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Ford 100: A century of motorsport in South Africa, and around the world

  • In the late fifties Ford South Africa switched from big American saloons such as the Galaxie, Fairlane and Falcon to smaller, more nimble European models
  • Locally, tuners fettled the Kent engine in the Anglia to provide home-grown specials
  • Gareth and Boyd won the 2023 SARRC series in their Castrol T1+ Ford Ranger, earning their first overall Production Vehicle championship title

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA – The existence of Ford Motor Company can be attributed to motorsport, as its success in car races led to the creation of the Ford Motor Company. Not only was the company there for the sport’s inception but it was also instrumental in the evolvement of motor racing over the past century.

Founder Henry Ford famously quoted that “auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built”. He should know, as the Ford chronicles started when he built his first car – the Quadricycle capable of reaching 32km/h in 1896. He participated in a motor racing event in 1901, scoring a remarkable upset victory over Alexander Winton, then considered America’s greatest racer. He also participated in a speed trial later on.

His motorsport success brought investors, inspired by his ability to engineer and build lighter, and more durable cars than his experienced rivals and the Ford Motor Company, was founded 120 years ago, in 1903.

Since then, Ford has remained committed to performance, to prove its products and technologies against the world’s best. The company has 176 Formula One, 676 NASCAR, 92 World Rally and 330 V8 Supercar wins to its name, and countless other victories and podium results at grass roots, national and international level racing.

The early years

Local motorsport developed slowly through to the early 1930s but when the country’s first racetrack opened in Kimberley, Ford was there, with Durbanite Sylvester MacKenzie competing against 14 others in his Ford V8 Special and in 1934, MacKenzie and JH Case in their homebuilt V8 Specials took part in the country’s first international Grand Prix race run in East London.

Case finished a fine second against much fancied competition, and this inspired Jack Whitehead to build his own Ford V8 Special. In 1935 he won the Kimberley 100 at Alexanderfontein and the next year he followed it up with victory in the Bloemfontein 50 at the Brandkop racetrack.

Following World War Two, top-level motor racing returned to South Africa only a decade later. However, Ford continued its winning ways overseas, with Red Byron winning the first ever NASCAR race at Daytona Beach and Road Course in 1948 in flathead V8 Ford.

On the local front, saloon car racing only took off in the late fifties with the 1958 Grand Central 9-hour providing the impetus for national series such as Group 2, Onyx Saloons and Group 5, Modified Saloons, the Manufacturer’s Challenge, Group 1 and Group A, Group N, V8 Saloons, Production Cars, GTC and an assortment of regional championships that followed over the ensuing decades.

In the late fifties Ford South Africa switched from big American saloons such as the Galaxie, Fairlane and Falcon to smaller, more nimble European models and soon privately entered Anglias and Consuls filled local racetracks, the best-known exponent perhaps the Broadspeed Anglia driven by Gordon Briggs.

While the Anglia helped put Ford on the motor sport map locally, it was the Mk1 Lotus Cortina with its Cosworth developed Twin Cam engine and drivers like Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart overseas, and Kosie Swanepoel and Basil van Rooyen locally who established Ford’s motorsport credentials.

Halcyon days

The 1960s was a halcyon period for Ford in racing and a golden era for South African motorsport. Locally, tuners fettled the Kent engine in the Anglia to provide home-grown specials like the GSM Dart with race-winning performance, and Kent engines also powered the Formula Ford single seaters for decades after the series was established in 1967.

Overseas, Ford achieved a podium lockout in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, with the Ford GT40s finishing first, second and third in the same race, an event described by company executive chairman Bill Ford as “the defining moment in Ford’s race history”. 

Claiming four more consecutive victories at Le Mans established the GT40 as the poster child for Ford’s racing success, and exactly half a century later the company returned to France to claim a Le Mans class victory, this time with the Ford GT.

However, South Africa provided an interesting prelude to the GT40’s Le Mans success. In November 1965, seven months before its Le Mans clean sweep, a Ford GT (as the still-in-development GT40 was then known) driven by Peter Sutcliffe and Innes Ireland so nearly won the Kyalami Nine-Hour race, the then centrepiece of the South African Springbok Trophy Series.

With less than 10 minutes to go in the race, the spokes on the left wheel of the Ford started breaking up, forcing it to a crawl and handing victory to a Ferrari, with the GT finishing second. Interestingly, a GT40 never won an international race at Kyalami but the Gulf Mirage M1, essentially a development of the GT40, won the Nine-Hour event twice.

