Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Motor Industry in the 1920s

In the space of a century, not only have the vehicles vastly improved but the modus operandi of the industry too. In this blog we will follow the work experiences of Rupert Charles Mouat during this influential period in the development of this industry which would become pivotal to rescuing Port Elizabeth from insignificance as the Transvaal grew by leaps and bounds  

Main picture: 1926 – General Motor’s first factory in Darling Street

During his final years at the Grey High School, Rupert had already decided to work in the engineering field, specialising in motor vehicles. To this end, he purchased all the technical books and magazines on cars. Immediately after leaving school in November 1924, he commenced his working career with Wessinger’s Motor Traction Company in North End. Wessinger’s were the original assemblers of Model T Fords in Port Elizabeth prior to the Ford Motor Company commencing operations in 1923.

Even though some sort of technical training was vital in the burgeoning engineering field, in the early years of the 1920s, there was neither a Technical Senior Certificate nor an Apprenticeship Act and few technical courses. In case he proved to be a failure in engineering as well as having a second string to his bow, his mother compelled him to study for a Commercial Certificate.

The Overland Model 91 Roadster

Assembly not manufacture
In these initial years, this incipient industry could not be referred to as Motor Vehicle Manufacturers but could merely be labelled as Assembly Plants as vehicles were only imported as fully assembled or, at best, imported as semi-knocked down requiring simple assembly operations.  Mouat recalled that “With another youth named Schoonraad, I assisted Pittaway and the foreman in assembling Model 91 Overland and Willys-Knight sleeve-valve motor cars and Clydesdale trucks.

Driving licence
“Having studied a 1916 Hupmobile owner’s manual from cover to cover, over and over again, I was able to drive a car the first time the foreman took me on the road. From then on, I drove cars without a driving licence until William Gray passed me after my driving test in December 1926. He made me drive along Main Street, up Russell Road, along Rink Street and down Western and White’s Road (descending in second gear, of course). He had previously given me a licence in November 1925 when I had bought my second-hand Francis-Barnett from Clarry Scott, one of the four racing Scott brothers.

The Wessinger’s sumptuous house
The Wessingers owned the largest house in Port Elizabeth, situated in Park Drive. By 1921 the owner of the Sundridge (sic) was Charles Don Wessinger whose son lived in his own house further around Park Drive. It later became the Park Hotel, where Rupert would often attend dances. The establishment of the Park Hotel appears to have been barely noticed by the local press. The Eastern Province Herald of 4th February 1923 simply had a short item about a new city hotel created by extending the existing house. Despite the cornucopia of facilities, and the spacious park like grounds, the hotel was apparently not a success. As a result, in 1949, it was bought out by the Cape Provincial Administration and became a nurses home named after Sharley Mary Cribb who had died in 1946.

Rupert then explained that “As I had been taken on at the Motor Traction company for the Christmas rush only and was then retrenched, I left to join my sister at L.H. Shapiro & Co., agents for Fiat 501 and Studebaker cars, as a learner mechanic. The business was then in Main Street on the north side of the Mutual Arcade, where Barclays Bank now stands”.

Motor town
Surprisingly most motor agents of this era were located in Main Street itself or in the environs. Johnson Motors agents for Buick and Spack was situated opposite the O.K. Bazaars, the Oakland agent operated from the southern half of the O.K., Maclaren’s Oldsmobile and the Hupp agents were based somewhere about where Garlick’s site is situated. The Shapiro business then relocated to Drake’s building in Jetty Street facing the end of Strand Street. This building was later occupied by the Stellenvale Wine Company. Here Shapiro’s were agents for Studebaker and Mathis motor vehicles as well as Sun and Norton motorcycles.

Rate of pay
Rupert Mouat’s remuneration amounted to 10/- per 45 hour week, plus 3-3/4-d overtime per day for opening the garage and petrol pumps at 7 a.m. before normal business started an hour later. Interestingly, shop workers worked a 6-day week with only the Sunday off. The junior office staff worked a 12-hour day and commenced at 6am in order to clean the offices and afterwards closed the offices at 6pm.

Hydraulic lift to move cars
At their Jetty Street premises, Mouat’s employer used a huge hydraulic lift on the three floors which were operated from the hydraulic accumulator near the Dom Pedro jetty. This hydraulic accumulator also supplied power for the wool and hide stores on Strand Street for their lifts and for compressing the bales before fitting the hoop-iron bands. The lifts were operated by pulling on a rope. – up for down and down for going up. However, it required some precision with the rope to stop the heavy lift exactly level with the floor so that cars could be driven on and off smoothly.

Mouat explained that “The first Mathis car which arrived after we had acquired the agency had us all foxed. The handbook was in French, and no-one could engage reverse gear. This model was introduced to compete with the Citroen “Cloverleaf’ and the smallest Renault but failed to make any impression on this section of the market. Studebaker cars arrived in a “semi-knockdown” condition in the harbour area, i.e., the wheels, hood and windscreen were removed at the American factory and stored alongside the car . . . Our job was to open the cases with crowbars, mount the wheels, hood and windscreen and assemble other loose equipment. We then towed the cars to Jetty Street for pre-sale servicing and cleaning before they were placed on the showroom floor. We would assemble about six cars at a time, and I would memorise the seven-figure chassis and enginenumbers. On our return to Jetty Street, I would report to the bookkeeper, Mr Thompson and reel off the numbers to check against the factory shipping list. This made me Mr. Thompson’s exhibition prize piece. We avoided damage to the packing cases as much as possible as these were eagerly snapped up by persons who rebuilt them as cheap garages.”

