A Covert Operation…

US-based friend of FMM, Greg Harris, recently sent through copies of a Caltex postcard printed many years ago about an 1898 Covert that was undertaking a ‘Round the Union’ trip – in 1954! Seemed like quite a task – especially when I discovered that the American Covert car company only got going in late-1901! It was friend and fellow motoring historian Derek Stuart-Findlay who came up with some information that all but explains the story…

Fred Roe was an interesting Cape motoring pioneer. His father, Frank, had worked as a mechanic before establishing his own motor business, the Constantia Garage in Cape Town. Frank was an old-car enthusiast and entered two cars in the 1929 Adderley Street parade, a 1901 BV Covert and a 1907 BSA. During the previous year Frank had bought the Covert from a deceased estate for £1-5 shillings and given it to his son Fred as a 17th birthday present. Fred had inherited his father’s appreciation for veteran cars and immediately dubbed the car Rosie. He used the Covert to advertise the first talking movies and participated in many rag processions.

After qualifying as a diesel mechanic, Fred married and had five sons. In 1954, at the age of 43, he attracted the attention of the Cape newspapers when he announced that he intended to drive the Covert on a 2 500-mile trip around South Africa. An oil company – Caltex – had agreed to sponsor the trip, which was to start in May and would take some five months to cover the distance at an average speed of five mph. His plans met with considerable opposition from relatives and friends who pointed out the odds against the success of the venture. Only his wife encouraged him (perhaps after five kids she needed a break!).

On 3 May 1954, the Mayor of Cape Town gave him a letter to the Mayor of Johannesburg and a crowd gathered at the foot of Adderley Street to watch him leave. It was raining when Roe drove off in the Covert and this proved to be a problem. He stopped for a final check-up and water seeped into the clutch-face. He restarted with a jerk, and split a pinion in the differential. On May 10 he set off again, this time with a tarpaulin draped over the engine. He needed a tow for part of the way up Du Toit’s Kloof, but this proved to be the last time he needed this type of assistance. Outside Rawsonville he was greeted by a former Mayor of Worcester, Coenie Gie, a passenger in a 1902 Wolseley, and both cars travelled to Worcester for a parade through the town.

Roe continued to experience bitterly cold weather across the Karoo, but was more than compensated by the friendliness and hospitality of everyone he met. There was always someone to inspect the car, no matter how isolated the spot. Some travelled 20 miles or more to press upon Roe and his back-up team flasks of hot coffee and local delicacies like koeksisters, beskuit and mutton chops. On many occasions, the mayors of big towns and small dorps turned out to give them civic receptions. Roe reciprocated by giving as many people as possible rides in Rosie, and many wrote to him later to say what a thrill it had been to chug around in the old car.

On the long journey, the Covert shied at only one other steep section, Jackson’s Drift, just outside Johannesburg, but she ascended the hill in reverse. A broken gearbox delayed her entrance to the city by 30 minutes, but Roe managed to make a temporary repair and she was greeted on the outskirts by Jeffs Watson in his 1910 Fiat and three other cars from his impressive veteran stable. The 930-mile journey had taken the Covert 48 days at an average of 20 miles per day.

Roe reached Durban at the end of July, where he was made an honorary member of the VCC, and arrived in Port Elizabeth at the end of August, where Rosie appeared on the stage of a theatre. Roe was welcomed into George by the Mayor, Jan Hurter, and was surrounded by children at Bot River when he had stopped for a breather before tackling the Houw Hoek Pass.

At noon on September 28, Roe strode up the steps of Cape Town’s City Hall to be welcomed back by the Mayor. He wore grease-covered overalls and a maroon bow tie, and his face was burnt brick-red by the sun. He had experienced 17 punctures and five engine fires, while the Covert was festooned with gifts from various municipalities and covered with license-holders from garages all over South Africa.

Stuart Halsall bought the Covert from Fred in 1979, and research revealed that it was a 1901model fitted with a single-cylinder 6 hp petrol engine, number 14. So, little wonder that Caltex made marketing mileage out of this remarkable feat, but one wonders where it got the Covert’s age wrong…


For more on Fred Roe and all of his many exploits, refer Derek Stuart Findlay’s articles in the Crankhandle Club’s Chronicle dated December 2016 and April 2019.