Dave Charlton, one of South Africa’s most successful and respected racing drivers, died in Johannesburg on Sunday afternoon, February 24. He was 76.
He won the first race he ever competed in (appropriately at the historic East London grand prix circuit in 1960) and also won his last (a charity celebrity race at Zwartkops Raceway in 1990). He competed in 13 World Championship Formula One Grands Prix and was South Africa’s champion driver for six consecutive years, from 1970 to 1975.
David William Charlton - or Charlie, as he was affectionately known to his friends - was born in Yorkshire, England and emigrated to South Africa with his parents when he was 10. He was brought up in Springs, a town he was proud to associate himself with, although he did not have fond memories of his schooling there.
“I hated school. I didn’t like being told what to do. Still don’t!”
A loyal friend, who in turn had many loyal friends, Charlie was known for his definite opinions, no-nonsense approach to life and a famous fastidiousness that knew no boundaries. He loved cats, at one time owning as many as 21, and several were named after people he knew, including one of his motor racing rivals.
He won his first race at the age of 24, a late start for a racing driver, at the wheel of his own Austin Healey 100/6 in a supporting race for the 1960 South African Grand Prix at East London. He went on to take over from his great rival, Rhodesian John Love, as South African champion racing driver in the days when the championship was contested in Formula One cars.
He won the first of his six successive titles (emulating Love’s performance between 1963 and 1969) in an ex-Jo Bonnier Lotus 49C. The same year he finished 12th in the SA GP at Kyalami in the same car.
His first world championship GP (he is one of 20 South Africans to race in Formula One) was at the wheel of an Ecurie Tomahawk Lotus 20 in SA in 1965 and thereafter he competed in the South African round of the world championship on another six occasions in an ex-Jack Brabham Brabham BT 11 (1967 and 1968), the Lotus 49C (1970), a works Brabham BT33 (1971) and the Scuderia Scribante Lotus 72D (1972 and 1973) and McLaren M23 (1974 and 1975). He also competed in the British GP in 1971 in the ex-Reine Wissell works Lotus 72D, which was subsequently bought by his patron, Aldo Scribante, for him to race.
It was in the Scribante Lotus 72D, sponsored by Lucky Strike and Sasol (the oil company’s first venture into motor sport), that Charlie, as the reigning South African champion, contested the French, German and British rounds of the 1972 F1 world championship.
A mysterious inner ear infection prevented him from performing at his best, but he will always be remembered for not only bringing his own car to Europe, but also his own petrol (200-litre drums of Sasol from Sasolburg flown over by South African Airways) as well as his own mechanics.
Such was his dominance at Kyalami that Rand Daily Mail cartoonist Bob Connolly, penned one of his topical “Breakfast Quips” on a Monday morning after yet another Charlton win the previous weekend, referring to Kyalami as the “Charlton Centre”.
On his 70th birthday he was asked what made the top drivers different.
“Their brain is properly connected to their arms and legs,” he replied. “They understand and feel what the car is doing. The top drivers just have an inherent skill and ability.”
He is survived by his daughters, Amanda Vermaak and Michelle Charlton, and a month-old grand-daughter, Anna Vermaak.
A memorial service for Charlton will be held on Wednesday 27 February at 10am at Fourways Memorial Park, 1 Inchanga Road, Fourways, Johannesburg.