Citroen 5CV Cloverleaf T3-2

Confusion reigns about Prince of Wales’s visit
A visit was made by the Prince of Wales to Port Elizabeth during the 13th and 14th May 1925. The very popular Prince made a series of tours to the Dominions after the war. the fourth and last in 1925 to Africa and South America. Port Elizabeth was en fete and decorated. The Male Voice Choir was at the station to sing the Welsh nation­al anthem when the Prince arrived, and HMS “Birmingham”, at anchor in the Bay, fired a salute. Thousands gathered to see him. There was a chic welcome and the Prince was the first to sign the City’s Golden Book. Although a visit to the Snake Park was not part of the organised itinerary, the Prince asked particularly to see it and the famous handler, Johannes, and F.W. Fitzsimons, had hurried­ly to be located. Thousands of schoolchildren were assembled at several points for the Prince to meet them, and all had been taught to sing “God bless the Prince of Wales”. The Prince stayed at the P.E. Club. In the evening there was a reception and ball in the decorated Feather Market Hall and on the way the Prince unexpectedly stopped at the Drill Hall where a boxing tournament for local men and the Navy had been organised by the BESL. The whole visit was a resounding success.

Decorations on the Customs House to celebrate the Prince’s visit to P.E

Mouat recalls his part, albeit minor, in ensuring that the visit was a success as follows: “In this year, 1925, we. meticulously prepared two Studebaker Special Six tourers for the use of the Prince of Wales during his visit to Port Elizabeth. It was doubtful whether his Crossley tourers, which travelled with him could be unloaded at North End station. To our dismay, just as Edward P walked out of the front entrance of the station in Jetty Street, two Crossley’s raced up and to our mortification our beautifully prepared Studebakers were not required. We had the day off and Basil Lavender and sat on the Horse Memorial, then located at the corner of Rink and Pearson Streets, while the Prince drove past to the Crusader Ground to meet all the schoolchildren.

New skill acquired at Hayward, Young & Co.
I left Shapiro’s in October 1925 as I did not wish to be indentured for five years under the new Apprenticeship Act. While I was awaiting an opportunity to re-enter the motor industry in another capacity I worked for a month at Hayward Young & Co. where Alf was still working. This exposed my inability to operate an old-fashioned letterpress. Saxby’s handwritten letters and Amy Coetzee’s typed ones (without carbon copies) had to be copied by wetting them gently and evenly with water … The letters were then interleaved alternately with the thin yellow tissue pages of a large leatherbound letter book which was then inserted into a letterpress with a huge double-handed screw. This screw was tightened, and the letters left in the book until the damp pages and the letters dried. Their contents were supposedly impressed on the reverse side of the transparent tissues, through which they could be read if the process had been performed successfully. I invariably used too little water and obtained no impressions, or I used too much water, which blurred the writing or typing . . .

I was mercifully released from this thraldom by the offer of a job as assistant parts and accessories salesman at D.H. Saker & Co., so I returned to Jetty Street, where Fripp’s photographic business is now situated. Our shipping and clearing agents, Forbes & Co. were upstairs. Next door was Barry, the French hairdresser and I could have a haircut for sixpence and receive a ticket for a three penny trim any time within the following week. Sakers were agents for Reo, Flint and Durant . . . Bean and Talbot cars, also Reo and Albion trucks. One of my jobs was to collect badly roneoed tender forms from the municipality, post office and South African Railways and to notify them of the availability and prices of any spare parts which we could supply or put on indent.

 For Christmas 1925, director Reg Lucas gave the staff a happy party at the Beach Hotel . He was always cheerful and courteous. Mr Bedford was in charge of the parts and accessories department, but he joined Mitchell, Cotts & Co. the following year. Ernie Meisel arrived from Johannesburg and taught me a lot about indenting and stock control and, when he was transferred in 1927, I was appointed parts and accessories manager at £20 a month, when I was 20 years old. All parts and accessories for Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth came through Algoa Bay.  In 1928 Saker’s moved to Strand Street, to the building later occupied by Edward Searle & Co .

In March 1929 I changed. my employment, moving to General Motors, then still in the old Darling Street ex-wool stores. I started as a checker of parts arriving from parent factories overseas. This covered Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Oakland, Pontiac, Viking, Chevrolet, the German Opel and British Vauxhall cars, also Bedford, G.M.C. and Chevrolet trucks. I think my first stocktaking showed a bin value of about £86,000, a considerable amount at that time, particularly as customs duty had not been paid, the entire stock being in bond. There was a custom office at the main gate through which all issues of parts and cars had to be cleared. Any parts for which there had been no call over the previous five years were declared obsolete, smashed with sledgehammers and buried on North End beach so as to avoid unnecessary customs dues.

Life in the Bay by Rupert Charles Mouat [Looking Back, Volume 25, No.1 April 1981]

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.