Did you know Wynberg has a rich car history still visible today in the Crankhandle Club off Wolfe Street and even in our local petrol stations at Car Hill and Gabriel Circle?
By Derek Stuart-Findlay
On the day of Cape Town’s first Veteran and Edwardian vehicle parade held in Adderley Street on Saturday 19 January 1929, 11 cars participated in the fun. To get into the spirit of the occasion, a few of the drivers and passengers had donned moustaches, whiskers, frock-coats and top hats.
The public responded effusively, and with rows of people in the street practically screening the cars from view, the top hats were about all the crowds on the pavements could see of the procession.
Two of the cars, a 1903 Covert and a 1907 BSA, had been entered by motor mechanic Frank Roe and his son Fred. The driver of the Covert, Frank Roe and his passenger, young Frank Perrow, had dressed for the occasion, as pioneer veteran car enthusiasts they were clearly enjoying themselves.
The Roe and Perrow families lived in Wolfe Street, Wynberg, near Riebeeck Street where the Crankhandle Club was later to establish its clubhouse.
Read more: The Crankhandle Club
The village had been the home of the Perrow family for three generations. Frank’s grandfather, a Cornish blacksmith, coach and wagon builder, William John Perrow, had come out to South Africa in 1899. A few years later he was joined by his son Jack, and
they leased space in an old double-storey produce store on the corner of Main Road and Lower Church Street, Wynberg. Their business became known as W. Perrow, Blacksmiths, Farriers and Coach Builders.
In 1912, to create more space for their expanding operations, the family bought a property higher up Church Street, a blacksmith’s forge on the corner of Aliwal and Carr Hill Roads. This intersection had been a focal wagon route to the Cape Flats that later became Wetton Road. In time Young’s Field became famous as Cape Town’s first airfield. Van Ryneveld and Brand’s pioneering flight from London to the Cape landed there in 1920.
Farmers and residents, bringing their horses in to be shod at the Perrows’ forges, were soon ordering new carts and traps. The company had to gear up for a huge order at the start of World War I. It was commissioned to build 200 horse-drawn water carts for the South African invasion of German South-West Africa (today Namibia).
This part of the business grew rapidly after the war when motor vehicle owners began to place orders for truck and coach bodies. In the early 1920s the Perrows built the body for the first bus to ply a route to Constantia, it had been ordered by the Solomon family from their farm on the Spaanschemat River Road. The bus, built on a Ford Model T chassis, was used by flower-sellers to bring their wares from the farms in Constantia to the station in Wynberg – prior to that they had walked all the way to Cape Town pulling barrows to carry their flowers.
This part of the business survived until 1930, when the demand for coachbuilding services declined sharply as factory-built steelbodied vehicles became popular, and operations were consolidated into Perrow’s Garage at the Carr Hill site.
Some years before, the Perrows had bought a shop on the opposite Wolfe Street corner, together with the house behind it. These were rebuilt as a doublestorey with a Mobiloil petrol station beneath and residential accommodation above.
In 1929, when the veteran run took place, this was the home of the Perrow and Roe families. Frank Roe worked as a mechanic in the Perrow Garage, and the Covert and the BSA were housed in the premises.
When William Perrow died in the early 1950s his son Jack took over the motor business, and Jack Perrow Motors became a landmark on the Aliwal Road corner. Jack’s son Frank, the
passenger in the 1929 parade, joined him and the site still houses a thriving garage operation to this day.
By the late 1930s Frank Roe had founded his own motor business, the Constantia Garage, adjacent to the traffic circle linking Gabriel Road with the Constantia Main Road. He had bought the Covert from a deceased estate in 1928 and given it to his son Fred as a 17th birthday present.
In 1940 Fred Roe commenced the most extraordinary tour in the little Covert, driving initially the 973 miles (1 566 km) to Johannesburg in the car. The solid but light little car, produced by Byron V. Covert of New York, had a single-cylinder petrol engine, and after 48 days on the road, Fred was welcomed to the city by veteran car collector Jeffs Watson in his 1910 Fiat.
This was merely the first stage of a 2 500-mile journey (4 000 km) around South Africa in the Covert, averaging less than 20 miles (32 km) per day!
Quite apart from this extraordinary achievement the Covert commands a historic place in South African motoring history. In December 1954 it sported the rally number plates No 1 in the very first national veteran event ever held in the country, the Eastern Cape Veteran Car Rally from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.
The rally was a crucial motivation to the establishment of the Crankhandle Club seven months later.
In the late 1950s Fred Roe entertained the crowds at the stock-car races at the Goodwood Showgrounds. He had a Model T Ford on which he had fitted elliptical wheels, and during the intervals he would drive along the track with the car twisting and bouncing in all directions. With all fittings like the bonnet, seats and hood loosened, at speed the car would virtually disintegrate.
He kept the Covert in his garage, guarded by a skeleton sitting behind the wheel. Roe was a skilled ventriloquist and visitors were mystified when the skeleton appeared to talk to them!
1970s and later
Stuart Halsall, later chairman of the Crankhandle Club, managed to buy the Covert from Fred Roe in 1979. The car had incorrectly sized spoke wheels and, although complete, was in poor condition. Research revealed that it was in fact a 1901 6 hp model, engine No 14. After a total rebuild it became on its first outing in May 1980 the oldest car to participate in the national rally held to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the A.A. of South Africa.
The original No 1 rally plates were still on the car when Halsall bought it, and he continued to use this number in subsequent veteran rallies.
On the 50th Anniversary of the Eastern Cape Veteran Car Rally he donated one of the original black circular rally plates to the Crankhandle Club and this historic artefact is displayed prominently in its exhibition area.
Eventually Halsall sold the Covert to Robert Whittle in England; the car participated successfully in the London to Brighton Run in both 1996 and 1998.
The irrepressible Fred Roe was well-known to founder members of the Crankhandle Club such as Angus Kinnes, who in the 1950s established the Kinnes Service Station in Gabriel Road, Plumstead, just down the road from Frank Roe’s Constantia Garage.
Frank and his son Fred definitely deserve recognition today; they were almost certainly South Africa’s pioneer veteran car enthusiasts. The founders of the Crankhandle Club must have been drawn to Old Wynberg Village while searching for clubhouse premises. It was clearly a focal point for Veteran and Edwardian motor exponents in Cape Town.
Acknowledgements to the Cape Argus 19 Jan 1929; Motor Sport, July 1943; Beyond the City
Limits by Helen Robinson; Wynberg, A Special Place by Helen Robinson; The Spirit of Progress by Felix Stark; Old Cars the World Over by Elizabeth Nagle; “A Century of Cars” by Fred Schnetler, Die Burger, 2 Aug 1966; and 1901/2 Covert by Stuart Halsall, Andre du Toit, Hans Zwets and John Roderick.
- This article first appeared in The Crankhandle Chronicle, December 2016, and is published here with the kind permission of the author.