Locally, Ford ruled the roost in saloon car racing with the Meissner and Superformance developed Ford Cortinas, piloted by Koos Swanepoel and Basil van Rooyen. Swanepoel won the inaugural South African Sports Car championship in 1964, ahead of Van Rooyen and Bob Olthoff in a Ford Galaxie.

The Olthoff Galaxie won the 1965 SA Saloon Car Series, and in 1966 Swanepoel and Van Rooyen received Ford Mustangs (even though the Mustang was not officially available here). Van Rooyen triumphed in the championship that year, repeating the feat in 1967.

The Mustangs made way for Escorts and in 1969 Peter Gough in the Cosworth FVA-powered Meissner prepared Escort won the Sports Car championship. Also memorable, was the victories of the flying Zakspeed Mk2 Escort RS touring cars in the Wynns 1 000 km races at Kyalami in 1975 and 1977.

However, the iconic Escort is mostly remembered for its rally exploits in the late 1960s and through to the 1990s, in the hands of legendary drivers such as Björn Waldegård, Ari Vatanen, Roger Clark, Carlos Sainz, Didier Auriol and Marcus Grönholm.

Its rallying legacy shines equally bright in South African motorsport. With Ford Motorsport under the guidance of Bernie Marriner, the Escort Mk2 BDA in the hands of the legendary Sarel van der Merwe and co-pilot Franz Boshoff proved invincible, with the pair winning consecutive championships from 1979 to 1982.

F1 dominance

No story on Ford’s motorsport exploits can be complete without mentioning the Cosworth V8 DFV engine. Developed with Ford money, the iconic DFV dominated Formula One for many years, and took local racing heroes such as John Love and Dave Charlton to multiple South African F1 championship victories in the Seventies.

Although the DFV scored its last F1 victory 40 years ago (in the 1983 Detroit Grand prix), it still considered the most successful engine in the history of Formula One and Grand Prix racing, powering champions like Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt to victory. While originally designed for Formula One, it has been modified to be used in a range of categories, also winning at Le Mans.

Homegrown heroes

Changes to local saloon car championship rules in the ’seventies led to the creation of some memorable homegrown heroes, the most famous arguably being the Ford Capri Perana V8 developed by Johannesburg businessman and SA Hall of Fame inductee Basil Green.

Made even more memorable by its distinct orange Gunston livery, the Perana with its lightweight Mustang engine swept all before it in 1970. Driven by Olthoff in the Group 5 category, it won 13 of 14 races and broke the saloon car lap record at all South African racetracks.

With the arrival of the Mk5 Cortina in 1979, Ford South Africa fitted it with the locally produced 3-litre Essex V6 and a unique rear suspension and called it the XR6, hen, in order to compete in the Group 1 racing series, Ford unleashed the uprated XR6 Interceptor.

Only 250, all red in colour, were built and on track the XR6 excelled in the hands of Sarel van der Merwe, Geoff Mortimer and Serge Damseaux. This success, as well as the imminent launch of the Sierra, led to the introduction of the limited-edition Cortina XR6 TF (the TF stands for Team Ford) of which only 500 were manufactured.

Much like the Capri Perana, the Sierra XR8 with its distinctive double fin rear wing was locally developed by Ford Motorsport using the carburettor-fed 5.0-litre V8 from the Mustang. Around 250 road-going versions of the XR8, the fastest production Sierra in the world, was also built.

The XR8 was campaigned by John Gibb and Serge Damseaux in the 1985 Group 1 championship and later Willie Hepburn raced a wilder derivative called “The Animal” in the Modified Saloons series.

The Sasol-Ford era

In the early 1990s Ford secured sponsorship from local oil company Sasol, and for nearly a decade the Sasol-Ford team participated in virtually every form of local tin-top racing. Ford stalwart Sarel van der Merwe campaigned a Rousch-built Ford Mustang with a 450kW 6.0-litre V8 in the WesBank Modifieds, winning the series in 1994.

In rallying, Van der Merwe (having won the SA rally championship eleven times by now) again came close to championship glory in 1992 and 1993, driving an all-wheel drive Ford Laser. With young rally superstar Enzo Kuun as his teammate, the Laser won a fair share of rallies, and Sarel ended runner-up in both seasons.

Often considered the high-water mark of South African circuit racing, the AA Fleetcare Series and Touring Car Championship in the early 1990s attracted international drivers and bespoke, highly advanced machinery to deliver some of the best racing ever seen on local circuits.

