Around the World : South Africa in the 1970s

Forty years ago, the world’s car markets looked a very different place – nowhere is this more the case than in South Africa, which managed to create some strange and interesting hybrids.

Keith Adams leads you through some of the more interesting ones.

In the mid-1970s, South Africa had a population of 25.5 million, and yet it managed to sustain a car market that was easily as active as that in the UK. New car sales 1976 in South Africa, for instance, only just surpassed last the August 1976’s monthly sales figure in the UK.

The country had 16 manufacturers with 12 major plants and about 55 component manufacturers, and they were engaged in cutthroat competition for a market which, in 1976, amounted to 185,132 new cars. That was the position in South Africa, the position Toni Schmucker, the then-Volkswagen supremo, described as the most fiercely-competitive market in the world.

The Government insisted on 66 per cent local content by weight for cars made in South Africa, so improvisation became a highly-developed art. Where else would you have found Hillman Hunters and Avengers with Peugeot engines, BMWs with semi-elliptic rear springs, Volvos made by Volkswagen, AMC Hornets with GM engines, or Leyland light commercials that originated in Japan?

In 1976, South Africa’s economy was finely balanced

A steep rise in oil prices and fall in gold values produced a serious balance of payments deficit and measures to correct it hit the motor industry hard. The import deposit scheme is said to have cost the industry millions and the universal 56mph limit enforced by fines which could run to £100 or even imprisonment, plus a ban on weekend sales of petrol, to all but tourists, drastically cut the use of cars.

In 1976, new car sales were 19.2 per cent below those of 1975. As in Europe, the Japanese mounted a strong sales drive and, for that year, Datsun came third with 24,187 sales against Ford’s 28,117 and top-seller VW with 28,912.

Illustrating the effect of 50mph speed limits and petrol at 85p a gallon, the Chevrolet 2500/4100 series (above) lost its place as top-selling car which it has held comfortably for many years. It dropped to third place behind Datsun’s much smaller 120/140Y and the Volkswagen Beetle.

How about British Leyland in South Africa?

When British Leyland gave up building cars in Australia in 1974, it shipped about 210 machine tools from there to South Africa, and set up an E-Series four- and six-cylinder overhead camshaft engine production line.

This enabled Leyland South Africa to launch South African Marinas with both four- and six-cylinder motors and, in 1975, it announced that it was able to produce 24,000 Marinas a year. Alas, total car sales in 1976 were 9846, spread over Mini, Apache the Marina, Triumph 2000, known locally as the Chicane, and the Jaguar 4.2.

It was losing millions and, when Jack Plane, who founded the South African operation, retired to Australia, it was suggested that the concern should be taken over by South African interests and freed from British control. It ended up not quite happening like that.

The Jaguar, assembled from CKD kits, was due to be phased out at the end of 1976 under the Government policy which reserved the market for locally-made cars. Leyland protested and had imports of Jaguar kits reinstated, at least until it could start local manufacture of the Rover SDX.

How GM dealt with the economic crisis

However, GM South Africa, which was dragged up from decay and decline to the number one spot in two years by Bob Price, head of Vauxhall from 1977-81, was not beaten. His game plan saw the Vauxhall Viva/Magnum bodyshell combined with Opel front and rear to form a very acceptable alternative to the international GM T-car (Chevette in Britain) without ruinous expenditure on new tooling. Power unit was a 1290cc four which has been built in South Africa for almost 10 years.

The Volkswagen Beetle was the first South African car whose output passed a quarter of a million, and it was kept amongst the market leaders by the introduction of clever variants. It was the first Beetle to have a 1600 engine. The SP model had a 58bhp twin-carburettor unit, and a front airdam that cut drag by 7 per cent.

Local content was calculated by weight, so most manufacturers setting up in business in South Africa concentrated on heavy items like engines and axles, but VW invested a large sum in one of the finest press shops in the country. This paid off, as a third of the work done there was for other manufacturers. Besides the bodies for VW and Audi models, it produced pressings for Citroën, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot. Volvos were entirely built at the VW Uitenhage plant.

Mazda and Chrysler join forces

The most dramatic move towards rationalisation of the industry was the amalgamation of Illings, which built Mazdas, and Chrysler SA into the Sigma Motor Corporation. This brought together Mitsubishi Colts, Mazdas (some with Wankel engines), Dodge (Chrysler) Avengers, Australian (Chrysler) Valiants with their associated dealer networks, so there would have to be some extensive weeding out.

