The Protea is often overlooked in the light of the Dart, but it in fact beat the world famous GSM to the line as the first SA produced sports car and led the way in fibreglass car body manufacture.
Evidence of the Protea being overlooked crops up regularly when paging through old Car magazines. In 1976 a story titled Remember the Protea? Briefly tackles the history of the car from Johannesburg and interestingly points out that the name Protea was almost used by GM instead of Ranger for its ?all South African car?. In an earlier edition, a letter addressed to the Car editor reads, ?I am a great admirer of the Dart, but would like to point out that your facts are not correct. The G.R.P Engineering Company of Johannesburg had their sports car, the Protea, on display at the Rand Spring Show in 1956.?
The car actually made its debut at the SCC show at Milner Park in 1956, making the Protea fifty-one years old this year, but because the ?56 car was a prototype and true production only kicked off in ?57 we celebrate fifty years of Protea in 2007.
Availability, robustness, economy
With motoring and motor racing a popular fifties past time it was little wonder that a few grown men, after a few to many pints, decided to build a reasonably low cost sports car that met three main requirements, ready availability, robustness with structural lightness and economy. John Meyers, Bob Fincher and Alec Roy were all avid motoring enthusiasts and with financial aid from Rob and Nic Hudson, who had made money through the coco pan and mining supply industry, did exactly that.
Meyers had plenty of technical know how gained from lesson learnt while building a Hudson 8 special, racing a 36 Ford with a welded up back axle at the crash ?em and bash ?em Wembly oval days and a Peugeot rally car that he drove in the LM Rally. He initially set up shop as the only full time worker, while Fincher and Roy would work regular day jobs and then come through to the factory and chip in until 11pm.
It was a tough part of town and on more than one occasion they found miners bodies between the mine dumps or had to dodge the pack of wild neighbourhood dogs. Meyers lived on the G.R.P. site so for safety reasons, and to determine whether the creaking tin roof was temperature contractions or an intruder, he picked up a ?watchdog? from the local SPCA. The Dachshund-like dog must have been traumatised, as it remained mute for months only coming into its own when it hooked up and ran with the savage neighbourhood gang.
Experimenting with fibreglass
The factory was set up on the corner of 1st Street and 1st Avenue Booysens Reserve, down the road from modern day Gold Reef City, but the first male mould for the fibreglass bodies was in made in a corrugated shed in Turffontein. Fibreglass was in its early stages and knowledge about the process was minimal so building bodies became a trial and error process that often ended in a small fire when the wrong quantities of resin, catalyst and accelerator were added.
Geoff Collins, who was an accomplished metal worker, got involved at this point and later opened up the highly successful Collins fiberglass operation. Because the body was a bolt on item, as opposed to the Dart?s bond to chassis system, the bodies could be adapted to suite various chassis.
Besides the fourteen fitted to the specially designed Protea chassis there were a number fitted, with a bit of adapting, to the likes of a Singer, VW and Fiat bringing the total manufacture number to around twenty-six. A complete built Protea cost #725 and a raw shell in the region of #60.
While the buyer could fit a body to whatever he liked, the hassle and chopping and changing saw that very few buyers completed the task. For those who opted for the full package they received a competent car that featured a lightweight gas welded tubular chassis with a 52 percent front weight distribution.
Parts from all over
Designed using 1.5 inch welded tubing and with every section of the chassis was straight for easy damage repair. The front suspension came in the form of a Ford 10 axle, cut and pivoted in the middle to become independent while the rear saw a standard torque tube type from the same vehicle. As Ford SA were the only motor company sympathetic enough to supply new mechanical parts, almost all the gear ranging from engine (1172cc side-valve) and gearbox to brake and petrol pipes came from the Anlgia/Prefect 100e.
A bolt-on Willment exhaust increased the power from 36bhp to 54bhp and a Buckler close ratio three-speed gearbox made driving the car more pleasurable. On a 1956 test run to Lourenco Marques (Maputo) it was noted that cruising speed between 55 and 65mph consumption came in at 52 miles per gallon and a top speed of 90mph was recorded. An overdrive unit was test but when Meyers approached a Grand Central corner at 80mph and found himself a passenger in neutral the idea was canned.
The track was an important marketing tool for any motor company and aside from having a hand in the Chev Lolette and a Buick special a few Proteas took to the track. Most well known of the bunch is the Protea Triumph but the likes of Tony Fergusson went racing with a 1200cc Ford unit.
The Protea Triumph differed completely from the Ford items. The Protea Triumph came about when Meyers and John Mason-Gordon teamed up to race a Triumph TR2. Although they finished second in the 1958 Hesketh Six-Hour, they were convinced that with better road holding they could do even better. Mason-Gordon donated his TR2 to the cause.
The G.R.P. Protea outfit designed a tubular chassis to house the Triumph engine, gearbox and back axle while Geoff Collins rolled an aluminium body. Weighing in at around 750kg and with the torque of a Triumph motor on hand the pair romped home to victory in the 1959 Six-Hour. After that it took part in numerous races including, the last Grand Central event, the first Kyalami race meeting and the Angolan Grand Prix where it competed against Ferrari Testarossa, Maserati, Porsche, Jag D-Types and Coopers admirably.
Commercially Protea wasn?t doing so well. Partly because of a limited market, and also because the financial backers, the Hudsons, moved to the UK. The blame could also be squared off at the traffic department and registration office, who saw the interest and sent some custom and exile officers around to the factory. Although they were lenient, by deducting the weight of batteries and tyres, the officers still forced the G.R.P to pay per weight for their manufacturers permit. This meant that every #100 out of the #725 selling price was lost to red tape and there was no profit. In fact the only real profit the firm ever made was from a tender they won to produce aluminium canopies for the prison cooking facilities and from making fibreglass ducting for acid applications at Iscor and the mines.
Following the Hudsons withdrawal G.R.P. Engineering Company shut its doors and the protagonists went there own way. Regardless of its short-lived life, Protea is an icon in the South African motoring scene, a quality product that even at its launch raised the question of whether it was made locally.
Viewers asked how they had overcome the paperwork and imported such a car, only to been seen with mouth wide open when they realized it was built in Johannesburg. It was a truly international product and some of the press at the time even ran with words like ?Who says we can?t build cars in South Africa?.