Motorsport in South Africa. In the first of a two-part special we bring you the story of how BMW came to conquer South African motorsport. 3½ Decades of BMW Motorsport in South Africa. In this first part of a double feature we look back 34 years at BMW’s involvement in motorsport in South Africa through the eyes of Alec Ceprnich and the significant contribution that he has made. Words: Johann Venter /// Photography: Oliver Hirtenfelder
This double-feature is a culmination of the many South African features that have appeared in BMW Car over the years. Regular readers will be familiar with some of the cars in this formidable line-up that we have assembled here today through which Alec’s legacy will unfold.
Alec Ceprnich entered the motoring fraternity in 1970 as a motor mechanic apprentice at Sydney Clow and Company which was part of the Atkinson Oates Group – representing Peugeot/Citroen in South Africa at the time. Alec qualified in 1973, and three years later the planets aligned and Atkinson Oates was incorporated into McCarthy which oversaw the BMW operation in South Africa. A course was set in motion that not even Alec could have imagined, one that would ultimately see his destiny intertwined with that of BMW.
Alec however didn’t wait for BMW for his first foray into racing. While doing his apprenticeship he helped a colleague prepare his Mini which raced in class F of the Star (newspaper) Modified Saloon Car Championship. Alec explains: “Gerald and I used to prepare the car on a Friday afternoon for racing on Saturdays, there was no practise on Friday in those days.” Having cut his teeth working on French cars he built a Renault 8 for his brother in-law from his garage at home. The car raced for two years, taking second in both years in class E in the Star Modified Saloon Car Championship.
Shortly after McCarthy took over Atkinson Oates, BMW South Africa recognised Alec’s potential and approached him to join as the Johannesburg regional service manager. Alec points out: “In the ’70s that included Johannesburg obviously but also Pretoria, northern Transvaal and Botswana.” In 1976 he met Robbi Smith who was also destined to become an intrinsic part of his motorsport life and career. Robbi had acquired a championship winning class C Escort 1600 Mark 1 and Alec prepared the car which led to their first championship together – Robbi securing the Class C 1976 Star Modified Saloon Car Championship.
To complete Alec’s winning trio enter Peter Kaye-Eddie; these three men would take on any challenger including BMW Works teams and more often than not come out on top.
In 1980 Peter Kaye-Eddie bought an E12 530, which in the hands of Eddie Keizan had won the 1976 and 1977 Star Modified Saloon Car Championship. Unfortunately in the 1981 season the car had plenty of DNFs due to the crank breaking and Robbi could only manage second in Class A. The team however surprised themselves that same year at the 9-Hour endurance race at Kyalami finishing fourth overall. It also took the index of performance, was first South African car home, won its class for saloon cars and beat all the M1s including the works team. “There is nothing like beating the factory team, more especially if the factory team is from Germany,” comments Alec.
In 1982 the Star Modified Saloon Car Championship for class A still did not allow for fuelinjection, the E12/8 535i (an E12 with E28 interior, unique to South Africa) campaigned by the Peter Kaye-Eddie team had to be retrofitted with three carbs to comply. Alec explains: “Most of that year was spent on development, there was no real factory involvement although Geoff Goddard (BMW SA engineer from the UK) provided advice. Tony Viana also helped with the development and occasionally the drive and we took second in the drivers’ standing to Willie Hepburn in a Chevy SS 5.7-litre.”
Above: Alec Ceprnich – the man behind so many BMW race cars. Above right: State of the art JSN dealership as it is today. Right: The heavily modified 333i campaigned by Robbi Smith in 1985. Below: Robbi in the 535 at Kyamali; Contemporary JSN advertising majored on its location and the input it had in looking after BMW’s race cars in South Africa.
In 1983 the Peter Kaye-Eddie BMW privateer team was able to dominate the Wesbank Modified Saloon Car Championship and Robbi secured the team’s first driver’s title in class A. Meanwhile back at BMW SA Alec was kept busy; going to Gaborone in Botswana every month for a couple of days. Alec remembers all the hassles he needed to contend with: “In particular having to sort out issues on very early E23 745is as skills were lacking in servicing what was then state-ofthe- art. I really became tired of travelling to Gaborone; I used to call on JSN Motors [in Johannesburg] so when Johnny Stavros offered me the position of service manager I grabbed it.”
