The inland city of Pietermaritzburg is the capital of the Natal province in South Africa and was a ‘Mecca’ for motor racing enthusiasts. This small city that became famous for its street racing at Alexandra Park and later when the Roy Hesketh race circuit was built, spawned a number of world class motor sporting champions and some small but highly successful independently run racing teams during its heyday from the late 1940s to early 1980s. John ‘Tiger’ Thompson was an ardent Pietermaritzburg racer and sponsor and built the JTS in late 1951. It was one of the relatively few early motorcycle engine racers built in South Africa. “It was based on the Fiat 500, like most 500s of the time. Fiat back and front, Fiat wheels etc. I fitted the 1939 model Triumph GP twin engine from my bike and we made the body in our backyard.”

John had raced home built specials in the immediate pre-war years and travelled huge distances in order to take part in the major motor sporting events as racing developed in the Union. In fact, John participated in the first South African post-war motor race. It was the 2nd Fairfield Handicap staged on Durban’s Snell Parade in January 1948 and he drove a 975 cc Singer Special that his younger brother Ian had constructed. The field included the famous Bentley driven by the internationally renowned Yorkshireman Eddie Hall and Basil Beall’s ERA. John retired at just over the half-way mark in the 112 mile race when ‘the engine blew-up’. Two months later, for the next big racing event, the Coronation 100 Handicap at Pietermaritzburg, John was equipped with an Austin 7 Special that he had constructed himself. He started 47 minutes ahead of the winner, Eddie Hall, but his race was over after only 8 laps – before Hall had left the line to chase the field.
In late 1951 John started building one of the new fangled motorcycle engine machines that a new 500 cc formula would cater for.

1952, a test run prior to the Burman Drive Hillclimb. John puts his JTS through its paces. Photo courtesy of Clive Thompson

“I remember standing next to it as the grey paint dried and shared John's excitement at the prospect of the final completion” recalls Clive Thompson. But ill fate was to dog the JTS. John gave the car its racing debut in the 1952 Coronation Junior handicap at Alexandra Park. The contemporary newspaper report noted “J. Thompson in a 500 O.H.V. J.T.S. was going well, but he later dropped out.” “I had fitted high compression pistons and a barrel blew off!” Recalls John. Thereafter Thompson dragged the JTS some 400 miles to East London for the July Winter handicap but retired after only 2 laps. “That car had a mind of its own. I never got the steering right.” Reflects John. Ray Emond, who has an impressive record in the South African Springbok Series International endurance races driving a Lola Mk. 1 and was later a most successful pilot in the V8 Chevy CanAms, drove GSM Dart-Fords for the Thompson stable. Ray recalls “In the early 1950s we did not have a proper race circuit at Pietermaritzburg to test on so John took the JTS to a paddock near where Roy Hesketh Circuit was eventually built. The JTS hit an anthill and crashed heavily. John was thrown out and taken to hospital after suffering a very nasty crack on the head.” “I spent 3 weeks in hospital after that and then we scrapped the JTS. I gave up the driving. Then with my brothers Ian and Brian we started our racing team. ” Says John.

The Thompson brothers built up a stable of top class sports racing cars in the 1960s – GSM Darts, a Lotus 23 Alfa , an Alfa GTA, the Thompson-Ford (a sort of front engined Lotus 23) for a number of promising local drivers. They had many successes in saloon, sports car and endurance events and the Lotus 23 won the SA sports car championship. Nearly 60 years later John Thompson does not have fond memories of the JTS. “It was a horrible car. It went like hell but nearly killed me!”

Our thanks to Rob Young and Clive Thompson.