History of the TOTAL Economy Run

The TOTAL Economy Run is a unique motor sport event, which marries a highly competitive element with a strong social flavour.

It’s not for sissies,” declares Jan Hettema, who has been clerk of the course since the run’s inception.

The TOTAL Economy Run remains to this day the only credible test for the man in the street of the comparable fuel efficiency of all makes and models of cars competing against each other over the same route, distance and under the same set of regulations.

In the late 1970s, at the time of the fuel crisis, Gerhard Esterhuizen, then TOTAL’s market development manager, attended an economy run sponsored by TOTAL Oil Great Britain. He suggested a similar event in South Africa and, when TOTAL management agreed, the Pretoria Motor Club was asked to organise the first TOTAL Economy Run in 1977. It is has been staged by the PMC, under Hettema’s direction, ever since and is one of South Africa’s most enduring motor sport events.

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“The early runs were much tougher than recent events,” Hettema, five times South African rally champion and four times a winner of the TOTAL International Rally. “They were three-day affairs covering some 1 700 km and 50 per cent of the route was on dirt roads. Today it’s a two-day event over about 1 100 km and the dirt road component is only about 20 per cent.”

The first run was surveyed by Hettema in a light aircraft and there were no observers in the cars, which led to some highly creative and TOTALly unconventional ways of saving petrol. Willie Nel, one of the few who has competed in every event – he has won the prestigious Index of Fuel Efficiency for petrol-engined vehicles four times – recalls the first event and how slipstreaming was the order of the day.

“I managed to free-wheel for up to 35 km at a time in my Citroen Cub and went so fast at times that Willem van Rooyen (a two-time index winner), who was free-wheeling in my slipstream, had to engage fourth gear on his Renault 5 TS in order to keep up!”

Pine Pienaar’s Renault 5 recorded the lowest fuel consumption in that first event – around 5,5 l/100 km – and Renault won its class every year until well into the 1980s.

BMW dominated the event for many years with Leon Joubert (four times between 1986 and 1992) and Geoff Goddard (1990) winners on index. In recent years Toyota has been the dominant manufacturer, winning the last eight events in a row (Index of Fuel Efficiency for petrol-engined vehicles), while BMW returned to its winning ways with an emphatic victory in last year’s diesel car class.

Leon Joubert, motoring journalist and Zimbabwean farmer, is one of the event’s founding fathers, along with Esterhuizen, Hettema and TOTAL’s then managing director, Alphonzo Hough. He recalls that it was Hough, fondly remembered by many as a remarkable raconteur, who had the unpopular task of pulling the plug on the TOTAL International Rally in 1977 as a result of the issue of conflicting advertising on cars and clothing worn by rally crews, and also because of the fuel crisis.

“I wrote the original regulations and set the first few years’ routes but cocked it up completely in the first year by not specifying observers. If I remember correctly, my route used famous rally roads like Naude’s Nek and top rallyists Andre Liebenberg and Jan Kriek virtually freewheeled a Chrysler Valiant from the top of Naude’s Nek to Umtata and returned a ridiculous fuel consumption figure. Roelof (“Poepies”) Fekken, on the other hand, decided that rally roads were there to be used and very nearly ran out of fuel on every stage.

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“Another mistake was that the late Bernie Mariner, Sarel van der Merwe, Geoff Mortimer and a few others created 130 km/h slipstreaming-trains on the freeways which would scatter all over the road when the leading driver got pissed off and slammed on his brakes. Those were the days!”

The history of the TOTAL Economy Run abounds with humorous anecdotes, most involving well-known motor sport personalities and celebrity guests.

Sigma (forerunner to Samcor) entered 22 cars one year and there was trouble back at the office when management realised how many employees were absent. Another year the company’s public relations manager – one Dave Clapham – entered 10 Mitsubishi Tredias for motoring journalists.

The car had a unique split-ratio transmission, which effectively gave it eight gears, and Clapham reckoned one of his “secret weapons” would be a cinch to win the event. But six of the cars crashed – one on the way to the event – and the man who was later to become president of the motor sport controlling body was almost fired!

Sarel van der Merwe, 11 times South African rally champion, says he has only been frightened twice in his long and distinguished career. The first time was when he navigated for boxer Kallie Knoetze and the route included the famous Bobbejaanpad, shrouded in thick mist. The second time was when he was talked into occupying the co-driver’s seat alongside Hettema himself.

Former Springbok cricket captain and sometime racing driver Clive Rice, accompanied by Stannic’s Stan Weston, spent a day on Hettema’s farm to learn how to drive on dirt roads and employ fuel-saving techniques. Both rolled their cars on the event, making the front page of the Sunday Express.

One year, in the “celebrity days”, the event started at midnight from Steyns Ford in Pretoria. By dawn most of the “stars” were passengers in support vehicles.

Among celebrities who graced the event were boxer Charlie Weir and several Miss South Africa beauty queens, like Odette Scrooby and Vanessa Wannenburg. Hettema wisely concluded that motor sport events and public figures don’t always mix (at least not in the manner envisaged), especially when unnamed PMC members tried to invade the rondavel of a beauty queen in the Pretoriuskop camp in the Kruger National Park.

Ian Crowhurst, a well-known driving instructor, crashed his BMW through a game fence near the Loskop Dam one year. Someone later used the hole in the fence to gain access to the farmer’s house and stole his TV. There were threats of law suits but peace was restored when BMW paid for the fence to be repaired.

Lucas Monyanyedi, also a driving instructor and the first non-white to compete as a driver in the TOTAL Economy Run, drove his BMW straight on and through a fence at a T-junction on a dirt road on his first event. He won his class in a BMW the following year.

Then there was the time when a competitor in a VW Beetle crashed into a private Toyota Cressida on Robber’s Pass near the Blyde River Canyon resort, only to discover the driver of the Toyota was the manager of the resort, where the competitors were to spend the night.

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Bernie Mariner crashed into a ditch one year when the event ended at the Wild Coast Sun. His observer was Bernard Lafitte, TOTAL’s then MD.

Hettema had to revise the route schedule at the last minute one year as a result of torrential rains in the Eastern Cape which made the Baviaanskloof road impassable. Bert Klaver insisted on using the original schedule and had to turn back, forced to take a very long detour to get back into the event.

Willie van Zyl, driving a Daihatsu Charade in the early 1980s, was the first to record a fuel consumption figure of below 5l/100 km.

A cub reporter covering his first motor sport event – he was working for SABC radio – was Hendrik Verwoerd now a well-known motor racing commentator and economy run entrant.

An infamous and unnamed cheat put rubber sausages in his fuel tank, believing that they would swell and reduce the volume of the tank, thus requiring less petrol at the final top-up. The “sausages” swelled so effectively that petrol was soon pouring out of the filler cap while the car was inparc fermé overnight. They blocked the filler pipe and it was only possible to put in one litre at the end of the event. The competitor was disqualified after being severely reprimanded by Hettema.

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