Syd Van der Vyver

Syd Van der Vyver was born in 1920 and became the South African Driver’s Champion in 1960 and 1961 but he made his mark in the early to mid-50’s with the “500’s”. He won in 1960 with a F2 Cooper-Alfa Romeo and in 1961 with a Lotus 18 Alfa. Both chassis were powered by his self tuned Alfa Guilietta engines bored to 1470 cc. Syd spent the WW2 years in the RNVR and spent time doing engineering duties on Royal Navy Ships so he was older than most when he got started with motor racing. After his time in the RNVR Syd spent time on the oval circuits.

After the war he spent a brief period during 1949 as a speedway rider with Leicester in division three but failed to make an impression so he returned home to South Africa where he became well known as a hard rider on the local cinder tracks sporting an ominous ‘skull and crossbones’ on his leathers.

Post war, it was a time of austerity. The South African racing enthusiasts were thousands of miles from Europe and parts and racing machinery was hard to access. Even for those with the wherewithal, punitive duties and import restrictions virtually prohibited the import of cars. But the enthusiasm and resourcefulness was there and the locals had acquired many new skills while in uniform.

Van der Vyver first made an impression on four wheels in 1955 in the Pat Fairfield Memorial Handicap at Durban’s Snell Parade street circuit where he finished 2nd, driving the Midwill Special.  This was a masterfully constructed ‘500’ that had been built by Alec Wishart of Durban to which Syd had fitted a 500 JAP engine. He was narrowly defeated by Orlando ‘Lucky’ Fregona’s pukka Cooper-Norton as they averaged a remarkable 73 mph during their duel over the 92 miles. The 500’s outpaced a field of over 30 cars and finished 2nd and 3rd on scratch behind the fast 1250 MG Special driven by Harry Peirce, a well developed machine/driver combination which was one of the fastest in the Union at the time. (The Peirce-MG competes in British historic events to this day.)

Syd in the (Midwill) JAP Special exits Angel’s Angle keeping well clear of the marker drum during the first heat of the 1954 Coronation Handicap at the Roy Hesketh Circuit, Pietermaritzburg. It was not a successful outing and he finished well out of the placings. Alec Wishart had made the attractive wheels himself when he created the car as the Wishart-BSA.

 

The “Wishart/Midwill” was later run in spectacular fashion by his workmate, the hard driving former-New Zealand speedway rider, Dick Campbell and then sold to fellow speedway rider Doug Serrurier, who was later to make a name for himself as the constructor of the LDS cars.

In 1956 Syd acquired the ex-Tony Fergusson Cooper Mk. V and he produced a string of excellent results in both circuit racing and hillclimbs as he modified the chassis and fitted a 500 Norton power. The car raced under the moniker “BRM-Norton”, the quaint name derived from his well known business ‘Blake Road Motors’.

In a 5-lap curtain raiser to the Rand Grand Prix in March 1956 held at the Palmietfontein Airport circuit he finished second to Tony Fergusson’s new Cooper-Norton Mk IX and held off John Love’s Cooper-Norton Mk IV by a whisker. This scratch race had an interesting field of 16 cars which included 8 MG Specials of 1250 cc, two Austin Healey 100’s and a Triumph TR2. Fergusson averaged 71.2 mph on the fast airport road track compared to the best MG at 70.1 mph. There was a huge field of 49 cars for the 40-lap grand prix itself but the 500’s failed to make a challenge and Syd stopped after 28 laps.
The race was to be won by Peter Whitehead’s 3 litre Ferrari 750/625 but until its demise Syd’s little 500 set times bettered only by six cars. Among these were the Whitehead Ferrari and two Connaughts!

Syd setting a quick time in the Mk V "BRM" at Durban’s Scott Road hillclimb.

Winning the 1956 Coronation Handicap in the BRM-Norton. 

A week or so later on 2nd April he established himself as a top-line racing driver when he won the International Coronation 100 Handicap at Roy Hesketh circuit. On the purposed built racing circuit he averaged 66.3 mph over the 56 lap 93 mile race and his speed compared favourably with that averaged by Bill Holt’s 2-litre Connaught (70.1 mph) , the 2.1 litre Vanguard engined special driven by Clive Mitchell (66.6 mph). In fact he was beaten on scratch only by Holt, Mitchell and Whitehead.