And so the next chapter in Alec’s rich BMW history began with JSN and this story would not be complete without understanding how this significant player in production car racing in South Africa started. John Stavros Neophitou was infatuated by motor cars and had developed a keen interest in racing. He worked for a stint in Maputo, formerly known as Lourenço Marques (in Mozambique) and on his return to South Africa he would start his own business. John’s interest in motorsport was further fuelled while in Maputo as he was able to interact first-hand with the locals about racing in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was so popular in Mozambique, especially the Grand Prix de Moçambique on the famous street circuit around the Polana Hotel, which often drew well-known race drivers from the European circuits.
“He won the season in spectacular fashion winning 20 of the 24 races”
On the 1st April 1975, which happened to be his birthday John opened an Esso filling station with an adjoining workshop, appropriately called JSN Motors to service British Leyland cars in Anderson Street in downtown Johannesburg. The service that JSN offered was of such a nature that BMW owners were soon lining up to have their cars taken care of, even though JSN was not an approved BMW service centre. By 1977 the demand was such that JSN was awarded a BMW franchise and so the legacy of one John Stavros Neophitou was set in motion.
In 1982 JSN became the sole importer and distributor for AC Schnitzer on the African continent. The premises were upgraded and renovated over the years to accommodate the growing number of customers. In 1995, however, after twenty years of being in the CBD, JSN moved to Sandgate in Kramerville in the north of Johannesburg to be closer to its customers. JSN’s growth was so phenomenal in the early 2000s that it was literally bursting at the seams. John realised that he would have to find a bigger facility; he didn’t have to look very far as he acquired two properties across the road to build a new home for JSN.
In 2008 JSN moved into these purpose-built stateof- the-art premises which are one of the most impressive dealerships I’ve seen in South Africa. It has approximately 10,000 square metres of floor space under roof and comprises of four levels: basement, workshop, showroom with a separate section for Pre- Owned vehicles plus another showroom on the top floor with a spectacular spiral driveway which links the ground showroom to the one in the sky.
Unfortunately, John would not live to see his vision accomplished as he passed away in November 2004. Stavros, his son would have to fill his very significant shoes. Fortunately Stavros had been trailing in his father’s footsteps since he could remember, working in the family-run business during school holidays. In 2004 he was sent to the BMW Business School, to complete a seven month programme aimed at developing future leaders within the BMW dealer network. Shortly after his return his dad passed away and Stavros was dropped into the hot seat and has been at the helm since November 2004.
Recently JSN has become an full-on M dealership. Plans are underway to renovate part of the dealership to comply with all the M requirements so that M customers enjoy a totally focused M experience. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here…
By the time Alec got to JSN it had become a major sponsor of the Kaye-Eddie team and the car was prepared at its facilities after work. Unfortunately Robbi suffered a back injury in 1984 and Peter Kaye-Eddie then turned to Michael Formato who had schooled with John Neophitou to pilot the car, and unfortunately Michael could only manage to secure second in Class A of the Wesbank Modified Saloon Car Championship.
Above: JSN E30 325i Shadowline campaigned by Robbi Smith in 1986 and 1987 seasons. Robbi was leading the championship in 1987 but front suspension failure on the car at the Castrol 9-Hours meant he lost the title by two points. Above: The JSN E30 325iS Evo 2 driven by Robbi Smith that was Group N Class A Championship Winner in 1993.
In 1985 Peter was able with the help of Geoff Goddard to secure an BMW E30 333i which competed in class A of the Wesbank Modified Saloon Car Championship against Mazda with rotary engines and V8s. It was highly out-gunned and eventually moved to class B where it started winning, definitely a case of too little too late. Most people are under the impression that Tony Viana raced the only modified E30 333i in the Famous Windfield livery, he was in fact second to Robbi and four years later in 1989.
So let’s have a look at the eleven track brawlers assembled here and let each translate what transpired next. In 1985 the South African racing fraternity saw the introduction of the most fiercely contested production car race series – Group N. BMW responded in 1986 and introduced the E30 325i Shadowline with a power increase from 161hp (120kW) to 169hp (126kW). Ten light-weight versions were produced by the factory with the intention to be raced, BMW SA kept four and the rest were distributed among the dealers. We asked Alec to tell us a little bit more about the car we see here in the pictures: “This is the very car that JSN got [and fortunately have kept], in the JSN and Schnitzer livery which we campaigned in the Group N Championship under class A. During the season we were banned for three races at Kyalami due to what was deemed nonstandard lower arm control bushes and Robbi lost the championship by one point.
