Arthur Mackenzie

Arthur Mackenzie was a well known Durban garageman and long time motor sport enthusiast and was the first South African driver to import and then win a race with a factory built ‘500’. As racing was developing in Southern Africa during the 1950’s there were no ‘special class’ races for the 500s and they were included in the multi-car fields of diverse machines that graced the local grids and as a result racing was on a handicap basis.

During a long racing career, interrupted by WW2, Arthur chalked up a number of successes on both 2 and 4 wheels.

Mackenzie was known for the meticulous preparation of his racing machinery and this, together with his fast and determined driving, resulted in several successes despite him being a ‘big lad’ and at a weight disadvantage, particularly in the tiny 500. At a time when the vibrating tendencies of the 500 engines caused many mechanical breakdowns he was able to extract unheard of reliability over long distances at high speeds.

Although he competed in big motorcycle events such as the Natal 100 in 1938 and 1939 his first significant accomplishment was in December 1938 when he won the motorcycle class at the Burman Drive Hillclimb on his 350 side valve AJS but war clouds were gathering and he would have to wait for over 10 years before he tasted success again when he drove his home built Austin 7 Special to victory in the season opening Fairfield Junior on the Durban beachfront.

Winning the 1949 Fairfield Junior Handicap in his Austin 7 Special. Photo courtesy Rob Young.

At Easter time in 1949 as racing was reborn in South Africa the racers ventured to Alexandra Park in Pietermaritzburg for a weekend of sport and the 38 year old put up a creditable show in the “7’ but the new 500s were already making their presence felt and it was his good friend, Orlando Fregona, in a cleverly constructed machine, Tiger Cub, that triumphed in the 1949 Junior Coronation, relegating the Scotsman’s Austin 7 Special to second place.

The following year his trusty Austin scored podium finishes in the ‘junior’ races for the Pat Fairfield Trophy (2nd) and the Coronation 100 (3rd) on the Natal road circuits at Snell Parade and Alexandra Park, respectively. Both races were of some 75 miles.

June 1951 was an important milestone in South African motor sport history when the first two imported Coopers entered the East London Winter Handicap. Mackenzie had become an ‘agent’ for the Cooper marque and he and Chris Fergusson were to challenge the cream of South Africa’s fastest cars on the dangerous Esplanade street circuit. There was huge expectation for the revolutionary new cars. How would they fare against the dominating MGs, Rileys and other local specials? “Appearing today in the first Cooper to race over this distance in SA” said the race programme.

Sadly the new cars were never in the mix. Arthur posted a DNS and the Fergusson car retired with a broken valve spring collar. Frank Brodie’s MG Special raced to victory and the status quo remained intact.

At this time there were no purpose built circuits in South Africa and race venues were scarce so when a town made its public roads available there was no shortage of support from the racing fraternity. In October 1951 there was a meeting held on the streets of Ladysmith in Northern Natal, a town famous for withstanding a siege during the Anglo-Boer war. Neither driver safety or spectator safety was an issue and Mac was 5th on handicap and winner on scratch in the 20 lap handicap having given Terry Sturgeon’s very fast MG Special a start of one and a half minutes. Importantly this win against a strong field, the first for a 500 on a local race circuit , although not in a ‘major’ event, was the first significant clue to the potential of the new fangled rear engined ‘cyclecars’ that were to end the domination of the big engined specials and MG variants that had for so long ‘ruled the roost.’

                                 Ladysmith 1951 - Arthur swings out of a 90 degree right hander as a policeman attempts to push the stricken Ford SV Special of C A Els to safety. The spectators seem unperturbed. Photo courtesy Rob Young.

As 1951 drew to a close the revolutionary little Coopers astounded the cynics. At the famous Burman Drive Hillclimb Arthur set a new record for the up to 850 cc class in his 500 JAP and became National Hillclimb Champion as well as pocketing a silver medal and 5 pounds! His time of 1 min 9.6 secs for the 1600 yard climb knocked an incredible 2.6 seconds off the old mark and was beaten by only .2 secs by the 1100 JAP engined Cooper of Chris Fergusson.

But there were still those who doubted what the little cars would do on a ‘long circuit’.

There was more to come, when a month later, Mackenzie stunned the doubting Thomas’s by winning the 1952 season opening Fairfield Senior. He covered the 92 miles around Durban’s beachfront in 79 minutes at an average of over 70 m/hr winning on scratch and handicap. The tiny 500 JAP engined Cooper triumphed against the proven MG Specials, the potent Rileys, Stanley Reed’s advanced rear engined Citroen Special, an ERA and a number of American engined contrivances.

But at the next Natal ‘major’, the Coronation 100, in Pietermaritzburg a seized motor after 27 of the 35 laps put paid to his chances when he was ‘well in the hunt’. The MG’s regained ascendancy in July when the droning 1250 cc specials of Frank Brodie and Les Miller outpaced the roaring 500 Cooper on East London’s esplanade – Mackenzie having to be satisfied with third on scratch at an average speed of 64.7 m/hr – where the winner averaged 65.3 m/hr despite rain halfway through the 75 mile race making conditions tricky.

In September 1952 Arthur thrilled the crowds on his way to an emphatic win in the 47 mile Parkhill 120 on Durban’s Snell Parade. After being waved away as last man in a quality field of cars and established drivers, and ‘giving away’ 750cc, he vanquished the favoured MG’s and took the chequered first averaging an incredible 74 m/hr. He was also placed fourth on handicap.

