Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Earliest Motor Vehicles

It is probably no consolation for Port Elizabeth to claim that it was the first town in South Africa through which a motor vehicle was shipped. It is only Pretoria that can rightfully make the more prestigious claim that it was first town in which the first car was driven in South Africa. This occurred in 1897 at Berea Park. 

Nevertheless, Port Elizabeth would not be far behind.

Main picture: Mr William Adcock, Mayor of Walmer, in his 1896 Benz Velo with his passenger Mr Charles Lovemore

Debut of the first horseless carriage in South Africa

In 1896, John Percy Hess of Pretoria decided to import South Africa’s first car. He requested his bank, the Bank of Africa, to arrange payment to the manufacturer, Benz & Co. of Mannheim, Germany. The car was shipped to Port Elizabeth in 1896 and transported to Pretoria. Subsequently Hess became the sole agent for Benz Motors in South Africa

On Monday, January 4th at 4pm.1897 at Berea Park, Pretoria, in a widely advertised event, Mr John Percy Hess first drove a car in SA

The first motor car ride in South Africa was made on 04 January 1897 at Berea Park in Pretoria. John Percy Hess drove his two-seater Benz Velo for the first time. His first passengers were A.E. Reno, his business partner, and W.J. Leyds, the State Secretary. President Paul Kruger was invited for the ride, but declined and watched from the sidelines. A golden medal was minted for the occasion. Spectators had to pay 2 shillings and 6 pennies entrance fee for the pleasure of witnessing this wonder, the horseless carriage.

A week later, the Benz was shown at the Wanderers in Johannesburg and sold to a coffee importer, A.H. Jacobs. He showed the car off gratis to anyone who purchased 500g of coffee from his Pritchard Street shop. A few months later, the car destroyed in a fire.

Typical old Divisional Council roads, narrow and rutted, with a drift below and ox wagons toiling up the hill

Debut in Port Elizabeth

July 1902 witnessed the debut of the 4.5hp Benz Velo in Port Elizabeth. On this day, Mr Walter Clement Adcock drove his car through the Van Stadens Pass, becoming arguably the first vehicle to successfully negotiation the gorge. Not to be outdone, on the 20th August Adcock and Maurice Gilbert made the first motorised trip to Grahamstown in a time of 15 and a half hours at an average speed of 6mph. In neither instance were the tyres at any risk of getting a puncture as his Benz Velo was fitted with wooden tyres.

A vehicle attempting to negotiate the Van Stadens Pass

Following on from this Benz, other vehicles must have been imported shortly afterwards as within less than half a year, on 23 April 1903, the first Automobile Club was established. On this day, the inaugural meeting was held at the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square to form the P.E. Automobile Society with Adcock as the first Chairman. Two days later, the first “rally” was held. This procession which included four De Dietrichs, two Benzs, A Phaeton, a Stirling and a Wolseley, departed from the Cape Road tram terminus and rode all the way to Greenbushes!

Ford in South Africa

The first Ford to be sold in South Africa was the Ford Model A of 1903, which was sold by Henry Ford himself to Arthur Youldon of Johannesburg. Arthur was a financier who specialised in imports. In September 1903 he visited the USA and while in New York, he saw a motor car demonstration in Broadway. The man behind the demonstration was Henry Ford, who had founded his company, Ford Motor Company, on 16 June 1903.

Arthur placed his order and was told that it would be the first Ford to be sold outside North America. The car arrived in Port Elizabeth in February 1904 and was transported by train to Johannesburg. Today it is displayed at the Heidelberg Transport Museum.

Cars at Humewood

It is not clear who was the first Ford agent in South Africa. There are two possibilities – Arkell & Douglas of Port Elizabeth and Georges Chapart of Durban who commenced business at the same time. It is believed that Arkell & Douglas was the first company to import the Fords directly from the factory, while Chapart worked through agents.

Chapart was French and since 1906 he travelled all over Natal selling Fords. The Model N Ford was a popular choice. He later expanded to the Orange Free State and finally settled down in Potchefstroom, selling cars until his death at age 80.

Cars on the Humewood promenade

Other early Ford dealers were H.G. Holmes of Kimberley which later moved to Cape Town, and Atkinson’s Motor Garages in Bloemfontein which later became part of the McCarthy group.

In July 1923 Holmes and H.F.A. Stockelbach visited Canada to investigate the idea of opening a Ford assembly plant in South Africa. From February 1924, Ford Model Ts were assembled in an old wool packing shed in Port Elizabeth.

King Edward Hotel, Port Elizabeth

Opening the Marine Drive

The opening of the road around the southern coast of Port Elizabeth on the 6th December 1922 was memorable for a number of reasons. Firstly it was the first road in that area letting residents view a previously unspoilt part of Port Elizabeth. Apart from this, after the Civil Commissioner, A.C. Bain, had formally opened the thoroughfare, a procession of one hundred and fifty cars left Market Square to make the inaugural trip around the Marine Drive.

150 vehicles ready to leave Market Square in December 1922 after the Marine Drive is declared open by Mr. A.C. Wait

For a personal reason, this road was more significant. After twice being declared insolvent due to the Gamtoos floods and then the rinderpest, my grandparents had established a tearoom in Schoenmakerskop. Due to the paucity of visitors, mainly from nearby Walmer, this venture was barely profitable.

On this auspicious day, all 150 cars arrived outside their tiny tearoom to be served by my aunts and grandmother. [My father was too young being only 11 years old]. The family was saved from destitution as the trip around the Marine Drive with my gran’s scones as their denouement, became a weekly event for the next few decades.

Their destination: No 32 Marine Drive – On opening of the Marine Drive in 1922
No 32 Marine Drive – On opening of the Marine Drive in 1922, outside Daisy McCleland’s tearoom

A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922

Elegant touring in a Rover
An Oldsmobile en route to Oudshoorn



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


  1. Civil Commissioner Andrew Charles Bain was the first son of Thomas Bain, the Roads and Passes builder. He retired to Knysna, where he had grown up, and stayed in the 1901 Hope Villa at the Heads, an annex of Thomas AG Horn’s Royal Hotel. Bain died in 1927.
    Hope Villa operates as a B&B today.

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