The astounding story of Peter de Klerk and his F1 Alfa Special
A Franschhoek Motor Museum initiative
Imagine this: A racing driver and his pal build their own Formula 1 car in a sandy old shed. They use bits of old airplanes and scrounged components to complete their spacial car, hand building its chassis, the power unit, the suspension, wheels and tyres, the lot. Then he races it and gives the F1 Ferraris a run for their money to stand alongside the red cars’ drivers on the podium.
Impossible? Think again! That is precisely what happened in the Kyalami Rand Grand Prix in 1964! This is the astounding story of Peter de Klerk and his incredible Alfa Special.
Sleek, spartan, slippery and built with superb attention to 1960s F1 cutting edge design principle detail, one could be forgiven for thinking that Peter de Klerk’s Alfa Special was built by British F1 powerhouses Lotus, BRM or Cooper. Or even Ferrari. You could not be further from the truth.
Alfa Special built on gravel floor of a garage shed
Built on the gravel floor of a single car garage shed, the Alfa Special culminated Peter de Klerk and Pat Phillips’ racing dreams beyond their wildest expectations. De Klerk, or PDK as his mates called him, campaigned the Alfa Special over three seasons of South African Formula 1, including the South African Grand Prix and other international F1 races in SA the early 1960s.
Colin Chapman told de Klerk to take the car to Europe. Jim Clark called the Alfa Special the fastest four-cylinder Formula 1 car of the era.
Peter de Klerk grew up in Pilgrim’s Rest in the distant Eastern Transvaal, far removed from anything remotely to do with motor racing. “The roads around there were all dirt then and it never stopped raining,” Peter explained. “One afternoon I watched a newsreel film about the Nürburgring 1000 and the bug bit. “I bought an MG TC and moved to Durban in 1958, where joined McCarthys on Brickhill Road as a diesel mechanic.
De Klerk hitch-hiked up Africa to England
“My dream was always to race, so I saved up, sold my TC and set off for England.” No, PDK did not fly to England. Nor did he catch a ship, as was still common practice back then. He hitch hiked all the way up through Africa and Europe to get to the UK! Once in Blighty, de Klerk looked up Lotus in a ‘phone book, caught the tube and arrived unannounced at Colin Chapman’s door.
Impressed, the Lotus boss put PDK to work building Coventry Climax racing engines. He grafted alongside two gents by the name of Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth (Cos-worth) and Graham Hill. “There I was, with Chapman, Nobby Clark, Mike and Keith, working at Lotus with fellow South Africans Bill Dunlop and Doug Serrurier. “I was living my dream!”
PDK battled to make ends meet in the UK: “To eat and live comfortably was a difficult task in Britain. “Luckily I came across another South African guy who was a chef in a restaurant and things became easier.” PDK returned to South Africa after a year at Lotus, where he found work in Durban preparing Syd van der Vyver’s championship winning Cooper Alfa.
“I learned more about racing cars with Syd than anywhere else!” PDK admitted “He was even more of a stickler for lightweight than Colin Chapman. “Syd would buy propellers off crashed Cessna aircraft and the like to source premium quality aluminium and machine lightweight parts from it as far as grease nipples, in his efforts to keep weight down!”
“Once when the spray painter proudly returned Syd’s beautifully finished multi-coat Cooper bodywork, he sent the guy straight back to strip and respray it with one, thin coat. “It was hard graft though, toiling 18 hours on most days and I was getting itchy fingers. “That’s when I met Ernie Pieterse at a race meeting. “He offered me a job at his Continental Cars Alfa Romeo dealership in Johannesburg.
“So Pat Phillips, whom I’d met working with Syd, and I packed everything we had into a stuffed old Beetle I had and drove up to Jo’burg. “As we arrived in Alberton, we noticed Doug Serrurier’s Studebaker at the Alberton Hotel, so we pulled in for a drink. “We ended up staying there for two years!
Alfa Special took two years to build
“Pat and I had tooled around with an old Wishart JAP at Roy Hesketh, and we had it in our heads to build our own Formula 1 car. “So, we did a deal with the hotel for a couple of rooms and the use of a garage shed. “There was no power in the shed and our most sophisticated tool in was an electric drill. “Our workbench was a plank on two old drums standing on the gravel floor, but we made a plan and set about building our Alfa Special.
“We still had day jobs, mine included preparing SA champion Ernie’s Heron Alfa, “So we could only work on our race car in the evenings and over weekends.” Phillips designed the chassis, before the dynamic duo tacked up a dummy frame from large diameter tubing. “We wanted to be sure that all the hanging components fitted in before we made the final chassis.”
Peter and Pat then built the race chassis from ERW steel, and a fair amount of other tubing scrounged from a wrecked Tiger Moth. Doug Serrurier supplied the suspension uprights, wheels, steering rack, and brakes via Cooper. Contrary to popular belief, Serrurier, whose LDS workshop was nearby in Alberton, had no involvement in building the Alfa Special.
Busting the Alfa Special Myths
“Working with Ernie by day to fit his Alfa engine to the Heron was another advantage. “We bought all the nuts, bolts washers and lightweight bits for our car at the same time from aircraft spares suppliers at Rand Airport.”
Another lesser known fact was that de Klerk did not use imported Italian Conrero tuner parts to build his Alfa Special engine. Peter prepared his own Alfa Romeo race engine to power the rear wheels via a Citroen gearbox. He retained the standard crankshaft and fitted Alfa Romeo Veloce conrods and 79 mm Mondial pistons to reach the F1 regulation 1.5-litres.
