The history of the men and women trying to break the record for time from London to Cape Town, South Africa, or to be the first, is almost as compelling as the recent runs. It started with smaller attempts, before becoming London to Cape Town, or as the case may be, Cape Town to London.
The first attempt was made in 1907 by a Brit named Robert L. Jefferson. He drove a single-cylinder, 1.3-liter, 8-hp Rover, the company’s first production car. A pre-adherent to Colin Chapman’s “adding lightness” theory, Jefferson decided on a lightweight car without much gear, that if necessary, he could push alone, or with help from locals. Jefferson and partner Frank Connock drove from Africa’s eastern seaboard at Durban, South Africa to Cape Town on the southwestern edge of the continent. The journey is a little more than 1,000 miles today, and it took them 16 days and change. The next year, a real attempt was made at crossing the continent, and it did not go well.
The driver was Paul Graetz, senior lieutenant in the Imperial German Army. He worked on the country’s road building initiative, which gave him the idea to cross the continent by car. He used a 40-hp, 6.0-liter Gaggenaue for the trip with a 625-mile fuel tank and huge wooden wheels giving him 48 inches of ground clearance.You will also have to imagine, for a moment, that many of the places Graetz traveled through had never seen an automobile.First, his car sank in mud crossing the Rufuma River. Then, when crossing another one, water got into the engine, just a week after Graetz had set out. A crew member was dispatched back to Germany for parts, but he fell ill, and it was a full three months before new engine blocks made it back. Delays put the expedition into the rainy season, which meant having to use rickety bridges, sometimes using local labor to either rebuild them, or drag the car across tougher terrain. Graetz had covered just 625 miles in four months.They found sinkholes, twisted crankshafts, ran out of fuel, ran into a bush fire and lived off small game. They spent a second Christmas on the road before finally coming across a patrol of German cavalry, who helped them to their finishing point of Cairo, Egypt. The team averaged just 9 miles a day over the course of 5,625 miles.
The next attempt (in 1924) started in earnest from Cape Town, South Africa, where Major Chapman Court Treatt and his wife and crew tried to pilot two 30-hp Crossleys across the expanse to Egypt. The body of the Crossley was turned into a pickup truck with dual rear wheels. It took 25 days to reach Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, a trip that would take 25 hours by car now.The team spent several weeks there, getting their vehicles back in order and jettisoning anything they didn’t explicitly need. It was 380 miles to Victoria Falls, which was four months of mud, help from oxen and torrential rains. More stuff was eliminated from the vehicle including the doors, lights and windows. The next 50 miles took another month. The team had to both fix existing bridges and build new ones. They crossed Nairobi, Uganda and the Nile. They too spent a second Christmas on the road, while waiting for parts to arrive. The Crossleys then got lost in the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, but eventually found their way to Cairo, being met by the Egyptian Automobile Club.Later in 1924, the Citroen Central Africa Expedition became the first group to cross the Sahara Desert from north to south, using tank-like treads to dispatch with the mud and sand. Renault joined the other French brand, creating its own cross country special, traversing the center of Africa to Lake Chad, Nairobi, Livingstone, Pretoria, Johannesburg and finally Cape Town. They took some of the glory from the Treatts, though the earlier group at least used something resembling a real car.
The next adventurer decided to make the London to Cape Town run after he was jilted by a girl who said he just wasn’t manly enough for her. Alan Gilg figured he would prove his mettle by making the run. He met a pilot at a New Year’s Eve party who had just recovered from a near fatal crash, and convinced Walter Kay to come with him. The pair drove a Morris 8 convertible, the only modification of which was a lower rear axle ratio. Gilg and Kay drove to Morocco, avoiding the Atlas Mountains, traveled along to coast to Algiers, then went south, crossing the continent to Stanleyville in the Congo, Nairobi, Victoria Falls in Zambia, Buloway, Johannesburg and then Cape Town. The pair used 537 gallons of fuel and about 15 gallons of oil.
As we move closer to the modern era, another attempt was made by automotive journalist Humphrey Symons and his friend Bertie Browning, who used a press loan of a Wolseley 18/85. They completed the journey in 31 days, though they crashed through a bridge, had to swim out of crocodile-infested waters, got help from prisoners, patched up the vehicle and claimed the first official world record.
Ten years later (1949) the time dropped to 24 days, 2 hours and 5 minutes in an Austin A70 helmed by Ralph Sleigh and Peter Jopling. Sleigh went on to break several more long-distance records. In 1951 George Hinchcliffe and James Bulman prepared a Hillman Minx for the trip and drove from Bradford in the UK to Cape Town in just 22 days. Loving the life, Hinchcliffe did it again with two co-drivers, going from Trafalgar Square in London to Town Square in Cape Town in 13.5 days.
The next man to attempt the trip was already a hero before he put tires to desert sand. Richard Pape jumped out of a bomber in World War II, was captured by the Gestapo, escaped and then thought, “I need to do something with my life.”Pape was a fan of his home country’s auto industry and wanted to prove to the rest of the world than British engineering was the best. He picked a 2.6-liter Austin A90 sedan to drive from the tip of Norway to the tip of South Africa. Pape was…hard to get along with, by all accounts, and he lost his navigator before he hit the first border crossing. His second co-driver became ill in Gibraltar, so Pape stopped at an RAF mess hall, regaled them with his war stories and left with a sergeant who decided to go AWOL. They crossed the Sahara before being caught and temporarily arrested. Pape almost got stuck in Nigeria, but produced a phony visiting card that said he was a Nigerian health inspector, and he was on his way to inspect a hospital. Pape wrote about his experience in a book called Cape Cold To Cape Hot, which inspired another generation of daring drivers.
In 1963 a Ford Cortina made the journey with Eric Jackson and Ken Chambers at the controls, making it to Cape Town in 13 days, 8 hours and 48 minutes. Ford loved it, and proposed a race between the Cortina and RMS Windsor Castle passenger ship, leaving from Cape Town to Southampton, U.K. The RMS Windsor Castle was the last passenger ship built at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead (a shipbuilding place). It could average 24 mph and technically won the race, even though the vehicles arrived at the same time. After a bunch of flat tires, Jackson’s car was refused at the Cameroon border, meaning it had to be airlifted, which means its tires left the ground. Ford PR chief Walter Hayes and RMS Captain Hart decided to agree on a draw.
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