England – South Africa – England
By Roger Bateman
1. A DREAM REALISED
I must have been 10 years old when I fell in love with a red MG T-Type belonging to a neighbour. I remember he’d said it was the rarest of all the T-Types. Now, with the wisdom that comes with age, I guess it must have been a TB – but then I neither knew nor cared. A T-Type was a T-Type, and I wanted one more than anything else.
I had to wait another 55 years before that wish was translated into reality. I came close a couple of times, but in 2015 I finally succumbed to a smart green 1947 TC in a classic car auction. In the catalogue it was said to be in condition 1 to 2, restored and ready to go after some recent work (“bills available”). My wife and I went to see it and, indeed, it looked to be just as described.
To my amazement I was not allowed to drive the car, nor even start the engine. “No, we don’t do that”, the auctioneers told me, “We’d end up with flooded engines, flat batteries and bits broken off if we allow that. You will have to wait to see it drive over the block on the day of the auction.”
I was, however, allowed to inspect the vehicle file. This MG had been exported new to South Africa in 1947 and repatriated in 1986, that much it did say, but it was very thin on documented history for a car supposedly fully restored. It contained only one invoice, a very recent one, for a new radiator, a cylinder head overhaul and, quote, “check brakes”. I rang the garage concerned and the boss told me that it was “a good old car with no vices”.
Cars at auction are bought ‘as seen’ and one has to rely on the catalogue description and one’s own knowledge. No comebacks. I reckoned I had done everything I could under the circumstances to ensure the car was OK. After 50 years in the motor trade I should have known better!
Well, it looked fine to me. As it turned out, everything that I could see was, in fact, fine. It was smartly painted British Racing Green with lovely tan leather interior and full weather equipment. Everything visible under the bonnet was nicely detailed and consistent with a restoration. It was what I couldn’t see that subsequently transpired wasn’t so good.
Left: TC2456 as purchased. Described as “Condition 1 – 2, a good car, no problems and no vices.”
On the big day my top bid was accepted and I hopped in to drive the car home. That journey, only 10 miles, was a nightmare. The steering had a mind of its own such that the car would dart around unexpectedly with no provocation, and the brakes were almost non-existent. Even my Austin Seven has better brakes, which will mean a lot to some readers!
When I started to investigate the problems, I soon found that only one brake was working, all the others having seized cylinders and oily linings. The steering presented an equal selection of horrors: the steering box was sloppy; the front axle was bent and twisted; the tie rod and drag link were distorted; the track rod ends were worn; and the drag link end was even home-made! The carburettors were a collection of mismatched parts. Finally, I discovered that the front engine mounting plate had been broken and re-welded so inaccurately that the engine was skew-whiff in the chassis.
It was obvious this MG had been in an accident at some time. No wonder the poor old car was more “Danger Fast” than Safety Fast!
2. TRACING THE HISTORY – ENGLAND
I decided to speak to the previous owners to find out what they knew. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency provided the names of the six previous UK owners before me, so it was not too difficult to get in touch with them.
Judging by the old MOT certificates, in the 30 years between the car arriving back in the UK and me buying it, it had only done 2,500 miles – perhaps because it was not safe to drive and previous owners had palmed it off in a hurry. Most likely the steering had been like that for years as I found evidence of a previous attempt to straighten the axle following an accident. It is completely remarkable none of the MOT tests had ever identified something wrong here.
I wanted to know more about it.
The First English Owner had UK-registered the car in June 1987. He worked for a car dealer in Preston and, as a sideline, he had moonlighted buying and selling classic and vintage cars well into his retirement. By the time I contacted him in 2015, he was into his eighties and said he couldn’t recall the car and stated categorically that he “knew nothing of TC2456 and had never imported any cars”. But he confirmed that the details on the documents are in his handwriting. There can be no mistake: this is the right person.
So, undaunted, I continued to track through the car’s ownership records in the hope that more would be revealed.
