Our Cars : Austin Apache memories

Austin Apache

Ask any automotive journalist who has travelled and most, if not all, will attest to the fact that any car always felt better to drive in its birthplace. There’s a logic to this, naturally. Designers style the car to local tastes. Dimensions and performance criteria are based on local legislation and conditions. Engineers would fine tune the car on local roads.

There’s also the psychological aspect, that sense of enjoying the brand on its home turf. There’s nowhere quite like an Italian mountain pass to sample a Ferrari or Lamborghini Matt Monro-style On Days Like These, nor anywhere better suited than some Cotswold country lane to hear the bark of an MGB exhaust bouncing off the dry stone walls.

So, it has always puzzled me how British brands have probably the highest cult following of any when it comes to classics outside of the UK – especially given that, in all honesty, the cars weren’t really designed for those far off, sunnier climes. Australia, Canada, the USA, Southern Africa –  vast distances to be covered and, at times, on unsurfaced roads. Extremes of temperature, from bone-chilling sub-zero through to tarmac melting highs of 40°C or more.

Big engines should be the best

Such conditions are better suited to larger six- and eight-cylinder cars, the type of cars that Chevrolet, Ford and Holden would typically make. Cars that could cruise all day, and I mean all day, at 60mph or more without breaking into a sweat, capable of running additional load from a compressor to cool the interior – cars with plenty of luggage space in addition to a comfortable cabin with room for four or five adults. They’re not really ideal conditions for a little A-Series engine with the radiator on the side of the engine bay, nor even an open top, two-seater MGB.

I’m a colonial boy, born overseas, at a time that the sun was starting to set on the Empire. Perhaps, then, because of the Empire and the Commonwealth, British automotive brands have enjoyed a far higher representation than they probably deserved – a case of export or die. Had I been born a decade later I may well have been writing this article for a Japanese fan site rather than AROnline. Just as in the UK, the Japanese invasion was happening in Southern Africa. The British, along with the French and the Italians were on the retreat. What was left in South Africa by the mid-1980s were shell companies of the Germans and the Japanese.

But I wasn’t born a decade later. I was born at a time that a large number of British makes were still to be seen on the road. I can remember an attractive young lady teacher at my school, who had an MGB GT and clearly made an impression on me – the MG, that is. The MG didn’t last, it was soon replaced by a Datsun Sunny. My godparents had an Austin and Morris 1100 each, and then they went to be replaced by Toyota Corollas. My father had a Hillman Super Minx until I was about five, then that went and was replaced with a Mazda 1500 Luce estate or station wagon as we called them. You can see the pattern emerging here the Land of the Rising Sun as opposed to the Empire of the Setting Sun.

Why I loved British cars in South Africa

From the age of 11, I was driving my father’s Datsun up and down the drive and I had my licence when I turned sixteen – so, naturally, you’d think I be a Datsun enthusiast. Truth be told, I am, a Datsun man at heart. I’d love a 240Z or a Bluebird 180U SSS or even one of the rear-wheel-drive Sunnys. Had I stayed in South Africa, I’d probably have one of the Datsun Half-ton bakkies or, as you’d call them, pick-up trucks. My first new car purchase was a Nissan Sunny. You were either a Sunny man or a Corolla man. Either way, Nissan and Toyota made cars that were reliable.

Okay, so what has all this to do with AROnline? Well, because fate (or was it destiny?) intervened. I discovered that what the British brands had was character – in one of those ‘if you have to ask, you won’t understand’ kind of ways. Frankly, all that Nipponese reliability came at the price of sterility and blandness. That love of British cars has stayed with me – even a few years ago, I traded in a Mazda MX-5 Launch Edition after just four months to replace it with an MG TF LE 500 simply because of that lack of character. The MX5 was undoubtedly, without question, the better car, but it simply lacked charisma, it lacked soul. It may just be me, but I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of people feel this way. How else could the MGF and TF have outsold the MX-5 in the UK at the time?

