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GSM Dart and Flamingo

Broadcast date : 28th January 2007

The GSM Dart, generally known as the only true South African production car, first broke cover towards the end of 1957. And not only was it designed and built by South Africans, but it was a little sports car that turned out to be years ahead of its time.

The sleek lines of the Dart manage to look contemporary even today. Not only did Darts look fantastic in 1957, they were engineered to world-beating standards, as far as road-holding and performance were concerned.

Through its seven years of production, engine power ranged from a tiny 4 cylinder side-valve engine to a Ford V8 fitted to the closed-topped version known as the Flamingo.

The GSM Dart was the result of a couple of Stellenbosch students who had a dream, and became the product of the fertile imaginations of three young South Africans - master engineer Willie Meissner, who became famous for his modifications of Fords, Cape Town commercial artist Verster de Wit, and the only surviving member of the trio, designer Bob van Niekerk.

While studying at Stellenbosch, Willie and Bob knew what their car should be, but they couldn’t produce it – until they discovered a new susbstance called fibreglass.

Not only did fibreglass offer a cheap route to series production, but the resulting rigidity of the steel and fibreglass composite made the car extremely stiff and light.

This enabled Bob van Niekerk to design a very supple suspension system, something that’s still appreciated by the members of the GSM Car Club of South Africa today.

And incidentally, GSM stands for Glass Sport Motors, which refers to its fibreglass body.

Although the Dart’s roots are bedded in South African soil, the shape of the car took form in England. Verster de Wit was working for the Roots motor company. He styled the Dart, and each weekend he would visit Meissner and Van Niekerk at their pokey room in the SA Overseas Visitors club in London, and supervise their work on a clay model of the Dart.

The shape of the Dart made it aerodynamically ahead of the game, and from its very first appearance at race meetings in South Africa, it was a winner. With production set up in Cape Town, GSM then had the idea of exporting the Dart to England!

Because Daimler had an English sports car called the Dart at the time, the car built by GSM’s English division was called the Delta.

Many of today’s Cape-based Dart and Flamingo owners were associated with GSM back in its early days. Well-known Killarney race driver Clarrie Taylor owns this fine navy blue Dart today.

Clarrie’s Dart is fitted with a non-cross-flow 1500 cc Cortina GT motor, which made the Dart ultra quick in its day, even though he’s mellowed since his Killarney days.

But the Dart was in fact preceded in South Africa by another sports car, known as the Protea. Designed and built by John Myers, the Protea broke cover in 1956 and was mechanically quite similar to the Dart. But only fourteen examples were ever built.

While Meissner, Van Niekerk and De Witt were delighted that the Dart was so successful in competition, it was largely seen as a racing car.

To counter this image, they designed a closed version of the Dart, a GT if you like, and called it the Flamingo.

Considerably heavier than the Dart, the GSM Grand Tourer was initially fitted with a German Ford Taunus engine, of 1,8 litres capacity. This perfectly restored 1500 GT is owned by Cape Town’s Hein van der Watt.

And no doubt the beautiful shape also caught Hein’s eye. It’s reminiscent of the split window 1963 Chevrolet Corvette, despite the fact that it was very much Dart-based.

The Flamingo actually out-sold the Dart. According to the GSM club, a total of 122 Darts and 144 Flamingos were built, as well as 76 Deltas in England, between 1957 and 1965.

The Flamingo’s greater popularity was due to its much more luxurious specification, although, as this side-draught-equipped car shows, some of them were road-and-race-spec cars.

But it was on the racetrack that the Dart made its bones, and Bob won races at Silverstone in England, and in Europe.

In fact, so good was the Dart, that even into the 1980s it was winning, famous racer Roddy Turner using a later Levy Dart like this one to win in the Western Province Clubmans Championship.

The Levy Dart was a re-creation of the original car in the 1980s by Jeff Levy and the late Verster de Wit. It was very faithful to the original in terms of style and engineering, but with modern up-dates.

Today the GSM Car Club of South boasts 65 members and 45 cars, and the club knows of over 100 Darts and Flamingos in existence. That’s a remarkable percentage of cars that still survive, when one considers the total production figures.

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