30 Jul KILLARNEY CHARACTERS: KOOS SWANEPOEL
As a teenager in the years directly following the Second World War Jacobus ‘Koos’ Swanepoel would ride his bicycle through the bush to the outer ring road of a new industrial area to the south of Pinelands called Epping.
At weekends the ring road, patriotically named Gunners’ Circle, was a huge, deserted tar oval, so it’s no surprise that groups such as the Amateur Auto Racing Club soon began organising races there, in which local heroes such as Bill Jennings in his Riley Special inspired a generation of teenagers to follow in their wheel-tracks.
Young Koos was a dedicated motorsport fan (he even sold programmes at the Parow Hillclimb so he could get close to the action) and when he left school he became an apprentice motor fitter, a far more exacting profession then than it is now because car parts were not yet interchangeable and had to be hand-finished in order to make them fit.
In 1957, while on his way to help a stranded customer, he drove past a small workshop in Durban Road, Bellville and noticed an unusual little sports-car standing outside. The company was Glass Sport Motors and the car, of course, was the first GSM Dart.
Koos soon became friendly with the two men behind the Dart, Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner, who not only signed him up as a member of the AARC but also persuaded him to enter a friend’s Triumph TR3 road car in the 1958 False Bay 100, alongside Bob and Willie in the two prototype Darts’ competition debut.
The Triumph ate its clutch and didn’t finish, but the bug had well and truly bitten. He traded in his MG TC for a brand new TR3 with which he competed wherever he could – in hillclimbs, sprints and circuit races at Sacks Circle, Eerste River and a new track alongside Potsdam Road, later to be known as Killarney.
It was there, in 1959, that he was persuaded to let his 18-year-old girlfriend Elize enter the Triumph in an all-comers race. The event was noteworthy because Elize wasn’t the only lady in the field; among the entries was a more experienced driver, Cheryl Crisp, in an MGA. In the event, however, Elize not only beat Ms Crisp – she won the race outright!
When Koos completed his apprenticeship, he went to work managing a fleet of trucks for Plywoods in Parow, although his job description also included preparing managing director Ted Lanfear’s Lotus 18, which was raced by Bob van Niekerk.
Having seen what Willie could do with a Ford engine, the TR3 was replaced by an Anglia, which he also raced anywhere and everywhere he could. On a number of occasions he and Elize, who was by then Mrs Swanepoel, drove the Anglia to Port Elizabeth after work on a Friday, raced it on Saturday at Aldo Scribante in every category for which it was eligible and drove back in time for work on Monday.
However, it was when Koos joined Willie as service manager at Dart Motors in Paarden Eiland that the Anglia – and Koos’ racing career – really took off. In all, they built three engines for that car, ending up with a 1500cc Meissner special that made it, according to Car magazine ‘the fastest Anglia in the world’.
That’s debatable, as are all such titles, but it’s a matter of record that Koos was the first saloon-car driver to break two minutes at the original Kyalami circuit – and he did that with an earlier, 1200cc engine in the car.
Late in 1963, Koos even beat the great John Love, who was driving a thinly-disguised ‘works’ Mini Cooper S, after a superb race-long dice at Killarney – a fitting end to a great career for the giant-killing Anglia, because Koos and Willie were aiming even higher.
That incredible production-based 1500cc engine was then sold to Tony Kotze for his home-built Assegaai Formula 1 car – that’s how good it was.
For 1964 Ford brought in two lightweight racing-spec Lotus Cortinas for the SA Saloon Car championship – one for Koos and one for a talented Johannesburg-based youngster called Basil van Rooyen, who later said that racing against Koos was ‘a very steep learning curve’.
The Cortinas were incredibly quick, running lap times that would have put them in mid-field in a Formula 1 race, and they dominated the series, with Koos duly winning the very first SA Saloon Car championship.
Koos and Basil then took on Jackie Stewart’s Team Lotus Cortina, and Paul Hawkins in the British-based seven-litre Team Willment Ford Galaxie, in an international saloon-car supporting race at the 1964 Rand Grand Prix. Hawkins threw the enormous ‘Yank Tank’ sideways in every corner (Stewart said later that he couldn’t get by because the Galaxie took up the whole track) and just pipped the future world champion to the line after 15 laps of world-class racing, followed home by Basil and Koos – all within five seconds.
A few weeks later, Team Lotus put Tony Maggs in the works Cortina for the Cape South Easter, but nobody could stay with Koos on his home circuit and the newly-crowned SA Saloon Car champion took a hugely popular win against some of the world’s top drivers.
At the end of the season Ford invited Koos to the Cortina ski resort in Italy, along with 19 other Cortina-driving champions from around the world – including Jim Clark – for a memorable prizegiving and Christmas party that ended with Clark taking a Cortina courtesy car down the infamous Ronco bobsleigh run.
Unbelievable? Watch the official Ford video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_XyqpD1_O4! According to Koos, they wrote off three cars on the bobsleigh run that day…
The Cortinas didn’t have it all their own way in 1965, however. Koos and Basil dominated the field again but because Olthoff, a superb driver, won his class in almost every race, he took the title. So Ford provided two race-prepared 4.7-litre Mustangs for the 1966 SA Saloon Car series, one for Basil’s Superformance team and the other for Team Meissner.
Far from being retired, the Meissner Lotus Cortina was taken over by a new kid on the block, Peter Gough, who had just won the 1965 SA Sports-Car championship in – you guessed it – a Dart.
Koos’ Mustang picked up an engine gremlin in practice for the first round at Kyalami and was hastily fitted with a spare engine for race day, so he opted to drive the Cortina and gave Peter the drive in the new car. In the race Basil and Olthoff got into a real door-banger until the Superformance Mustang picked up a misfire, and then the big Galaxie went out with tyre problems – leaving Koos to romp home for a totally unexpected win!
The Superformance Mustang dominated the remainder of the 1966 SA Saloon Car series to such an extent that Olthoff gave up and switched to sports cars, while the Meissner Mustang suffered from persistent handling problems. Koos drove the wheels off the car and took a couple of hard-earned race wins but was never in contention for the title.
When Koos took over as service manager at Windsor Motors he continued racing Fords with great success, including one memorable race at Kyalami where he beat both GMSA ‘works’ Holden Monaro V8s in his V6 Cortina Perana. So impressed were the fans that the officials sent Koos off on a lap of honour with Elize waving the chequered flag!
Ford were also impressed; they gave him sponsored drive in a V8 Basil Green Capri for the 1971 season, where he raced door-handle to door-handle with old friends Basil and Peter. He even competed in one of the legendary 9-Hour endurance races at Kyalami in a ‘works’ Toyota Celica – and won the Index of Performance as the only saloon car to complete more than 300 laps.
With more than two decades of full-time competition under his wheels Koos raced on into the 1980s, winning several more Regional championships in Mazda Rotaries under the Porters Sigma banner – but by then his focus was shifting to preparing karts for his children Jacolize and Kosie – both of whom won provincial karting titles – and later for his grandchildren, Jacolize’s sons Kohen and Henry Bam.
He also prepared a big-inch Ford Fairmont V8 for Elize to enter in the Drag Racing series at Killarney in the late 1980s, where she beat all the guys to take the WP title! Koos Swanepoel was honoured for a lifetime of racing achievement with Western Province colours for motorsport in 2002 and a year later was inducted into the MSA Hall of Fame. He passed away on 29 January 2017, at the age of 81.