Thus, I had my personal epiphany. The thing is, when people buy a car as a means of transport, the head rules. When ‘petrolheads’ like us buy a car, the heart rules. Why else do Italian cars still exist? Car enthusiasts have a whole different set of criteria when it comes to the satisfactory, desirable purchase. However, new cars are not the same as classics. New cars still tend to be bought with the head because they are simply a means of transport for the vast majority – few can indulge their fantasies when it comes to buying new or nearly new.

Classic cars: heart vs head

The heart, though, overrules the head when it comes to classics. For most British citizens the default is naturally the British classics. It is the rose-tinted, warm fuzzy feelings engendered from the memories of growing up on the back seat of these cars when they were new. I understand that in the UK, but what of the rest of the world? I guess in countries like Canada and the USA, Australia and New Zealand and Southern Africa, there is a huge following for the classics from the British brands simply because of this yearning for the nostalgia.

For the Americans perhaps it was that the British cars represented something a little left field in the same way the British might entertain the American products. However, for our Commonwealth cousins, much of the following British classics enjoy is from gentlemen of a certain age – like me. The wistfulness for a time when British brands dominated, bought by their owners because of a, perhaps, misguided loyalty to the mother country.

So, what exactly was this personal epiphany when fate intervened and steered me on a course to financial ruin pursuing the British classic dream? An Austin Apache… What? Well, apart from the fact that it was British in name only – the Austin part, that is – it was over 75% local content. Originally conceived by Farina, updated by Mitchelotti and with the engineering tweaked by Leyland Suid Afrika, it was hardly a full-fat British classic. I say fate intervened because it wasn’t that I actually chose this car, it chose me.

At this point during my studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) I was still hopeful that I could convince my father I needed that afore-mentioned Datsun Bakkie. However, one of my father’s colleagues asked if I would drive his mother’s Austin Apache up from Cape Town to where we lived in Umtata (now Mthatha), a mere 800 miles, and then take a Daihatsu Charade back. As you can imagine, as a penniless student who loved driving, I was more than happy to oblige.

Collecting the Apache

Having met the mother and collected the Apache, I set off on the Friday afternoon after lectures in the hope of reaching Port Elizabeth some 470 miles away where I would stop with my sister and her husband. Somewhere outside of George, 300 miles into the first leg, the charge light started glowing – that didn’t bode well as I would need headlights into the evening. I eventually made it to Umtata and, suffice to say, that it reinforced my belief that British engineering was unreliable at best. Actually, that was a little unfair as it was a locally-manufactured Lucas generator.

Moreover, this particular Apache sported a rather forlorn look. This one had been assigned to a member of staff at Leyland Suid Afrika from new for its first six months in 1973 and then had been sold to the employee, who had given it to her mother in much the same way that employees at BMC and BL in the UK could get cars at a discount for family members. Having had the car since virtually new, the mother would drive it locally to the shops and the tennis club etc. and the gardener would wash and polish it regularly so it sported a fine “rat-rod” look with the primer showing through on the edges with the faintest of rust showing in the usual places behind the trims.

Whilst people think of South Africa and thus rust-free classics, that is only true for cars from the ‘High Veld’ – anything from the coast is almost as bad as the UK, particularly cars from Natal. Needless to say, it was not the most endearing of cars. By contrast, the return to Cape Town in the Charade with its smaller, three-cylinder, 1.0-litre turbo engine was an absolute riot with the Japanese car easily surpassing the Apache’s top speed and fuel economy, and not a hint of a problem on the entire 800 mile journey.

What a 21st birthday present!

Anyway, when my father rang me to tell me that he had bought the Apache for me for my 21st birthday in the following April, I was elated – he assured me that, as a Mechanical Engineering student, it was exactly what I needed to gain some practical experience. In fairness, he bought me a beautiful set of Imperial-sized spanners to keep in the boot which, to this day, I still own and cherish.

My late father was very much an inspiration in my life and, apart from his National Service in the RAF in the early 1950s, he had served his time at Blakes in Liverpool before emigrating to Southern Rhodesia with my mother. He went on to further himself in his studies and always regretted not having gone to university to read Mechanical Engineering, but he understood the value of the experience that working hands-on with equipment brought – for this, I will always be eternally grateful.

