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Tony Martin & Backdraft Cobra

We have so many legendary local drivers who have made their mark internationally. One of the likable and genuine drivers is Tony Martin, who is probably best known these days for building his immaculate Backdraft Cobra cars.

Tony was born in Durban, where he still lives with his business dynamo wife, Lee. Tony had racing blood from the start – his Dad, Ian, was preparing racecars since before Tony could walk. His Dad started out in the days when the mechanic had to ride in the car with the driver during races, probably just after World War II, and he eventually built his motor business into one of the largest VW dealerships in the country.

Tony was in his element as a youngster – his passion was always cars, and the highlight of his week was going to work with his Dad on a Saturday morning. From as far back as he can remember, Tony was crazy about cars. “Even in nappies, for me it was all about cars,” says Tony. “If my Dad left me behind when he went to work, you wouldn’t want to know!”

It didn’t take long for the motorsport bug to bite, and at 16 Tony was sneaking out to the Allen Ford hotrod stadium in Durban to race his 50cc buzz bike. He had a reasonable outing in his first race and promptly won his second race the next weekend. His parents were blissfully unaware of his racing expeditions and only found out when they saw the results in the newspaper…  Fortunately, they realised Tony had talent and eventually became his most enthusiastic supporters.

Tony went on to have a brilliant motorsport career, excelling in many different racing formats. Although he is best known for the epic win with Sarel van der Merwe and Graham Duxbury at Daytona in 1984, he has many SA titles to his name. I asked him to mention some of the highlights: “Up until this day, each and every event that I have competed in has been a highlight for me. There have been so many memorable events in my career that it is very difficult to single them out,” says Tony.

Some of the standout moments he does mention include:

  • Winning his SA titles, including the SA Drivers’ Championship, Gold Star Formula 2 Championship, and the SA Go-kart Enduro Championship;
  • His last race in Formula Vee, in the rain at Brandkop;
  • Racing in the 9 Hour and Wynns 1000 races;
  • The Retro 9 Hour in 2007;
  • Winning the Run & Gun Kit Car Challenge in the US, in his own car;
  • Winning the Daytona 24 Hour, of course!

Tony also recalls missing winning the SA Drivers’ Championship by one point: He needed to finish 6thin the final race of the season, but had a puncture..

Speaking of Daytona, I asked Tony to tell us more about winning this legendary event. Tony got to know Sarel van der Merwe and Arthur Abraham when he was working with Ford, assisting in setting up the Escort Challenge car with Sarel. He also raced with Sarel in one of the Wynns 1000 events.

Tony also happened to drive Dudley Smits’ Renault Gordini in a race around this time. The Gordini was sponsored by Danie Chauvier, who was the owner of Kreepy Krauly. Tony was by now something of an endurance race specialist, and when Danie bought the Kreepy Krauly March in the US, Arthur Abrahams called Tony up and offered him the drive. “The Kreepy deal was just wonderful for me, so I jumped at it!” recalls Tony.

The Kreepy Krauly car was originally built by March, and was raced to overall victory in the 1983 IMSA series by Al Hollbert. Danie Chauvier bought the whole team package, rebuilt the car and stationed the team in Atlanta led by the experienced Ken Howes.

The car was a March 83G, powered by a 3,2 litre Porsche motor. The car was boosted to around 650 / 700hp for qualifying, and ran at about 550hp during the race. Tony says the car was very fast, but quite difficult to drive with no power steering, no power assisted brakes, etc. But a good lap was awesome and extremely rewarding!

We always wonder what happened to the legendary cars of our memories… in this case, Tony believes that the car was destroyed in a fire. However, there are apparently at least two cars claiming to be the Daytona winning March, so who knows?

If Tony has any regrets, the main one may be not focussing more fully on an extended racing career in the States. Although the Kreepy Krauly team did not race the full season in the year they won Daytona, Tony did receive a number of offers to continue racing overseas. “I never really considered racing overseas, as my Dad’s team here in SA was a very tight team, where we all had a lot of success and camaraderie,” says Tony. “At the time, I did not believe that the guys overseas would be as much fun to be with as the South Africans. In hindsight, maybe I should have travelled?”

Motorsport always has its highs and lows, and Tony still feels the sadness of losing two very dear friends in motorsport accidents: Giles Villeneuve and Peter Haller. However, he has many enduring friendships that were made during his racing career, one of which was with Reg Dodd.

Reg Dodd had immigrated to the US during the 1990s, and on a trip back to South Africa, he mentioned to Tony that he was keen to market a Cobra type car in the States. “I asked him who would build the cars, and he replied that I was the man to build them for him! We shook hands, and we still abide by that agreement – a handshake is the only contract we have,” says Tony. “It has been a wonderful journey over the past decade.”

