Basil van Rooyen, a man with three careers, passes away
Basil and Little Chevy

By Roger Houghton

Basil van Rooyen, who passed away on 14 September 2023 at the age of 84 after a long battle with cancer, may have lived in Australia for the past 37 years, but the impressions he made on many people in his country of birth before emigrating - particularly among the motor sport fraternity - gave him iconic status. His passing has resulted in a wave of condolences and memories flooding Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).

One of the reasons for his ongoing popularity is that he remained in contact with many South Africans and still took a great interest in developments here.

I built up a friendship with him which stemmed from a Legends Day at Steve Koterba’s Checkered Flag Museum in Benoni about five years ago when he was one of the guests of honour and donated memorabilia to the museum. We were in almost daily contact with each other on WhatsApp of e-mail after that meeting as we shared many common interests outside of motorsport.

We didn’t talk on the phone much, but he called me out of the blue on August 28 for a chat, only a couple of weeks before he died. He had a fairly irrelevant question about what LOVE on the side of a McLaren F1 car stands for. I said I would find out from another of his South African friends, Dieter Rencken, who is now motorsport adviser to FIA President, Mohammed Ben Sulayem after many years as an F1 Journalist.

The answer to the question is that Velo is a vape brand from British American Tobacco and when the car races in a country that does not permit the advertising of vapes then the letters are changed around to form the world LOVE! In hindsight the phone call from Basil, shortly before he died, was probably his way of saying goodbye.

Basil, an engineer, racing car designer and developer, highly talented racing driver, and innovative inventor, had three distinct career changes in his life after finding his feet as an engineering student at Wits and becoming a successful car tuner and racing driver.

His career as a racing driver saw him driving and winning in a host of different cars, mainly saloons, but including some outings in Formula 1 and Formula 5000 single-seaters. He

The South African touring car champion only drove in two South African Grands Prix Formula 1 races – with John Love’s privateer Cooper-Climax in the 1968 South African Grand Prix, and behind the wheel of a privateer Team Lawson McLaren M7A at the same race one year later.

His McLaren machinery may have been somewhat out-dated in 1969, but certainly wasn’t obsolete. At that same race, works driver Denny Hulme drove the same-spec chassis as only Bruce McLaren had moved on to the updated M7B.

In practice, Basil certainly didn’t disgrace himself, qualifying a highly respectable ninth, just behind the McLaren supremo himself. But the race was less of a success, and he retired after just 12 laps with hydraulic brake problems.

His performance in that race prompted a call-up from Ken Tyrrell, requesting Basil travel to Europe and replace Johnny Servoz-Gavin later that season. However, just a week before he was due to depart, Basil suffered a huge crash while tyre-testing with his McLaren at Kyalami. The crash split the car in half, leaving Basil facing months of recovery, and unable to fulfil Tyrrell’s offer, with the F1 drive going to Francois Cevert.

The deaths, in quick succession, of Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage convinced Basil that his career remained in his native South Africa, where he continued to carve out a long and successful career racing sports and saloon cars through until his racing retirement in 1981.

The first career, which lasted about 12 years, involved his founding of Superformance and then running it. This ended in 1975 when he moved into presentation packaging as MD of Kaycraft. This second career in South Africa lasted another 12 years. He was then head-hunted to join David Ferguson Displays in Sydney, Australia. Basil, wife Pookie, and sons John and James left South Africa in 1987. His career in the packaging business in Australia lasted another 20 years, until his retirement in 2007.

His third career was inventing and patenting a host of things, with some success and much satisfaction. Several of these inventions and most of his car designing and engine tuning tweaks came before he left for Australia. They included items such as a concave tennis racquet, a drive system for a bicycle using long arms to the rear wheel that went up and down instead of rotating cranks and a chain.

One of his inventions with a motor racing link was the Racer’s Guardian Angel, which cut the ignition under extreme braking such as when the engine’s throttle stuck open. However, when discussing the invention with Formula 1 team owner Ken Tyrrell, he advised the South African multiple champion that a patent does not protect against self-manufacture for own use, so racing car manufacturers could make such a low cost item without transgressing the patent.

Then came Basil’s involvement as the designer and builder of the Chevrolet CanAm where the aim was to beat the dominant Ford Capri Perana V8s on the racetrack. After presenting General Motors South African with the outline of his plan of fitting the 5 litre V8 of the Camaro, into the new 4-cylinder Vauxhall Firenza, with suitable gearbox, differential, brakes etc. GM agreed to fund this prototype, and to build the 100 required by the regulations, providing they met GM’s safety, durability, and quality standards.

This was a tough ask, but the car proved unbeatable when driven by Basil van Rooyen in its only full season before the Oil Crisis hit local motor sport. The car had also been successful as a rally car driven by the likes of Jan Hettema and Louis Cloete under the banner of the Chevrolet Dealer Team.

One of Basil’s Australian inventions that was a commercial success, with 400 000 sold, was the HeeBee-Gee-Bee. This was a novelty gift with a vibrating handle and seven arms which you stroked over your head, sending tingles down your spine. It was voted “gift of the year”.

Another commercial success was the Pool Twister, which was a device to stop swimming pool suction cleaners like the Kreepy-Krauly from getting stuck. More than 30 000 were sold in Australia.

However, his main interest remained automotive. His real passion was his CITS engine. The letters stand for Crankcase Independent Two Stroke. Basil claimed it was lighter, smaller, and lower cost than equivalent petrol engines. It got to prototype stage, using a V-twin 4-stroke Suzuki VZ800 motorcycle engine as a base and it was then taken over by investors who found the development path too costly, so the project was dropped. However, right to the end Basil had confidence in his design and continued his search for a major motor company to take it over.

Basil van Rooyen will be remembered for many things, but most of all for his “Little Chev” CanAm and his exploits on the racetracks particularly when driving cars like the Lotus-Cortina, Mustang, Alfa Romeo GTA, Capri Perana, Chevy CanAm, and the one-off Fiat-Ferrari.