Still no end to the winding road of the Eastern Cape’s motoring industry

Bob Kernohan

LEGEND has it that the birth of the nation’s motor industry – and mainstay of the Eastern Cape economy for close to 90 years – took place in the world’s automotive powerhouse of the time, the US city of Detroit.

Henry Ford, who said “history is bunk” but played a role in creating it, and his board were considering expansion of their empire. Ford automobiles were already being exported and sold in South Africa. But Ford wanted to increase sales there, so he called for a map of Africa, motor industry old timers often recalled.

 The way to do this, Ford decided, was to start building cars in the south of the massive continent. He stuck the map on the wall, studied it and pointed to a tiny southern spot next to the Indian Ocean.

“This place called Port Elizabeth looks pretty good. It’s a port and it’s sort of halfway between Cape Town and Durban and we can send the cars up-country to the gold fields of Johannesburg.”

 So, the legend goes, that is how Port Elizabeth came to be known as the “Detroit of South Africa” back in the days of 1923 and for decades after that.

From 1923 until the late 1970s – through Ford, General Motors and later Volkswagen – Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage were the main manufacturers. At one stage, Citroens and Volvos were also produced in the city, while the present VWSA began its existence producing various models, including Austins from Britain and Studebakers from the US.

And not only vehicle manufactures arrived, but the region attracted industrial giants seeking new production bases and markets for components at the tip of Africa. Hence the presence of Goodyear, Firestone (now Bridgestone), and Germany’s Continental Tyres.

Credit is due to the industry in Port Elizabeth breaking down job reservation laws, especially with the opening of the Ford engine plant on the edge of New Brighton in the 1960s. Ford negotiated with government to have some of the restrictions lifted in terms of employing black operators. These days in the 1970s and 1980s were when “social investment” became a part of corporate policy.

As early as 1948, Ford provided raw materials – packing cases – to build houses in New Brighton in what became to be known as KwaFord. In the late 1970s, those houses were replaced by some of the first small, but modern houses in the township through a donation of close to R1-million.

That was followed by a townhouse complex and other much more modern homes in what is called Fordville.

Companies like General Motors also undertook similar projects and widened their involvement into education (including pioneering in-house programmes), provision of sports facilities, health care, and general upliftment projects to close the economic, social and opportunity gaps.

That heritage lives on with some streets named after companies and their heads, including Bob Price Street in Hillside, named after a former GMSA managing director, Studebaker Street in Markman Township and Henry Ford Road in Neave.

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