The late Rudy Malan from Kit Car Centre was the “father” of the Backdraft Cobras. He took the original concept, fitted a modern undercarriage to it, and modified the body substantially. The car was lengthened, widened, the waistline was changed and Rudy added his own tweaks to the design. The Backdraft cars remain true to Rudy’s modifications to this day.

What makes Backdraft Cobras different to most replicas is the phenomenal drivability of the cars. They handle as well as most modern cars and can outperform most. Cars can be specified with manual or auto gearboxes and can be supercharged. They weigh only 1,100 kgs and owners can specify the V8 engine to put out anything from 250hp to 1,000hp – entirely dependent on how brave the pilot is!

Although export cars are sold only in fully built up form, here in South Africa an aspirant Backdraft owner can still buy one in kit form, from body and chassis only to fully built up, or anywhere in between. The completed cars I have seen are beautifully finished, from stunning wheels right up to hand stitched upholstery. The cars are exhilarating to drive and it’s very, very easy to get the tail out if you want to.. my kind of car!

The Backdraft cars have also impressed on local and international racetracks for some time. Backdraft cars have won two Run & Gun events in the US and have had several good placings in the FARA endurance series in Miami. A Backdraft car also won the American Challenge race at Atlanta.

Locally, they are regular contenders in time attack and hill climb events, and were dominating in local historic events until politics stepped in. “We have an ongoing battle to race our cars in Historics,” fumes Tony. “We had one of the top series in the country, fantastic entries, and even better racing. Now, it has been degraded to almost a non-event!” His frustration echoes that of Willie Hepburn, who has also withdrawn his ever-popular Opel Rekord from Historic racing in 2018…

Tony is as passionate as ever about motorsport. Although he has taken a back seat from driving recently, in order to co-ordinate his racing team and support his racing customers, he has been training hard and should soon be seen pedalling a Cobra in the successful Mopar African Endurance series…

Tony is a good friend with a great sense of humour! I did ask him to share some of his more interesting motorsport stories with us, but he sadly declined.. If you are in Durban, though, do arrange a visit to the Backdraft factory in Prospecton and feast your eyes on some magnificent cars while talking motorsport to Tony and his team. You can also visit the website at

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Rekord Breaker Willie Hepburn

I first met Willie Hepburn when I started racing in the WesBank V8 Supercar class, back in 2007. The V8 class was a challenge for a new entrant and Willie was one of the first drivers to encourage me and offer his help and
advice to us. That’s Willie – he always makes time for people and is happy to share his knowledge.
Speaking of knowledge, I wish we had a computer chip that could download even a fraction of the knowledge Willie has in his head! Willie has been building and racing cars for virtually his whole life. Starting out as an apprentice mechanic at the age of 16, he worked for Barnett Bros in Johan- nesburg and learned to drive by delivering the Packard and Cadillac hearses they serviced for David T Cook & Sons. The fastest funerals in Africa? He moved on to work for the renowned Basil Green, a Leg- end in his own right, and the rest is history.

Willie was soon taking his Morris 1000 to race at Wembley on the weekends – if you were willing to put your car on the track during interval, you got a free entry ticket! His first venture into track racing was at Kyalami in January 1965, where he won his first ever race. He rolled his car in his second race, but he learned quickly and was soon a consistent winner in many dif- ferent cars and classes. He also competed in many drag events, with his Chevy II.
Willie has great memories of racing with Robbi Smith in the Springbok Series in the Mazda RX7, and in the brilliant but short-lived Manufacturers’ Challenge. Other highlights he recalls are racing Ray Cohen’s McLaren M8C in Seattle in the US, where he came fifth in the first race and won the next two, and achieving an SA Land Speed Record of 272.401 kph in a Pontiac TransAm road car. I could write an entire book on Willie’s racing career (and I really hope someone does – Willie’s memory is sharp and his lovely wife, Sue, has libraries of books with all the photos and clippings), but my story focuses on a car that is almost as much
of a legend as Willie himself: the ex Sabat Opel Rekord.

Willie built the Opel Rekord in 1989, in time for the third round of the WesBank Modified Saloon Car Championship. Willie had been racing (and winning) in the Ford Sierra “Animal”, but in a new deal with the then GM distributor, Delta, he took a stan- dard Opel Rekord body shell and inserted a 5.7 litre Chevy monster V8 into the car’s engine bay.
The car made its debut at the old Welkom Goldfields track, winning both races, and the Nascar spec V8 sounded like “a four engined World War II bomber flying down the longest straight in Africa at 270 plus”, according to a newspaper
of the time. Believe me, this is an excel- lent description of the car’s sound – it still makes the hair on your arms stand up when he fires it up! Breathing Willie’s dust in Welkom were cars and drivers like Ben Morgenrood in the BP Mazda and the late Tony Viana in his Winfield BMW M5 powered 325i.