Peter used modified Maserati valves in the Alfa head and logically overcame teething problems like the bigger valves fouling the fat 14 mm spark plugs. He simply welded the plug hole closed, re-drilled it, and tapped the head to take 10 mm plugs. Once fettled, de Klerk’s Alfa engine made over 150 bhp – or about 120 kW from less than one and a half litres. A far cry from today’s 1,000 bhp F1 units, but right on the mark, back in ’62.
Italian craftsman aluminium ALFA SPECIAL body
Local Italian master craftsman Brega created the Alfa Special’s unique original bodywork from scratch in aluminium. The all in one shell was typical of the era and included the under trays and an engine cover.
“My Saturdays, Sundays and almost every night of the week were flat out as Pat and I built the Alfa Special independently of my job at Ernie,” Peter reflected. “But those were great times! “Doug and the guys would rock up in the Stud for a toot most days, the hotel was comfortable, and the food good. “It was also where all the horse racing guys used to hang out, so we got to know them all well.”
Two years later in 1962, the Alfa Special was finally ready to race. Phillips and de Klerk were set to debut the car at Kyalami. “We finally finished the car, but Pat, who was supposed to share it with me, tried to take Leeuwkop flat out, lost control and crashed, taking the left side off of the car. “Pat also buggered his leg in the crash and never drove the car again”
“Old man Brega was beside himself with grief when the Alfa Special was brought back for rapid repairs, but we sorted it out to race another day.” Johannesburg businessman Jack Nucci then bought Pat Phillips’ share of out, but Peter continued funding and running the car himself.
No stopping de Klerk and his Alfa Special
There was no stopping Peter de Klerk from there. His Alfa Special was consistently mixing it up front in local F1 races. By mid-’62 PDK had driven the Alfa Special to its first win at the Grand Prix of Mozambique. He backed that up by taking the Rhodesian Heany Trophy at Kumalo and the Daily Dispatch Trophy in East London that year. PDK also finished third among the South Africans at the Rand Grand Prix at Kyalami.
De Klerk hit the ground running in 1963, winning the Dicky Dale Trophy at Roy Hesketh in Pietermaritzburg, the Rand Autumn Trophy at Kyalami and a back to back GP de Mozambique. The major highlight in both de Klerk and his Alfa Special’s career was however at the international Rand Grand Prix at Kyalami at the end of ‘63.
PDK qualified a stunning fifth behind John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini’s state of the art world championship winning Ferraris and Trevor Taylor’s Lotus, and alongside Jim Clark on the grid. He then proceeded to outgun them all down to the first corner at Crowthorne.
May as well have been Leclerc and Sainz
The Ferraris duly found their way past, but ever humble PDK ended up a stunning third behind the Surtees and Bandini Ferraris. That’s the 1963 equivalent of standing with Leclerc and Sainz on the podium, as Peter de Klerk beat rest of the best in the world that day.
It may have been two years old, following a two year build, but 1964 proved another vintage year for Peter de Klerk and the Alfa Special. He won the Rhodesian Mashonaland Trophy, the Kyalami Rand Spring Trophy, the Ray Amm Trophy back in Mashonaland and finally, the Rand Winter Trophy at Kyalami.
Only an overheating engine cost Peter de Klerk the 1964 South African Driver’s Championship against John Love’s ex-works Cooper Climax, and the rest. He was then one of a handful of local drivers to qualify for the world championship South African Grand Prix in January ’65, where he drove home best of the South Africans in tenth ahead of Tony Maggs.
South Africa would switch to new 3-litre F1 engine rules in 1965, rendering the incredible Alfa Special no longer competitive. Yet the car still raced regularly in the local Formula 1 championship, scoring podium finishes in Leo Dave’s hands as late as 1966. Fred Labuschagne then raced it until the end of 1967, by when the 3-litre Repcos had rendered it totally obselete.
An Impossible story? Not quite, it actually happened
The Alfa Special was later hacked into a Formula Ford and then disappeared. Single seater stalwart Lew Baker found the car the mid ’90s, which was still largely otherwise original. He faithfully resurrected it back to its original Alfa Special glory with the help of his old pal PDK. De Klerk and the author both drove the Alfa Special on track on the day of this original interview back in September 2005. It was the first time PDK had driven the car in 40 years. Peter de Klerk passed aged 80 on 11 July 2015
To put that 1963 Rand Grand Prix into context in today’s world, it would mean that Peter de Klerk would have built his own Formula 1 car, including the chassis, the power unit and the lot. He would then have taken on Leclerc and Sainz in today’s Ferrari F1-75, and Hamilton and Russell’s Mercedes at Kyalami. He’d put it on the second row of the grid against locals driving the likes of one and two year old McLarens, Saubers and Williams, beaten the lot to the first corner. And stood alongside the Ferrari men on the podium.
Seem impossible? Perhaps. But Peter de Klerk did precisely that, almost 60 years ago…
This Auto Classic Feature is a Franschhoek Motor Museum Initiative
The Franschhoek Motor Museum has a regular display of significant cars, articles, and memorabilia on display including several out of South Africa’s significant Formula 1, Formula Atlantic and indeed the Formula South Africa eras. Visit www.fmm.co.za to learn more and plan your next visit.