John Myers, motoring pioneer, dies

The late John Myers at the wheel of the prototype Protea car in 1956.

One of the three men who manufactured the first production car in South Africa, John Myers, died on Tuesday September 1 at the age of 97, in Somerset West.

His memorial service was held at his daughter, Zunia’s, Avontuur Restaurant between Somerset West and Stellenbosch on Monday September 14.

I first met John Myers at the Classic Car and Bike Show, organised by the Crankhandle Club and other clubs at the Timour Hall Villa in Plumstead in January 2015, and interviewed him twice at his home in Somerset West for my books on South African inventions.

John Myers was born in England in 1923 and, in 1939, worked at the Daimler factory in Coventry assembling four-wheel-drive Dingo scout cars. Fortunately, he worked day shift as, one night while he was off duty, the Nazis dropped over 600 tonnes of bombs on the factory.

He was sent to Burma where he helped to assemble and deliver military trucks and amphibious tanks during the Second World War. In 1947 he emigrated to South Africa as part of a scheme to recruit “Pommie” mechanics, and initially worked as a mechanic at Stanley Motors in Johannesburg.

In the early 1950s he teamed up with two other immigrants, a Yorkshireman, Roland Fincher, and a Scottish manufacturing chemist, Alec Roy, to make the first production car in South Africa, the Protea, a high-performance sports car.

The first designs for the new car were based on Lotus sports cars but with a unique space frame and swinging front axle. The body was made from fibreglass although no one in South Africa at the time really knew how to use this new material. They carried out their own experiments to determine the right mix of resin, catalyst and accelerator at a given temperature, heating and cooling the garage with fires and ice to perfect the use of “glass”.

The first Protea was made in a garage in Rissik Street, Johannesburg, with subsequent cars being built in Myers’ garage at his home in Kensington.

The space frame chassis was one of their major innovations. In order to find weak points in the chassis, they hired a muscular labourer to jump on it. “Many years later a computerised analysis confirmed that we had created a near-perfect design,” Myers told the author in April 2015. They scavenged an engine, dashboard and steering wheel from a Ford Anglia, and Myers designed and made the coil spring, telescopic dampers, and swing axles. With a streamlined body and various engine modifications, Myers increased the power of the Anglia engine from 36 to 64 horsepower and the top speed from 128 to 160 km/* .

The Protea was first displayed in Johannesburg in 1956, where car enthusiast Robert Hudson saw the car and agreed to sponsor its manufacture. Proteas originally cost 695 each but the price increased to 795 after customs and excise charges for imported parts had been added, which eventually forced them out of business.

Only 14 of the original Proteas were produced, with the first 13 having Ford Anglia engines and the 14th a Lancia Apia engine, as well as seven further stand-alone “specials” for individual customers. Myers later lamented that, if they had decided to rather make bakkies, which were exempt from import duties, they could have made a fortune.

Although Myers and his co-workers were aware of the Dart and Flamingo sports cars being developed in Cape Town at the time, they made their car independently. “It is a pity that we did not share ideas and benefit from one another’s knowledge and experience,” he told the author in April 2015.

The Protea preceded the Dart and Flamingo by a few months and they regularly raced against one another on local tracks. Bob van Niekerk, Willie Meissner and Vester de Witt built the first prototype Dart and Flamingo in Cape Town in 1958 and, by the time production ended in 1965, they had built 122 Darts and 144 Flamingos.

Although their cars are better known today, the Protea made by John Myers and friends can legitimately lay claim to being the first production car made in South Africa.