Needless to say, my father spent some time preparing and then having the top half of the Apache resprayed, as well as sorting out the various mechanical issues identified prior to handing the car over. However, the engine was showing some signs of smoking, so some aftermarket additive was used in an attempt to cure this on the advice of a local mechanic.

As I now know, there is no magic cure for an engine’s ills, and what is worse is that the front-wheel-drive (FWD) A-Series-powered cars are more prone to the issues of the home-brewed lubricant additive. With the gearbox in the sump, and a transfer cog from the crank to the input shaft, any fancy fairy-dust will soon have the needle roller bearing tearing up the housing and this is what happened! So, the engine had to be taken apart and a new transfer housing fitted – all before I officially took ownership. Once these ‘minor’ issues were sorted the Apache returned to Cape Town.

Using the Apache in Cape Town

Unlike the UK, in South Africa the car must be registered to its residential province. Although it had had CA (Cape Town) number plates from new, it had to be transferred to Transkei number plates when it changed to my name. Transkei, of which Umtata was the provincial capital, was a homeland state under black majority rule until it was reincorporated into South Africa after 1994. That’s why, having had Cape Town plates, it was now back in Cape Town on foreign plates which was ideal for getting me out of trouble with parking tickets and such like since the Transkeian authorities were not bothered about cooperating on parking ticket violations.

The Apache proved useful transport throughout this time in Cape Town, taking me at the end of each year to various parts of South Africa for my student experience work on the mines, often covering several thousand miles in the process working as far afield as Newcastle in northern Natal, and Sishen and in the Northern Cape where the high ambient temperatures really tested the cooling system. Apart from a failed suspension displacer unit, the Apache ‘reliably’ added the miles and slowly became part of the family.

Austin Apache

On one of these visits for work experience my Apache suffered its second accident. The rear off-side door had been hit in the first six months of its life – that was evidenced by the fact that the paint was starting to craze where it had been repaired. However, on this occasion, some one reversed into the Apache pushing in the front end. To this day, I think the crease in the inner wing is still there, but luckily I don’t think the handbrake was performing optimally and I’d parked it in neutral as it was a level surface so the damage was not as bad as it could have been. The cost-effective solution was the purchase of a decent used bonnet which took care of the problem of rust in the front lip.

An alarming failure

I recall that, in my final year at UCT, it felt like the engine was trying to climb out through the bonnet when slowing down and that turned out to be a failed differential bearing. With the aid of a fellow student I spent several days in the garage at my future in-laws near Stellenbosch getting the engine out and replacing the bearing. I recall having to go to Blackheath to collect the bearing from the Land Rover plant, originally the home of Leyland Suid Afrika. We did not have an engine hoist so used a pole with a tow rope wrapped around it and some towels on our shoulders to lift the unit out and back in.

Another memory is helping a fellow student with her final year thesis on using dry-ice to remove a dent from a panel. A suitable dent was placed on the bonnet of the Apache to allow trials to proceed. I suspect the fact the fellow student was a member of the opposite sex is what convinced me to take a hammer to the bodywork, though there had been other times when I might easily have done so in frustration with the car.

On completion of my studies in Cape Town in 1989, I moved up to the Northern Cape to Sishen Iron Ore Mine not far from Kuruman. At this stage, my fiancée was still studying at Groote Schuur Hospital so, once a month, the Apache would make its way down to Cape Town for a long weekend covering the 800-odd mile journey each way at its own pace. Owing to my parents moving down to Knysna on the Garden Route, the Apache now had a new CX registration for Knysna and because the mine was in the Cape Province it stayed on these Knysna plates.

So many fond memories…

Austin Apache

I have so many memories of my time spent at the wheel on these long trips, chugging along at a steady 60mph. I’d generally leave after work on a Friday to drive overnight as it was cooler, and the temperature gauge would stay in the Normal rather than creeping up to the Hot as it would during the day in Summer. One problem with night driving was the risk of animals and I managed to hit a small jackal of some sort late one night. The impact took the front, metal number plate off which I managed to find in the bush at the side of the road. The front quarter-light windows were a boon, too, as these could be set to give plenty of fresh air into the cabin. The Apache was unique in having through cabin ventilation with vents on the C-posts unlike the 1100 and 1300.

