26 Aug KILLARNEY CHARACTERS: WILLIE MEISSNER
Willie Meissner didn’t drive many races at Killarney but the cars he built, and even more so the engines he built to power them to victory, have become the stuff of legend.
The son of a Paarl dentist, Willie entered Stellenbosch University as a first-year mechanical engineering student in 1952. There he met a senior student called Bob van Niekerk, who had actually built his own single-seater racing car, based on Austin 7 mechanicals in a chassis largely built from scrap Avro Anson aircraft parts.
The two became firm friends and often spoke about building their own sports car, a compact, taut-handling ‘superleggera’ roadster in the style of the great European marques, but agreed that this was impracticable because there was nobody in South Africa with the requisite skills to fabricate the bodywork by hand from aluminium sheet.
Willie didn’t enjoy university – he preferred being more ‘hands-on’ – so he left to join Williams Hunt in Paarl as an apprentice mechanic. There he met Dave and Hoffie le Roux, and helped them build the LRX Special, powered by a flat-top Ford V8 with an Ardun cylinder-head conversion, which Hoffie raced with considerable success.
When he finished his apprenticeship in 1956, Willie travelled to Britain to learn more about making cars Go Much Faster. Shortly thereafter he wrote to Bob (who was working for Deutz tractors in Paarden Eiland) to say that he had found a brand-new material that would make it possible for them to fabricate sports-car bodies – glass fibre.
Bob immediately threw up his job, sold his highly modified and indecently quick Peugeot 203 racing car to Killarney commentator Gys Maasdorp and used the money join Willie and learn about this new composite technology. They soon discovered, however, that fabrication was one thing; styling a car body was a whole different story.
Here fate took a hand, because Willie ‘knew a guy’ – or, in this case a girl. A friend of his, Joan Peters, was in England on a scholarship to study classical piano, and she happened to be newly married to another South African ex-pat, Verster de Wit, who was working as a stylist for the Rootes Group on what would eventually become the Sunbeam Alpine.
So Willie and Bob rented a flat in Earls Court and began making quarter-scale model bodies in Plasticene, and each weekend Verster would come down and tell them exactly where they had gone wrong. Bob said later it took them 14 attempts to get it right, but when they did, they had produced a classic.
This was 1957 so, inevitably, the final design had fins but Verster had integrated them into a single sweeping line that ran from headlight to tail light, creating a timeless shape that even today, more than six decades later, still looks fresh and elegant.
They built a full-size mock-up out of plywood strips and Plaster of Paris, took a set of moulds from it and produced the very first two Dart bodies, which were sold to finance Bob’s trip home by sea (with the moulds as hand luggage!) while Willie went on ahead to found a new car company that he called, rather unimaginatively, Glass Sport Motors.
The car they built had an 1172cc Ford Anglia 100E side-valve engine, modified by Willie with a Willment-style overhead valve conversion, in an immensely stiff ladder chassis welded up from square-section steel tubing, running on a transverse leaf spring in front and coil springs at the rear. Willie and Bob were decades ahead of their time in chassis design – the rigidity provided by the chassis and one-piece body enabled them to give the car a supple suspension set-up instead of the bone-jarringly stiff ride of most 1950s sports cars.
This not only gave the GSM Dart exceptional road-holding on both road and track but also made it surprisingly comfortable as a road car, even by today’s standards. The uprated 100E engine was good for about 50kW, the whole car weighed less than half a ton and it went like a bomb.
The first two cars were ready by the end of 1957, so Willie and Bob entered them in the sports-car race at the False Bay 100 on New Year’s Day 1958. Both finished well ahead of anything in their capacity class and GSM Darts went on to race successfully for the next two decades, later powered by Alfa Romeo SV+ engines, Anglia 105E overhead-valve fours and early pre-crossflow Cortina engines – many modified by Willie to deliver way more power than Ford ever intended.
That was because Willie had left GSM in 1960 to found Dart Service Station. As Bob said later, “He was more into the mechanical side and wanted to do his own thing, though he still helped out with the cars.
“Willie was simply way ahead of his time. He made engines rev to 10 000rpm well before anyone else had ever thought that possible.”
