|Syd Van der Vyver|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”