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 Tweedie (de Witt backwards). Verster was captain of the rugby team and Mary Bland’s boyfriend. He dopped a few years and was in JC when she wrote matric. A real gentleman, says Mary. When she left to go nursing he said, ‘My fear is that we don’t meet again – worse, that we’re living in the same city and we don’t even know it.’ Sensitive soul.
Here’s the story of Verster de Witt – 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 good friend of our Polly du Plessis and Mary Bland-Swanepoel. He very soon had them building quarter-scale models with plasticene during the week in their one-roomed flat in Earls Court 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. 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 mold 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 that he 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 new 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. Another well-known design he had also been involved with – in addition to the Sunbeam Alpine – was the Humber Super Snipe.
In the 1980s the design got another lease of life when Jeff Levy got Verster to help him make a series of accurate replicas known as Levy Darts.
Anyone who knows more, I’d love to hear from you