            1952 Parkhill 120 – On his way to a storming win Arthur forces his way past the very quick Moriat driven by Des Jenkin. The highly successful Moriat was a creation of Cheetah 500 constructor Gordon Henderson and used Morris, MG and Fiat components. Photo courtesy Rob Young.

By the 1953 season the cyclecar brigade were making a big impression. At Pietermaritzburg’s Easter weekend motor races Arthur entered his Cooper with a 344cc JAP engine for the Light Car Handicap on Easter Saturday but ‘faded out. The car was then taken to the pits to have the 500 JAP installed for the next race – the scratch rolling start event for cars up to 1250 cc. This event was billed as the “First race of its kind”. To huge excitement a pilot car driven by Gordon Henderson lead the field around them round to cross the start line at 100 mph. Lapping at 66 mph despite the heavy rain making conditions on Alexandra Park treacherous Mackenzie won at a canter.

“From the start Arthur Mackenzie and his amazing Cooper dominated the event and just tore ahead ……. Not even such masters as Les Miller – driving really beautifully – Peirce, and Brodie the tiger, could make any impression on the crackling little blue cyclecar.” Reported the Natal Witness.

 

On Easter Monday, in the 120 mile 1953 Coronation Handicap, using the same engine as he had on the Saturday he placed first on handicap and second on scratch (to the SA Champion, Doug Duff in the ex-works ex-Bob Gerard Riley 1500) averaging 69.2 mph and taking home the huge prize of 100 pounds.

1953 Coronation 100 at Alexandra Park. In one of the battles between the roaring cyclecars and droning MGs Arthur speeds away from Fregona’s Kieft and the MG Specials of Mike Hutchons and Frank Brodie. Photo courtesy Rob Young.

During 1954 upgraded the power unit to 1100 cc but more speed resulted in unreliability although he set fastest lap on the Snell Parade in the Durban Centenary Races at a very rapid 78.7 m/hr. In V-twin form the Cooper was a match for anything on the South African tracks but more speed resulted in unreliability. At the newly built Roy Hesketh Circuit, in 1100 form, the Cooper sped to an impressive victory in the Union Day Races, setting fastest lap at 72.9 m/hr in the process.

                                 1954 Union Day Trophy at Roy Hesketh Circuit. Starting from scratch Arthur stormed through the field to win. Here he sets up to overtake Ron Wright’s Austin 7 Special through Quarry Curve. Photo courtesy Rob Young.

By 1954 the 500s were astounding the enthusiasts with their pace – the more so when the long chassied versions were upgraded to 1100 cc. A snippet from a report on the 1954 Queenshaven Motor Races held at the bumpy Grand Central Circuit near Johannesburg makes interesting reading.

“The practice period afforded the writer his greatest motor racing experience, from a spectator’s point of view, to date, in the form of Arthur Mackenzie, hatless and casual, taking the 1100 Cooper under the bridge and through the curve at something like 110 mph, or more. If the car wasn’t drifting it was certainly snaking, but Mackenzie was in full control. That it WAS performing is evident from the 2 min 12 seconds he clocked before blowing up – thus robbing thousands of other spectators of some education on race day.” (Incidentally Chris Fergusson set a new lap record of 2 min. 15 secs in his 1100 Cooper JAP later in the day.)

During 1955 and 1956 Arthur was ‘inactive’ having sold his Cooper to Orlando Fregona but in January 1957 he made a return to the circuits and he meant business, immediately successful winning the Fairfield Handicap against all the ‘top’ names both on handicap and scratch. He averaged 68.2 miles per hour over the 45 miles after leaving the line at the tail of the field. His Cooper was powered by a 1956 model 1100 JAP and he fought off the ex- Jack Brabham Cooper-Bristol driven by Horse Boyden.

As he ended a long career he raced sparingly but was encouraged to enter the Cooper in an International Easter event at Roy Hesketh Circuit in April 1957. Lined up against the Cooper were two very new Mk.1 1100 cc Climax engined (T41’s) of the Ecurie Kiwi pair Ronnie Moore and Ray Thackwell, Lord Michael Louth’s D Type Jaguar and the Connaught of Dick Gibson plus the fastest of the local machinery.

Mackenzie was flagged away last together with the new Cooper T41’s but the vee-twin JAP was more than a match for the modern Formula Two cars, and, lapping at well over 70 m/hr Arthur held them at bay until he retired on lap 12. Ironically, as the favoured cars then fell by the wayside, Tony Fergusson worked his way through the field to win the 40-lap event in his 500 Cooper-Norton Mk. IX from Syd van der Vyver’s BRM-Norton (the ex-Fergusson Mk. V) on scratch.

                                On his way to a comprehensive win both on scratch and handicap in the 1957 Fairfield Handicap. Arthur rounds Quarry Curve at Roy Hesketh Circuit with some serious tyre warp. Photo courtesy Rob Young.

As the 1950s drew to a close Arthur raced infrequently but was tempted to test himself when international drivers visited. In April 1958 he was tempted back to Roy Hesketh Circuit for the Coronation 100. The determined 48 year old Scot had the measure of them all and set fastest lap of the race at 70.7 m/hr, equalling his lap record, against the likes of Dick Gibson’s Cooper T43 Climax, the 1500 cc Porsche engine Cooper Mk. VI of Ian Fraser Jones, Jimmy Shield’s ERA and the Riley Special of Bill Jennings before he fell out with mechanical troubles. After that he hung up his helmet.

Our thanks to Rob Young for this profile.

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