I have been a regular visitor to South Africa. Initially it was to spend time with my sister – a banker who spent a decade in Johannesburg. Somewhere along the way I made a detour through Cape Town and became absolutely captivated by the city. At first I started looking for a Cape Town based business to invest in. Eventually, I discovered that what attracted me to Cape Town was not the opportunity to recreate a sunnier version of my London existence – but to leave it all behind. So I bought a small apartment, and set about establishing a proper bolt hole. Cape Town is a 12 hour overnight flight from London but being in approximately the same time zone, one arrives ready for sunshine and wine.
The next step in my plans is a set of wheels. Rentals cars are the sensible option but my apartment comes with a garage space and classic cars remain remarkably well preserved in this climate. I set off to find a reasonably priced classic car and a reliable local mechanic to keep it on the road.
There are two classic car showrooms in Cape Town; Club 9 and Crossley and Webb. Both are a hybrid of car showroom and coffee shop. They both attract a predictable mix of teenage boys and middle aged men, ogling at polished flanks and sparkling chrome, while sipping flat whites. Both showrooms stock some seriously tasty vintage cars. Crossley and Webb is the larger operation by far, with a slick service department and a seriously impressive restoration operation.
Over a couple of days I drove a handful of classic cars. Martin Gautier at Club 9 put me in a 1982 Lancia Beta 2000 targa. This model is a rarity in the UK or anywhere else in the world – the body panels were of such poor quality that they literally dissolved in the rain. The car is an awkward looking 4 seater convertible with a removable panel over the front seats and a folding fabric roof over the rear. Not being a particularly collectible vehicle, this Lancia was poorly cared for. The spongy brakes and sloppy steering on the Lancia almost stopped my heart on the already heart stoppingly beautiful drive up to Devil’s Peak.
Next up was a gorgeous 1974 Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV, with achingly beautiful lines penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro and a seriously rorty twin cam engine. Racing up the winding road to the University of Cape Town’s campus the car displayed perfect balance, and surprising get up and go. Drifting gently into the corners, clutching the thin wooden rim of the deep dish Momo steering wheel, my feet dancing on the organ-style, floor hinged pedals, I was transported to a different era. It was a different car and a different road, but I wanted to cue the opening scene to the movie An Italian Job. Questi giorni quando vieni il belle sole la la la la la…
Over at Crossley & Webb, their sales manager Jeremy Eccles took me out for a spin in a series 1 Lotus Elise. The Elise was the most commercially successful Lotus ever. I didn’t realised what an extreme car this is. The Elise is the closest thing to a mass produced road legal track car (excepting perhaps the even rawer Lotus 7/Caterham). Racing slicks on this car combined with a mid engined layout gives the Lotus astonishing cornering capabilities and instant response. Accelerating hard into a long bend, I could lift off to feel the rear end breaking loose, and then play with the accelerator to steer the car through the corner. OMG this is fun!
The trouble is that the Lotus is hard to live with. You sit low on a piece of unyielding, leather covered fibreglass which transmits every bump on the road to your sensitive bits. The racing saddle on my bicycle is more comfortable – and less threatening to my fertility. Ingress and egress is also a challenge. You doesn’t just step out of this car – you lean over and fall onto the road. Knee pads are handy if you don’t want to skin your knees each time you open the door. The boot is just about big enough to hold a spare toothbrush and a pair of knickers…
Later, Jeremy gave us a tour of the Crossley & Webb restoration facilities – housed in a separate building down the road from the showroom. I have visited auto restoration shops in a few time zones and have never seen anything quite this vast and clinically clean. Over two floors lie dozens of cars in various stages of build. The paint finishing floor is mausoleum like, with pristine, plastic wrapped carcasses of vehicles waiting to be finished into someone’s dream. Crossley & Webb source their cars from around the globe for an exclusively South African clientele. Keen to maintain a stock of vehicles in the country they don’t take export orders.
I didn’t buy a car on this trip. But that spritely little Alfa is hard to forget.
To be continued…