The Classic Motorcycle Rally


From the third quarter, 1976, issue of “Veterantics” magazine, Mike Milner-Smyth had written about an icy-cold DJ.

If you REALLY want to go to Jo'burg on two wheels in bad weather, your best bet would be to ride one of those big black things you see around Durban with large windscreens and "ECILOP" on the front.

There are, however, some 120 characters that choose more ancient machinery and enter every year for the D-J Commemorative Trial. This annual event has become an institution, as had the famous race held from 1913 to 1936, which it commemorates. It's a two day event over the "old" road with an overnight stop at Newcastle. The usual rally routines are in operation and a core of experts has developed whose rally accuracy borders on the impossible. The winner in fact averages only a few seconds error at each control.

The bulk of the riders manage to combine a Good Try with the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of coaxing an old machine to Jo'burg. This sort of exercise has been aptly described as "maintaining precise control of imprecise machinery."

The bikes range in age from 1911 to 1936 and there is a noticeable difference between Vintage and P.V. bikes in power and hillclimbing ability. The 20's machines (like mine) struggle a lot of the time, but the 30's bikes from the early part of Britain's golden bike era always seem to hum past, oil tight and shiny.

Just as the 1920 race became the famous "Snowstorm Derby", the 1976 event will be remembered as the "Great Freeze”. We left Durban in pouring rain which stayed with us all the way to Jo'burg. The wet played havoc with ignition systems and there were no less than five retirements before Tollgate.

Hell, it was COLD! We froze and pretended it was fun, we joked about it pretending we weren't sore and sick of the whole thing. Our precious machines became progressively inexpensive as the hours went by.

At each fuel stop the loos were crowded with the sound of sliding zips and wet plastic, and ribald comments such as "Anyone got any tweezers?" or "Hey, I've found mine."

Tall Ted Falke maintained that the only way of surviving the miserable conditions was by singing in the rain at the top of your voice. I found that "what a glor-or-orius feeling, I'm happy again" didn't somehow ring true. The most satisfaction seemed to be gained from bellowing:
"The whole world's SOLD, on Benson & Hedges GOLD."

Except that I once came round a corner shouting the last word of it and caused a pedestrian piccanin to panic.

Lionel Jennings had a puzzled look on his face when I passed and he said that his Excelsior, was singing to HIM. The voice was actually coming from his primary chain that was suggesting "The time has come to part." It shortly did so.

Eleven hours in the saddle on the first day is a long time in which you think, sit, wobble, swear, get numb, dream, and freeze, in any sequence or multiple thereof. You converse with your bike, listen to its chatter and notice how changing atmospheric conditions alter its pulling power and exhaust note. Just like a 1934 Morris Minor I once had, my A.J.S. seemed to have most power in a mist/drizzle environment and least power in a downpour.

It's all very well to get absorbed by this sort of thing but you can lose your "precise control." My steering just suddenly went and I cart-wheeled off into the veld.

I was lying face-down but under my armpit I saw the unflappable Roy Haupt (who had seen these aerial gyrations from behind) casually put his A.J.S. on the stand and amble towards me while I shouted to him to lift the damn bike off me!

Relief! I saw that the front forks had come apart, which meant I could now retire gracefully to the comfort of some official's heated modern tin. No chance! Roy pulled out my shifter, screwed the forks together and then told me to get on the bike and "move it."

It wasn't easy with one handlebar pointing skywards and the other one down, so I stopped at Rosetta Garage to borrow a 4 pound hammer. The handlebars were eventually hammered back to an East/West position but I was due for disqualification for the "outside assistance" so received.

As I had also taken a tumble in the 1975 event I later faced a barrage of comments like "Make a habit of it, don't you?" and "Not again!"

Genial Jock Meldrum, our Clerk of the Course, nevertheless forced me to sign the usual "No help received" declaration. He used the Scots equivalent of "Ve haf vays of making you". This arm-twisting was good exercise for the second day's run as my throttle cable had tightened up, and the twist grip needed the wrench of a wrestler to move it. Talk about "precise control"!

