By: Trevor Bruce
Durban - Just a short way down the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, on the other side of Umkomaas, there's a sugar plantation with beautifully restored treasures that would make 'petrolheads' of even Jay Leno's calibre drool.
Nestled in among the classic cars and bikes in the numerous garages on the beautiful estate of Alan and Barbara Crookes is the biggest private collection of Excelsior motorcycles in the world (six of them!) and the only surviving fully-operational 1912 Sunbeam car which, incidentally, was once used by General Jan Christiaan Smuts - but more about that later.
The beauty of Crookes' collection, however, is that every one of them is in running condition, as he and his son Sean will prove when they - and another 130 intrepid riders - take part in the annual Durban to Johannesburg Reliability and Regularity Trial on 6 and 7 March, along with Rod Thomas, chairman of the Durban Classic Bike Club, each mounted on a machine owned by Alan, who, at 73, has completed 17 of these epic rides while his son Sean (47) has done eight.
Barbara brings up the rear with the back-up vehicle, trailer, spares and other essentials for the ride.
Each of the motorcycles they will be riding has a fascinating background.
Alan will be riding ND 20, the Excelsior 250cc that won the DJ in 1935 with the legendary Roy Hesketh in the saddle, in the incredible time of 6 hours 51min 41sec - on gravel roads all the way, over Van Reenen's Pass, opening and closing farm gates every few kilometres. And don't forget none of these bikes has any rear suspension, which makes the achievements of riders such as Hesketh all the more heroic.
Even now the ride on the rough, potholed old road to Johannesburg is not for sissies on these 'hardtailed' boneshakers.
Sean Crookes will be riding a 1936 Ariel 500 Red Hunter ‘twin port’, regarded as the most original example in South Africa. He neglected to mention, however, that he was the highest placed Durban competitor in 2001, 2010, 2012 and 2013 - but proud mom Barbara later sent me a text message with the details.
Thomas will be riding a 1935 500cc Excelsior, the only example in South Africa in running condition.
Alan explained that Jimmy Pickavane, a master craftsman originally from England, comes to the farm twice a week and turns whatever parts they need on a lathe, which Alan can also operate.
Amazingly, tyres for these ancient machines are still manufactured from the original moulds in England but, with the exchange rate is it is now, are becoming increasingly expensive.
Ironically, when Alan paid R4500 for four of his Excelsiors (and a treasure trove of spares) in 1993, a lot of people, including his wife, thought he was crazy.
Now, fully restored, they are worth R150 000 - R200 000 each.
Alan and Sean, who ride off-road on the farm and on the South Coast roads on one of the more modern fleet of nine BMWs - ranging from 1935 to the mid 70s - agreed that the DJ is getting tougher.
The traffic gets heavier each year, the potholes bigger, the trucks more intimidating and the Highveld hail and thunderstorms are often the cherry on the top of a tough trip but it doesn't look as if either intends quitting anytime soon.
They'll be lining up at the Heritage Market in Hillcrest at 6am on March 6 for the long haul.
As Sean says, “A couple of beers at the end of a hard day's riding sorts out all the aches and pains.”
The first Durban to Johannesburg 'DJ' motorcycle race was held in 1913 and the epic race was repeated each year until 1936, when authorities deemed it too dangerous to race on public roads.
It was revived in 1970 as a Reliability and Regularity Trial, over the same route of about 700km, open to any motorcycle or sidecar combination built on or before 31 December 1936 - which means that the youngest bikes in the trial this year are 77 years old - and has been a highlight of the Classic Motorcycling Calendar ever since.
No 'modern aids' for speed and distance calculation are permitted - just stopwatches, clocks or watches.
Times taken over the various sections have to be spot on - to the second - and points are lost for arriving at a check point either too soon or too late. Riders must make use of certain markings along the way and do their calculations of speed and distance making use of their 'primitive aids'.
ABOUT THAT 1912 SUNBEAM
This vintage car is a genuine time capsule - and the only one in running condition in the world.
Alan Crookes and his brother David jointly inherited the car from their father Colin, who was one of the founder members of the Veteran Car Club in Kloof in 1954.
The Sunbeam was the staff car of General Smuts - who later went on to be prime minister of South Africa - during the First World War from 1914 to 1918 and saw active service in Flanders, France, and North Africa where a sniper shot a hole through the bonnet and radiator.
The patch brazed in place on the battlefield is carried proudly on the front of the car to this day.
Alan says the only two things not original on the car are the colour, which was changed from the original battlefield brown to its present, lustrous maroon and black, and the wheels, which were originally wooden spokes but were swapped for the steel-spoked wheels off a cannon to be able to withstand the rigours of front-line duty.
The Sunbeam collectors club in England has no 1912 model in their collection but they do have wooden wheels; nevertheless, they refuse to part with them to enable Alan to restore this wonderful old machine back to totally original perfection.
Those who follow Chasing Classic Cars on DSTV will realise what an incredible amount of money this grand old car must be worth - I've seen cars far less rare and in far worse condition selling for millions of dollars at the major auctions in the United States.
For anybody wanting to have a look at this true classic, Alan and Barbara will be on the road in the Sunbeam in the Kloof Vintage Car Club's 60th celebrations on 9, 10 and 11 May.
Independent on Saturday