Last week saw the passing of John Myers, maker of SA’s first production sports car, the Protea. He was 97. And while John is best-known for launching the Protea more than 60 years ago, he also enjoyed a rich and varied automotive career, both on and off the track since immigrating to our shores after the War. SentiMETAL takes a look at the highlights of his remarkable life.
By: Graeme Hurst
Most petrolheads (and car designers, I bet) can tell a fellow car-mad mate precisely when and where their passion for all things motoring kicked off. For many of us it was a race at Kyalami or a car show as a kid. And for 97-year-old John it was no different: he was just 16 when he saw the mighty Maserati 8CM (which by coincidence had won the first SA Grand Prix in 1934) in action at the hands of Prince Bira at London’s Crystal Palace circuit. It was the Imperial Trophy Meeting in August 1939 and John and his family had only recently arrived from India, where he was born and raised.
That was the last race before war broke out. One of the darker days in racing history but one which inspired young John, who’d only seen racing cars in magazines as a boy back in India: a month later he took up an apprenticeship with Daimler in Coventry. It was the first step in a 50-year career, the bulk of which helped shape our motoring and racing heritage.
John's Skylon Garage in Pretoria.
Only his training took an abrupt U-turn after the factory was razed in a bombing raid in November 1940. “I got home to find the house I boarded at had been hit too and spotted my only suit still in one piece in the rubble,” recalled John in an interview in 2016. “So I put it on and hitchhiked down to London to sign up as an apprentice mechanic with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.” He had just turned 18 and was posted to Burma, where he maintained Bren gun carriers and worked on a range of tank engines.
John in the Cooper 500.
The trip out saw John’s troop ship stop in Durban which instilled a fascination for our shores. One strong enough that when the army refused to fund any post-war training (as he’d volunteered and not been drafted) he told them what do with the Union Jack and booked a passage to SA, taking up a position as a mechanic with Stanley Motors in Jo’burg.
By day he serviced Austins and Hudsons and by night he earned extra cash by racing stock cars: “You weren’t supposed to win, you were supposed to tip someone over!” was his recollection of the job which pulled in a healthy £10 a night.
John in the Hudson Special.
Flush with cash, he soon moved on to proper circuit racing at the wheel of the ‘Hudz’, a Hudson special which he uprated with an eight-cylinder engine and better brakes and suspension sourced from breakers yards, as he recalled: “These days they talk about going back to the drawing board but in my day you went back to the scrapyard and found something more suitable.”
A stint running his own garage in Pretoria followed and he supplemented the garage’s takings by searching out MG TCs in (then) Rhodesia and driving them back to sell on for a profit before joining Marston Motors back in Jo’burg. Among his many tasks there was to drive bare Guy truck chassis from Durban up to the Reef on a regular basis. “They were governed to 30mph so the journey would take 16 hours!”
John racing the Peugeot 202 Special.
Racing-wise John had by then moved on to a friend’s Cooper 500 and a Peugeot 202, which he modified and campaigned at (then) Lourenço Marques before piloting an Austin-Healey 100 in the Pietermaritzburg 6-Hour. It was around then that John’s thoughts turned to racing a production car of his own, the Protea, which he designed after being inspired by the lines of Jaguar’s D-type.
Boasting a fibreglass body over a tubular chassis, the Protea was developed in partnership with Alex Roy and Bob Fincher and used uprated Ford componentry for running gear. It was developed on a shoestring with John living in the Booysens workshop to save costs and so he could heat the fibreglass at all hours of the night to get the prototype’s body to set in the mould.
The first Protea.
The same prototype (complete with a Protea-inspired badge designed by John’s wife Christine) went on display at the 1956 Spring Motor Show at Milpark (so beating the launch of the GSM Dart by a few months) where it was spotted by a private sponsor, who bankrolled production.
Some 14 cars were constructed before punitive government tax made the project unprofitable, despite the car’s £659 sticker price. A fifteenth Protea using Triumph TR2 running gear was built for John Mason-Gordon, who commissioned John to enter the car in the 1959 South African 6-Hour which it won.
Protea-Triumph at the South African 6-Hour Race.
After Protea production ceased, John dabbled in various glassfibre projects to earn a living while continuing to apply his spannering talent to the race track. He became known for his dare-devil antics in a heavily-modified Fiat 500 (which The Rand Daily Mail clocked at 90mph on test) but true track success followed when he joined Volvo agents Lawsons Motors in a sales capacity and got to race their production cars in the Kyalami 9-Hour.
John's modified Fiat 500.
When Lawsons obtained the franchise for Renault, John turned his racing efforts to a Dauphine and was again tested by the newspaper, this time at over 100mph! No surprise it took a class victory in the ’64 Kyalami 9-Hour. By then John was heading up servicing operations for Volvo and later managed the Renault 16 assembly line in Rosslyn, where his engineering talents were much-needed to iron out production problems, as he recalled: “They were all farmer types who didn’t have the right feel to put nuts and bolts together and the 16 was a difficult car to assemble as it had torsion bars all round. Each car would have come off the line with either its arse in the air or dragging on the ground.”
Testing radar trapping on a Volvo truck at Kyalami.
When Lawsons folded thanks to bad debts driven by currency depreciation, John headed up the servicing of Volvo trucks and buses as part of the VSA group. That position saw John in some varied roles, including testing the effectiveness of radar speed guns on trucks (the radar signal was alleged to bounce off the bodywork on to passing cars) as well as putting a heavily-laden truck through a skid-pad test – a first for SA truck makers.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta police car on display at dealership in Johannesburg.
In the early ‘80s John moved back into car sales, setting up an Alfa Romeo dealership in Johannesburg. By then well-seasoned in the sales game, he upped his marketing efforts by displaying a Giulietta in police livery on his forecourt. (one can just imagine how word of that must have spread among Jo’burg Alfisti!)
John saw out the sunset years of his career as a sales assistant for the Old Car Shop in Jules street before retiring to the Cape in the early ‘90s. He was a much-loved member of the Crankhandle Club and became known for his amazing ability to instantly and accurately recall events from his rich and varied career. A career that kicked off when he saw the mighty Maserati 8CM in action at Crystal Palace and which, fittingly, he was re-united with almost 80 years later at the SA Historic Grand Prix Festival in 2018. RIP John Myers.
- You can purchase a limited-edition print featuring the Protea here.