Pat Harrington-Johnston was well known as the Southern African correspondent for Iota and a leading figure in establishing and encouraging the 500 movement in South Africa after World War II but there was far more to this remarkable man, whose name is often misspelled, than just that.
He was one of the first drivers to race a 500 in a major South African event in early October 1948, Pat ran the Fidget along with Ernest Gearing of Cape Town in a Marwyn in the Van Riebeeck Trophy. Gearing’s effort was short lived when he crashed and rolled the car early in the race, while Pat retired with clutch problems.
Pat Harrington-Johnson’s ohv Matchless engined Fidget (his childhood nickname), Vic Cavanagh’s ‘Bendy’ (or Cav Special) and Orlando Fregona’s ‘Tiger Cub’ were the first South African built 500’s to line up in a significant event when they appeared in the 10-lap qualifying heats for the Crusader 100 Handicap on 30th October 1948 at the Germiston Airport Circuit. There were 28 cars in each heat, ranging from the little homebuilt 500’s to big American engine specials, numerous MGs and Austins as well as pre-war racing Rileys, an ERA and a Maserati. Sadly, none of the 500s featured in the results and made it into the 30-lap final.
Pat was born on 14 May 1912 in Coleford in the Forest of Dean where his father was the local curate. The family relocated to South Africa in 1917 because his mother suffered from acute asthma and it was believed that the climate change would help. After completing his schooling Pat joined the Natal Mercury as a journalist covering shipping and motoring. According to his son Charles he was obsessed with all things mechanical and soon began to dabble in motorcycling and trials riding.
Pat fettling the Fidget. Photo courtesy Isabelle Henderson
When WW2 came he enlisted with the South African Signals Corps/Regiment Botha. He became a despatch rider after having travelled by motorcycle from Northern Rhodesia through Africa to Egypt. In late 1941 he was captured by the Axis forces at Sidi Rezegh and ended up in the infamous Stalag IVB near Muhlberg-on-Elbe, where along with some 20,000 other allied troops he was incarcerated in dreadful conditions. Just when they thought they were free as the war ended the camp was captured by Cossacks and the POW’s were imprisoned for a further 6 weeks and then marched to Reisa. They were eventually freed by American troops.
It was decided to publish a motoring magazine and in 1944 Pat was elected as editor and he is credited with dreaming up the name The Flywheel. Grand though the idea was the POW’s had ‘nothing to write on’ and ‘nothing to write with’ but they had a penholder. A nib was borrowed, ink was ‘acquired’, and cigarettes were bartered with the guards for school exercise books. Fellow inmate Tom Rodger handwrote every page and illustrations were coloured in with whatever inks the inmates could produce from pilfered materials which included quinine tablets. The illustrations were affixed using fermented millet soup. The effort of concentration to handscript the journal in cramped conditions in a hut occupied by 200 men is difficult to comprehend. Only one copy per issue of this incredible manuscript was produced and this was carefully circulated from hut to hut!
An excerpt from The Flywheel. Many of the original works are now on display in the Imperial War Museum in London. It is hard to imagine how, with such limited resources available (and working only from memory) the men in the camp could collaborate with their POW mates to produce such detail. Intricate drawings of models and parts that they actually had not personally seen for 3 or 4 years were lovingly reproduced by hand under extremely difficult circumstances. They were obsessed with getting every article correct too, and would redraw items until they knew were correct.
Extracts of the magazines were published in hardback format in 1987 and the book ran to two reprints. Tom Swallow donated all his royalties to the British Red Cross Society in appreciation of its efforts on behalf of the prisoners, which had included the provision of a monthly mail contact with home.
After the war Pat returned to Durban and resumed work at the Natal Mercury and began touting the merits of the new ‘500’ formula in his motoring column. The 36-year old started to build his own ‘500’ car. While many constructors of racing cars work in the evenings after a day at work Pat worked in the day in his garage at home – because the Mercury being a morning newspaper required he work at night. The Fidget competed from late 1948 to early 1952 and travelled at times over 1000 miles to compete in major events. Although the Fidget became one of the more competitive ‘junior’ cars it was beset with ‘gremlins’ and dogged with unreliability and chalked up a number of DNF’s and DNS’s in circuit races resulting in Pat calling it a “beastly” thing. However, the benefits of a good power-to-weight ratio were more evident in hillclimbs. The Fidget had the 1948 Burman Drive Hillclimb ‘in its pocket’ until it spluttered to a halt near the finish with a piece of darning wool blocking its petrol pipe! Then at the Sydenham Hillclimb Pat set third fastest time of the day against a large field of larger engined cars and in 1950 he set a record run at Burman for the up to 850 cc class.
“Pat was ahead of his time – he had an unbelievably thorough encyclopaedia of knowledge about any motor vehicle manufactured between 1910 and 1960” says a contemporary. He also built a folding sidecar which he raced, a trials motorcycle and equipped a car with controls for disabled people.
Our thanks to Rob Young for the article and pictures.