Images from the past

History – East London Grand Prix Circuit

The interest in motor racing was ignited in the early 1930s after the municipality had constructed a circular road on the West Bank of East London.

Mr. Brud Bishop, the motoring editor of the local newspaper, The Daily Dispatch, took a Sunday drive around the route and the idea sprung to mind to hold a race there.

His ideal position at the Dispatch allowed him all the right contacts and, as he was born in England and had started his working career there, entries were soon being received from abroad, as well as around the country.

It was first mooted as a local event, under the name of the “Border Hundred”. But so widespread was the support, and so eager the public of South Africa to see a road race, that it soon developed into a national event, and then an international event as entries from abroad gave the event international status and it became known as
The South African Grand Prix.
On 27th December, 1934, the South African Grand Prix motor car road race was run over the magnificent Marine Drive Circuit, only a few miles from the heart of the city. Here, eighteen of the finest drivers from South Africa, America and Great Britain battled out a race over six laps of the 15.2-mile course for the first prize of 250 pounds and the 100 guinea Barnes’ Silver Trophy.

The spectacle provided was one of the most thrilling in the annals of South African sport, with a huge crowd of not less than 65 000 going wild with excitement. The vicious roar of open exhausts and the lure of sheer speed proved so attractive that there was little doubt that the majority of those present at the first event would make every endeavour to be there to cheer the victors of subsequent Grand Prix races.

The race was won by Whitney Straight, the American millionaire sportsman, who flew out from England specially to compete in his Maserati racing car.  Second and third places were taken by JH Case, the popular Queenstown entrant and Michael Straight, brother of Whitney Straight.

Whitney set up a World Record for road races when he steered his Maserati to victory at an average speed of 95.43 miles an hour.  During the race he reached a top speed of 152 miles an hour, only four miles below the top speed the Maserati was capable of. This was the fastest he had ever been in his famous racing shell.

He was so pleased with the Marine Drive as a Grand Prix circuit that he declared he would be back to defend his title. “South Africa has been placed on the calendar of International Racing Sport, and will in future receive recognition as such from the world’s aces”, were his parting worlds to the country.

Further South African Grands Prix took place from 1936 through to 1939, after Potters Pass had been introduced to avoid racing through the township of West Bank.

This shortened the track to 11 miles and 57 yards and it was thereupon named the Prince George Circuit. It is estimated that a crowd of 82,000 attended the 1936 race.

Interest in motor racing was kept alive after the war by racing on the Esplanade at East London, as the old circuit had been affected by the introduction of the new airport.

The year 1959, however, saw the opening of the new Grand Prix Circuit as we know it today, cutting through the old shooting range. It measured 2.4 miles in length.

The 6th South African Grand Prix took place in January 1960 on the new track and drew a crowd of 50 000.

The 7th took place in December 1960, while the 8th happened in December 1961 and drew 67 000 spectators.

The 9th Grand Prix took place in December 1962 and was to be the decider for the World Championship. It drew 90 000 spectators.

The 10th Grand Prix took place in 1963 and drew a crowd of 40,000, while the 11th in January 1965 drew 50 000 spectators.

The 12th and last Grand Prix took place in January 1966.

Dick Seaman

Dick Seaman

British legend Dick Seaman on the start line for the 1934 South African Grand Prix at East London in his MG Magnette. Dick drove a Delage in a later SAGP. He drove for Mercedes Benz, winning the 1938 German GP,but was killed leading the 1939 Belgian GP. Dick drove this works-loaned K3 Magnette to fifth after fuel pressure pump problems struck while he was challenging for second.

In 1937 he retired his famous Delage after losing a wheel while he was fourth in the 1937 edition of the race. His mechanic on this occasion was also to become a legendary figure in racing, Lofty England of Jaguar fame.

Picture courtesy of Robert Young.
Information courtesy of Ken MacLeod, Andrew Reed and Ken Stewart.