Van der Merwe was again back behind the steering wheel of a Ford, driving the British developed Mondeo touring car, with Steve Wyndham and later Ben Morgenrood as teammates. International flavour added spice to the series, with New Zealander Paul Radisich and British driver Kelvin Burt competing for the Blue Oval in the 1994 International Touring Car Championship held at Kyalami.

In 2000 and 2001, after the heady touring car period, Supervan again campaigned the Mustang in the WesBank series, now alongside the popular Gugu Zulu. Van der Merwe again showed he had lost none of his talent by winning the series in both those years.

Overseas, the Ford Focus World Rally car made its debut in 1999, replacing the Escort. Run by M-Sport, the Mk1 Focus WRC celebrated many WRC victories in the hands of rally legends Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz. In 2006 the Mk2 Focus WRC, driven by Marcus Grönholm and Mikko Hirvonen, gave the Blue Oval its first WRC manufacturer’s title in 27 years, repeating the feat in 2007.

In 2011, the Focus was replaced by the Fiesta WRC, and in 2020 M-Sport celebrated its 250th consecutive points finish. After Sainz and McRae a total of 22 drivers and 28 co-drivers have contributed to this achievement which includes seven world titles, 50 victories and 185 podiums.

Ford also announced the return of the Mustang to top-class racing in 2019, appearing for the first time in the top class of the NASCAR series in the United States, and dominating the Australian Supercars Championship from 2019 to 2021, including winning the iconic Bathurst 1000, with Kiwi-driver Scott McLaughlin.

A New Era

On local turf, Ford switched its allegiance from circuit racing to rallying and off-road racing from the mid-2000s, and in 2011 Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach and his local co-driver Robin Houghton caused an upset in the rally fraternity by dominating the National Rally Championship in their M Sport-developed Ford Fiesta S2000.

This dominance continued, with Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton winning the 2012 and 2013 National Rally Championship titles in their Fiesta S2000 (again sponsored by Sasol), in 2012 bequeathing Ford their first Rally Manufacturer’s title in 36 years. In 2015, in the penultimate year of S2000 as the top class in local rallying, Cronje and the Fiesta S2000 added another National Rally Championship title to the Ford trophy room.

Ford South Africa has had a long relationship with Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) spanning more than 25 years. Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer won the SA Off-Road Championship in 2006 in a Ford Ranger.

In the renamed South African Cross Country Series (SACCS), the V8-powered Ford Ranger designed and developed by NWM and supported by Ford SA were front-runners for several years, winning on debut in 2013 with Lance Woolridge behind the wheel, along with co-driver Ward Huxtable.

Following this success, NWM with the support of Ford SA and its dealer network, competed in the 2014 Dakar Rally in South America. The team scored several top 10 stage finishes in the toughest and longest rally raid event in the world against the world’s best teams and top manufacturers.

Numerous race victories for the Ranger followed over the ensuing years, culminating in Woolridge and Huxtable scoring back-to-back Class T Production Vehicle titles in 2018 and 2019. In 2021, the team debuted its all-new EcoBoost 3.5-litre V6-powered T1 Ranger and once again won on debut with Lance Woolridge and co-driver Elvéne Vonk. The NWM EcoBoost Ranger was completely redeveloped for the new FIA T1+ regulations for 2022, with young stars Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer scoring their maiden overall win at the final race of the season of the South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC).

Gareth and Boyd went on to win the 2023 SARRC series in their Castrol T1+ Ford Ranger, earning their first overall Production Vehicle championship title, along with the premier Class FIA T1+ title

It is also the first time that a father and son have both won the overall South African Production Vehicle championship, with team principal Neil Woolridge and co-driver Kenny Skjoldhammer having taken the title – and the last one for the Pietermaritzburg-based NWM Ford team – in 2006.

This achievement follows the announcement that Gareth Woolridge and Dreyer will be competing at the 2024 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia in the NWM M-Sport T1+ Ranger – together with the 2014 Dakar Rally winner Nani Roma and co-driver Alex Haro – as Ford Performance is set to expand its global motorsports effort with NWM and M-Sport by competing in one of the legendary and toughest off-road competitions on Earth.

Fittingly, the championship-winning performance by the T1+ Ranger crew and the NWM Ford team brings the racing achievements of the Blue Oval full circle in the centenary year of Ford South Africa – again proving the commitment of Ford to performance and motorsport in order to prove their products and technologies against the best in the world.

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