Koos Mof van Wyk was a bachelor who lived with his Ma out on the Kestell road. One evening he drove home and a Joburg driver drove right up his bum as he slowed suddenly on the main road in order to turn in at his gate.
The Joburg oke was angry, ‘Waddefok maak jy dat jy sommer so skielik stilhou innie mirrel vannie pad!?’
Koos Mof was astounded. Waddefok maak JY!? he yelled. Almal weet dis my hek hierie en ek draai altyd hier in. Ek is Koos Mof en ek BLY HIER!
Joburg driver: How can you just stop in the middle of the highway!?
Koos Mof: What do you mean!? Everyone knows this is my gate and I always turn in here! I LIVE HERE!
Long long ago Annie said to me I should get her beloved husband Frank’s oak desk. We never knew Frank. He died when Mom was just fifteen or so, still in school. Annie had five grandkids and I suppose her reasoning was the only grandson should get it?
So now Mom’s in Azalea Gardens and Dad will be joining her soon, so it was time to fetch the desk. Dismantle, ship on the back of and inside of my Ford bakkie and re-assemble in my office.
It looks good.
Very importantly, the key is in the top drawer, attached to a label ticket. Written in (I suppose) Annie’s handwriting: “Key of Frank’s Desk.” Interesting, as there’s no lock or keyhole in the desk, nor any of its drawers!
Harrismith had a very successful sportscar designer! Sheila reminded me on her facebook. He was a big mate of Polly du Plessis. They called each other Sissel Pud (du Plessis backwards) and something? Maybe that was someone else? JP? Help ‘n bietjie!
Here’s the story – or the parts I could fish out:
Two Stellenbosch university pals wanted to make a great sportscar. They were Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner. In 1958 Meissner went to England and saw a new technology called fibreglass. He wrote a letter to Bob van Niekerk asking him to come to England to study fibreglass crafting. Bob hopped onto a Union Castle ship and joined his mate. In those days that was called ‘instant response’: The letter took a week; the response took a week; the ship took a month; Bang! Two months later there his mate was, ready to help.
Bob recalls: ‘We had full confidence in our ability to produce the mechanicals and a good chassis, but needed someone to put a ‘face’ on it – a good looking design. As luck would have it, Willie knew a lady Joan (nee Peters) who was married to a stylist working at Rootes who would hopefully stop us from producing a mediocre, unattractive body.’
His name was Verster de Wit, an ex-Harrismith boykie and friend of our Polly du Plessis. He very soon had them building quarter-scale models with plasticene during the week while he was off working in Coventry on the Sunbeam Alpine. Fridays, Verster would come down to London to inspect the work they had done in their one-roomed flat in Earls Court. When they got to scale model number 13, it suddenly all came together, and ‘a unanimous decision was made to progress to full-scale.’
‘We rented a garage in Gleneldin Mews in Streatham and built the mock-up using wooden formers and plaster of paris. The first body came out of the mould in April 1957 and was sold for 75 pounds, which helped to pay for my trip back to Cape Town where Willie had started the Glassport Motor Company (GSM).’
They considered what to name their cars: Cheetah, Mamba, Simba, Zebra, Kudu, Lynx or Tyger? Eventually they called the open top the GSM Dart and the hardtop the GSM Flamingo. On returning to South Africa, they built four prototypes in 1957, and the first production car rolled off the line in early 1958. In total, 116 GSM Darts and 128 GSM Flamingos were produced from 1958 to 1964. Actually, the GSM club tracked down many of them and reckoned there were a few more than that.
The GSM cars were astonishingly quick and agile and won a lot of races. In their first nine hour in JHB, a Dart beat Sarel vd Merwe in his Porsche into second place; they were followed by an MG, another Porsche a Volvo and an Alfa Romeo!
But perhaps the best story was after they had sold 41 cars by 1959, for racing and road use in Cape Town. They decided they could also be sold in England and Bob set sail with a complete body and chassis kit on the Union Castle liner. In England Bob was introduced to Mr John P Scott at Windsor Garage, West Malling in Kent. Scott agreed to give him a place to build a car and fund all the parts on condition that Bob built the car in 10 days! AND that he entered it in a race at Brands Hatch and won the race! What a tall – almost impossible – order!