The Avenger was basically the same as the UK model, except that it began life with a 1618cc Peugeot engine, (later replaced by Chrysler units from Britain) and the Dodge version in 1974 already had the revised tail treatment with horizontal rear lights which only appeared on the 1977 models in the UK.

It incorporated components from the UK, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and France. The only manufacturer to achieve higher sales in 1976 than in 1975 was BMW. When BMW took over the Hans Glas concern, it found a new four-door saloon model ready for production, which would have competed directly with its own four-cylinder model, so it shipped all the tooling to South Africa.

With coil springs and wishbones up front and a live axle on semi-elliptic springs at the rear, they were rather far from the mainstream of BMW thought, but they got the business established. In 1973, when BMW had taken control of the operation, the body was cleverly restyled to look very like an authentic BMW by Frua.

BMW 1804, photo (Curbside Classics)
Keith Adams


  1. I would have thought that the Chev Can Am V8 (Basically a Vauxhall Firenza coupe) , BMW 333i, Sierra XR8, Capri Perana, Cortina Perana, Alfa GTV 3.0, BMW E30 325iS and some of the Alpine Turbo cars would be worth a mention? The altitude where the money was (on the Reef where mining was one of the major employers, creating a fairly well paid population) required cars that overcame the power sapping thin air. John Conchie was a major player as owner of Alpine Developments, boosting Government vehicles such as ambulances to cope with the extra weight of all the kit and power loss. Sanctions meant that cars such as the BMW E30 M3 were not available and BMW introduced the 333i and 325iS (2.7) the later having aluminium panels reminiscent of the E9 CSL. Even dealers offered special vehicles and at one stage Delta dealers (GM/ISUZU/Opel) were considering offering the Isuzu range of pickups with 3.2 V6 Supercharged engines.

    • An interesting overview of the South African automotive industry at the time but with some glaring omissions. The much desired cars (Chevrolet 5.8l V8 Groot Constantia and the legendary Cortina “Big Six” et al) were more important to the market than ersatz Hillman Avengers or redesigned Vauxhalls.
      Also the Triumph Chicane was a 2.5l with fuel injection not based on the 2.0l Weber carbureted engine. The Chicane was built at the Leyland Uitenhage plant and surprisingly the build quality was excellent. The chaps at Longbridge could have learned a lot from the South African operation.

  2. I wonder if using a large amount of local content in South African cars, apart from economic reasons, also had to do with apartheid as most Western governments were strongly opposed to the system and trade was steadily discouraged with South Africa after Soweto and the death of Steve Biko. I know in the eighties most Western countries had trade sanctions.

  3. If GM South Africa proved they could develop a low-cost Viva HC based hatchback alternative to the Chevette, then surely Vauxhall were capable of doing the same in the UK where such a model could carry over the 1057–1159cc Viva engines at the lower end of the range?

    Know that Vauxhall did work on a smaller HB based hatchback supermini project.

  4. That SA Viva HC hatchback idea was completely unknown to me, though I still think the Viva/Magnum looked better in saloon & Estate forms, as was the norm in UK.

    I doubt if Vauxhall would have re-introduced the 1057/1159cc engines as they had long been superseded by the 1256cc

  5. Carrying over the 1057-1159cc engines was something that Vauxhall considered for their entry-level Viva based S Car project as mentioned on Vauxpedia.

  6. The Marina was available in South Africa from 1973 with the 1.8 Twin-Carb engine from the MGB. However it had “assembled” status, rather than “manufactured” and at that time, cars in the former category were subject to quota and not many Marinas were sold. Fitting the locally-made engine gave it “manufactured” status and Leykor were free to sell as many as they wanted, but few buyers were interested. In 1977 the Marina was revised, reverting to the UK-style grille, and added a budget 1,3-litre model but sales continued to drop and the car was dropped at the end of 1978, around the time the brief merger with SIGMA took place.

    I believe development of the little “Chevy Hatch” was done entirely by Vauxhall, and unless I’m mistaken, Vauxhall pressed the body panels, since GM didn’t produce bodies locally. The Opel-style facelift of the Chev Firenza was an aborted Vauxhall styling proposal that never saw light in the UK. The Firenza was a real bargain in S.A. It was Cortina-sized but priced with the Ford Escort and Fiat 128.

