Although the first car, a Benz Velo “horseless carriage”, which had been imported by a local businessman, John Percy Hess, arrived in South Africa at the end of 1896 it did not run under its own power until January 4 of the following year. This was due to the fact that there was a delay of a month in the arrival of the benzene fuel for the engine!
The first public demonstration of the Benz Velo took place at the Berea Park sports ground in Pretoria in front of Paul Kruger, the President of the Transvaal Republic. The publicity blurb urging Pretorians to attend this “red letter day” event proclaimed that “the motor car, like the bicycle, has come to stay and will be the craze of the century.”
Hess went on to become the sole agent for the Benz brand in South Africa. The car was subsequently driven in Johannesburg as part of his initiative to promote “a revolution in locomotion.”
It is hard to imagine the world before the arrival of the motor car with all the benefits it offers to individual and group mobility.
The pace of development was amazing once it had been accepted by the public and it was no longer for cars to be preceded by a man with a red flag as was the case in the pioneering days. Despite two World Wars development of motorised transport continued apace and now we are looking towards a future when these cars and trucks will drive themselves in the real world, not in the fantasy world of science fiction!
South Africa was fairly quickly out of the starting blocks into the world of motorised transport once the initial foundations had been laid by Mr Hess.
The first Ford to arrive in SA, a 1903 Model A, was, in fact the first Ford to be sold outside North America. Cars became more readily available in SA with the arrival of the mass-produced Ford Model T and about 1 000 cars a year were going onto local roads by 1910.
The next step was local assembly and this began in 1924 when Ford opened a plant in a disused wool shed in Port Elizabeth.
This early start-up was soon followed by the erection of a facility to assemble General Motors products and since then a host of assembly plants have come and gone over the years. Even now there are several international companies evaluating proposals to set up manufacturing plants in this country at the tip of Africa.
Over the years the SA motor industry has enjoyed varying levels of government support for its manufacturing activities, initially to boost the local economy, then to beat economic sanctions during the apartheid years and latterly as an important contributor to foreign revenue-generating exports.
The country’s love affair with the motor car has led to a proliferation of brands and models which is way out of kilter with the size of the population and the lack of real potential for huge growth in sales . There are currently more than 2 600 model derivatives in the passenger car and light commercial vehicle sectors, which means South Africans are among those people in the world most spoilt for choice when looking to buy a new vehicle.
A lack of significant public transport alternatives has led to South Africa becoming a country ever more reliant on vehicles such as cars and minibuses for personal transport which is resulting in traffic congestion and high levels of pollution.
However, this environment has spawned a love affair between South Africans and the motor car which continues unabated. The changing lifestyles of many South Africans with the growing popularity of outdoor pursuits such as mountain biking has led to rapid growth in the number of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) being sold to the detriment of sedans which were the staple diet of the local motorist for many years.
The vibrant, first ever Festival of Motoring will be the ideal occasion for the celebration of the 120th anniversary of the arrival of the motor car in South Africa as it will provide the largest canvas on which the picture of this evolution can be painted. A host of vintage and classic cars will be on show as well as many of the latest mechanical and electronic marvels which can be both looked at and driven on the racing circuit.
Times have certainly changed immeasurably since that small beginning at Berea Park in Pretoria 120 years ago!
2016 SA Festival of Motoring at a Glance
31 August - 4 September 2016
Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit & International Convention Centre Midrand