It did blot its copy book at one point and would happily cruise for up to twenty minutes or so, and then start hesitating. Every avenue was explored from electrical side right through to the carbs, but then, by chance, we discovered that the fuel tank pick-up pipe had a small filter on the end which was clogging up with rust particulate – that was a result of being a poor student and only ever throwing a few litres of petrol in the tank at a time. The upshot was that, eventually, during the honeymoon trip, she was running with a burned-out valve and only on three cylinders – that did nothing for the cooling, so the return journey to the Northern Cape was done over seventeen hours instead of eleven hours.

Austin Apache

The roads were often long, straight and with very little traffic until one got closer to Cape Town. The driving position was typical 1100 and that allowed one to wedge one’s left knee under the steering and sit back and chill. There was one section of the road that ran straight for over 30 miles. Towns were few and distant and travelling late at night was often a gamble as to whether the fuel station would be open. On one occasion, early in the morning, the Apache must have been out of tune as I ran out of fuel about 15 miles from the next town. As luck would have it given how little traffic there was, I ran out literally next to a car at the roadside where the driver needed a foot pump. A trade was done, fuel for the use of my foot pump.

Fitting accessories to the Apache

Over the period of ownership, I tried most accessories. I recall my father being somewhat aghast at me wanting to fit spot-lights. The dynamo wouldn’t cope, he informed me. In the end, we fitted some along with a clock, radio and cigarette lighter – in those days one needed it for Walkmans and smoking, as sat-navs and mobile ‘phones weren’t yet a thing!

I managed to get clip-on head rests for the front seats. I am not sure what happened to them or the interior venetian blind that was so common, and often rattled in the breeze driving with the windows open, but a boon when parked up. The sun could be quite damaging but, surprisingly, the interior trim withstood that very well – I suspect that was probably down to the car being garaged for much of its life. Dash and parcel shelf carpets were sold in those days to protect against the sun’s rays. I never went down the route of the sun visor peak on the windscreen, but mud flaps were added as a matter of course, along with the shiny exhaust tip and obligatory trim line along the waist.

In 1990, when I got married it was expected that I would get rid of the old banger and get a decent new or recent second-hand car. Hmmm… No, not my modus operandi!  The trouble was that, in Cape Town, I’d started reading up on British classics and had discovered several of the classic car magazines from the UK.  These would always be about two months behind for various reasons, but I discovered that it was actually acceptable to like old cars, and that one did not have to drive an old car because one had no choice. People were restoring them – these were cherished cars! At that time, in South Africa, possibly only the Morris Minor was being seen as anything approaching a classic, but otherwise, unless it was Pre-War or an expensive, two-seater sports car, it was simply a banger.

Finding a playmate for the Apache

Many was the time I would come out to find a note on the Apache from some local asking me if the car was for sale, not because it had any perceived collector value, it was simply expected that I would not be wanting much money for it because it was so old! I recall going to a car meet in Cape Town and seeing two MG 1100S models on the MG stand at the back. I started asking questions but was very quickly informed that these were only tolerated on the stand as the owners also had proper MGs on display.

Two things happened at that point: one planned, the other not. The planning was simple, I would emigrate to the UK and join in this classic camaraderie and bring my Apache with, too. Thanks to a British passport, and an as yet to be convinced wife, it all seemed straight forward. One small matter stood in the way, the fact that I would either have to repay or work for four years for the corporate iron and steel manufacturer before I could emigrate. I opted for the latter.