“In 1987 Robbi was leading the championship and was also in the lead at the Castrol 9-Hour at Killarney in Cape Town when he suffered from suspension failure after six hours and lost the race and the championship by two points to Tony Viana in the Works BMW.”
The E30 325i Shadowline in the Winfield livery that is now owned by Peter Kaye-Eddie was one of JSN’s biggest rivals: “Without a doubt this is the very BMW Works car that Tony Viana managed to secure the class A Stannic Group N Championships with, in 1986 and 1987 plus to add insult to injury he also won the 9- Hour in 1987.” It might look nigh-on perfect now but when it arrived at JSN it wan’t a pretty picture to put it mildly as Alec recounts: “It was stuffed, Geoff Goddard somehow managed to secure the car after the 1987 season – the car was then left on a farm for fifteen years, so much for preserving our racing heritage. We even found rat carcasses inside when we began the restoration. We gutted the interior, Peter provided an interior from another Shadowline that had rolled at Kyalami. The turrets mounts/housing for the shocks had to be replaced, we sand-blasted the body and suspension – sprayed the body and powder-coated the suspension. The motor was completely intact though and only needed some fine tuning.” Despite the love and attention that’s been lavished on the car it still races today in the Davdi Piper International as well as some historic and club racing.
Right: The iconic BMW E23 745i that was driven with so much success by Tony Viana in 1985, an amazing feat for such an unlikely race car. Evolution 2 was heavily involved in its restoration in 2005. Below: Peter Kaye-Eddie Goodyear E36 328i driven by Anthony Taylor in 1997, and (left) the restored car as it is today. Below (middle): The Peter Kaye-Eddie Goodyear E46 328i campaigned by Roets and van der Linde in 2001. Bottom: Stunning E46 330i.
So the 1988 season comes around: “Johnny wanted a new car from BMW for the 1988 season and we did not get one. In 1989 Peter had to go it alone without sponsorship; it was tough but still he managed to buy a brand new Shadowline which we prepared. That year Robbi suffered a huge crash at the old Zwartkops track at the corner coming into the pits – scaffolding was erected to allow the cameraman to get better coverage. Geoff, Viana and Robbi went three abreast into the corner, Robbi was on the outside, Willie Hepburn then rear-ended him with the Opel Superboss, and sent him flying straight into the scaffolding. So no titles were secured in the early days of racing the BMW E30.”
The Group N Class A Championship for production cars was at its height in the late ‘80s through to the early ‘90s with various manufacturers offering unique homologation specials to the South African market, this included Toyota with its Corolla RSi. But nothing can compare to the rivalry between the two German manufacturers Opel (Vauxhall) sporting the Superboss – the third and final iteration of the Kadett 200 GSi 16V pushing out 125kW (168hp). BMW offering the E30 325iS, the second and final version commonly referred to as the EVO 2.
Alec takes up the story again: “The first version of the 325iS was introduced in 1990 and was developed by Geoff Goddard, Tony Viana and Gino Remondini from BMW SA, in conjunction with Alpina. Significantly the M Technik aero kit now came as standard, the entire front end was made from aluminium with the E30 M3 suspension. The 2.7-litre engine was uprated increasing power output by 25hp (19kW) to 194hp (145kW) at 5800rpm producing maximum torque of 195lb ft (265Nm) at 4000rpm.” BMW didn’t exactly achieve what they set out to do: “Unfortunately this was not enough to fend off the onslaught of the Opel Kadett – Michael Briggs still managed to clinch the Stannic Group N Championship in his SuperBoss. But BMW would not give up the fight: So the EVO 2 was introduced in 1991, we had to take off the gloves completely to put the Opel Superboss in its place.”
To try and get on par with the dominant Opel BMW made further changes to the 325iS as Alec remembers: “The aluminium bonnet, fenders and door panels reverted back to steel. Alpina modified the cylinder head increasing the compression ratio from 9.8:1 to 10.4:1, power thus increased to 208hp (155kW) at 5920rpm and an aerodynamic cover was installed underneath the car to improve airflow and front end grip.