The Delta / Sabat Rekord was always a serious contender in the glory days of WesBank Modifieds, doing battle with the likes of the mighty Audi Turbo and the Ford Sapphire Cosworth cars. However, with the move to TransAm type space frame cars in 1994, the Opel Rekord was relegat- ed to Class B, where it remained a perennial winner. When the Modifieds went full space frame in 2000, the Opel was retired to Willie’s workshop where it hibernated for a number of years.
Interestingly, Willie built another three V8 powered Opel Rekords which raced in the early nineties, for drivers such as Gary Dunkerley and Larry Wilford. Willie’s car is the only one which has survived in its origi- nal shape and form.
A few years ago, Willie decided to dust the cobwebs off the car and enter it into regional racing, in the Super Saloons class. The
Opel proved as fast and competitive as ever, setting a number of track records for the class and becoming a hugely popular winner of many events. “The duels I had with Sav Gaultieri in his BMW M3 in Super Saloons are a highlight of my racing career”, says Willie. The fact that Willie qualified the Re- kord on pole at Zwartkops in Super Saloons with a 1:01.3 proves just how competitive the old car still is: that’s FAST!

Willie also entered the car in a number of Historic races. Once again, the Opel was a hit with spectators and racing fans, but earned the ire of officialdom because it was “too fast”. After numerous protests and challenges, Willie has sadly decided to withdraw the Rekord from Historic rac- ing in 2018 and focus on Hill Climbs and Time Attacks.
Willie and the Rekord made their very successful debut at the Knysna Simola Hill Climb last year, earning a place in the finals with a time of 41.8 seconds. Unfortunately, a broken side shaft sidelined the car before the final runs up the Hill, but Willie will be back this year with a new lightweight, super strong motor. I’m relieved he won’t be com- peting in my class!

Time Attack competitors should also beware: the Rekord was 6th fastest at
last year’s Dezzi Time Attack, against the crème de la crème of Porsche, Ferrari and Nissan GTR supercars. Willie is confident the new engine will give him the edge…
The Opel Rekord is a magnificent car. Considering it’s almost 30 years old, it’s quite astounding that it is still racing and giving cars a fraction of its age a hiding. The car is fundamentally still a WesBank V8, with a four speed Jerico gearbox and a 9” diff. Willie has widened the track slightly and has fitted a Corvette C5 front suspension, with Bilstein shocks all round. The exhaust system features banana branches and side pipes, all fabricated by Willie himself. The wheels are standard WesBank rims, fitted with Avon super sticky tyres. There is no power steering, a feature of most of his race cars as he feels he gains a fraction more power without it (as well as getting a great arm workout every time he hits the race track)…
The engine is a Chevy 350 with a stock 350 block, stroked to 383 cubic inches. The motor is more or less 6,3 litres capacity and makes around 600 hp, with WesBank spec heads and cam and a single 4-barrel carb.
The car has impressive stopping power, with 6 pot AP callipers in front and 4 pots at the rear, and is fitted with BMW M3 discs – no power assistance, of course!

Willie has built and rebuilt this car from scratch, and it’s clear he knows every inch of it intimately. When I asked Willie what he loves about racing, that keeps bringing him back to compete year after year, he told me that this is one of the things that makes motorsport special for him: “I build and prepare my own cars”, he says. “I know every sound and know immediately when something’s not right.” Anyone who has seen Willie racing at the track knows that you will usually find him between races either underneath his car, or with his head under the bonnet, and I think he derives great satisfaction from winning and getting the best out of his car on the day.
Willie is one of the hardest working people I know. In fact, I don’t think he ever stops working! When Jan and I arrived to interview him at his Edenvale workshop, we found him underneath a stunning clas- sic red Corvette, helping an anxious owner resolve a problem with the car.

Willie works on many restoration projects and his workshop is filled with
many classic cars awaiting his attention. When we were there, he had a number of Mustangs, two Chevy CanAms, a cou- ple of Studebakers and a Corvette on standby, to name a few. He also imports American parts and stocks items such as clutches, engine and gearbox parts. He has assisted us many times with specialised V8 parts – last year, when my drift Mustang needed a clutch during the Carnival City event, he opened up his shop late on a Friday night to help
us out, and he has rebuilt quite a few engines for us, too.

Willie is a Legend not only because of his motorsport achievements, but also because he has remained astonishingly humble. He is the most approachable person who always has a kind word for his fans, and is generous with good ad- vice for both drivers and technicians. He is a great example to young drivers and puts his heart and soul into winning – he never, ever gives up!
I hope we see Willie and his Rekord gracing our motorsport events for many years to come, and I can’t wait to see his next Historic project car on track soon… watch this space.

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Taking obvious design cues from our favorite classic muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s, the Equus Bass 770 is made in Detroit, and is much more than just a sexy beast. While the tailored leather interior and high tech gadgetry found throughout the cabin
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