The corporate policy was that Engineers having to travel on business could use the fleet vehicles. Depending on how lucky one got, these could be either the 2.0-litre four-pot Toyota Cressida or, if you were really lucky, the 3.0-litre six-cylinder Cressida. Consequently, one did not need a new car except for longer, private journeys to visit family once or twice a year. Thus, in my first year of working, I happened to buy a 1965 MGB. This, of course, was the unplanned part. Well, that was a solid lesson in how to buy a classic with one’s head and not one’s rose-tinted spectacles. The MGB was a left-hand-drive US import which I later figured out had Datsun Skyline alloys, Datsun Hitachi twin carbs and a Marina gearbox.

Needless to say, the four years in the Northern Cape working at the mine were a blur of re-building engines, maintaining the fleet and generally preparing for our eventual emigration to the UK. Part of that preparation including restoring the Apache and re-doing the paintwork etc. in preparation for shipping it over. At some point in 1992 we replaced my wife’s 1976 Datsun 180U SSS with a new Nissan Sentra (Sunny to you). The Sentra was never as nice to drive by comparison to the rear-wheel-dive 180U and the SSS specification (a performance badge started with the East African Safari Rally) gave it a lot of grunt, but the new Nissan satisfied the parents and in-laws that there was actually a small part of me which was responsible.

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

I still remember that final drive down to Cape Town from the Northern Cape with the Apache – upon arrival, I had a few hoops through which to jump to get the paperwork sorted for shipping. I recall heading over to the East London Docks a few months later to collect the Apache. Of course, it always raised a lot of questions wherever it went, and I attended a good number of shows with it, but then, as the expression goes, life got in the way. Work, business travel, a move from the south of England to the North West all resulted in the car really not being used anymore.

Eventually, because I wanted another MGB, I put the Apache up for sale. It’s my biggest regret. I’d love to have it back. I know where it is and I know it is well looked after, but it’s not for sale, sadly. Mine was the third Apache to arrive in the UK so far as I can tell, the first is also still on the road but underwent a colour change, whilst the second ended up in a private collection in Ireland. Subsequently, a fourth and possibly a fifth one have found their way over in the last few years but, as yet, neither have been the TC (Twin Carb) model nor the 35 Special. One day, maybe, an Apache will grace my garage again…

20 Comments

  1. I live in Cape Town and love your story. The Apaches are very scarce these days. Maybe an Austin Victoria from Spain makes more sense.

    • I think a few Apaches are now being saved in SA judging by my correspondence with owners, but whilst a Victoria is more luxurious, it’s also Left Hand Drive which is awkward for us in the UK, and I think they are even more scarce than the Apache thanks to the Spanish scrappage scheme over a decade ago.

  2. There’s at least one Apache here. I saw it at the Basinstoke Transport Festival, struck me as certainly more attractive than the Allegro.

    • I appreciate the article might have been a bit long for most to have read to the final paragraph, but as mentioned at the time mine was the third to arrive in the UK and I am guessing it was this one (mine) that you saw at the Festival of Transport in Basingstoke in 1994. In fact I found a photo a few years ago on Facebook of me stood next to my Apache at the Festival.

  3. Ah, yes, the open southern African roads! On 1 Oct 1972, in my VW 1600, I drove from Uppington, via Windhoek – 675 miles – in 12 hours 25 minutes, much of it at 60-70 mph. The next day, on to Walvis Bay, on the dirt road across the Namib Desert; 205 miles in 8 hours 45 minutes – today, 3 to 4 hours, but who sees any meerkats? Then there was my Maseru to Durban Land Rover trip.

    • That’s quite impressive! I lived in Kathu, so used to see all the Windhoek-JHB traffic passing. Impressive travel times there! My record for Cape Town to Kathu was 8 hours via Calvinia and Uppington in a new Sentra.

      • Thanks Martin. From the online website Distance Calculator: “The driving distance between Kathu and Cape Town is 1012.1km and it would take you 12 Hours 39 minutes if you average 80 km/h (49 mph).” Eight hours is very impresssive.
        On my 1974 trans-Africa trip – see African Odyssey on Amazon Kindle – I had a lift in a Volvo station wagon in Zambia, from Mpika to Lusaka – four hundred and six miles in five hours – 0830-1330 hrs. That’s the way to do Africa! Working for Zambia’s National Transport Corporation, the driver, a German, was returning from Dar es Salaam in an N.T.C. owned car.