“We again went toe-to-toe with the Superboss of Briggs, Viana even breaking the lap record at Zwartkops but when Briggs won the Castrol 7-Hour at Killarney in the Cape it was all over.” Eventually Alec and JSN did win the title in the 1993 season with the 325iS we see here in white with the JSN and Firehawk livery. “We won in 1993 but before we get to it you need to understand what happened in 1992. We’d definitely learnt some valuable lessons in 1991 so to start from a clean slate in 1992 we opted for a silver 325iS which really stood out. Tony was leading the Stannic Group N Championship up until the 19th July [when he became ill] with 125 points over Mike Briggs with 121 points. Robbi was having the drive of his life, (even at age 43) he was very competitive throughout the season, setting new fastest lap times at Welkom. In those days the championship had an inland and coastal component, he won the inland title, winning 13 out of the 24 inland races, attributing much of his success to the Firestone Firehawk tyres. The factory paid the Peter Kaye-Eddie team to participate in the coastal races to ensure overall victory. This did not always work in their favour as Robbi still won some of the races during the track sparing of Deon Joubert and Mike Briggs. Robbie joined Hannes Oosthuizen in the Works team to win the Castrol 9-Hour race, beating fellow Works drivers, Deon Joubert and Geoff Goddard by thirteen laps as they had a lost a wheel during the race due to a wheel-nut not being properly done up. Unfortunately it was not enough to secure the championship.”
In 1993 Robbi was once again pitted against the Works BMW team of Tony Viana and Deon Joubert: “He won the season in spectacular fashion winning 20 of the 24 races and to ensure the whitewash he took the Castrol 9-Hour with Geoff Goddard 10 laps ahead of their closest rivals.” It wasn’t all plain sailing during the 9-Hour though: “As I recall Robbi cracked the sump while taking evasive action, avoiding another car which was coming at him in the opposite direction – the vacuum enclosed system in the engine prevented oil from leaking.”
The team was elated to win the championship: “We were all delighted,” recounts Alec. “Peter, myself and John, taking on the mighty Works teams and coming out on top. I remember that year, Johnny Stavros smoking a packet of Camel plain (no filter) over 10 laps at the second race in Cape Town. Those cigarettes are probably banned today, truly what can be referred to as the good old days.”
In the 1994 season the E36 was introduced and Johnny shied away from getting involved due to the build quality: “Yes, one couldn’t exactly blame him as he had his hands full, explaining to customers why their interiors were falling apart. Peter Kaye-Eddie however managed to secure Firestone as a major sponsor. It was a natural fit as Robbi had found in the last two seasons that the Firehawks were superior to both the Continental and Goodyear tyres and gave him the edge. This however meant that the car was prepared at Peter’s home in Norwood [a suburb in the north of Johannesburg]. Robbi took victory on his maiden outing with the E36 325i at Killarney in Cape Town in round four of the Stannic Group N Championship.” Robbi in fact managed to fight off his main rival Ben Morgenrood in the Works Sasol Mazda MX6 to make it two championships on the trot as Alec remembers: “We again managed to beat the Works team and also secured the Cape 9-Hour with Geoff Goddard.”
In 1995 Auto Bavaria became the main sponsor together with Firestone, and Geoff Goddard as part of Auto Bavaria became team manager and second driver. Alec by this time though had left JSN and joined Auto Bavaria as its Service Manager: “The positive side was that we were able to prepare all cars at the Auto Bavaria workshop instead of working from Peter’s home. Unfortunately nine days prior to the debut of the new car Geoff suffered a near fatal accident on the 20 April which put him out of contention for most of the season.” The season was not without controversy though: “At Zwartkops rounds 9 and 10 Robbi took victory in both rounds but was disqualified due to the anti-roll bar which was found to be 1mm wider than what it should have been.
Geoff returned for rounds 19 and 20 at Midvaal, Grant van Schalkwyk however managed to secure the Stannic Group N Championship at Welkom in his Transworld E36 325i, with Robbi having to contend with second place. Grant would go on to win the ’96 season as well in his E36 328i. In late 1996 I started Evolution 2 Motorsport with the specific intention of preparing and restoring race cars.”
In 1997 Peter Kaye-Eddie purchased the winning E36 328i of Grant van Schalkwyk. Peter once again became the team principal with Firestone Firehawk and Auto Bavaria as the two main sponsors. The car was prepared at the Evolution 2 workshop and Anthony Taylor was signed as the driver – Robbi Smith in the Firestone Firehawk E36 328i would be his main rival in the Stannic Group N Championship.