This brings us to the Second English Owner. He was a farmer with a large collection of quality cars who had added the MG in April 1988. He was the UK owner who’d had it for 18 years, so by far the longest. In that time, he had carried out some restoration to the car including a re-trim in tan leather and a repaint in green. From what I can gather, the car was hardly used in all this time, and was either undergoing restoration or afterwards sitting in the car collection. He eventually sold the MG in July 2006. His wife told me that they were aware of the ‘skittish steering’ but thought it was due to the ‘skinny tyres’.
The Third and Fourth English Owners each had the car for only a short time and couldn’t really tell me much about it, one refusing to talk with me.
The Fifth English Owner, would you believe, told me he was afraid to drive it because he was frightened of the brakes and steering! The last straw for him was an engine misfire which persuaded him to sell it.
The Sixth English Owner, the most recent, had owned the car for only 3 months and told me that they “didn’t like the steering and brakes so they decided not to keep it.”
And as for that garage whose recent invoice was in the file – well, if he had indeed “checked the brakes” I can imagine he possibly told his customer that repairs would be expensive, thus precipitating the hasty sale of the car.
Caveat emptor, indeed!
Well, the English history so far was singularly undistinguished, although it seemed to me that the first 40 years in South Africa must have been more exciting. To move forward (or backward!) from here, I needed to trace the South African history where the car had spent more than half its life. The crucial link to that seemed to be The First English Owner, but he could not. . . or would not. . . . tell me anything at all about the importation. This made me apprehensive. Was there more to this than met the eye? Perhaps the car had left South Africa illegally. Been stolen, or worse?
At this point I was stumped because, if he couldn’t tell where the car had come from, my history quest had hit the buffers.
3. THE QUEST CONTINUES – SOUTH AFRICA
To make any progress at all, I had to find some way to trace the history in South Africa – but how? I knew nothing of the country and certainly didn’t know anyone who lived there. I tried to find out information from the UK Customs and the South African Registration authorities, but neither could help.
After some thought, I decided to contact the MG Car Club of South Africa. From the import documents I knew the old South African registration number was DND 787T, and hoped someone might recognise it. From various sources I found the names of a couple of people in regional MG clubs, but they were unable to produce any results beyond telling me that the number plate was a Transvaal registration.
Then a thought occurred to me: if any family remain of the previous owners South Africa they may well not be MG enthusiasts, let alone car enthusiasts, and therefore would not be active in the MG scene today. This led on to the bright idea that I should write to the Johannesburg Star, one of the Transvaal (now Gauteng) mainstream newspapers.
They published my letter and, in due course, I was excited to receive an email from a member of the MG Car Club Johannesburg Centre. He kindly said he’d see what he could do to help. This resulted in TC2456’s picture appearing on the cover of the January 2016 issue of their club magazine, Thumbs Up, plus an article outlining my quest inside.
Despite very high hopes that this would crack the problem, nothing came of it.
Then, after a while, I remembered that in my last job (working for a pre-war Bentley restorer) we had a customer who specialised in researching vehicle histories. I got in touch with him, not realising that he had originated from the Eastern Cape of South Africa and had owned an MG TC himself. He was enthusiastic and gave me a wealth of suggestions, including such contacts as Dr Joan Parker who maintains a register of MGs in South Africa.
Dr Parker replied saying she only kept details of TDs but suggested I contact the Secretary of the Johannesburg MG Car Club (who had, of course, already unsuccessfully published my plea in their Thumbs Up magazine). Of course, I did so again, and club chairman Bruce Dixon got in touch to say he would try to find out the ownership history of DND 787T.
Well – what Bruce did, and how he did it, I have no idea. I probably shouldn’t know either, but I am extraordinarily grateful to him! Within a couple of weeks’ he sent me a laconic message informing me that “the name of the last registered owner was J. Kat”. Bingo!
Bruce had also discovered his ID Number which indicated that he was 85 years old in 2016. But, unfortunately, no contact details were available through the normal channels.
But now I had a name to toy with, a real person who had owned TC2456, and something to get my teeth into. However, considering his age, I had to realistically consider that he might no longer be alive. After much Googling, attacking the problem from different angles, I discovered that there was a firm of quantity surveyors in Pretoria called J Kat and Associates. This being such an unusual name, there had to be some connection. There was a string of phone numbers for this firm in the yellow pages – none of which worked except one, but that went unanswered.
