After World War II motor racing in East London was slow to re-emerge. Everyone recalled the glory days of the pre-war Grand Prix races from 1934 – 1939 where legends like Richard Seaman, Whitney Straight and the Auto Union drivers had drawn crowds of 70 000 to the Prince George circuit on the West Bank. But there was a problem.
The industrial growth on the West Bank of East London and the newly constructed airport, which had relocated from Woodbrook, had swallowed up most of the acclaimed Prince George racing circuit. In 1950 the race organisers were determined to resurrect the city’s proud motor sport tradition but were forced to look around for existing road infrastructure that could be transformed into a circuit.
True to the East London spirit, they soon made a plan.
An alternative race circuit presented itself in the form of the 1.75 mile stretch of road along East London’s beachfront that took in the well-known ‘Esplanade’ and the camping/picnic area known as Marina Glen.
The advantage to this track was that it was inner-city and very accessible. It also combined the most scenic aspects of the beach front. The disadvantage was that it was lethal because of the fully developed pavements, storm water drains and other urban infrastructure like light masts. The Winter Handicap began on the circuit in 1951.
On racing day, the roads had to be (illegally) closed and it was impossible to fully control access to charge spectators - appeals to “put a few shillings in the collection box” generally fell on deaf ears. The local dogs simply wandered onto the track and the human spectators were often even less disciplined.
Despite these minor glitches, the Winter Handicap soon grew in local popularity and then began to attract hordes of winter tourists. Most of South Africa’s big-name racers turned up even though it was a non-Grand Prix event.
By the mid-fifties, racers and journalists alike were beginning to compare the slightly re-designed circuit to famous tracks in Europe including Monaco. J.B. Holmes editor of SA Motorist wrote,
"It is now a race in the Grand Epreuve manner and has that undefinable touch of glamour that attaches to circuits like the Monte Carlo. From the spectator’s point of view the surrounding area is one vast grandstand providing an unrivalled view of the racing."
The first 1951 Winter Handicap included categories for both cars and motorcycles and saw 33 entries ranging from a 500 cc BSA motorcycle to a 4.2 litre Hudson. The handicap system was in place and entailed a gaggle of four small 747 cc Austins starting more than 16 minutes ahead of the scratch car – a 3.7 litre Maserati driven by G. Cannell, lapping at an average speed of 65.6 mph.
The racing day would start with a van circulating to make sure that the roads had in fact been closed and end with the Race Ball at the Kings Hotel. However, by 1957 three drivers, Doug Duff, Tex Kingon and Allan Shiers and one biker, Anthony Burton, had died on the exciting but deadly circuit and after one more race it was time for the race organisers to start looking for a new track.
This is the 3rd extract from the book on East London Grand Prix history provisionally titled Off the Circuit: A South African Town Makes Grand Prix History currently being written by Glenn Hollands and scheduled to be released in time for the historic GP Festival in November
PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Brodie (MG) Windsor Bend 1952. E L Beach Front Races Photo by Ken Gierke; supplied by John Pringle