Vicarious Travel

The lockdown may signal a temporary stay on the thrill of driving but rest assured you can still get your fix by planning a dream overland adventure to embark on after we wave Corona goodbye. And there’s no shortage of inspiration out there as classic car enthusiasts young and old have shown us recently. Here are a few of the highlights of SentiMETAL’s favourite ‘classic adventures’.

BY: Graeme Hurst

It’s a bitter pill for a journalist to admit but the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is occasionally true. Especially when you see a car totally out of context. That was the case for me some years back when I first met Cape Town-based Lancia guru Felix Furtak and spotted a 35mm print of his 1975 Lancia Beta on the wall of his workshop. It was one of several taken over the years. But, unlike pics of the average Lancia owner’s pride and joy, the Beta wasn’t snapped on green grass at a club meet. It was up to its wheel hubs in mud in the middle of a jungle…

Image credit: Felix Furtak, Lancia Auto SA

“Ah yes, that was when I got stuck in the Congo,” explained Felix rather nonchalantly as he looked up from the stash of parts he was rifling through to answer my question. Yes, you read that correctly: the Congo. Felix piloted one of the most notoriously temperamental Italian cars through a part of Africa where even Land Rovers fear to tread.

Image credit: Felix Furtak, Lancia Auto SA

That snap was one of many from a 15,000km trip he made from his native Germany to Cape Town over 74 days following a bar-room dare. That dare centred on Felix getting his Beta – a car which had already enjoyed several adventures and had no less than 160k on the clock – across the Sahara in late 1991. The same workshop wall features the skinny little Italian car making tracks across the sand…an image as gripping as his jungle crossing. And then there’s one of the Beta with its nose dipped in the Zambesi so Felix could spin the wheels to wash out the sand in the bellhousing…

Image credit: Felix Furtak, Lancia Auto SA

Those scenes are just a taste of what it took to coax the front-wheel drive machine across the continent; one which Felix so enjoyed that he later packed up his life (and the Lancia) in Germany to settle in Cape Town. And while an Italian sports car would be at the bottom of most petrolhead’s list for a transcontinental crossing (a Mercedes 123 or Peugeot 504 being near the top!) Felix wasn’t alone in his choice: fast forward to 2015 and 23-year-old Jethro Bronner got behind the wheel of his 1964 Alfa-Romeo Giulia GT Sprint in the Dargle valley in KZN and made tracks for Dargle in Ireland on his Dargle–to–Dargle adventure.

Image credit: Jethro Bronner

His 30,000km journey took him straight up the east side of Africa via Kenya and Ethiopia before going through Sudan and Egypt. After that Jethro stopped in Israel before shipping the little coupé to Greece and on to Italy for a pilgrimage to the Museo Historica – the Alfa museum on the old factory site in Arese. From there he headed to Norway to try his hand at snowboarding.

Image credit: Jethro Bronner

When I asked about breakdowns (he was in an Alfa after all…) Jethro looked somewhat surprised before recalling that yes, he had experienced one. In Italy of all places. Not Dar es-Salaam or Addis Ababa. Or Cairo. And it was after a float on one the Alfa’s Weber side-draft carburettors developed a hole. Fortunately Webers are about as common as spaghetti in that part of the world!

Image credit: Laura Morrison

Someone who did break down a lot was Laura Morrison. Heard of her? She made the local news just over a year ago when she turned up in the Mother City at the wheel of Charlie, her 1958 Morris Minor which she drove from Aberdeen in Scotland to Cape Town in aid of charity. Punch those two cities into Google Maps and you’ll get a distance of just under 15,000kms, assuming you’re brave enough to go down West Africa. Laura followed Jethro’s African route in reverse and covered 26,000kms. Between bouts of spannering that is. The little Morris is mechanically standard so we’re talking 1950s technology (i.e. drum brakes and points ignition) so it needed a fair bit of tinkering along the way.

Image credit: Laura Morrison

And although the Morris’ sheer charm meant help was never far away, some of it wasn’t always effective: Laura has a photo of Charlie with his gearbox being removed in a primitive roadside workshop in a bid to cure an intermittent running problem that would later turn out to stem from air entering the fuel line. And Charlie’s looks also won over officialdom…a Kenyan Chief of Police insisted on coming over to have a drink with Laura while the car’s looks later got her off the hook from several ‘dodgy’ speeding fines (as she said: “when you get five speeding tickets in a day in a Morris Minor you just know the system’s not right.”)

The late Heidi Hetzer with her Gucci tool bag

Another intrepid traveller who needed plenty of spannering (and was happy to spanner herself) was the late Heidi Hetzer. A well-known car dealer (and highly accomplished professional rally driver) from Berlin, the then 77-year-old kicked off her retirement by embarking on a round-the-world trip in her 1930 Hudson Great Eight in 2014.

Heidi with her Hudson in Cape Town.

The 85,000km journey mirrored one done by Clärenore Stinnes back in the late 1920s. But, while Clärenore rode shotgun with a mechanic, Heidi drove alone with spares and a handful of tools (in an old Gucci handbag nogal!). She put them to good use on several occasions including one night on the Argentinian/Chilean border. That’s where customs officials wanted to charge import duty as the Hudson was on the back of a truck (so deemed to be ‘cargo’) after it ran two big-end bearings. Heidi was having none of that so she dropped the Hudson’s sump, removed the pistons on the offending big ends and drove the now-six-cylinder car under its own power across the border…

Julia Albu and her trusty Toyota Conquest.

And adding to the proof that age is no barrier to overland adventure is our own Julia Albu and her ‘African Conquest’…a trip she made from Cape Town to London in 2018 in her Toyota Conquest.

It was in response to a radio discussion about the exorbitant cost of then-president Zuma’s new car which inspired Julia to call in to voice her displeasure. “Next year I'm going to be 80 years old. My car will be 20 years old. Together we'll be 100. We're going to drive to Cairo.” To which radio host John Maytham asked: “And what route will you take?” “I have no idea. I think I'll keep to the right.”

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