Then tackling it from the quantity surveyor angle, I found that J Kat and Associates were listed as members of the Association of South African Quantity Surveyors. Their helpful secretary confirmed that the firm’s proprietor, Mr Jacob Kat, was indeed a still member but now retired (at 85, so I should hope!). She wouldn’t pass me his contact details for confidentiality reasons, but agreed to ask him if he would speak with me. In due course I was told that if he had indeed owned the car, he would be pleased to do so. Would I send details and a photo to pass on to him? This I did with alacrity and waited for a response.
But the response was stony silence. By now it was mid-December 2016 and I didn’t realise that South Africa virtually shuts down for a month at Christmas. I bided my time impatiently until January 12, and then followed up with the Association. I was told that Mr Kat’s memory is not as sharp as it used to be and he couldn’t recall the car, so they were regretfully unable do any more to help me.
So, what next? I felt I had hit a brick wall again.
I decided to try the unanswered phone number for J Kat & Associates periodically at different times of the day, and eventually the phone was picked up by a courteous gentleman who replied, yes, he was indeed Mr Kat. He was intrigued by my quest, but was very apologetic that he couldn’t remember this MG. However, he told me that cars were his passion, particularly MGs and Jaguars.
He then suggested that I talk with his daughter, Ingrid, who might be able to help. He gave me her mobile number, which I rang, only to discover to my astonishment that she lives less than 100 miles from me in London UK! Even more remarkable, at that very moment she was packing to fly to South Africa to visit her father, and she agreed to see what she could find out about TC2456.
A day or two later and I would have missed her!
Ingrid was incredibly helpful, despite being very busy with family matters while she was in South Africa. She was there for 2 or 3 weeks and emailed me periodically with information she had discovered. First came a series of photos taken in the 1980s of her father with the MG.
Above left: Jacob Kat and canine assistant working on TC2456 in August 1980. Above right: Note the unique indicator lamps, made in Pinetown, South Africa, which are still on the car today. The horn and (incorrect) fog lamp were fitted in these positions on export cars but reversed for the UK.
There can be no doubt that it is the same car as there are some features that are still present on the car today.
Then, to my surprise, a photo of a TC wooden dashboard arrived in my inbox with the message that it belonged to TC2456 and had been found displayed over Jacob’s fireplace.
The photo from Ingrid of the wooden dashboard that had been displayed over Jacob Kat’s fireplace for three decades. This style was fitted to all TCs until replaced with a Rexine covered panel at about TC5000.
Ingrid promised to bring the dashboard back as hand luggage along with some documents she had found! She was as good as her word and I went to visit her in London to collect them. No way was I going to entrust them to couriers! The documents were remarkable in that they were the key to unlocking the history of the car from 1967 right up to when it was shipped to the UK in 1986, helping to reveal the following fascinating story.
4. SOUTH AFRICA 1947 – 1986
This MG TC sports car, chassis number TC2456, was built at Abingdon, UK on 26 March 1947 and exported new to Durban, South Africa. The British Government’s “Export or Die” initiative meant that a large percentage of new car production had to be exported to earn much-needed foreign currency after WW2. MG TC overall production was fairly low: a total of only 10,000 cars were built, of which 2,359 were built in 1947.
The MG dealership in Durban, McCarthy Rodway, occupied an impressive 1930s art deco-style multi- fronted building on Smith Street, with the showrooms at ground level facing the wide street and the workshops on the first floor. These were accessed by a ramp, which was said to be a real test of their mechanics’ driving skills, making one wonder how they got broken-down cars up there.
McCarthy Rodway were Nuffield dealers for MG, Morris, Wolseley and Riley (and later all BMC products as well as possibly Jaguar and Rolls-Royce). They were heavily involved with the creation of Motor Assemblies Ltd of Durban in the 1940s, which was an assembler of various makes of English and American vehicles that were imported in kit form for supply to the local market. These included most Nuffield products – except MG, until the TD was introduced in 1950.
MG TCs were only exported as complete cars, and incidentally in right hand drive only. McCarthy Rodway received only 16 TCs out of the total 139 shipped to South Africa and Rhodesia 1947, so it would have been a pretty rare car in those days.