In the afternoon the Ajay eventually succumbed on the Heidelberg rise to the common malady of water in the mag. The local traffic cop on an enormous Harley with flashing lights stopped and unrolled a huge set of tools, determined to give me a ton of outside assistance, while I jumped up and down in protest. He thought I was trying to get warm, but I managed to limit his kindness to pushing me off after I had dried the mag.

For some reason the Ajay was using oil at twice the rate of the previous day and I realised around Alberton that I was coming in on a wing and a prayer. At the first intersection I had to stop to retrieve the top of my tool box which had fallen off in the road. This took longer than expected as the traffic was thick in all directions and all the cars were running over the box lid. The bike, left running on the stand, naturally seized. This was the first of 10 seizures (one at every third of Alberton's 30 traffic lights).

I then knew that the final climb to City Deep would cook my dry engine as well as my goose so I stopped another rider and borrowed two cans of oil to get me to the finish.

The satisfaction and relief at the moment of pulling the cut-out at City Deep is impossible to describe. Jock and his crew appreciated my again admitting to outside assistance and generously pushed the RDM Sporting Rider trophy my way. It was a bitter/sweet ending as I was later mugged outside the hotel and came home with a lump on my forehead as well!

We all said "Never Again", but deep down inside we knew we'd all be back next year for what is surely the best vintage bike rally in the world.
Mike Milner-Smyth receives the Rand Daily Mail “Sporting Rider” trophy from Mrs J C Viviers, wife of the RDM Assistant Editor

Tuning-up for the Durban-Johannesburg vintage motorcycle race are Mr. Joe Macnamara (right) and Mr. Billy Jones. Their 1931 Panther will carry them through the two-day 500km race. Over 100 entries have been received for the race, which begins on Friday. The route is through Pietermaritzburg, Estcourt, Newcastle, Standerton and Greylingstad.
Photograph Natal Mercury, 31 March 1936.
Rand Daily Mail article, Tuesday, 6 April, 1976

Leicester Symons: Motor Editor

FORTY YEARS on from the last Durban-Johannesburg race the Rand Daily Mail D-J Commemorative Run is as firmly established as one of the year's top motorcycling events, as the original great open road races whose spirit the Mail run re-creates.

Nothing shows this more clearly than the way the Mail D-J has grown. The first one, in 1970, t had 58 entries. This year's run at the weekend had 120, though the number of starters had to be cut to 110 to satisfy the petrol controller. There is little doubt that the 1977 run will have more in spite of all the difficulties - not least of which is finding and restoring more of the pre-1937 bikes which alone are eligible for the event.

The name of this game is enthusiasm. It is also high among the officials of the Vintage and Veteran Club and Rand Motoring Club who organise the run, and their often unsung helpers like marshals and scorers who work long hours and miss a lot of the fun.


Their enthusiasm was shown by the reaction to the foul weather throughout the run. They enjoyed the battle even more than they would have in fine conditions.

"I should have brought my snowmobile suit, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything," said Ken Gibson, who came all the way from Chicago simply to take part. He arrived only four days before the start and left the morning after the finish. "I'm sorry the bad weather prevented me from seeing anything of the country on the way down to Durban and the ride back, but I hope I'll do that on next year's run," he said before he left.

Mrs Betty Nettleton, who finished eighth overall and won the Ladies Trophy, is clocked in at the finish of the Mail D-J Run.
Rhoda van Rensburg and Sharon Dixon, both of Pretoria, took up motorcycling so that they could join the band of women riders. Rhoda only turned 18, and so became eligible for a motorcycle licence, two days before the start. She took the test and got her licence that day.


Burton Kinsey, winner of the 1933 D-J, considered himself "lucky to get so far" as he struggled with cold-numbed fingers to release his helmet at the Volksrust refuelling stop.