Bob accepted the challenge and worked day and night to complete the Dart by the Friday before the race. On the Saturday, April 18, 1960 Bob found himself in the middle of the grid on an unfamiliar circuit in a brand new and untested car. He steadily worked his way up into first place and won the race! He actually did it! Setting a Brands Hatch lap record that stood for seven years! A delighted Mr Scott then established a GSM production facility in a 5000 square foot factory behind the Windsor Garage to produce the first batch of cars. They couldn’t call them Dart in England, so they used ‘Delta’. Records are vague – it seems somewhere between 35 and 76 GSM Deltas were made in Kent.
The little cars developed a legendary winning reputation in the UK, Europe and SA. To show they weren’t only about racing, the Flamingo was marketed as the road-going version:
In 1964 they ran out of money.
Aftermath with Verster de Wit: 1976
A GSM club was formed in JHB and they tracked down Verster at his home in Kosmos on the Hartebeespoort Dam. He and his wife Eva hauled out a suitcase full of his photos and sketches of his design days in England and in SA. They regaled the club members with tales of the hours of dedication and hard work Verster had put into his automotive design career. Two well-known designs he had also been involved with were the Sunbeam Alpine and the Humber Super Snipe.
In the 1980s Jeff Levy got Verster to help him make a series of accurate replicas known as Levy Darts.
A. Ross & Co. General Dealers in Harrismith had gone phut, sold out to OK Bazaars. Their big old building was being gutted. Dad enquired about the ‘pressed steel’ ceilings* and was told ‘You can have the ceilings gratis if you strip them and remove them within a week.’
He bought six ‘nail puller pliers’ like these:
. . and hired six men (not that he used a decent word like men), had them take down the panels, scrape them down, scrub them with wire brushes and seal them with clear varnish; then they painted them with a mix of glossy and matt white paint to get a lovely finish: not shiny, not dull.
He put them up in our huge lounge, our long passage and our spacious dining room of the old house at 95 Stuart Street.
He sold the excess panels to someone in JHB who paid and fetched.
Dad says while he was fitting them, Ouma paid us a visit from PMB. She would sit up with him as he worked till late at night. When it got late she would encourage him to stop: ‘Kom my seun, nou moet jy gaan rus. Gaan slaap nou.’
I’ve no pics of the ceilings . . The feature pic and these are from the ‘net. They give a good idea of the look.
When I was taking pictures of his old tools I lined up these pliers and he said ‘Oh, those aren’t old. I bought them.’ Yeah, I laughed; Like fifty years ago! He saw the humour in that.
*Tin ceilings were introduced to North America as an affordable alternative to the exquisite plasterwork used in wealthy European homes. They gained popularity in the late 1800s as Americans sought sophisticated interior design. Durable, lightweight and fireproof, tin ceilings were appealing to home and business owners alike as a functionally attractive design element that was readily available.
Important chaps like this one harumphed . .
. . that it was morally wrong and deceptive to imitate another material and blamed the degradation of society towards the “art of shamming” rather than honesty in architecture. Oh well . .
They were also popular in Australia where they were commonly known as pressed metal ceilings or Wunderlich ceilings; and in South Africa.
Friend Charles got marooned on a Seychellois island from drinking too much. Drink – hard liquor – made them forget about their yacht and it broke anchor and drifted off without them. He’s writing a book about his adventures, of which more later, when he has published and become famous. On this lonely island he met ‘an Empire Games javelin champion.’
I went looking for who that might be, and found:
Henry Beltsazer “Harry” Hart – an SA athlete born in Harrismith, Orange River Colony on the 2nd of September 1905. He died in Reitz on the 10th of November 1979.
At the 1930 Empire Games in Canada he won the gold medals in the discus and shot put competitions, and bronze in the javelin throw. He finished fifth in the 120 yards hurdles.
In 1932 he went to the Olympics in Los Angeles, USA and finished tenth in shot put, twelfth in the discus and eleventh in the decathlon.
At the 1934 Empire Games in London (originally awarded to Johannesburg, but changed to London due to concerns regarding the treatment of black and Asian athletes by South African officials and fans) he won his second brace of Empire gold medals in the discus throw and shot put competitions. In the javelin throw contest he won silver (well, any Free State javelin-gooier is a friend of mine!).
Hart was the owner of the Royal Hotel in Reitz, Free State, South Africa. He was friends with actors Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, US swimmer and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller and CR ‘Blackie’ Swart – at that time a cowboy actor; later the first state president of South Africa. His study at the Reitz Royal Hotel – not really ‘Royal’ – displayed hundreds of photographs of himself in the company of these famous stars, as well as with US swimmer and actress Esther Williams, Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan – Jane in six Tarzan movies – and others.
