Port Elizabeth of Yore: Motor cycle racing prior to WW2

Prior to WW2, Port Elizabeth hosted a prestigious motorcycle race known as the PE 200. This was the culmination of the development of motor cycle racing since the first race held as a 60 mile relay on the 7th August 1922 on the Kragga Kamma circuit.  

The early engines on the motorcycles were satisfactory for level or downhill riding but as soon as a hill was encountered, the rider had to pedal to assist the bike’s ascent of the hill. But this was only the start of what would ultimately become the power machines of today.

This blog covers the development of motorcycle racing from that date until the Second World War as well as the development of the early bikes.

Main photo: Winners of the PE 200 on 1st January 1958

Development of non-motorised bikes

The first bikes were push-bikes that had no pedals and were propelled by the rider’s feet pushing against the ground.  Then came the high-wheelers (also known as “penny-farthing”) with their huge front wheel and small rear wheel which were nearly impossible to ride.  Finally the “safety bicycle” appeared which offered wheels of equal size and a set of pedals to drive the rear wheel through a chain linkage.  Becoming highly popular as a mode of personal transportation, especially in cities, the bicycle soon found it’s way to becoming a racing vehicle.

The Steam Velocipede or ‘Motocycle’

Steam Velocipede or ‘Motocycle’

With the steam engine becoming more common to power mills and factories, it wasn’t long before experiments to adopt the steam engine to the bicycle began.  The first successful marriage of a light-weight steam engine to a bicycle frame occurred in 1867 when Sylvester Howard Roper married a boiler, steam engine, and bicycle together to form what was called a “motocycle”.  Roper designed and built a wide range of products including sewing machines, guns, machine tools, furnaces, automatic fire escapes and eventually steam-powered carriages and bicycles. Perhaps his best known invention is the cartridge repeater shotgun invented in 1866.

Roper attached a twin-cylinder steam engine to a forged-iron and hickory [a chiefly North American tree of the walnut family, which yields tough, heavy timber and typically bears edible nuts (pecans)] velocipede frame. Roper’s bike, which rolled on iron-shod wooden wheels, had a 49″ wheelbase.  He affixed one steam cylinder of 2-1/4″ bore by 2-1/2″ stroke to either side of the frame behind the seat and connected the piston rods to cranks on the rear wheel axle.  Solid wheels made for a very uncomfortable ride but pneumatic tyres were still decades in the future.  A firebox and boiler were suspended on springs from the frame between the wheels.  Piston valves for the cylinders were operated by eccentrics adjacent to their cranks, and a feed-water pump was operated by the left-cylinder crank. The exhaust steam, carried by tubing into the base of the chimney, provided forced draft to a short chimney projected up from behind the saddle. A charcoal fire heated the water to generate steam to power the engine. Water was supplied from a reservoir that was part of the seat using a feed-water pump operated by the left-cylinder crank. 

About 10 other steam-powered motorcycles followed with the last being constructed in 1895.  For this cycle Roper improved many aspects of his steamer bike with support from the Pope Manufacturing Company.  Roper’s last steam-powered bicycle included a one-gallon water reservoir and provided about 8 miles of travel on one filling.  On test rides into town, Roper would remove the burning coals from the firebox and place them in a small covered bucket.  This would keep steam from being generated and maintain the heat in the coals.  When he was ready to leave, he would re-stoke the fire, get up steam, and return home.

On June 1, 1896 Roper took the steam cycle to the Charles River bicycle racetrack in Boston to test its viability as a pace-making machine for bicycle races. After making a few exhibition laps around the track while several bicycle racers attempted to keep up with him they cleared the track so that he could demonstrate the cycle’s speed.  His initial attempt covered a mile in two minutes and 12 seconds for an average speed of about 30 mph.

Thinking that he could beat that time he tried it again.  A week earlier he had operated the bike unofficially at an average speed of about 40 mph so he attempted to make the higher speed an official record.  As he circled the 1/3-mile wooden track, he went into a big wobble on the back straight and was thrown off the track and into the sand surrounding it.  When assistance arrived to help him it was apparent that Roper had died in the incident. It was later determined that he had died of heart failure, not as a result of the accident itself.  

It is highly unlikely that a steam-powered cycle was ever brought to South Africa.

Internal combustion engine

Gottlieb Daimler (who later teamed up with Karl Benz to form the Daimler-Benz Corporation) is often credited with building the first motorcycle in 1885.  With Diamler’s introduction of the internal combustion engine to the bicycle, like a similar transformation with the steam carriage, the internal combustion engine would soon become the engine of choice for powering bicycles. By attaching this engine, a single cylinder, Otto-cycle engine, to the frame of a “safety bike”, id est a bike with both wheels the same size, the first modern motorbike was born.

Aug. 30, 1885 – Daimler Gives World First ‘True’ Motorcycle

The first bikes, known by their nickname as “bone-crushers”, were constructed mainly of wood. Without any form of suspension and iron-banded, wooden spoked wheels, the ride was extremely uncomfortable. However they did possess one luxury safety feature; mudguards. As demand grew so did the quality but there were still three deficiencies. The most serious drawback was the lack of power. For level or downhill riding, the engines were satisfactory but as soon as it had to ascend a hill, the rider had to assist the engine by pedalling in tandem.   

