Port Elizabeth has always been known as a South African motor industry hub, going back to 1924 when the first vehicles rolled off Ford’s local assembly line. PE’s automotive fortunes have ebbed and flowed since then, but one vehicle manufacturing facility born in the mid-eighties has survived all the economic tides that have flowed through the city – Hi-Tech Automotive.
Jimmy Price is the man behind Hi-Tech Automotive. Jimmy is definitely not your average petrol head car enthusiast – in fact, he grew up in a family with no links to the automotive industry and he and his father were passionate about water sport. Jimmy competed in powerboating, water-skiing and raced hydroplanes, which he describes as “3.5 metre plywood coffins, running on alcohol!” Hydroplane racing was similar to the early years of Formula 1 racing: exciting and dangerous. With boats reaching speeds of 160kph, serious accidents were routine and often fatal.
Jimmy stopped boat racing when his father passed away, and after school, he went into the civil engineering and construction industry. He built up his own business interests in this field and at that stage, his experience of motor manufacturing was limited to rebuilding the scrapped Ford Topolino his Dad had given him while he was still at school.
In 1986, Jimmy’s friend Richard de Beer was building MGTD kit cars, and he received an order from the US for a number of kits. This was in the era of sanctions, and in the end, the order never came to fruition due to all the complications involved in the export process. However, Jimmy started thinking about the possibility of exporting a complete car, as opposed to a kit. He convinced Richard to join him and in the early nineties set up a basic facility on a farm just outside PE. Although Richard did not remain in the business, Jimmy slowly began the process of recreating classic cars for export and exploring ideas that could make his fledgling company profitable.
In the early nineties, there was really no such thing as an SUV. The Ford Explorer pioneered the concept and became hugely popular in the US, although the closest thing to an SUV in South Africa at the time was the locally produced Nissan Sani. Importing fully built up cars was not an option, with import duty set at 110%, but Jimmy saw a gap in the market to bring Explorers into the country as kits. With support from CMH and Barlows, Hi-Tech Automotive was soon importing body shells and rebuilding complete new cars at his premises in PE. Between 1992 and 1996, a total of 800 cars were produced in this way, mostly Ford Explorers but also other cars from manufacturers such as Land Rover, Toyota and Rolls Royce. Even a Ford Louisville truck hit local roads via this channel!
During this period, Jimmy had been developing a locally built Cobra “replicar.” Jimmy dislikes referring to his cars as kit cars, preferring to call them replicars – close recreations of the original cars, requiring no assembly other than dropping in an engine and gearbox. This was a difficult concept to market in the nineties, with no access to the internet or social media, and potential American customers struggled to grasp the fact that they did not have to actually assemble the cars themselves.
To overcome this challenge, Jimmy took a rolling chassis to the legendary Run & Gun event in the US – a race for kit cars. Observed by Kit Car magazine, Jimmy, Bob Bondurant and Bobby Olthoff “built” the car overnight and duly raced the car the next day. This out of the box inspiration helped establish the brand in the US, and also led to Bob Bondurant becoming one of Jimmy’s first US dealers. Hi-Tech was soon selling 20 to 30 Cobras per month to the US market, mainly to wealthy owners who loved the iconic Cobra cars but who were not keen to go through the build process themselves.
In 2000, Jimmy had a call from “Speedy Bill Smith”, from Lincoln, Nebraska. Bill started the legendary Speedway Motors back in 1952, and he had seen one of Jimmy’s Cobra replicars on show at SEMA. He had the idea of building a turnkey street rod along the lines of Jimmy’s “8 hour kit”: a perfect rolling chassis, with only the customer’s choice of engine and gearbox needed to complete the car. Bill wanted a ’32 Ford roadster, but not in fibreglass – in steel. A year and a half later, the first Signature Series roadster was delivered to Nebraska: perfectly finished in Posy Red with brown upholstery, every nut and bolt in place. Fifty of these beauties were built and sent to the US, and Jimmy and Bill developed a life-long friendship from this joint venture.
Around that time, Jimmy was also approached by Lee Noble, designer of the Noble supercars, who was impressed with the quality of production coming out of the Hi-Tech plant. The Noble M400 was a high performance, mid-engine, rear wheel drive sports car, which enjoyed great success in both the US and the UK. Over 700 of these cars were built right here, by Hi-Tech in PE. Sadly, the Noble brand declined when production of the M400 ended and although still in existence, the cars are no longer built in South Africa.