A view up Smith Street, Durban. The McCarthy Rodway building can be seen at bottom left of the picture. This was in the mid-1960s but the scene would not have changed much since TC2456 was delivered there new in 1947.
At this stage it is not known who was the first owner of TC2456. As so few MG TCs were supplied to McCarthy Rodway in 1947, this car was probably pre-sold and therefore didn’t spend much time in the showroom; but undoubtedly it would have had its pre-delivery inspection in the upstairs workshop and probably several of its early services too.
The documents reveal that the car was painted red when new and registered by Transvaal Province (TP) with the number TP 188-354. The numbering system was changed at some point after 1980 when the car was allocated the number DND 787T (T for Transvaal), which remained on the car until it was exported to the UK in 1986.
By the 1960s the car was owned by Neil Albertyn of Pretoria, but it is not known when he bought it, nor from whom. He sold it to quantity surveyor Jacob Kat in 1967. Jacob was a great vintage car enthusiast and collector; at any one time owning several in various stages of repair. In addition to TC2456 it is known he had a 1938 Rolls-Royce 25/30, 1925 Reo, an Austin Seven Nippy and a Chevrolet as well as Jaguars XK 120, XK 150 and E-type. A true enthusiast, indeed.
The car was still red when Jacob bought it and described as being ‘off the road’, so presumably its first 20 years of life on the rough and dusty South African rural roads had been hard.
The car remained in this condition in Jacob’s garage until 1969, when he sold a half-share to David Cleland, whom Jacob had known since they were students together. David renovated the car to roadworthy condition, including repainting it green. In due course, in 1979, he sold his half-share back to Jacob. Distinctive features of the car were a chrome plated griffin mascot on the radiator cap as well as the unique indicator lamps.
TC 2456 with Jacob’s feline passenger as it was after David Cleland’s renovation.
In 1973 the car was featured in a film called The Sargent and the Tiger Moth by Koos Roets, the South African director.
Naturally I was keen to find a copy of this film. There was nothing on the internet so I contacted the British National Film Archive, but without result. I also got in touch with the South African Tiger Moth Club who confirmed details of the aeroplanes but had no knowledge of the film. Eventually I found that the South African National Film Archive did have a copy. They were very helpful, but could not release one to me without the permission of the copyright holder whom they had listed as Koos Roets, the director.
Koos was happy to correspond with me about the film and he remembered TC2456 well, despite the intervening forty years. He told me that the MG was in excellent condition at the time of the filming, and that he had himself driven the car 120 miles to a farm near Standerton where the filming had taken place. The yellow Tiger Moth ZS BGL that was the ‘hero aircraft’ in the film was owned by Koos himself; and the leading actress, Katinka Heyns, was his wife.
Above left: TC2456 in the opening scene of the film, The Sargent and the Tiger Moth. Above right: The Tiger Moth ZS CKX today which was owned by Jacob Kat in the 1970s and featured in the film with TC2456.
Jacob also owned one of the de Havilland Tiger Moth aeroplanes used in the film, then painted blue and silver and registered ZS CKX. He had bought this from Koos, who says that the MG had been intended to be the deposit on the purchase of this plane; but it seems, when it came to it, that Jacob couldn’t bring himself to part with the car. Despite owning the plane, Jacob did not register it in his name, nor gain his pilot’s licence. This aeroplane has since been restored and is today kept at Rand Airport, Johannesburg.
However, as far as the film copyright was concerned, Koos told me that he had sold the rights to kykNET, a South African satellite TV service. After a bit of digging I was able to contact the chief executive at kykNET who generously agreed to send me a DVD. It took an anxious month to arrive but, when I was finally able to view the film, I was delighted to see that it really did feature TC2456; there are some unique features on the car which also appear in Jacob’s 1980 photos and are still present today.
I was intrigued that in the film the MG bore yet another number plate. I contacted Koos again and he told me this was a false one; for authenticity the car had been given an appropriate Potchefstroom area number plate as the film was set around the University there.
