Willie Nel has completed 34 Economy Runs, winning 11. He also holds a Guinness World Record for the longest distance driven in one year: an amazing 500 000km. This is his motoring and adventure story…
Willie Nel’s first taste of motorsport was in the late 60s. The Pretoria Motor Club (PMC) organised a ‘mud plug’ and Willie went to the event in his daily driver, a Fiat 500 Nova, as a spectator. A ‘mud plug’ is just as the name implies… a short rally-style race over a muddy course. Cars that don’t make it – and there are normally many – have to be ‘plugged’ from the mud. On Willie’s first mud plug, several experienced motorsport competitors in rally cars pitched up so the scene was set for plenty of action. But then someone convinced the young Nel that his light Fiat 500 was just the thing for a mud plug – and he entered.
Even though the little Fiat didn’t have enough power to spin its front wheels, Nel drove the set course – and won the event. Needless to say, the motorsport bug had bitten, and he remained involved in the sport for the next 50 years. This included rallies, endurance runs, track racing, hill climbs, off-road events and economy runs. Before his retirement he was also a 4×4 driving instructor. So let’s get stuck into some motoring questions.
In what car did you learn to drive?
A 1949 Ford Custom V8
And your first car?
A second-hand, 1958 Fiat 1100
You’ve owned many cars over the years – which was your favourite?
That must be a Toyota Land Cruiser 60 Series station wagon. It was my first 4×4, and I got it in 1998.
You are renowned as SA’s Economy Run king. Any special moments over the years?
Oh, so many. One year I competed in a Toyota Camry 200si, and managed to complete the 1 200km course without refuelling. Needless to say, that Camry was taken apart by the officials to find my ‘extra’ fuel tanks, which weren’t there.
I’ve also driven a Toyota Prado 3.0 D4-D from Swakopmund in Namibia to Maputo in Mozambique, averaging less than six litres/100km.
And then there was the Guinness World Record of 500 000km in one year, in an Opel Monza. How did that come about?
I did some research and found out that the world long-distance endurance record was set in 1936 in a Light 15 Citroen. That team completed 400 000km in one year. Considering the road conditions and vehicles of 1936, it must have been a huge challenge. I calculated that if I do 1 600km per day, except Sundays, it was possible to do 500 000km in one year.
Opel gave me a Monza 1.8GLX and they serviced the car every Thursday in Port Elizabeth (10 000km intervals), so every Thursday I did 2 200km. I had a few close shaves but fortunately no accidents. My longest trip was from Gauteng to Cape Town and back in 24 hours.
And highlights off the beaten track?
There was that trip up Baboons Pass in Lesotho in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Towing a Jurgens Safari Xplorer weighing 1.8-tons. Many 4×4 enthusiasts shy away from that extremely rocky, dangerous pass, and we tackled it with that caravan in tow. We made it up to the school, a convenient turnaround point, and our initial target. We decided to push on to try and reach the summit, but unfortunately the back-up vehicle broke down and we had to abandon the summit idea. The torque of the naturally aspirated 4.2-litre diesel in low range was exceptional and made the towing easy. It was a team effort with others helping and guiding in the extreme places.
So what vehicle do you currently drive?
I’ve been driving Toyota double cab 4×4s for the last 15 years. My first one was a 1991 SFA model and it had done 350 000km before I was relieved of it by car thieves. The second one is a Hilux 2.7i with the independent front suspension and it is just run-in at 300 000km. We use it to tow our Jurgens off-road camper all over the place.
And what vehicle would be parked in your dream garage? We’re going to guess it’s a Toyota… but which one?
A Hilux double cab diesel 4×4 with an automatic gearbox would be perfect. Once you are used to life with a double cab, it’s difficult to change. And I’ve convinced my wife to a buy a Toyota FJ Cruiser, so we’re covered in the SUV segment too.