One of the things that makes Hi-Tech Automotive unique is that most of their cars are built under licence to the original designers and manufacturers. This is the case with their Shelby and AC Cobras, as well as the beautiful Shelby Daytona Coupes. Only six of the original cars were ever built, and designer Peter Brock came to South Africa to assist and ensure that the Hi-Tech replicars were absolutely true to the originals. I have seen one of the Daytona Coupes competing locally, and it is a stunning recreation.
The Hi-Tech Automotive Ford GT40 replicar is also an exact recreation of the legendary original. Built according to the original blueprints, the car is a faithful reproduction of Ford’s triumphant Le Mans winner. The only concession to modernity is the installation of an air conditioning system.
Although Jimmy did not race himself, he was very involved in his son Justin’s successful karting career and is a great supporter of local motorsport. He assisted with importing Sarel van der Merwe’s Ford Mustang from the US and built Deon Joubert’s Pennzoil car, both to compete in the WesBank Modified class. Hi-Tech went on to build and run WesBank cars for Sarel, George Fouche and Johan Fourie.
When Peter Lindenberg approached him to build a race-car for an oval series at the new Phakisa raceway, Jimmy built the well-known SASCARs. An imported NASCAR was used as the template to build 24 similar cars for local oval racing, and when the Phakisa series fell through Jimmy became one of the original investors in WesBank Raceway. The SASCARs were fast, reliable and popular with spectators, and a number of the cars are still in existence today. Hi-Tech also builds homologated FIA versions of many of their cars, a few of which may be seen racing locally. Jimmy’s focus, however, remains on building cars for road use – probably a wise business decision!
Up until 2002, the company was growing at a rate of 50% per annum – a true-home grown success story. With a staff of 660 people producing up to 450 cars per year, the sudden depreciation of the dollar against the Rand in the early 2000s was a bolt from the blue. Soon afterwards, the global economy fell into a downward spiral that saw sales drop from 400 vehicles in 2007 to less than 100 in 2010.
Jimmy was forced to downsize and sell off many of his business interests and properties in order to survive. The beautiful Zagato designed and locally produced Perana Z-One concept car also became a victim of the global downturn. A concept created by Jimmy and a number of local partners, in 2009 the car became the first ever South African car to be exhibited at the Geneva Motor Show, where it attracted great acclaim and a host of pre-orders. By 2010, however, the market had virtually collapsed and in the end only a handful of Z-Ones were built.
Probably due to Jimmy being more of a businessman than a petrol head, he was able to diversify and adapt in order to survive the hard times, and nowadays Hi-Tech Automotive is able to produce items such as mobile concrete plants as opposed to just cars. Both Jim’s sons, Justin and Nicholas, have always worked in the company and have helped Hi-Tech to keep pace with change, particularly in terms of social media – just as well, as Jimmy says they call him BC, as in “Before Computers”!
Hi-Tech is still building cars on 29 different platforms, including all the variants of the Cobra, the GT40 and a magnificent recreation of the Corvette Grand Sport. Hi-Tech Automotive is also still the largest privately owned, low volume vehicle manufacturer in the world, with a facility covering 20,000m/2. They produce 10 to 12 cars per month, with a staff of 240 people in separate facilities for everything from paintwork, CNC work, and chassis work to trim, wiring harnesses and electrical work. Everything is done in house.
Bearing in mind that Hi-Tech built the first of the locally developed Joule electric cars, I asked Jimmy what he foresees happening in his industry as we look towards an electric future. “The technology is moving too fast for us to be involved in development,” says Jim. “The investment in technology is huge, particularly in the area of self-driving cars, for example. More stringent emissions control legislation is coming and we will definitely have to be poised to adapt whichever cars we are building at the time to comply. The market is always changing, too: for example, millennials want to drive cool retro cars but they don’t want the driving experience of a car with old technology. We are always looking at ways to meet the expectations of our customers, and if they want electric drivetrains then that’s where we will have to be in the future.”
Finally, I asked Jimmy for a word of advice for our readers, especially those involved in building their own cars: “Do it for your passion and pleasure,” says Jimmy. “Don’t try to build something mass produced. Build something unique and individual – hot-rodders are born, not made, and those long nights spent in the workshop should give you the same joy you had as a kid, playing with your Dinky cars.”