Trials and tribulations

At a meeting of motor cycle enthusiasts at the Ceylon Café in Main Street on Monday 23rd January 1905, it was decided to hold reliability trials. Ceylon Cafe was located in Whitehead Chambers, 44 Main Street, just before Titterton Lane and H. Adams was the proprietor. The first trial took place on 11 February on a course between Greenbushes and Fairview totalling 54 miles (86.4kms). To avoid speeding, no participant was allowed to take less than 3 hours. Sixteen motor cyclists participated in the event.

Members of the newly formed Eastern Province Motor Cycle Club went out in full force on the 3rd November 1912 riding from St. George’s Park to the Cadles Hotel which is now the Woodridge School. It should be borne in mind that at that time, the “road” between Port Elizabeth and Van Stadens River was in reality a farm road with gates between the different properties. To prevent the livestock from straying, the gates also had grating as an additional preventative measure.

But these intrepid guys this was not a spoiler but part of the challenge.

On Monday 7th August 1922, The Eastern Province Motorcycle Club staged a 60 mile relay race on the Kragga Kamma circuit, the first event of this kind.

During the late 1920s, the Westbourne Oval was used as a dirt track motorcycle track in Port Elizabeth. However, the tight, unpaved and unbanked track was a disaster waiting to happen. When riders came off, they incurred serious injuries. Within a year, amid a outcry of protest, motorcycle racing was banned at the Oval. However, the enthusiasts were undeterred by this setback and vowed to fulfil their goal of staging a racing event. Members of the newly-formed Eastern Province Motor Cycle Club went out in full force on the 3rd November 1912 riding from St George’s Park to Cadles Hotel [Now Woodridge School]. It should be borne in mind that at that time, the “road” between Port Elizabeth and Van Stadens River was in reality a farm road with gates between the different property. To prevent the livestock from straying, the gates also had grating as an additional preventative measure. But these intrepid guys this was not a spoiler but part of the challenge.

Severe reliability trial

On the 25th October of the following year [1913], 18 members embarked on what was termed a “severe reliability trial” starting from the gates of St. George’s Park to Grahamstown and back over two days, that is a round trip of 290kms. Harry Braybrooke met with misfortune when the frame of the bike broke. Undaunted he took a piece of rope and bound the pieces together. Despite this mishap, he managed to cover the remaining 48kms in 55 minutes arriving in Grahamstown only several minutes outside the finish time.

PE 200 race in 1958

Wally Wilson, the eventual winner, arrived back in St. George’s Park at 5:49pm on Sunday. Wilson rode in fine form to take the Rudge-Whitworth Trophy, the Club Gold medal, a set of Continental tyres and £1 1s. Second in was RC Inggs [Robert Charles Inggs, b 3/10/1879 PE, m 3/10/1900 St Paul’s PE, died 1951 Natal.]

Robert Charles Inngs
Robert Charles Inggs

World War 1

When WW1 broke out, many young men from the Union volunteered and signed up to fight for the Allied forces. Some of these men became despatch riders and when they returned they possessed a superb riding skill and enthusiasm for motor bikes which they channelled by joining the Eastern Province Motor Cycle Club.

Jeff Duke one of the famous PE 200 riders from after WW2

On the 1st & 2nd January 1922, [dates per Harradine & not from article in the Herald] the first Tourist Trophy (TT) Races in South Africa was held on the Kragga Kamma circuit, a distance of 20 miles. Motor cyclists came from all over the country to compete. The Club staged a 96km relay race & attracted a large turnout of interested spectators. The first outing proved to be successful and in the wake of the excitement generated by the event, steps were taken by the EPMC under the auspices of the Motor Cycle Union of South Africa (MCUSA), to make it a regular and important event on South Africa’s motoring calendar.

Tourist Trophy Motorcycle Race

As a consequence of the success achieved, two years later the first South African Tourist Trophy [SATT] race was held on the 1st January 1924 on the Kragga Kamma circuit. The 322km race attracted riders from all over the Union. The riders were vying to be the first recipient of the £400 Woolavington Cup, cup prizes and certificates.  

A silver cup, donated by the Triumph Motor Cycle Company, for the fastest 650cc class race, was also up for grabs. The SATT was an endurance race  which tested man and machine and was so tough that only five of the original 15 entrants completed the 10 laps of the 32km circuit. Days before the race started, riders arrived from all over the country to make preparations for the race. The bumpy, uneven gravel surface was expected to wreak havoc with riders and bikes which it duly did.

Trying to overtake at high speeds in dusty conditions, particularly while travelling behind two or more bikes, was extremely dangerous. The spectacle and excitement attracted an estimated 20,000 fans to the event. L.E.H. Hamerton, one of the eight competitors given a 20 minute start because of “side-by-side” valves, won the 650cc class on an Indian Scout at an average speed of 92kph, 12 minutes ahead of his nearest rival and out of the 14 starters, only five completed the gruelling course.

On the 4th January 1936, the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in Port Elizabeth – some 60,000 people – watched the P.E. ”200″ motor cycle race on the Kragga Kamma circuit.

Other motor cycle related events prior to WW2

3rd November 1928

I.W. Schlesinger of African Theatres brought Coney Island from Brooklyn, USA. to South Africa on tour. In Port Elizabeth it was set up on the site adjoining the tennis courts at Humewood. Great draw-cards were the Big Wheel and the “Wall of Death”, which featured dare-devil motor cyclists.

February 1929

The Council agreed to lease the Westbourne Oval to the E.P. Football Association for five years. At this stage the ground was being used for dirt-track motor cycle racing.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).



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