Celebrating the life of South African racing legend

News of Basil van Rooyen’s passing earlier in the week came as a shock. Even if he’d not been well for a while, Basil represented something of a kanniedood. Immortal. But we are all mortal, and Basil’s day has sadly come.

I knew Basil van Rooyen my entire life. My first memory is from when I was three, maybe not even that old. But I remember the day as clear as yesterday. We lived in a rondavel at the Lupini Bros yard, thirty paces from the workshop. Where you’d you find John Love’s Cooper Maserati on trestles under the vines alongside an Albion truck engine being rebuilt, while Villa and Bosman worked on casting sculptures around the corner.

It must have been over the weekend because the watchman ran up to tell my dad of a visitor at the gate. “He’s here!” the old man smiled. I grabbed dad’s leg as the thundering white beast burst around the corner at us. Basil had just collected his Ford Mustang and brought it round to show the lads. It went back to his Superformance to be prepared for saloon car racing, which Basil and the Mustang went on to dominate.

Basil and the Mustang, 2005

Magical Mustang Memories

40 years later early in 2005, when Basil returned to SA on one of his many visits back after relocating to Australia, we reintroduced him to the Mustang for a Classic Car Africa feature. And took him to lunch with some of the men that made it happen, and who went on to their own bigger things. A couple more decades on, we now once again reflect on that special day, this time sadly in Basil van Rooyen’s memory.

Exactly as we remembered him, Basil was slight, in great shape and just as hugely intense. His reaction to the homage to the Mustang he steamrolled the ’64 SA saloon car championship with, was priceless. And became animated when Brian Rowlings invited him to drive it. Best of all, I had the privilege to ride with Basil in the Mustang that had shaken me so as a kid forty years before.

“Man, this is great,” Basil said for the hundredth time as he clipped the harness tight. That’s the last thing he said as he focussed fully on the car, but his expressions said exactly what he felt. He snicked it into gear, blipped and shuddered away. Basil took in the vital signs as the V8 escalated to a roar, feeling it out as he learned as much as possible in that short time. He may not have raced for twenty years, but he was as hyper intense as he’d ever been.

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Basil, Mario Lupini & Arnold Chatz

Basil Mentored SA Racing’s Finest

There’s however far more to Basil van Rooyen than just driving fast cars fast. His contribution to the local sport was immense, his cars made history and rewrote the record books time and again. And he mentored the men who’d go on to shape the South African sport for decades after Basil packed it in.

With the Mustang parked, it was time for the next part of an incredible day as we reunited Basil with many of men who worked with him back in the day. All of who then went on to great things of their own, over a most memorable lunch.

Geoff Mortimer built, developed, and raced the incredible ‘Little Chev’ Firenza V8 with Basil. Roger Taylor, Hennie van der Linde, Chris du Toit, Maurice Rosenberg and Peewee Buys, among others, all learned their trades and worked under Basil. Friends and rivals on track, Arnold Chatz, Libero Pardini and Mario Lupini joined in to spin old yarns, recall halcyon days.

Basil and the Can Am

The Human Engine Lift!

“Did you know that Arnold was my first ever mechanic on my Ford Anglia, while Libero was something of a backstop,” Basil grinned. “Libero was a hulk of a guy, a butcher who carried meat around by day, and then still went to the gym to train. He was also our engine lift. There were no such things as mechanical lifts back then. Libbie would just lift the engine out and drop it where we wanted it!”

“That Anglia had a Formula Junior engine, and we’d to have to drive the car down to Lourenco Marques with a standard head and swap to the hot one with its twin-choke side-draught Webers down there,” Libero picked up the story, before Arnold went on: “One weekend we fitted the hot head and the damn car simply refused to start. It just spluttered and backfired as we pushed and pushed it around the caravan park.” Then Basil smiled, “Yes, we forgot to take the cottonwool muffs out of the ram pipes!”

After a few seasons running Alfa Romeos, Basil raced a Ford Lotus Cortina and then the Mustang. It had four 48 IDA’s with long, chromed ram-pipes jutting menacingly skyward under the bonnet. A little known fact is that the team shipped the big Ford to England to race against the best at Brands Hatch. “Do you remember the problem we had when the car arrived at the track?” Chris du Toit asked.

Basil’s Manufacturers Challenge Fiat 131 Dino

Rust Proved a Recurring Test for Basil!

“Yes, the bloody rust!” Basil responded. “We forgot to block the exhaust to protect the engine and the sea air rusted the valves open on the 3-week ship voyage. So it was off with the heads and a quick valve-grind! I was surrounded by a horde of Mini Coopers that were as quick as Jim Clark’s Lotus Cortina in the race, but I slid off the track and damaged the suspension!

