to hook up a trailer.
Along the way, they had to fieldstripped the engine to find the source of a “knock”, which disappeared on reassembly. “To this day we do not know what caused it,” he said.
In Spain, three burnt exhaust valves had to be replaced. “These had to be ‘lapped in’ so it took a day to complete the repairs in the square of a small village, where we were surrounded by a horde of youngsters who thought it very funny to pick up parts or tools and pretend to run off with them” Freshman said.
The timing chain snapped near the Tunisian border. “This is quite a major job and as a dust storm from the desert was blowing we had to shroud the engine with blankets to keep the dust out while we worked.”
The group were well impressed with the old Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya. “It was so well preserved, having been covered by sand for centuries, and was still being excavated,” said Freshman.
After Leptis they made rapid progress to Alexandria in Egypt. arriving after a month on the road. There one of the students was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and he was operated on by an American-trained surgeon who charged no fees as a goodwill gesture to British students. The three remaining students were allowed to climb to the top of the second highest pyramid. “The high blocks made for a hard climb, but it was a wonderful experience,” said Freshman.
When the rest of their kit arrived by container, they did not have enough space to fit everything and instead held an impromptu boot sale. Then they learned the route they had planned across Egypt to Sudan was temporarily closed due to the building of the Aswan Dam. This saw Mugwump loaded on a boat down the Red Sea to Port Sudan, then a train flat bed to Khartoum and eventually a Nile ferry that paddled its way to the capital of South Sudan, Juba. “This was a very slow 10-day trip, living third class next to Mugwump, surrounded by the many locals with crying babies, bleating goats etc.”
The ferry was made up of six barges tied together and driven by huge paddles because the reeds in the Nile made the use of props impossible.
In Tanzania they visited the Ngorogoro crater and Amboseli game park with its magnificent views of Kilimanjaro. There one of the crew had jaundice and had to fly home. Now a month behind schedule the remaining two students drove on south to then Rhodesia, where they were welcomed by the mayor of Salisbury.
They continued south to Pretoria on South Africa’s good tar roads, where they swung east to Pietermaritzburg to travel through the Transkei and along the Garden Route to Cape Town.
“A cavalcade of vintage cars came out to escort us to Cape Town hall, where the mayor had a welcoming reception and we met the four students from the university who had volunteered to drive Mugwump back to Bristol. It was now just under four months and 19 000 km that it had taken us, and Mugwump was running like a dream.
“The two of us went back to the UK on a free passage on separate Safmarine cargo vessels.
“The Cape Town students took a similar route to ours, but crossed the Med from Egypt to Italy and thence to Bristol. They had no major breakdowns, but suffered from 34 punctures, due to new, ill-fitting tyres that were sponsored in Cape Town.
“Mugwump came back to South Africa when I emigrated there in 1964 and was the only car I drove for three years.
“She was my wedding car when I was married in Rhodesia and my youngest daughter’s wedding car in Cape Town,” he said.
Mugwump, now owned by a member of the Crankhandle Club, is used often for vintage rallies and is still going strong having had no major engine work since her epic two-way trip from Bristol to Cape Town and back.
The only repairs not noted above included a broken shock absorber arm, a worn distributor drive gear, a burnt-out inlet valve, and a worn prop shaft fibre coupling. “We had 11 punctures and the radiator only boiled once, in Morocco,” said Freshman.
‘‘Mugwump’ was a 1930 Austin Burnham saloon that went down and then up Africa.