  4. Wonderful yarn. Your motoring history has similarities to my formative years in another Antipodean former British colony, New Zealand, where the cars of the 60s and 70s spanned at least three decades in age and came mostly from Mother England, with support from Australia and some from Canada thanks to preferential ‘British Commonwealth’ import duty rates and trade deals. Then the Japanese started edging in in the 1960s, the trickle rose to a flow in the 70s, and a flood in the 1980s, and that was English cars all but done down under.

    I too recall cars that lived near the sea (like mine) rusting quickly and driving long distances at night by choice to stay cooler in badly ventilated English cars (no air con for us until the 1990s, unlike SA) and would also like to find again (a better example of) my best remembered English car – a 1974 Triumph Toledo 1500 ‘cut and shut’ made from two that I bought by tender without checking it carefully enough and consequently had to rebuild the engine and source and install all the missing bits left off by the cutter and shutter when merging two wrecks. It eventually had everything working down to the boot and glovebox lamps and provided several years of reliable, economical service.

    Old habits die hard. After emigrating to the U.K, I still happily drive old chod. The current steed was new in 1999 and I have had it since 2001. A/c still works on the original factory charge. If it ain’t broke….

    I think I may have seen your Apache in the U.K. at some point. Recall looking at both SA and Spanish-built variations at various classic car shows over the years.

    • Thank you, Graeme, that’s quite an impressive a/c system. I guess my excuse for buying new these days is travel for work, but having some classics in the garage is like having my cake and eating it!

  5. A very good article, Martin. Nowadays, I don’t think any manufacturer would give a car an “ethnic” name such as “Apache”, for fear of offending the “politically correct” mobs out there, who would be shouting “cultural appropriation”!

    Before I even read that your MGB had Datsun wheels, just by looking at the picture first, I thought: “Those are Datsun ZX 280 wheels from the 1980s!” I went on to think that they don’t suit the ’65 MGB as they are anachronistic.

    My “colonial” connection is that, just before I turned thirteen, along with my family, we moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Having been a rugged individualist since my earliest childhood, I never picked up a Canadian/American accent. I still speak as though I arrived from London yesterday… and I never felt the urge to buy a Japanese car, even though everyone used to praise their reliability and relatively low maintenance costs. I have owned a few compact four-cylinder North American cars to get to work in and for inclement weather.

    However, since the age of sixteen, and I am almost sixty-two now, I have always owned, without interruption, an English sports car for the summer! The list, in chronological order: ’64 TR-4, ’57 Austin-Healey 100-6, ’64 Series I E-type FHC, ’67 Austin-Healey 3000 Mk III, ’57 XK-150 DHC, ’59 competition Austin-Healey 3000 (while simultaneously owning a ’68 TR-5), ’58 AC Ace-Bristol… and my current ’69 E Type OTS which I am keeping for life. At least, as summer driving goes, I have been loyal to Britannia all my life.

    • At the time in SA, getting spares was not cheap and still isn’t so many classics like Spitfires, Minors and MGs would often have bits made to fit! SA was not blessed with cheap remanufactured parts and cars were kept on the road, not scrapped so second-hand bits were always harder to come by and hence at times like above the Skyline/ZX alloys. That’s an impressive list of sports cars, though!

    • Is not the Jeep Grand Cherokee currently in production? Calling aboriginal Americans “Indians” is perhaps one of the biggest cultural appropriations in history. Ah well…..

    • They are Triumph 2000 lights, which in SA was called the Chicane. Parts of the bumper are also from the 2000.

      • If I recall the Chicane was specifically the 2500 TC, the twin SU carbs being done a year before the UK offered a non-PI version.

        • Apologies – just checked my old grey matter again and yes – it was a cross between a 2500TC and 2500s with twin carbs.

  6. I do remember seeing an Apache back in the ’90s and it was a brownish colour. Being into cars a bit I did actually know what it was, but it was still nice to see one in the metal.

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