KNYSA, South Africa — Roughly halfway between the cities of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth—and not far from where the Atlantic Ocean becomes the Indian one—sits an estate that plays host every early May to the unique annual celebration of cars and motorsport that is the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb.
Started eight years ago by an experienced motorsports coordinator and a former rally driver, the Simola Hillclimb’s current format is similar to that of the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed. Classic cars race on Friday, modern modified trials run on Saturday, and the climactic King of the Hill Shootout is held on Sunday. It wasn’t always set up like this, however. Previous incarnations included a children’s downhill soapbox race and a classic car show.
Regardless of format, the Hillclimb has always wrapped up the Simola Golf Estate’s main driveway—a forested, steep road with a well-maintained blacktop. Considering the location and the structure, the comparisons to Goodwood are not surprising. However, that’s where the similarities largely end.
While Goodwood features concours level classic cars and the best hill-climbing machines, South Africa’s event features an eclectic gathering of cars, even by South African standards, and allows local grassroots racers to mix it up with well-funded pros and amateurs that bring heavy hardware such as the 1989 Dallara Fomula 1 car that won King of the Hill after wrangling up the 1.18-mile course in just 37 seconds or the R32 1993 Nissan GT-R that was less than three seconds off the Ford-powered F1 racer’s pace.
The entry that sticks out the most was the Knysna local who rocked up with a naturally aspirated 1996 Honda Civic. His qualifying time notably beat a brand-new Ford Focus RS and put him within a hair’s breadth of a Roush Mustang. Other locals included a ’98 Toyota Conquest, ’77 Ford Escort, and a ’74 Volkswagen Scirocco.
Many of the local competitors are here to have fun and put down a good time. And they don’t just bring economy cars like the Civic or Conquest. One imported a Volkswagen Gol from Brazil 40 days before the race and mated it to a full Audi S2 drivetrain. Another spent the last year building a rally spec Toyota Celica GT-4 just so people could see it in action. Other great entries included a drift-ready Toyota 86, a chrome-wrapped Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG, and a C5 Chevrolet Corvette featuring a 4.0-liter Toyota power plant sending more than 1,000 barely tamed horses to the rear wheels.
The unique nature of the Simola Hillclimb is in large part a consequence of life in South Africa itself. While the country has a strong mining and construction economy, the realities of its weak currency are hard to overcome. With proper race cars out of reach, South African enthusiasts have turned to increasingly absurd engine swaps, modifications, and donor vehicles. (One entry at this year’s event was a modified Ford Ranger. The absurdity of seeing a pickup truck swaying and bouncing up the course was only matched by the awe of seeing that it averaged 75 mph in the process.)
As such, those seeking ultra-rare vintage cars and built to the teeth racers would be better off heading to Goodwood or Pebble Beach. But if seeing a wide variety of competitors sporting everything from a Formula 1 car to wacky, homebrew creations is more your fancy, come to Knysna. The Simola Hillclimb will not leave you disappointed.
For more on the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb, visit www.speedfestival.co.za