Between the covers: Early Motoring in South Africa, The Motorist’s Paradise, Our Intrepid Cape Motoring Pioneers & Another Fine Mess

The newsletter’s monthly book review feature which focuses on motoring literature of interest to FMM’s followers, hosted by Wendy Monk. A trio of superb books that recall early South African motoring plus a travel book with a difference make up this month’s reviews…

Early Motoring in South Africa by RH Johnston, published 1975.

If ever a book wins for me it is one that combines a walk through history with lots of photographs to illustrate the text. A trio of the best of this genre are ones written by Bob Johnston and Derek Stuart-Findlay. 

In 1975, the late Bob Johnston wrote ‘Early Motoring In South Africa’ with the intention of, as he put it in the preface, “to cover a human story about motorists and the cars they bought, drove, raced, crashed, cursed, scrapped, hated and loved”. With many photographs contributed by lovers of motoring lore, Johnston put together an astonishing assortment of images that portray exactly what he wanted, from early bicycles in Doornfontein, trams and traffic in Cape Town, trolley buses in Bloemfontein,  scenic drives around Bains Kloof, challenging drives through Wyllies Poort to Limpopo, journeys to the seaside showing beachfronts packed with holidaymakers and their cars in Port Elizabeth and Durban and, not to be left out, record breakers and early motor racing events. The variety of photographs is enhanced by the descriptive captions and the well-informed development history of those early days. There is so much more to this book than I have space for but I am sure you would enjoy paging through it.

The Motorist’s Paradise by Bob Johnston and Derek Stuart-Findlay, first published in 2005.

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Crankhandle Club, Bob Johnston and Derek Stuart-Findlay got together to work on a book covering early motoring in the Cape Peninsula, the format following that of Bob’s previous book reviewed above. ‘The Motorist’s Paradise’ is an illustrated pictorial history of a 40-year period up to the Second World War, published in 2005.  A revised edition was published in 2007.

The striking feature of this book is the quality of the photographs; they are remarkably clear and sharp, especially as some date back to the 1890s. The photographs cover bicycles, penny farthings, tram services, steam engines and wagonettes to name but a few. However, it is the diversity of the settings that are so compelling. There are beautiful shots of Greenmarket Square and the Green Point Cycle Track with Table Mountain in the background, and an Arrol-Johnston driving along the scenic Kommetjie Road contrasted by a lady travelling in the opposite direction on her bicycle. Then there is a Grant 6 heading up Bain’s Kloof and a family in an Overland arriving at Montagu Baths, while a Hupmobile is crawling up the Franschhoek Pass. The bravery and adventurous spirit of the record breakers driving on rough roads, crossing rivers and having to open and close hundreds of gates, is so inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the chapter ‘The Racing Decade’ showing glorious photos of cars racing on sandy roads with mountains and oceans as their backdrops. It is such a lovely read.

Our Intrepid Cape Motoring Pioneers by Derek Stuart-Findlay, published in 2015.

Following on from his earlier tome, this book was written by Derek Stuart-Findlay to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Crankhandle Club. The original idea of compiling some of Derek’s monthly Crankhandle Chronicle contributions grew into this wonderful book. As with the other two books, the photographs are outstanding and include founders and entrepreneurs of the motor industry as well as legendary men and women who dared to seek adventure driving across countries where no roads existed. ‘Our Intrepid Cape Motoring Pioneers’ offers plenty to read and caters for all tastes, stories of early visionaries such as John Garlick, William Hunt and Frank Connock and their exploits, while the first drive up and over Paarl Rock by a Hupmobile, followed by a Chevrolet, two Maxwells and several more American cars that boasted of their successes, reflecting early marketing rivalry. Daredevil drivers such as the much revered Gerry Bouwer and his 40-day race down Africa in a Chrysler, an epic drive which was quickly followed by his own speed record in a De Soto at Verneuk Pan, while Sir Malcolm Campbell attempted his own record in Bluebird reads like a boy’s own special. I enjoyed the step changes from reading photograph captions to whole chapters on a particular topic, and learnt so much about the history of the car in South Africa through the enriching stories of these motoring pioneers. Our Intrepid Cape Motoring Pioneers by Derek Stuart-Findlay is available from FMM, price R250 excluding any packaging and posting.

Another Fine Mess. Across the USA in a Ford Model T by Tim Moore, first published 2018.

This is a paperback that coincidentally ties in with all the political shenanigans currently taking place in the USA, because it tells the story of an Englishman’s near-10 000 kilometre drive across America in an original 1924 Model T Ford. Of necessity, the route steered clear of the Interstates, instead taking in a lot of ‘small town America’ – Trumpland – armed with only basic mechanical knowledge and an admirable, almost naive, sense of adventure.

His encounters along the way are memorable and always described with a keen sense of humour, helping make it an easy read. The car, inevitably, occasionally gave trouble along the way, and what was amazing was the amount of willing help he received – with the aid of contacts provided by the nation-wide Ford Model T club – from local townsfolk, even in the remotest of places. It makes one realise just what effect Henry’s brainchild – the Universal Car – had on the American way of life. But not only that, Morris relates a lot of what Henry was like and what he did for society, good and bad, during the early part of the last century. I certainly learnt a few things about the man. Morris also devotes some passages describing Detroit, from the beginning to today, which turns out to be a heart-wrenching tale.

Morris’ experiences of motels, downtown menus and the always-on-call pots of coffee are also disturbing. The book contains quite a number of photographs but the quality of the paper and reproduction is poor, so the detail is not clear, but does not detract from the value of the story. And as for Trumpland, if you read this book you will get a good idea of what Donald’s supporters are all about… Every which way, Another Fine Mess is a fascinating read. And, yes, the T made it. Look/ask for it at your local book store.

Mike Monk