Rear-view mirror: Sylvester McKenzie

Wendy Monk picks out some interesting historic items from FMM’s photo archives, some with a story, others with info required… This month, we do a double-take in the rear-view mirror for another look at one of the record breakers featured in the March newsletter…

Last month we asked if any reader can shed some more light on Sylvester McKenzie’s Durban to Johannesburg Heavy Car record run in 1934. Well, friend, fellow enthusiast and historian Derek Stuart-Findlay has answered the call.

Sylvester was certainly an enthusiast. There is a press cutting describing him taking part in a race meeting at ‘South Africa’s Brooklands’, a little known and short-lived circuit that opened on 16 December 1931. The report suggests that Sylvester was taking part in the third meeting at the venue, which was likely to have been in February 1932, but as the cutting is undated, this cannot be confirmed. Nevertheless, the report states, “In the first heat of the 25-mile open handicap for cars, S McKenzie piloting a standard model touring Chevrolet Tourer of 1931 vintage, reached the “goal” first, and he also proved to be the ultimate winner in the final, which he carried off with great skill. McKenzie is an absolute novice with no racing experience at all having never been on a track before. His performance is a truly remarkable one and was very consistent, especially in view of the fact that the car had already covered over 22 000 miles. He averaged 59,6 miles per hour in the heat over 15 miles, and again in the 25-mile final he put up exactly the same speed. His time for the heat was 15 mins 6 secs and for the final 25 mins 10 secs”.

What is for certain is that he became a dealer for Morris and MG cars from premises on the corner of Edith Cavell and Pretoria Streets in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. On 4 May 1933 he beat the JHB-DBN-JHB record for light cars driving a 1933 7hp MG Midget, taking 19 hours 50 minutes, which included a 35-minute stop in Durban.

On 1 October 1934, Sylvester and his passenger, the well-known motorcyclist Jack Freeman, took part in the first Kimberley 100 on the 11,15-km gravel surface Alexanderfontein-Paardeberg circuit and won a gold medal for the fastest lap – 5 minutes 39 seconds at 156 km/h! – in a standard 1933 3 622 cm3 Ford V8.

The picture shows Sylvester arriving through a welcoming parade at the Johannesburg City Hall on 15 October 1934 after establishing the DBN-JHB record in the Ford, covering the 650 km distance with a time of 7 hours 9 minutes. Freeman was his travelling observer, and they left Durban at 05h00 and reached Johannesburg Post Office at 12h09. As an aside, for the last 80 km they were escorted in a Waco plane carrying the Johannesburg-Pietersburg record holder Willie van Til…

Two weeks later, on October 29, Sylvester and Jack lowered the 132km JHB-Pietersburg record to 3 hours 2 minutes, again in the Ford. And to end what was clearly a busy year, on 27 December 1934 he took part in the first South Africa GP at Marine Drive, East London in the Ford but crashed out early with a burst tyre. An unfortunate end to what had been an otherwise rewarding year racing – in various guises – against the clock.

Image: Sylvester McKenzie (left) and Jack Freeman (right) after the Dbn-Jhb record.