I first met Willie Hepburn when I started racing in the WesBank V8 Supercar class, back in 2007. The V8 class was a challenge for a new entrant and Willie was one of the first drivers to encourage me and offer his help and
advice to us. That’s Willie – he always makes time for people and is happy to share his knowledge.
Speaking of knowledge, I wish we had a computer chip that could download even a fraction of the knowledge Willie has in his head! Willie has been building and racing cars for virtually his whole life. Starting out as an apprentice mechanic at the age of 16, he worked for Barnett Bros in Johan- nesburg and learned to drive by delivering the Packard and Cadillac hearses they serviced for David T Cook & Sons. The fastest funerals in Africa? He moved on to work for the renowned Basil Green, a Leg- end in his own right, and the rest is history.
Willie was soon taking his Morris 1000 to race at Wembley on the weekends – if you were willing to put your car on the track during interval, you got a free entry ticket! His first venture into track racing was at Kyalami in January 1965, where he won his first ever race. He rolled his car in his second race, but he learned quickly and was soon a consistent winner in many dif- ferent cars and classes. He also competed in many drag events, with his Chevy II.
Willie has great memories of racing with Robbi Smith in the Springbok Series in the Mazda RX7, and in the brilliant but short-lived Manufacturers’ Challenge. Other highlights he recalls are racing Ray Cohen’s McLaren M8C in Seattle in the US, where he came fifth in the first race and won the next two, and achieving an SA Land Speed Record of 272.401 kph in a Pontiac TransAm road car. I could write an entire book on Willie’s racing career (and I really hope someone does – Willie’s memory is sharp and his lovely wife, Sue, has libraries of books with all the photos and clippings), but my story focuses on a car that is almost as much
of a legend as Willie himself: the ex Sabat Opel Rekord.
Willie built the Opel Rekord in 1989, in time for the third round of the WesBank Modified Saloon Car Championship. Willie had been racing (and winning) in the Ford Sierra “Animal”, but in a new deal with the then GM distributor, Delta, he took a stan- dard Opel Rekord body shell and inserted a 5.7 litre Chevy monster V8 into the car’s engine bay.
The car made its debut at the old Welkom Goldfields track, winning both races, and the Nascar spec V8 sounded like “a four engined World War II bomber flying down the longest straight in Africa at 270 plus”, according to a newspaper
of the time. Believe me, this is an excel- lent description of the car’s sound – it still makes the hair on your arms stand up when he fires it up! Breathing Willie’s dust in Welkom were cars and drivers like Ben Morgenrood in the BP Mazda and the late Tony Viana in his Winfield BMW M5 powered 325i.
The Delta / Sabat Rekord was always a serious contender in the glory days of WesBank Modifieds, doing battle with the likes of the mighty Audi Turbo and the Ford Sapphire Cosworth cars. However, with the move to TransAm type space frame cars in 1994, the Opel Rekord was relegat- ed to Class B, where it remained a perennial winner. When the Modifieds went full space frame in 2000, the Opel was retired to Willie’s workshop where it hibernated for a number of years.
Interestingly, Willie built another three V8 powered Opel Rekords which raced in the early nineties, for drivers such as Gary Dunkerley and Larry Wilford. Willie’s car is the only one which has survived in its origi- nal shape and form.
A few years ago, Willie decided to dust the cobwebs off the car and enter it into regional racing, in the Super Saloons class. The
Opel proved as fast and competitive as ever, setting a number of track records for the class and becoming a hugely popular winner of many events. “The duels I had with Sav Gaultieri in his BMW M3 in Super Saloons are a highlight of my racing career”, says Willie. The fact that Willie qualified the Re- kord on pole at Zwartkops in Super Saloons with a 1:01.3 proves just how competitive the old car still is: that’s FAST!
Willie also entered the car in a number of Historic races. Once again, the Opel was a hit with spectators and racing fans, but earned the ire of officialdom because it was “too fast”. After numerous protests and challenges, Willie has sadly decided to withdraw the Rekord from Historic rac- ing in 2018 and focus on Hill Climbs and Time Attacks.
Willie and the Rekord made their very successful debut at the Knysna Simola Hill Climb last year, earning a place in the finals with a time of 41.8 seconds. Unfortunately, a broken side shaft sidelined the car before the final runs up the Hill, but Willie will be back this year with a new lightweight, super strong motor. I’m relieved he won’t be com- peting in my class!
Time Attack competitors should also beware: the Rekord was 6th fastest at
last year’s Dezzi Time Attack, against the crème de la crème of Porsche, Ferrari and Nissan GTR supercars. Willie is confident the new engine will give him the edge…
The Opel Rekord is a magnificent car. Considering it’s almost 30 years old, it’s quite astounding that it is still racing and giving cars a fraction of its age a hiding. The car is fundamentally still a WesBank V8, with a four speed Jerico gearbox and a 9” diff. Willie has widened the track slightly and has fitted a Corvette C5 front suspension, with Bilstein shocks all round. The exhaust system features banana branches and side pipes, all fabricated by Willie himself. The wheels are standard WesBank rims, fitted with Avon super sticky tyres. There is no power steering, a feature of most of his race cars as he feels he gains a fraction more power without it (as well as getting a great arm workout every time he hits the race track)…
The engine is a Chevy 350 with a stock 350 block, stroked to 383 cubic inches. The motor is more or less 6,3 litres capacity and makes around 600 hp, with WesBank spec heads and cam and a single 4-barrel carb.
The car has impressive stopping power, with 6 pot AP callipers in front and 4 pots at the rear, and is fitted with BMW M3 discs – no power assistance, of course!
Willie has built and rebuilt this car from scratch, and it’s clear he knows every inch of it intimately. When I asked Willie what he loves about racing, that keeps bringing him back to compete year after year, he told me that this is one of the things that makes motorsport special for him: “I build and prepare my own cars”, he says. “I know every sound and know immediately when something’s not right.” Anyone who has seen Willie racing at the track knows that you will usually find him between races either underneath his car, or with his head under the bonnet, and I think he derives great satisfaction from winning and getting the best out of his car on the day.
Willie is one of the hardest working people I know. In fact, I don’t think he ever stops working! When Jan and I arrived to interview him at his Edenvale workshop, we found him underneath a stunning clas- sic red Corvette, helping an anxious owner resolve a problem with the car.
Willie works on many restoration projects and his workshop is filled with
many classic cars awaiting his attention. When we were there, he had a number of Mustangs, two Chevy CanAms, a cou- ple of Studebakers and a Corvette on standby, to name a few. He also imports American parts and stocks items such as clutches, engine and gearbox parts. He has assisted us many times with specialised V8 parts – last year, when my drift Mustang needed a clutch during the Carnival City event, he opened up his shop late on a Friday night to help
us out, and he has rebuilt quite a few engines for us, too.
Willie is a Legend not only because of his motorsport achievements, but also because he has remained astonishingly humble. He is the most approachable person who always has a kind word for his fans, and is generous with good ad- vice for both drivers and technicians. He is a great example to young drivers and puts his heart and soul into winning – he never, ever gives up!
I hope we see Willie and his Rekord gracing our motorsport events for many years to come, and I can’t wait to see his next Historic project car on track soon… watch this space.