Henry Harry Hart himself was apparently offered the part of Tarzan but refused as he had to return home to his farm to practice for the Empire Games. Hmm – ‘Hollywood? Reitz? Ag, fanks, I’ll take Reitz, OK?’
Lucky Johnny Weissmuller – shown here with Maureen O’Sullivan.
I asked Leanne Hilkovitz Williamson about Poccolan / Robinson’s Bush and this brought a flood of memories:
She takes up the story:
I was born on the farm De Nook which belonged to my grandfather Elias Hilkovitz and was inherited by my father Leo Hilkovitz after the 2nd World War probably round about 1945, two years before I was born.
Dad built Little Switzerland Hotel on the farm and we made pathways through the forest called Robinson’s Bush for guests to hike to various spots: The Wishing Well, Protea Plateau, etc. I named most of the spots, and one that meandered in and out of the forest edge I named Hilky’s Way after my grandfather who was affectionately known as Hilky.
We sold the hotel when I was in my early twenties but the various owners over the years have kept the use of the forest and the guests continue to enjoy its wonderful beauty – it is wonderfully exhilarating to either clamber down Breakneck Pass from the Wishing Well or climb up to it from the road below. The path twists and turns in amongst indigenous trees, true and mock yellowwoods, and lianas and ferns along the side of a stream full of huge beautiful boulders in all shades of grey & lichen & dappled shade. So one experiences the mountain air, the refreshing sound of the steam and always the melodious bird song. I particularly loved calling up the Mocking Chats and Natal Robins that mimic other birds and have a whole repartee of calls, copying them and they’d call back. A wonderful game that Dad taught me.
According to my father, Robinson’s Bush is the biggest natural forest in the Drakensberg. I wouldn’t take that as gospel. I’ve come to be a bit circumspect about those sorts of claims that locals all over the world tend to lay claim to!
Robinson’s Bush abuts on De Nook and we treated it as part of our farm. Dad looked after it although it is part of government nature conservation; at one stage in my late teenage years there were two nature conservation officers who lived in a hut on the edge of the forest and tended it but that did not last.
I was there for my 70th birthday in 2017 with my two sons and their families and we climbed up Breakneck Pass through the forest and I showed it to my granddaughters and taught them the things my Dad had taught me.
Some of my earliest memories are of picnics in the forest on the side of the stream with our neighbours Udo and Margo Zunkle of Cathkin Hotel fame when they lived on Windmill farm. Udo would put small pieces of raw steak on the river rocks and we’d be fascinated by the crabs that came from all sides to feast on it.
Leanne again later:
I put together a Power Point family history together for the family and we had an evening when I showed it to them. It started with the great grandparents on both sides and their cars and the farm in the very early days and the beginnings of the hotel and its growth as I grew up & went to HS Volkschool & then boarding school, varsity, etc. and then our children growing up and then finally the grandchildren from babies to present. I can never leave the farm & the berg for long & return there often – even if it is just up and down in a day – and I climb a mountain, drink in the soul food and return home refreshed, invigorated and together. The families also love it and visit but we have never all been there together at the same time & so took advantage of my 70th to ask this favour. So we stayed in the timeshare from 24-28 Dec & had a wonderful Christmas & my birthday on 27th. We had a wonderful time and I was able to share some of my favourite places & stories with them just this once as you know how short attention spans are when kids are having fun. Didn’t want to bore them!
Pic of me on my birthday in my most favourite place in all the world.
Famous shenanigans: South Africa’s most notorious bank robber, Trust Bank robber Derek Whitehead, was arrested at Little Switzerland in 1971 at 3am on Friday morning the 14th of May. They had arrived at 4.30pm the previous day. A team of CID detectives from Johannesburg, the Orange Free State and Natal were involved in the swoop. After the arrest, the Whiteheads were taken to Bloemfontein for questioning
Drunken shenanigans: Omigoodness; You don’t want to know . .
Our Bruno the doberman was a Hilkovitz! A Little Switzerland doberman puppy! Dad Pieter Swanepoel told me Leo came to town one day, called in at the Caltex garage and said ‘Come and look!’ On the back of his bakkie he had a bunch of little black pups in a box. Dobermans.
Dad chose one – he says he gave Leo a pocket of potatoes! – and we grew up with ‘Bruno’ – I only now know he was a citizen of Little Switzerland! He grew up to be a handsome lad!