Syd rounded off the season with another excellent performance when he averaged 68.1 mph for the 46-lap (75 mile) Settlers’ Day Handicap at Roy Hesketh in September to finish 3rd on scratch. His improved pace saw him beaten only by Bill Jennings’ Riley Special and Mitchell’s GM. The pundits were amazed. The little cars were among the fastest runners in the mixed fields and experts were astonished at how they could last the long race distances especially considering the high speeds they averaged.
 

In April 1957 at the International Coronation 100 the 500’s had a show down with the most modern racing cars ever to visit South Africa - two single cam 1100 cc Climax FWB engined Cooper Mk. 1’s (now known as the T41) driven by speedway aces Ray Thackwell and Ronnie Moore, a D-Type Jaguar and Dick Gibson’s Connaught. It was a no contest. Firstly, Arthur Mackenzie’s 1100 JAP twin engined Mk. V left the two new Coopers standing as they blasted off the start line as “scratchmen” and then kept the more modern cars at bay. New Zealand historian Graham Vercoe, himself a devoted 500 protagonist, was not at all surprised when I discussed this with him. “Arthur would have had no trouble keeping up with the early Cooper-Climaxes as the power output of the Mk. V with V-twin was quite phenomenal for the weight. I know of the power of the vee-twin. I had one as a spare for my T5. It was a 1950 996 JAP 8-80 60º V2 but developed about 76 bhp. I only fitted it to the car for one meeting but was able to keep up with the Formula Juniors until the chain broke.” But after 12 laps of the 40 lap 64 miler Mackenzie retired and it was Tony Fergusson who ended up winning on scratch at 66.8 mph. Syd had his hands full with a new challenger – an interesting 1300 cc Porsche engined single seater driven by a future South African Champion, Ian Fraser Jones. Ian Fraser Jones remembered “We built this car ourselves. It literally comprised a 1952 500cc Cooper Mk. VI cut in half and a VW rear end attached. It started life with a VW engine but later, when fitted with a Porsche, it won pole position in many races”. After starting alongside Fraser Jones, Syd won a race long duel at 65.4 mph when he passed the bigger engined car in the dying moments and in so doing finished 2nd on scratch. None of the visiting ‘overseas’ cars finished the race.

 

Syd gets it all wrong at the Roy Hesketh circuit, 1954.

 

Syd was always competitive by nature and it was clear that faster and more modern equipment was required to contend for the South African Drivers’ Championship as the change from handicap to scratch racing evolved as the 1950’s came to an end. In 1959 he was one of the first local drivers to acquire a factory made rear-engined racing car when he purchased a 1957 Mk. 2 Cooper (now known as the T43) rolling chassis from Doug Serrurier who had ordered the car from race car purveyor Allan Brown and then found himself short of the funds necessary to pay for it. Admired by his peers as a clever and practical engineer and he modified this early drum braked car with transverse front suspension, rebuilt the gearbox with gears cut at a local machine shop to his specification and devised a special single gate, positive stop change similar to that of a motorcycle – perhaps the basis of the modern sequential gearbox? Syd fitted the car with a Guilietta engine, lightened the car and changed the front and rear suspension geometry working on lessons learned from his ‘500’ days. The potent new package soon ended the dominance of Ian Fraser Jones’s Porsche 550 Spyder in South African racing.

In a stirring drive at Pietermaritzburg in 1959 he became the first local driver to beat the well equipped British visitors, Dick Gibson and Keith Ballisat in the Climax engined Coopers and signalled his intentions.
 

