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Jimmy Price

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.”

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Gawin Wilkins

Our local SA motorsport Legends are not only created from the long circuit.. we have our share of Legends in every category of motorsport. One of our best- known drag racing Legends has to be Gavin Wilkins, famous for his 7 second Mustang! Something that has struck me while writing this series about racing Leg- ends is how modest and humble they are about their achievements. Gavin is no exception. I have known him since my time in the V8 Supercar series, where he was briefly the TC – a thank- less job at the best of times, as the TC is the one who has to tackle perceived technical deviations from the rules. I never heard him blowing his own trumpet, despite his knowledge and experience with V8 motors, and he got the job done with a minimum of fuss and attitude.

Gavin was born in Brakpan in 1965. His Dad was a very good mechanic who did his time with GM, Ford and Leyland. Clearly, Ford’s blue genes run in the family! Gavin was only four or five when he inherited his late cousin’s 50cc motor cycle, and despite many tumbles and falls, he soon taught himself to ride. Once he got the basics sorted, he justwanted to go faster and faster…As soon as Gavin had his licence, he was on the road with his Honda MB50, looking for races around every corner. “Of course, my Honda was not stock– it could do 155kph,” recalls Gavin. “My nickname at school was Turbo, not knowing how that name would tran- spire in years to come!”

In 1981, Gavin took his bike to Rain- bow Drag Strip for the first time, where he did 21 seconds on a quarter mile, and that’s where the real Legend start- ed. Gavin’s dream at that stage was to work on motorcycles, and he started his career with Honda in 1982.

His first car was a lime green Mini, which he used during his National Ser- vice. “Yes, of course it was modified,”, laughs Gavin. “But it was still pretty light on fuel!” Gavin soon made the move to racing on four wheels, and it didn’t take too long before he was making a real name for himself in drag racing.“My favourite car was my V6 Capri,” says Gavin. One of the highlights of his career was winning Drag Racer of the Year with the Capri in 1992, and again in 1993, along with the title of SANDRA Champion. He also set a World Recordwith this car: the fastest Normally Aspi- rated V6 in the World.

There is always bitter along with the sweet, however, and one of the
low points of Gavin’s career occurred when his competitors started to bring
in serious overseas cars to challenge the Capri. Despite their best efforts, the Capri remained the fastest car in its class, and subsequent allegations as to the legality of Gavin’s car led to various protests. “My car was never illegal,” says Gavin, “and this was proven through MSA processes. This caused me to walk away from the sport I really loved for a good few years.”

During this time, Gavin started his own workshop, GWR Racing. By the early 2000s, though, Gavin was back on the drag strip. Sticking with the Blue Oval, he built two very rapid Ford Sierra XR8s. The one Sierra still holds the record for a NOS assisted V8 on a standing kilometre at 298kph. The sec- ond Sierra was a 10-second car called “Scrappy” that eventually developed into the famous Blue Mustang that Gavin now races.

From 2005 to 2008, Gavin won four Regional Championships, finished second in the Nationals three times, and third once. He had to wait until 2012 before finally winning both Senior Eliminator Championships in the same year. He repeated this feat in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The Blue Mustang seems almost invincible. The car that started life as a Sierra has gone through many transfor- mations over the years. In 2007, Gavin brought in a newer Mustang body from the US for the car. “Lo and behold,
the new body did not fit!”, remembers Gavin. “My mates from M&P Fab and I had to change the entire steel structure to accommodate the new body.”

A couple of years later, the motor was changed to a monster 10 litre Big Block 1500hp Nitrous engine, and once again Gavin had to modify the front of the car’s chassis to accommodate the beast. “That set up still holds the Na- tional record in its class, at 7,6 seconds at 300kph, and helped me win multiple National and Regional Champion- ships,” says Gavin.

The latest incarnation of the Mustang is ominously known as “Booststein.” It has a 3500hp twin turbo engine and a two-speed Powerglide transmission. This is mated to a Ford 9” rear with 35 spline axles and a four-link rear suspension. The car uses 34.5/17/16 Mickey Thompson slicks for traction. “At the moment we are only at around the 2100hp mark, as we are finding new ways of trying to put all thepower down,” remarks Gavin. “This is currently the quickest and fastest Twin Turbo door car in Africa – 7.03 seconds at 332kph. This car is like sitting on a rocket – it never stops accelerating!”

Gavin has also raced overseas, in Australia. “A good mate of mine, ex South African Pieter Dewit, put a drive together for me in a Chev Holden Ute. Yes, a Ford guy driving a Chev, I did get grilled over that,” laughs Gavin. He managed to get to the quarterfinals before the Chev developed a misfire. “It was an amazing experience and I got my National colours for this, being the only car drag racer to receive a Green Blazer.”

I asked Gavin what the critical secrets are to successful drag racing. “Reaction time and consistency”, he says with conviction. And is he a fan of Street Outlaws? “Above all, Street Outlaws is a good SHOW,” laughs Gavin. “It’s well edited, and of course, people don’t realise they only run over an eighth of a mile, not a quarter mile.”

In between setting records and further developing his Mustang, Gavin focuses on his business. GWR Racing is a specialist engine builder and has many global customers, in addition
to his very loyal local customer base. GWR has built engines for the Auby brothers, Franco di Matteo and Des Gutzeit, amongst others, and their engines have won numerous Champi- onships for their customers.

Gavin does not only build engines for his racing clientele, but has also built many motors for classic cars and hot rods. GWR recently rebuilt a 603 Hemi engine for the best Hemi Cuda in SA, and builds motors for a Boks- burg client’s 1965 Mustang and 1969 Charger, amongst others.

Gavin’s best advice to our SA Ho- trods readers, when choosing a project car, is to try and look for a car that still has parts available. Cars like Mustangs and Corvettes are a good choice. “There are too many dreams that turn into nightmares due to parts not being around,” comments Gavin. “You end up spending a ton of money and time on a project you cannot complete.”

I asked Gavin about his future plans, bearing in mind that there are, in fact, no National Drag Racing Champion- ships at the moment. “Unfortunately, if you race in dollars and earn in rands, it affects the number of competitors and we had to cancel the Nationals. I still enjoy racing – I have always been a Drag racer – but it is no longer a priority of my life. I have pretty muchbeen there and done it, and have allthe badges to show.”

I’m sure you will agree that we would all like to see Booststein in action with all 3500 horses hooked up. Let’s hope that Gavin finds some serious motiva- tion to keep pushing the envelope and breaking new records on the strip.

BREAKING NEWS!!

As we went to press, Gavin just broke the 7 second barrier at Tarlton – 6.993 seconds at 332kph! I guess Gavin won’t be hanging up his racing boots just yet.

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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 www.backdraftracing.co.za