The 1998 season shaped-up much better for the team: “After Anthony won both races at Killarney in the Cape we realised that we could win the championship, so we built a new car for Anthony and signed Steve Wyndham to pilot the first car. In the end Anthony lost the championship by half a point to the very aggressive John Craig in the works MTN Nissan Maxima QX.” So again there was no silverware in the 1998 season but there was success the following year: “In 1999 however Reghardt Roets teamed up with Steve and managed to secure the driver’s title. What you see here however is the E36 328i which was campaigned by Anthony Taylor in 1998.”
As you’d expect Evolution 2 was involved with the restoration of this car: “In 2007 Alan Green purchased the car and asked us to bring it back to as close a condition as it was in when it raced in the Stannic Group N Championship in ’98. What stands out is that the motor was still in a perfect condition and had never been rebuilt since it started racing. Green never raced the car; however in 2009 he sold it to Rui Campos who races it in selected events to great effect.”
A new decade then rolls around and that means a new 3 Series in the form of the E46: “In 2000 Peter Kaye-Eddie managed to secure two E46 328is from BMW SA which Evolution 2 prepared and maintained for Steve Wyndham and Reghardt Roets. Roets managed to bring home a second Group N title making it two in a row. In 2001 Steve signed with Ford and Ettienne van der Linde replaced him.” Things then became somewhat complicated: “That is putting it rather mildly as BMW SA then decided to enter into the fray of Production Car racing leaving Touring Cars. Initially it all sounded good as all BMW cars were to be prepared at its Kyalami workshop. Unfortunately from the start the playing field was skewed in their favour as the works cars for Shaun van der Linde and Mike Briggs had chassis adopted directly from the Touring Cars. The other uncompetitive advantage was that the Works cars were fitted with Motec engine management systems.”
For the 2002 season the E46 330i was introduced: “The team received two brand-new cars, the body shell being very similar to that of the Works team. All cars were fitted with a new engine management system which brought about teething problems, leading to a slow start to the season. By 2003 we had managed to master the engine management system and we also sported a new livery. At the last race Reghardt won the first race at Kyalami by more than seven seconds. We left optimistically and put a lot of time into development in the off season. But 2004 would not be our year, even with Robbi Smith as our third driver. Not only did we have our work cut out for us with the Works team, Alfa introduced the 147 GTA which proved difficult to take on in the straights. To top it all Roets broke his leg in a freak accident off the track, Anthony Taylor eventually taking the championship.”
The car we see here today is the championship winning car of Anthony Taylor: “Neil Botha secured the car from the factory team and raced it in the BMW Car Club Race Series – during which time it was prepared by Evolution 2. Andrea Cavalieri then bought the car and brought it to us to restore to it to its original race condition. We had the car resprayed and the livery reapplied, the engine was intact and has never been opened – amazingly no oil leaks.” It’s not just about the 3 Series though as Evolution 2 has been involved with many other machines – as we’ll see next month but before we sign off we’d like to mention the E23 745i, the only 7 Series to be campaigned in a race series in the world as Alec recounts: “Tony Viana was racing a Group 1 E9/12 535i against Alfa GTVs, Mazda RX7s, and Cortina Interceptors, with Paulo Cavalieri as his team mate but they were really battling. The face-lifted [there was no such thing as an LCI at the time] E23 7 Series was being launched at Kyalami, when Bernd Pischetschrieder, arrived in a very early version of the 745i. Tony immediately told Vic Doolan that he wanted to test-drive the car; the factory was instructed to bring a test mule. Tony drove the car and said to Vic Doolan that he wanted to race the car in Group 1 and after much convincing Bernd Pischetschrieder eventually agreed.
“Tony being Tony, won the first race and the championship in 1985 – Group 1 class T, U and V. It is amazing how well the car was able to handle for its sheer size.”
The story doesn’t however end there: “Tony then decided that he would campaign it in the Modified class A Championship which he also won in 1986.” Evolution 2 was commissioned to restore the car Alec tells us: “Paulo Cavalieri had acquired the car and brought it to us in 2005 as a rolling chassis – all the running gear including the engine was transferred to the 7 Series that competed in the Wesbank Modified class. We sourced an M88 motor locally, it took about a year to restore – only the front was repainted, starting from the front doors.”
We end off here but pick it up in the next issue with a wonderfully built Batmobile replica and a stunning BMW 635CSi E24.
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Ron Sike