“Roger Taylor was another fine technician,” Basil grinned. “One day I asked him to set the tyre pressures on my Formula 1 McLaren M7A. Later on noticed that the car was parked with the left wheels in the sun and the right in the shade, so I asked why so. Roger became distressed and stormed off. I was concerned, as Roger was usually so meticulous. Turns out that he was inadvertently high after earlier inhaling carbon tetrachloride to clean the rust prevention gum from the car that had just landed!”

Roger Taylor spent two stints with Basil at Superformance each side of a year at Willment’s Raceproof in England “Superformance was more of a Training College than anything else.” Roger recalled. “Basil wasn’t always easy to work with! He was a perfectionist who’d make you change gear ratios a dozen times though practice. He’d even expect us to fine-tune the McLaren’s brakes on the dummy grid! But we all learned so much from Basil and it was a hell of a lot of fun at an incredible time too.

Peewee Buys concurred. “Yes, Basil was a hard taskmaster, he could get under your skin when he was in a bad mood, and he was quite sarcastic. But he had a keen sense of humour and I got on well with him.” Maurice Rosenberg nodded. “Basil really was clever; he thought out of the box and did things that were light years ahead of their time. It was an honour and a privilege to work for him.

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Basil and his fateful McLaren M7A

Formula 1 Almost Cost Basil His Life

That McLaren brought much success, but it also almost killed Basil. “I did well with the M7A,” a sombre Basil recalled. “Dunlop gave us their newly-developed soft-wall tyres that Jackie Stewart had just run at Monaco and asked us to test them at high speed Kyalami. But it all went wrong at the end of the straight on my first hot lap.

“All I remember is wondering what I’d done wrong as the car whipped around and slammed into the embankment. The McLaren literally came apart at the seams and I was thrown out on impact.” Somehow Basil survived, but the car was destroyed. Jackie Pretorius was hugely relieved to find his friend alive. It took Roger Taylor several minutes to find the DFV engine in the tall grass next to the track.

It transpired that a tyre had separated from the rim flat out at 280 km/h. Lucky to survive, Basil refocussed on saloon cars, going on to campaign a Capri Perana. He raced mostly against the factory, so was perplexed when Cape rival Koos Swanepoel’s similar Group 2 Capri Perana proved more powerful than Basil’s own car down his home Kyalami main straight. Not to be outdone, Basil’s race mechanic at the time, Hennie van der Linde was quick to respond.

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Beating the factory Perana, Olthoff in chase

The Perana Challenge

“I came into the shop and found Hennie welding bits of exhaust manifold together without a jig one morning. Knowing his capabilities, I just let him get on with it,” Basil explained. It must have worked, because the car indeed proved 500 rpm quicker down the straight the next time out. That just showed the quality of the team I had around me. They learned a lot from me, but I also learnt so much from them!”

We asked Hennie what Basil was like as a boss. He straightened the serviette on the table but the answer was immediate: “I spent five years with Basil,” Hennie recalled. “Basil was always a bit better than the rest. He believed in himself, he was neat, and always sought perfection. I got on well with him. I made it my business to do so. If you knew how to handle Basil, he’d never argue with you. But, hell, he was a hard taskmaster!”

Basil however grew frustrated with Ford and approached General Motors to build a car to beat the mighty Perana. But the local GM arm showed little interest. Determined, Basil approached GM CEO Bob Scott, who relented when Basil guaranteed him the championship.

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Basil and the Can Am

The Big One: Basil and the Little Chev

“There was a problem,” Basil explained. “To make the Firenza Can Am work we needed 100 big-valve short-stroke Buick 302 V8s with 4-bolt mains. But that engine was being discontinued. Detroit told us they needed a run of at least 1000 engines to be cost effective. It took a hell of a lot of arm-twisting. But 106 engines duly landed in South Africa! 100 for the street cars and six for our race and rally cars.

“Geoff and I hand-picked the Firenza Can Am team to build the six competition cars. The other 100 were assembled at the PE factory. They had the big V8 and all the bits make it roadworthy and meet our homologation needs of 100 cars sold, so we could race the Little Chev. With General Motors’ support, we had no trouble in achieving those 110 units to qualify. Topped by a Quadrajet carburettor, our Group 2 Firenza developed 283 kW. Only the fuel crisis would stop it!”

Basil went on to build and race the fearsome turbo Ferrari V6-powered Fiat 131 Manufacturers challenge car in the late 1970s. He also flirted with single seaters once again in Formula Atlantic before relocating to Australia in the early 1980s. He pioneered an advanced engine in later years and perennially visited South Africa where he would always drop in on his old friends and associates.

A man who raced and built cars with a killer instinct that brought much success and launched many a career, Basil van Rooyen was a legend of South African motorsport. He succumbed to a long illness on Wednesday. We will miss you, Basil. – Michele Lupini

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