Rear-view Mirror

Wendy Monk picks out some interesting historic items from FMM’s photo archives, some with a story, others without. This month, a photo taken in 1909 in what is today called Midrand in Gauteng, in a roundabout way led us to recall some racing that took place at Brooklands. No, not the famous banked track in England, but a circuit just off the Johannesburg-Pretoria Road…

The black-and-white photo shows a motoring scene far, far removed from what we find to day… Taken in 1909, it shows a car – recognise it anyone? – travelling along the deserted gravel Johannesburg to Pretoria Road at a point that is said to be roughly the site of the current Shell Ultra City N1 South on what is today’s Johannesburg to Pretoria freeway. Across the road from the Shell garage lies The Brooklands Lifestyle estate, which is what led us to recall one of SA’s oldest race tracks…

Back in January 1932, the South African Motorist magazine reported on the ’first meeting … at South Africa’s Brooklands … providing a day of thrills’. Sadly, the report did not mention exactly where the circuit was located, and its existence is not widely known. However, noted historian Rob Young does remember the venue and in Andrew Reed’s tribute to racer Jack Whitehead, he states “Between 1931 and 1933 Jack was also seen thundering around the Brooklands circuit near Halfway House in his home-built Schneider-Buick Special…”

So, while no definitive link has so far been found between the modern housing complex and the race circuit that existed 89 years ago, one suspects this is more than a coincidence. That inaugural meeting was run on Dingaan’s Day, 16 December 1931. It was a dirt track and while heavy rain the day before had prepared a good surface, after an hour’s racing dust became a problem and oil had to be used in some areas to try and keep it settled. There were races for cars and motorcycles and entries included an Austin 7 and a Rolls-Royce (!), and amongst the two-wheelers an Excelsior and an OK.

It was an eight-kilometre-long circuit with an 800-metre main straight. The Rand Motor Cycle Club appears to have been the main organiser of racing on behalf of Brooklands SA (Pty) Ltd, and meetings attracted crowds in the thousands. Just how many races were run is unknown but it appears as though the Dingaan’s Day meeting in 1933 was the last, which ties in with Reed’s comment.

A lot of motor sport took place in South Africa in the inter-war years, paving the way for five memorable Grands Prix that attracted the world’s best teams and drivers to the country. But it was at the grass roots level that South African motor sport was at its most innovative, and crowds of enthusiastic spectators attended events all over the country at places such as our very own Brooklands… Such involvement in SA’s motor sport heritage should not be forgotten.