Retrospective: South African Roadhouses

The boom in car ownership and the arrival of American fast food in the 1950s and ’60s saw roadhouses become a once hugely colourful part of our automotive scene. Their eat-in-your-car format and propensity for neon signage kicked off the era of diner-style refreshment in SA - one where the size of a double-thick milkshake and the length of a Dagwood on offer were as important as the cubic inches under the hood of your Chevy. Or the width of the mags on your Datsun SSS. 

BY: Graeme Hurst

The Doll House – Cape Town

If ever there was a motoring institution in the Cape, The Doll House in Cape Town was it. Situated just yards from the city’s iconic Mouille Point lighthouse, The Doll House was the absolute go-to for any romantic couple after a movie at the local Sea Point cinema or night of jiving to at the Clifton Hotel. And it’s easy to see why: the roadhouse’s beachfront location was the perfect place to show off your date. And your wheels, of course, before tucking into a quarter pounder and a strawberry milkshake.

Amusingly, the diner (which made way for a block of flats in the ’80s) was famously popular with the local wildlife too; many a Doll House newbie got a shock after losing a chip or two (or having their milkshake knocked into their lap!) after being dive-bombed by a seagull.

The Doll House – Johannesburg

Jozie had its own Doll House as well. And until quite recently too: the Highlands North-based, Alpine-style establishment closed in 2017 after eight decades of selling Blondies and foot-longs - just two of the Doll House favourites from its massive wall-mounted menu at what was a veritable calorie temple on the city’s famous Louis Botha Avenue.

And like its namesake in the Cape, it was a local institution for late-night bites on your way home from a jol in Hillbrow, from ’60s biker gangs to ‘80s disco bunnies and everyone in between. And it was frequently a hot spot for altercations between various factions – from lovers pouncing on their cheating other half to rival gangs settling old scores!

Vic’s Viking Garage

Ask any middle-aged Vaalie who was lucky enough to enjoy motoring holidays as a kid to name their most memorable roadhouse and you can bet they’ll come up with Vic’s Viking Garage. It’s not exactly surprising: a 27m-wide aeroplane perched on a building miles away from any airport is hard to beat when it comes to making an impact on the fertile brains of idle kids in the back of the family station wagon!

The Viking Garage (which still exists as a modern SASOL forecourt today) is in Armadale on the old Golden Highway running south west out of Johannesburg and not far from the once well-known Uncle Charlies junction. Back then it was a garage but the Magic Wand Café alongside offered plenty of welcome refreshment.

The iconic aviation-inspired landmark goes back to 1963 when owner Vic de Villiers hoisted a retired Vickers Viking VC airliner on the roof of his garage to generate interest in his Goggomobil business. The twin-engined aircraft was built in England a year after the war and saw service in the Berlin airlift before flying under Trek Airways colours here in SA from ’54. Fast-forward to the late ’80s and its rarity saw it swapped out for a Shackleton (which still catches the attention of passing motorists today!) with the Viking now undergoing restoration at the SAA Museum at Rand Airport.

The Dakota Café

Seems Vic de Villiers wasn’t the first businessman to grab passer by attention with an aircraft: over in Langlaagte the Dakota Café boasted a Dakota DC3 on its roof as far back as 1946 after the recently scrapped aircraft was bought from the SAAF for the princely sum of £120. The American-made transporter was only two years old and had seen service returning our troops from Cairo before fire damage put it out of action.

Its location along the city’s Main Reef Road brought it more than just passing trade: a decade after its installation an aviation scout spotted it and exported it back to the US where – in what must surely be a first for any aircraft adorning a building the world over – it was put back in the air! Military service (with over 1200 flights) as a medical evacuation plane in Argentina followed before the aircraft was privately owned in the ‘70s. It was finally retired from the air in ’89 and has since been put back on display, this time at the Trade Employees Union in Paraná Argentina.

Spotty Dog

Ask any older resident of Cape Town’s southern suburbs for directions to an address on Main Road in Retreat and chances are they’ll mention Spotty Dog as a landmark. Now a 2.5-metre high statue fronting a well-known hardware chain, the original Spotty was a substantially larger and simply unmissable structure that fronted a hotdog takeaway and later a milk-shake bar.

It was inspired by a similar structure in Los Angeles and built in secrecy (behind a wall of hessian apparently!) back in 1938. Complete with a dog-kennel like building behind, it was a much-loved institution in the ’60s when everyone from families on a day out to surfers returning from the waves in nearby Muizenberg would pull in for a double-thick. Sadly, the original Spotty was taken out by an out-of-control truck in the ’70s.

The Cuban Hat

If Cape Town and Jo’burg were known for their Doll Houses then Durban was on the radar for its Cuban Hat. This purpose-built roadhouse was opened in 1953 and was identifiable by the giant concrete Cuban hat. Located bang on the city’s beachfront, it was part-and-parcel of Durban’s trendy beach life as young Durbanites became increasingly liberated by having the keys to a car in the ’60s. Sadly its location was its downfall: rocketing beachfront property values saw it demolished to make way for Joe Cool’s in the ’80s.

Flying Saucer

One step on from having an aircraft on the roof to pull in the punters was the use of dramatic ‘space’ architecture. And the Flying Saucer roadhouse on the eastern outskirts of Pretoria did precisely that! Situated in what was then the newly designated Waterkloof Agricultural Park to the east of the capital, its design was allegedly inspired by local newspaper reports of a flying saucer sighting on the 16th of September 1965. 

It quickly became a hit with locals thanks to a reputation for ice cream sodas and a trampoline – a big win with the kids! The site was sold in the mid ’70s and the structure re-assembled at a church in Oranjeville where it remains in use as a Sunday school classroom.

1 comment

  • Just for interest – the picture of the Cuban Hat roadhouse in Durban shows a young Indian “tray boy”. His name is Nandha and he is still working almost the same spot but now selling newspapers! He says he is about 70 years old but is not sure. If you saw him you would recognise his stance and body profile. I have a T-shirt with that picture printed on the front.

    John Thompson

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