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Grand Prix Racing history returns to Buffalo City

Eighty-four years after the first East London Grand Prix, vintage racers - Maseratis, Bugattis and Rileys will once again roar around legendary Prince George circuit on the West bank. At least a handful of these famous racing machines will be the very ones that raced in the first 1934 Grand Prix. The November 2018 event will be the South African Historic Grand Prix Festival and the aim is to celebrate the iconic racers and cars that had more than 80 000 cheering spectators on their feet in the late 1930s.

The organisers are aiming for: ...a commemorative race at the East London Grand Prix Circuit combined with a parade around the original 11-mile long Prince George race circuit on 25 November 2018 – a fantastic opportunity for vintage car and Grand Prix enthusiasts to witness these great cars driven in anger in South Africa for the first time in 80 years.

After many years of negotiation, it seems that the groundwork has been laid for a massive rejuvenation of motor sport in East London. Many petrol-heads are hoping that if we play our cards right, the city may even see the return of an official international Grand Prix. Work is currently underway to compile a book on the history of early Grand Prix racing in East London – scheduled for release during the Festival. The East London museum has kindly provided access to its archives for research purposes and classic motorsport fundis like Norman Hickel are lending a hand with expert advice.

The excited volunteers working on this project aim to draw in corporate partners who will support and host a celebration of East London’s unique motor racing history. Although plans are still unfolding, the idea is that corporate names linked to motoring or the pioneers of the first Grand Prix will host the display and become part of a movement to restore Grand Prix racing in East London to its rightful place in a manner that benefits the entire city.

A key focus of the East London Grand Prix book will be the vision and tenacity of Edward ‘Brud’ Bishop, the motoring editor of the Daily Dispatch in the early 1930s. One Sunday, Bishop was having a slow news day and decided to follow-up on a lacklustre story about a newly constructed Divisional Council road.

Anticipating little excitement or urgency in the piece, Bishop took a leisurely Sunday drive to explore the recently constructed circular road network, then known locally as Marine Drive, on the West Bank. As he cruised along the fresh tar, accompanied by his girlfriend, Bishop’s imagination was ignited – this lengthy sightseeing route with its long straights and banked curves would make a very fine race track. Bishop began to spin a series of optimistic articles around his vision and found a receptive network of newspaper contacts back in his home country, England. The East London track or Prince George’s circuit as it came to be known, would host five Grand Prix events before World War II mothballed racing on most continents.

Many will have heard of Brud Bishop’s role in launching Grand Prix racing in East London onto the world stage in the mid to late thirties. Less well-known is Bishop’s claim that he sacrificed his sweetheart to the Grand Prix cause. Bishop claims that he became so fixated with the race track potential of the new looped public road, especially the banked bridge beyond Leach’s Bay, that he completed four circuits despite the protestations of his presumably bored companion. On the 5th attempt, his girlfriend erupted, snatched the ignition keys and, on spotting friends in a passing vehicle, bailed out of Edward’s car and his life… or so he would have us believe.

The Pre-War Grand Prix Races in East London

A local newspaper editor takes a gamble

The Grand Prix races held in East London from 1934 to 1939 were unlikely events for a small coastal city that rarely if ever made international headlines. But Edward ‘Brud’ Bishop, the motoring editor of the Daily Dispatch at the time had an idea. If he could attract one or two international racing ‘names’ he was sure he could get the East London public flocking to the as yet not existent Prince George circuit. Bishop was a motoring writer and therefore not adverse to a bit of ‘spin.’ He was also a bit of a gambler or at least not somebody who could be described as risk adverse. Because of his powerful vision of a motor race on the newly constructed loop on the West Bank, Bishop was not about to let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a remarkable story. For one it was a public road, not a race track, motor racing was virtually unknown in the country at the time and very few big racing names overseas had ever heard of South Africa, let alone East London. Another minor snag was that Bishop had no money and no sponsors.

Undeterred he cabled news articles to a colleague in the print industry, Sammy Davis, a racing driver and the sports editor of Autocar in London. After a few cleverly worded articles had created the impression that something exciting was about to be staged in East London, Bishop received, what he termed a “bolt from the blue”. On 22 October 1934, American racer and millionaire Whitney Straight and his brother Michael cabled an offer to compete and bring along British legend Richard Seaman. All they needed was a starting fee of £700. Suddenly there was the prospect of seeing on the track not just stripped-down local bangers but a 2.9 litre super-charged Maserati, a K3 super-charged MG and a Railton, and all driven by some of the best racers in the world. Bishop and his committee leapt into action and readily struck the deal, ignoring for the moment that they had no idea where the £700 would come from.

The first investor was the owner of the Beach Hotel – a contributor of 25 guineas, but after a meeting with the head of the Daily Dispatch and pounding the pavements of Oxford Street, the coffers began to swell. But even if the money flowed in, there was the problem of the rickety wooden bridge across the Buffalo River – completely unsuitable for the thousands of spectators that were expected to cross from the East London CBD to the race circuit on the West Bank. A modern steel four-track bridge had recently been completed but was not yet commissioned. Bishop dashed off to Pretoria to meet with National Party Minister of Railways and Defence, Oswald Pirow. But this introduced a potential public relations / political fiasco. Pirow was a right-wing politician and a certifiable lunatic to many. He had recently met Hitler and would go on to tour Nazi Germany shortly before the outbreak of war.

Bishop was probably uneasy about the Minister’s politics, but he simply had to have the bridge opened by racing day, December 27 1934. Bishop overcame his political reservations to the extent that he would go on to invite Pirow to make a welcoming speech and to present the Barnes Trophy to the winner on the podium – and not just at the first race but subsequent events. Indeed, any foreign racer on the winners podium probably had no idea that he was accepting a trophy from a man who consorted with Nazis and would go on to operate on the very fringes of South African political extremism.

Ironically, five years later Bishop himself would return to Britain as a driver during the Luftwaffe blitz on London, to ‘do his bit’ in the war effort against Hitler, the dictator that Pirow idealised. This was an irony that would not have been lost on Bishop – he was after all a journalist who relished a story with a bit of a twist.

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