A valve rocker spindle had worked loose and fallen out of his 1934 Levis on the long climb up to Laings Nek. He was fortunate enough to find it lying in the mud about 200 metres back, got it back into position and robbed the front forks of a nut to hold it in place.

He found the weather as bad as anything he had encountered between 1930 and 1936, including the notorious hailstorm race of 1934. He finished the event and plans to be back.


Lionel Jennings rebuilt both the magneto and the clutch of his 1934 Excelsior at the roadside. When the chain snapped he somehow managed to remove the broken link and rejoin the ends. He then moved the gearbox back and the rear wheel forward in the frame so that the shortened chain would fit, and qualified as a finisher.

A valve cover blew out of the engine of Tony Woodley's 1928 Sunbeam on Friday afternoon. He found it in a riverbed, got it back into place in spite of the badly damaged threads, and. made the overnight stop at Newcastle. Five kilometres out next morning it blew again, so he struggled back to Newcastle, cleaned up the threads with a file, and stuck the cover firmly back with the aid of epoxy putty.


Then he set out to get back on time. Going up to Laings Nek the exhaust fell off, so he carried on without it. Approaching Standerton he was at least back on time - and holed a piston. He pushed the bike about two km to the lunch stop, and then reluctantly, conceded that he would have to retire.

Fanie Viljoen was one of those who found plastic bags useful for keeping put the rain that was soaking through the leather of boots and gloves. Chris van Rensburg was seen riding along with his boots on his bike's engine to try to warm them. "Even worse than the rain was the buffeting and clouds of spray from big trucks going past. It was wet It was cold. It was miserable. It was great," said Viv Lyons, another of the D-J race veterans who completed the Mail Commemorative Run.

The spirit of the run is to do all the work on your bike yourself, and the letter of the rules prohibits outside assistance on pain of exclusion. Mike Milner-Smyth borrowed a hammer needed for repair, and also accepted some oil from an outsider, so told officials at the finish that he thought he should be excluded.

He was overruled, classed as an official finisher, and awarded the Rand Daily Mail Trophy for the most sporting rider.

Enthusiasm is the game

Ralph Lange, winner of the 1976 DJ enjoying a beer next to his 1935 Velocette 500
Photograph: Mike Milner-Smyth collection
MR. R. LE ROUX, of Witbank, one of 110 motorcyclists taking part in the sixth Durban to Johannesburg Commemorative Run, readies his 1927 Scott for the two-day “trip” while Lindsay Mugridge (24) looks on.

The event, which starts at 7 a.m. from a West Street motorcycle dealers, includes five former competitors who participated in the pre-war Durban to Johannesburg race.

The oldest motorcycle taking part is a 1911 Rudge Whitworth ridden by Mr. C. Oakhill.

The Natal Mercury, 2 April, 1976
Oldsters beat the weather

Natal Mercury, 5 April, 1976. Mercury Correspondent


Ralph Lange of Johannesburg, on a 1935 Velocette, battled through the toughest conditions yet to win the sixth D-J commemorative run for old motorcycles, which finished at City Deep here on Saturday afternoon.

He finished a little more than a minute ahead of Geoff Palmer, winner of the 1975 Mail run, on a 1936 Royal Enfield. Rhodesian John Bodger was third on a 1930 BSA, a minute behind Palmer.

Wind, rain and cold lashed the competitors throughout their two-day ride from Durban, in the tracks of the historic Durban-Johannesburg road races between 1913 and 1936, on pre-1937 machines.

In spite of the conditions, 86 of the 110 starters qualified for finishers' medals by completing the whole run under, their own power.

Another eight bikes put out of the- competition by mechanical problems were repaired by their determined riders so that they could ride them across the finishing Line.

Crowds braved the appalling weather to cheer the gallant riders through the towns along the route, and welcomed them at refuelling stops and the finish.