Jacob continued to use the car for shows, car club events and so on until 1980. Then disaster struck. On 9th October 1980 Jacob was involved in an accident in which the MG collided with another car, causing it to overturn. Jacob was not seriously hurt and was able to crawl out from under the wreckage, complete with his trusty camera, and began taking photos of the scene. The car was quite seriously damaged: the windscreen was broken off, the nearside wings were crushed, the radiator shell damaged and his beloved griffin mascot lost its wings. This, of course, must have been the accident which caused the bent front axle and broken engine mounting that I discovered 30 years later.
The next two pictures show some of the damage caused by the accident in October 1980, showing broken-off windscreen and crushed nearside rear wing. The car was repaired and a claim was settled by the Shield Insurance Company Ltd for 2618.20 Rand.
By the time the claim had been settled, Jacob had already sold the MG to a family friend, Glenda Pasley, in 1981. Ingrid introduced me to Glenda, who has been extremely helpful by filling in details and background to this history, periodically emailing me with more things as she remembers them. Glenda and Jacob were members of Pretoria Old Motor Club. They regularly attended meetings, including the annual ‘Cars in The Park’ event where they displayed their cars alongside many other vehicles of all ages and types.
Glenda carried out a number of improvements to the car, and removed the damaged griffin mascot for return to Jacob for safe keeping. She had bought a new wooden dashboard, the very same one that Ingrid had carried back to London for me in 2017. It is the correct pattern for the car and was intended to replace the ‘period-trendy’ padded leatherette one (which can be seen in the Tiger Moth film and presumably fitted by David Cleland when he carried out the earlier renovation work) but Glenda never fitted it. Instead it had made its way to Jacob’s mantelpiece where it stayed for the next three decades. The steering wheel was replaced as the original had been damaged in the accident. There was a vintage car specialist in Johannesburg called Rolo Motors who could obtain parts for these cars.
In 1986 the MG was sold to a Johannesburg car dealer, who also bought two cars from Jacob at the same time. These were a 1938 Rolls-Royce 25/30 limousine (SA registration DYC 273T) that had reputedly been a South African Government car, and a 1925 Reo (registration CPB 083T). All three cars were subsequently sold by the dealer to the same purchaser.
The three cars were bought by a businessman from Manchester, UK. I was able to trace him through his firm’s address on the export documents. Remarkably, he was still the proprietor and happy to talk with me. He recalled that he had purchased the three cars as an investment from the dealer in Johannesburg and shipped them to the UK.
This ship that carried TC2456 to the UK has an interesting history. She was built in Italy in 1963 and originally named Simonetta. Her main engine was a nine-cylinder, two-stroke Fiat B750S.9 developing 12,600 bhp at 135 rpm – numbers which all seem very odd to those more familiar with motor car engines. Her maximum speed was 16 knots, which is rather slow by the standards of today’s ships.
The ship was sold in 1981 to the Mediterranean Shipping Co. She was adapted to carry containers and re-named Simona 1. She lasted in this form and ownership until broken up in 1986 at the vast ships’ graveyard at Chittagong, Bangladesh, where scores of ships are beached along an 11 mile length of coastline and torn apart for scrap by locals wearing little more than loincloths and sandals.
The voyage which transported TC2456 from Durban to Felixstowe in 1986 must have been one of the last undertaken by this ship before sailing to her fate at Chittagong later that same year.
Simona 1 unloading at Felixstowe in 1983/4. The scene would have been pretty much the same when she unloaded TC2456 here in 1986.
The Manchester businessman told me that he did not register TC2456 in the UK but had instead immediately part-exchanged it for a new MG Maestro saloon with Southern Brothers, a British Leyland dealer in Bolton which is only 12 miles from Manchester. What happened to the Rolls-Royce and Reo are unknown, but presumably they were also sold quickly to turn a profit.
Southern Brothers Ltd no longer exists and nor do they appear on the list of UK owners of TC2456; but they presumably sold it on because vintage cars were not their business.
So, to whom did they sell it?
Well, I think now we can make an educated guess which brings us full circle back to The First English Owner. Firstly, remember he worked for car dealer in Preston, not a million miles from the Southern Brothers garage in Bolton – in fact, very close geographically indeed.