He was soon to strut his stuff on the international stage. In the first championship event of 1960, the Sixth South African Grand Prix at East London, he drove a superb race to finish third in a race dominated by Stirling Moss’s 1959 model Cooper-Borgward until fuel injector problems in the closing stages caused Moss to slow and be overtaken by the Belgian journalist Paul Frere in the first 1960 F2 Cooper-Climax to be raced. Few of the many thousand spectators at the track on that sweltering day knew of what had gone on ‘behind the scenes’. In practice Syd’s engine had blown-up and so his mechanics, Peter de Klerk and Pat Phillips, had raced more than 800 miles through the night to Durban and back to collect spares with which to build an engine for the race. Syd was serious about winning and always tried to obtain competitive machinery. This was not only for the local championship purposes but also to prove himself against the overseas drivers who visited for the South African summer Grand Prix series in Cape Town, Johannesburg, East London and Durban. “The local chaps have never been able to obtain machinery to challenge the ‘works’ cars and even when they have been able to get newish machinery these have been outclassed by the time the visitors get back.” He told me.

The days before Nomex. At Burman Drive hillclimb
in 1959 having set FTD and a new record in the Cooper.

His efforts on the South African tracks did not go unnoticed. According to Alec Wishart the power of the Alfa engine and the superior handling of the Van der Vyver cars had impressed no less than Stirling Moss. So Moss asked him to come to Rob Walker’s Pipbrook garage to work on the Lotus 18. Syd enlisted the help of suspension guru Alec Wishart and the results of their efforts may well have played a major role in the Walker victories at Monaco and the Nurburgring. Rob Walker told me that Syd left abruptly after a huge row with Alf Francis. Walker mechanic Tony Cleverly remembered the incident. “It had to do with a modification to the clutch he had made without Francis’s prior permission. Alf was a bit of a dictator.” Alec Wishart “I was over in the England and Syd asked me to help with the suspension of the Lotus. I was there for about six weeks but never got paid a penny. Syd and Alf did not get on - Alf did not want anybody buggering around with his cars.”

Other international recognition came from the Alfa Romeo factory which on two occasions summoned him to Italy for presentations to acknowledge the feats achieved with the tuned production engines against the factory built out-and-out race engines such as the FPF Coventry Climax and Porsche. In early 1962 he acquired a Lotus 21 chassis and ‘enough bits to build a car’ from Colin Chapman after the Team Lotus left after their summer 1961 visit to South Africa. He improved the Lotus 21 to such an extent that he bettered the lap record set by Moss at Westmead during his epic chase of Jim Clark during the 1961 Natal Grand Prix but he was unable to beat Ernest Pieterse’s ex-Clark Lotus 21 on a regular basis and ended up runner-up in the Championship. But the days of the 4-cylinder 1½ litre engines were over - the extra horses of the FWMV V8 Climax has rendered them obsolete. So hoping to be more competitive against the visiting drivers in the end of the year series he staked his all on an ex-Jack Brabham Lotus 24 Climax V8 at the end of 1962 but it was to be a disastrous experience.

His first outing in the hastily prepared V8 was the Rand Grand Prix at Kyalami. He had taken delivery of the car the day or so before the first practice and although he qualified fastest of the local drivers in the field he struggled in the race with a troublesome clutch and retired at just over half distance. Worse was to come.

On a dreadful weekend in December 1962 Gary Hocking died at the wheel of Rob Walker’s Lotus 24 at the new Westmead track near Durban in practice for the Natal Grand Prix. The next day Syd drove a steady race to finish a promising third, behind the BRM’s of Ritchie Ginther and Bruce Johnstone, in the first heat of the grand prix but in avoiding some slower cars on the sixth lap of the ‘final’ at the oily and hazardous “Devils Leap” he spun, left the track, and rolled. The Lotus was badly damaged. After repairing the ‘24’ he began to feature in the results again and won the Royal Show Trophy at Roy Hesketh Circuit, this being one of the few wins ever recorded by a Lotus 24 worldwide. Unfortunately soon after the car was then destroyed when it suddenly caught fire as it was about to be moved from his workshop for a testing session.

A devastated Syd, who had mortgaged his house to buy the car, had had enough and decided to retire from the sport he loved. He then set up the Durban City Council driver training centre at Springfield where he established a ‘skidpan’ and amongst other projects instructed on car control. In his later years he retired to the South Coast of Natal and tinkered with the restoration of vintage cars, in particular the famous Model T Fords.

Our thanks to Rob Young for this article.

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