Ernest Gearing

Ernest Gearing

Ernest Gearing’s involvement with motor sport was very short lived and inauspicious. He was, however, at the forefront of some important motor racing history and was the first racing driver in South Africa to import and compete in a motor sporting event in a factory built ‘500’. He was also, along with Pat Harrington-Johnson, first to race the new “500s” in South Africa.

In 1948 Jack Nixon, from the famous Wadkin Woodworking Machinery Company in Leicester, was commissioned to install a line of machinery at Rutherfords Joinery factory in Cape Town. Nixon had been involved during the war years installing Spare Millers at aircraft manufacturers and with this background was an ideal candidate to prepare an exciting racing machine, newly imported by Ernest Gearing who was connected with Rutherfords. Rutherfords were the Wadkin agents. This ‘advanced’ machine was a tiny British built Marwyn racer powered by a 500 cc JAP motorcycle engine and had been constructed for a new formula that was becoming popular in Europe and that the local racing fraternity were keen to promote. The Marwyn made its debut at a hillclimb staged on the dusty unpaved roads of the Parow Quarry, near Cape Town, on 19 June 1948. Gearing had only limited motor sport experience - three months before he had competed at this ‘hill’ in his 3.6 litre Ford V8 sedan and clocked 63.2 seconds – a record for the class.

Historic moment - June 1948 - The starter drops his flag and the first ‘500’ to compete in a South African event sets off to tackle the daunting Parow Hillclimb. (Photo : Roy Nixon)

The Marwyn did not disgrace itself and finished third in the racing car class, clocking 61 seconds dead, compared to the fast Singer single seater special driven by Donald Philp (59.7 secs) and Walter Frewen’s monster 4.2 litre racing special which set FTD at 54.5 secs.

Its tall wheels akimbo and slithering about on the dirt the Marwyn races up the Parow Quarry. (Photo courtesy Roy Nixon)

8 year old Roy Nixon sits proudly at the wheel of the pristine Marwyn-JAP prior to the start of its ill fated race debut. (photo courtesy of Roy Nixon)

‘Big time’ motor racing was materialising in South Africa after WW2 and on 4th October 1948 Gearing entered the Marwyn in the van Riebeeck Trophy to be run on the roads around the Paarden Eiland factory estate. The race comprised of two 12 lap heats over 25 miles and a 50 mile final. The event was an important one because it was the first motor race to be staged in the Cape post-war and South Africa’s third circuit event after the Fairfield Handicap in Durban and the Coronation 100 in Pietermaritzburg but the combination of a relatively inexperienced driver and one of the ‘earliest’ Marwyns was, with the benefit of hindsight, a recipe for disaster.

Ernest looks on whilst Jack Nixon fettles the JAP before its historic track racing debut. (Photo: Roy Nixon)

The high ground clearance of the ‘early’ Marwyn and its instability due to the tall wheels and less than rigid ladder chassis made it a difficult machine to master and, sadly, the outing almost ended in tragedy – on the first lap of the first heat the car overturned and then caught fire. Ernest suffered a broken collar bone and was badly bruised and since he was the son of the mayor of Cape Town the incident attracted headlines in the newspapers. It was not an encouraging start for the 500 movement in South Africa because the other 500cc contrivance in the race, a machine called the Fidget, that was built and driven by an ex-POW called Pat Harrington-Johnson fell out after only 4 laps with clutch maladies.

The race debut of the first factory built racer made headlines. The burning Marwyn shows off its underside.

The Marwyn was acquired by the motorcycle racing star Billy Kay who had no better luck than Gearing. Billy ran the rebuilt car in the 1949 Arbor Day Races on the roads around the Paarden Eiland industrial estate on 3 October 1949. The car lost a wheel and crashed into a pole on the second lap. Undaunted, the determined and enthusiastic Billy Kay would continue with ‘500’ endeavours with his KTS-Triumph and other cyclecars but that is another story.

Due to family and business pressures Ernest retired from motor sport and became more involved with establishing rowing as a sport in South Africa. Ernest Gearing became a world champion in his age group and won the gold medal at the 1996 World Master's Championship, and did so just shy of his eightieth birthday.

With thanks to Rob Young, Bill Jennings, Marius Matthee and Roy Nixon for help with this page.