The motor trade being what it is, he may well have heard about the MG ‘through the trade’ and might have ‘taken it off their hands’ as stock for his classic car dealing sideline. He would have registered it in the UK to make it more saleable.
It is with some relief that now there can be no doubt about the probity of the import of the car. It is entirely feasible that he may not recall the car because it was just one of many that he had traded over 30 years ago. Just an old man’s memory being unkind.
7. MG TC2456 TODAY
Today TC2456 is a nicely patinated, well-travelled, much-loved old car that is in regular use. It shares a garage with a 1937 Riley Kestrel 1 ½ litre, a 1932 Austin Seven and a 1971 VW campervan.
The 1990s English body restoration is holding up well. The paint and interior are still very smart and the car attracts favourable comments and appreciative waves wherever it goes. Glenda Pasley’s wooden dashboard has at last been reunited with the car but the instrument faces, faded from original pale green to silver in the fierce SA sun, have been left as they are as homage to the first 40 years of the car’s life. Similarly, the dents remain in the radiator shell, mementos of Jacob’s accident; it is interesting to reflect that the radiator has had these dents for longer than not.
The unique direction indicators, made by Pinetown of South Africa, are still on the car and functioning well.
Since purchasing the MG in 2015 I have undertaken a programme of repairs and improvements, both to overcome inherent faults and to make it more suitable for modern roads and continental touring.
The damaged front engine mounting plate has been replaced so the engine sits square in the chassis. There is now a new clutch. The worn BC steering box has been replaced by a VW unit. The bent front axle has been straightened and fitted with new high tensile front stubs. The rear spring hangers have been strengthened. The bodged rear axle, revealed when a half shaft broke on a steep Devon hill in 2016, has now been properly overhauled with high tensile tapered half shafts, high ratio differential, new differential carrier and taper roller bearings. The water pump is now a heavy-duty type with 7-blade fan. This winter the gearbox is being overhauled to overcome noisy end float in main and lay shafts and to install a strengthened rear plate.
For modern touring I have made a few discreet improvements, all reversible if so wished in the future. I have concealed a period Lucas ST38 rear lamp behind the spare wheel which acts as a ‘high level’ stop, tail and rear fog light. This is painted body colour and is only obvious when it shines through the spokes. All lights are LED for brightness on modern roads with minimal drain on the battery. I have also mounted a spare fuel pump and coil on the bulkhead in typical vintage style, ready for instantly swapping over the connections should one fail. Also a modern USB style socket is concealed between the seat cushions for charging GPS sat nav and mobile phone; two concessions to modernity that are actually very useful!
TC2456 is not a show queen as I believe cars are meant to be driven. I use it for everyday driving as well as holidays in England. We have also undertaken two French tours of 760 and 980 miles respectively. It goes without saying that it is now a delight to drive, and I like to think that Jacob Kat would approve.
Above left: Stopped for coffee at a village café in France. Above right: Driving into a French sunset.
The author expresses grateful thanks to the following people who have been unstinting with their help and advice:
Ingrid Crawford, Glenda Pasley, Bruce Dixon, Koos Roets, Yolisa Phahle (kykNET), Eric Worpe, Will Morrison, Roger Furneaux.
I am trying to fill in TC2456’s missing years from 1947 to 1967. If anyone knows someone who bought a new MG TC in South Africa in 1947 (remember it was bright red then), it might conceivably be my car; or has any knowledge of the late Neil Albertyn of Pretoria; or, indeed, any information at all about the car during these years, I am very keen to hear from you at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Another MG TC, number TC2459, was also built on 26 March 1947; being three chassis numbers after my TC, it would have been three cars behind on the production line. Undoubtedly it was shipped to McCarthy Rodway of Durban in the same consignment. This car is still in South Africa and is now owned by Brian James, the grandson of Reginald James who was a member of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1916. Brian obtained it from his father, David W. “Viv” James.
The copyright for this work belongs to Roger Bateman (email@example.com) and may not be reproduced without his permission (in whole or in part). The copyright holder may authorise it to be used by more than one publication.
Ed’s note: Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that Roger obtained details of the six previous UK owners from DVLA. This was before the Agency’s change in policy brought about by its review.