When Killarney hotshot Koos Swanepoel joined Dart Service Station as workshop manager, they built a series of three racing engines for Koos’ racing Anglia, culminating with a 1500cc Meissner special that made it, according to Car magazine, ‘the fastest Anglia in the world’.
At the end of 1963 that engine (based on a production Ford unit!) was sold to Tony Kotze for his home-built Assegaai Formula One car – that’s how good it was.
Then came the car for which Willie will always be remembered by Ford enthusiasts in South Africa – the iconic Meissner Lotus Cortina that took Koos to the inaugural South African sports-car championship in 1964, ahead of Basil van Rooyen’s similar car and the seven-litre Willment Galaxie of Bob Olthoff.
The Olthoff Galaxie won the 1965 SA Saloon Car Series, although Peter Gough made up for it by winning the national Sports Car series in a Meissner-engined Dart. For 1966 Ford brought in a pair of 4.7-litre Mustangs for the Saloon Car wars. By Willie’s standards, this was a disappointment; the Team Meissner Mustang was quick enough but could never be made to handle, and Van Rooyen took the title.
In 1968 Dart Service Station was split into Meissner Motors, a Shell petrol station and workshop, and Meissner Marketing, preparing and racing the then-new Escorts under contract to Ford.
The rules at that time allowed engine swops as long the new engine was from the same manufacturer and had the same number of cylinders. This was just the opening Willie needed; he got hold of a 1.6-litre twin-cam Ford-Cosworth FVA (Four-Valve Type A) Formula Two Grand Prix engine, stroked it to 1676cc with a new crank and con rods and upped the compression ratio from 12.1:1 to 12.5:1 to deliver 165kW at a screaming 9000rpm.
The Meissner Escort was rebuilt with stiffer front springs, coil spring rear suspension, Ford Zephyr front and Cortina rear brakes; it was so fast that at the end of 1968 the authorities effectively banned it by changing the rules so that SA Saloon Car engines had to be based on the car’s original block.
No problem, said Willie. Starting with a raw, unfinished casting from Ford, he machined it and made most of the internal parts himself to produce a two-litre engine that made even more power than the FVA. With that engine in his legendary Escort, Y151, Peter went on to win the 1969 SA Saloon Car title.
The following year Willie came up with a Saloon Car contender that is now regarded as 20 years ahead of its time: a turbocharged Escort! Small-turbo technology simply didn’t exist at that time, so Willie bolted a turbo from a Ford D1000 truck onto a 1300cc pushrod engine – and made it work. Not surprisingly, it suffered from horrific turbo lag, which he alleviated by pumping the intake charge through a large spherical chamber in the boot.
The ‘blown’ Escort was very, very fast but temperamental and difficult to drive; then, at the end of 1970 Willie’s contract with Ford came to an end when the SA Saloon Car Championship was discontinued, as the cars had become unsustainably expensive.
So Willie turned his racing experience to the commercial manufacture of the ‘Meissner Power Plus’ overhead camshaft kit for the Kent 1600 engine. The kit included a new cylinder head and belt-driven camshaft, high-compression pistons, double valve springs, an oil cooler, twin sidedraught carburettors and a free-flow (read ‘loud’) exhaust system.
Its performance was astonishing; the kitted engine was safe to 7500rpm and output increased from 63kW at 5500 revs to 98kW at 6500rpm. But the kit cost R1000 – close to half the price of a new Cortina at the time – and sales were slow. At about the same time Meissner Marketing also introduced a range of motor additives, including fuel additives for petrol and diesel, lubricants and vehicle washing products.
The base materials were imported, blending and packaging was done in the workshop at Paarden Eiland and they were marketed nationally through a network of agents.
But Willie never stopped being a hands-on engineer; he continued to provide vehicle servicing and repairs for the surrounding businesses and grinding high-performance camshafts for the motor industry and private customers.
All of which came to an untimely end when he was killed in a motor accident in June 1973; South Africa had lost one of its greatest motorsport innovators, of whom champion driver Basil van Rooyen, himself a respected racing engineer, said: “He was simply the best, someone who was way ahead of all the others.”
We couldn’t have put it better.