    Some other local oddities of that era: the Fiat 124 saloon was sold through 1977, since 131 wasn’t introduced until late that year. Alfa Romeo assembled the Fiat 132 at its factory near Pretoria. Like VW, Nissan had a large press shop and produced bodies for other manufacturers, I believe Fiat and Alfa Romeo. The first Mazda 323 was made in early 1977 in the former Chrysler plant in Pretoria and it became the first car in S.A. history to sell over 15 000 units in a month. Most of the Hillman stuff was dropped from production to make room for the little Mazda.

    The South African Dodge Avenger was made from Argentinian CKD body kits married to right-hand-drive components coming from the UK. The Peugeot-powered version was only sold for one year, then it became the “Chrysler Avenger” and was powered by the Hillman 1600 c.c. engine. The Hunter/Vogue became the “Chrysler Vogue” in early 1975 and had the 2000 c.c. Peugeot engine. The “Dodge Husky” was a Hunter pickup developed in the U.K. for the South African market and it different considerably for the Paykan version made in Iran.

    The local Volvo concern, Lawson’s, had the Renault franchise and went to the wall in 1975. Toyota S.A. picked up the Renault and American Motors franchises and built those two in its Durban assembly plant. Renault returned to the market in the early 80s and contracted Renault 9 and 11 assembly to Leyland!

    Alfa Romeo assembled and marketed the Daihatsu Charade from 1983 until the company’s sudden demise in 1985. Mercedes-Benz assembled and sold the Honda Ballade, upon which the Triumph Acclaim was based, so local Hondas had Becker stereos and Bosch wiper motors!

    • Very interesting, about the only SA made cars to be sold in the UK were the SAO Penzas, which were the first generation FWD Mazda 323s rebadged.

      • Hello?
        South Africa exported about 50,000 cars to the UK in 2017.
        It’s the main global source for the RHD 3 series

        • Thanks for letting me know that, maybe I should amend that SAO being the only South African manufacturer to export to the UK.

          • The SAO name was for the UK export market – at the time, Samcor, the company producing the Mazda 323, was locally owned after Ford had sold its stake, which saw an end to exports of the Cortina-based P100 pickup to the UK. A similar brand created for a similar purpose was Lonsdale, under which Australian-built Mitsubishi Sigmas were sold in the UK, with little success.

        • BMW invested heavily in a new paint plant to make RHD cars not only for domestic SA market, but also for Iran, but then along came the Ayatollah and the market disappeared. This is why they started making RHD cars for the UK to use up the excess capacity.
          The paint plant is the single biggest investment for any car factory and is what determines the max production volume.

  7. Thanks for filling me in, the car industry in South Africa is a complicated one to understand.

    At the time I assumed the P100 sales had ended in the UK around the time the Sierra production finished.

    Londsdale was an odd bit of brand engineering that confused almost everyone. I can understand why Mitsubishi started importing Australian built cars to free up some of their quota for Japanese made ones, but then selling them under another unknown name seemed an odd move, but I presume there was a reason.

    Eventually the Australian made ones received Mitsubishi badges IIRC.

  8. An interesting overview of the South African automotive industry at the time but with some glaring omissions. The much desired cars (Chevrolet 5.8l V8 Groot Constantia and the legendary Cortina “Big Six” et al) were more important to the market than ersatz Hillman Avengers or redesigned Vauxhalls.
    Also the Triumph Chicane was a 2.5l with fuel injection not based on the 2.0l Weber carbureted engine. The Chicane was built at the Leyland Uitenhage plant and surprisingly the build quality was excellent. The chaps at Longbridge could have learned a lot from the South African operation.

  9. At the tended age of 22, in 1984, I was very lucky to be recruited to work at VWSA in Uitenhage, as a component Test Technician. My role was to test all the locally built components and systems, due to the 66% by mass law.
    I spent an amazing two years in a wonderful country and miss it very much.
    Tragically, it is now ruled by a corrupt ANC government, who have not improved the lives of their people, who deserve so much better.
    Moreover, thanks for a super interesting article on the ZA automotive industry

  10. South Africa also built a much more reliable version of the Rover 2600 by boring out the E6 engine to 2600cc. British Leyland over here could have saved millions in developing two unreliable new engines for the SD1 By expanding the 2.2 E6 found in the Princess and Wolseley Six.

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