We drive what is one of the most historically significant local racecars: the Triumph Protea...
I click on the link and download the four-minute video of the Triumph Protea racing at the old Grand Central track. Behind the wheel is John Myers (he designed, built and raced the Protea) and the cameraman is John Mason-Gordon, who commissioned the vehicle. Myers regularly applies corrective lock on the steering wheel. During pit stops, tyre pressures and the intake system are rigorously checked. It makes for fascinating viewing of racecars built by only a few engineers during an era which many regard as the pinnacle of automotive design.
Alan Grant has owned this one-off Triumph Protea racecar for the past 25 years and is a deep well of information. He prefers to work on the car himself and has maintained it ever since taking ownership. “I bought it in 1995 but I knew about the car since I was in my twenties. Peter du Toit of Zwartkops owned it and I pestered him for years. I researched the car long before he agreed to sell it to me.”
There is little doubt about Alan’s infatuation with this car. He drove it from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back shortly after it became his. “We had a Triumph Sports Car Club national gathering in Simon’s Town in 1996 and I wanted to meet John Myers. We had a rainstorm in Beaufort West and were completely drenched. This car has lots of history. It is simple but gorgeous.”
You may recognise a few Jaguar D-Type-like lines in the body of the Protea. Mason-Gordon had given Myers a D-Type Dinky Toy and said that it should look similar to the toy. The aluminium body was handcrafted by aircraft sheeting guru Geoff Collins.
The Triumph Protea was driven to Pietermaritzburg for its first outing at the 1959 Roy Hesketh Six-hour race and won! What a glorious moment that must have been.
Paging through Alan’s thick folder on the history of this car and Ian Schwart’s book Protea: The Story of an African Car, the changes this little racecar has undergone over the decades are plentiful. Following a big crash during practice for the Kyalami Nine-hour, it was fitted with a different, wider front air-intake, for example.
The Triumph Protea continued its success with Pierre du Plessis behind the wheel where it achieved a third in its class on 4 August 1962 at Kyalami. Meanwhile, the number nine stickers refer to its original number for the 1959 Angolan GP, where it finished seventh.
Initially, the doors flipped open on piano hinges at the bottom. Today, they open conventionally. Before I climbed in, we dropped the large engine lid, attached the hooks and put the rear, single-piece decklid back; all of these parts are proper racing car-designed items.
The driving position is better than I expected; not only relatively comfy but the small seat offers good support and the gearlever, foot pedals and steering wheel are within easy reach. The low seating position (the seat is barely lifted above the floor) enhances the experience as you can see the original blue chassis paint matched to the inexpensive primer top coat. This colour was apparently chosen to make it easier to see when cracks appear.
I turned the key, pressed the starter button and the 2,2-litre Triumph engine sparked into life with a throaty bark from the single exhaust pipe. These engines are known for their low- and mid-range torque. The result is the redline is at 5 000 r/min but I didn’t push it past 4 500 r/min during my test drive. Interestingly, this engine is based on a Massey-Ferguson tractor engine with a longer stroke.
As I pulled off, I noticed the direct shift action of the gearlever. The four-speed H-pattern is easy to operate, while the pedals are close to each other, encouraging blipping of the throttle as you downshift.
The drive was sensational and I unashamedly enjoyed every moment. The negligible wind deflector directs some air away from your face and the view from the cockpit is sublime. The bonnet stretches far ahead and the rounded air intake above feeds fresh air into the engine bay for cooling and combustion. That deep bark from the exhaust accompanies every touch of the throttle. There is some play in the steering but it supplies honest feedback. Although the tyres are narrow so grip levels are modest and the vehicle tips the scales at just 800 kg, it must have been an absolute joy to race this lightweight for hours on end.
The added benefit of such a low weight is, of course, impressive acceleration. The modest engine is punchy enough to surge the vehicle past slower traffic. Even at 2 000 to 2 500 r/min, the engine is eager to perform. There is an overdrive switch which can be used in the higher gears and this lowers the revs by around 500 r/min.
You pick up speed quicker than anticipated and, although there were only a few corners during our test drive, I could imagine how special it must be to pilot the Protea up a mountain pass. Long before aerodynamic downforce, sticky tyres and turbocharged engines, cars like these represented racing in its purest form. The ability to share this car with fellow enthusiasts is one of Alan’s passions.
South Africa has such a rich history in terms of automotive engineering and the Protea perfectly illustrates what can be achieved when a bunch of clever enthusiasts execute their dream.