54 Years Of Racing And No Signs Of Stopping
Decades Of Fumes & Fast Cars

Not many people can say that they’ve raced competitively for more than half a century, and on top of that still be in the top rankings. But January 2019 marked local South African racing legend Willie Hepburn’s 54th year of racing. Yes, 54th year.

Many love him, some might hate him, but no one can deny that he’s a beast of a racer and one of the nicest grandpas you’ll ever meet.

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A lifetime dedicated to racing sounds like the ultimate petrol-head’s dream, and that rings true for Willie who’s 77 years young this year. Willie began his racing career in 1965 when he entered his 1957 Morris Minor 1000 road car in the Krugersdorp Hill Climb.

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At the same time he also became interested in track racing, and at one of the open practice days, before even completing a single lap, he spun out and ended up bending all the wheels on his Morris. This was quite a problem as a big race meet was only a week away.

Willie got the car fixed, but he was too late to qualify so had to start 36th on the grid. Despite that handicap, he ended up winning the race, lapping every car up to second.

Remember, this wasn’t a proper race car – it had no roll cage or anything. How’s that for raw talent?

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Willie first got into cars during his mechanic apprenticeship; one of the guys he worked alongside wanted to hot-rod his engine, and that’s where the bug bit. He’s been a privateer racer his entire life, and every car he’s raced over the years he has built and maintained by himself. There’s definitely no rent-a-racer here, just someone with pure passion.

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Testament to Willie’s legend status that was earned racing in South Africa, Zimbabwe and even the USA, are comments made by his large fan base on social media.

Willie has also had more press coverage than any other racer I’ve seen, especially in the good ol’ days of newspaper media. Then there are the albums – he has more photos and newspaper cut-outs than most people have family snaps.

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A Gentleman Racer

Willie has attained this status partly because of his ‘never say die’ attitude in any situation, be it working on or racing his own cars, and because of his willingness to always lend a helpful hand to even his biggest competitors.

He’d rather help and compete against someone than see them fail and win without having some healthy competition. Down and dirty is no problem for this legend.

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Along with the hill climbs and circuit stuff, Willie has also competed in oval racing as well as drag racing and top end runs; he’s really done almost everything and done it well. Standard production cars, modified saloon cars, super saloon cars, and classic cars are just some of the classes he’s raced in.

He’s probably raced more cars than most, and these days he loves to race his mad V8 Opel Rekord, which he built in 1989 and has competed with since then. I’ll be doing a full feature on this magnificent historic machine soon, so keep an eye out.

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Willie’s circuit racing career really took off in 1975 when he competed in a standard production Mazda RX-2 and consistently finished on the podium. He also raced a Capella and an RX-7 which he dominated in, winning multiple regional championships.

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But the car that really put Willie on the map as a builder and racer was his Ford Sierra XR8, nicknamed The Animal. He won the national Wesbank Modified V8 championship many times in this car, and it was always a fan favourite because it was so loud, fast, and totally in your face.

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Another monster of a car was Willie’s brutish 1982 Chevrolet SS, which he won the Star championship with. The original car isn’t around anymore, but Willie has actually bought an SS and is busy restoring it to his old race machine’s exact specification.

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Throughout the years Willie has raced so many other epic cars, both his own and others he was invited to drive. These included Chevrolet Camaros, Corvettes, an Opel Superboss, and even the Roger Penske 68’ Camaro.

He was also invited to race Roy Cohen’s McLaren M8C in Seattle where he literally got off the plane, got on the grid, and placed 5th. The next two days there were two more races which he took victory in.

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For The Rekord

As I mentioned earlier, the Opel Rekord is the car Willie still races today. Under the hood is a normally aspirated Chevy 350ci V8 stroked to 383 cubic inches, with Wesbank-spec heads and a single 4-barrel carburettor, all good for 600hp. Oh and it’s got no driver assistance systems at all, not even power steering.

Willie likes to really drive a car and be totally in control, and it’s a quite a thing to see and experience.

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He even holds the South African land speed record for a road legal car. Set in 1990 on an unopened highway with his Pontiac Trans-Am powered by a twin turbo 427ci V8 motor, Willie achieved 372.401km/h (232.75mph). Making the feat even more impressive was the fact that this was done on standard Goodyear road tires.

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Nowadays, Willie doesn’t compete in historic racing with his Rekord, simply because it was deemed too fast. He regularly competes in hill climb and time attack events though, often placing in the top 10.

In the international Knysna Hill Climb event he races his car against 1,000hp Nissan GT-Rs and other heavily modified machines, and still gives them a damn hard time. Of course, all the while he’s having the time of his life and entertaining the crowds in the process.

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When it comes to awards, you can see that Willie has no shortage of those, with trophies and achievements scattered all over every part of his house. These include the State President’s Award in 1980, the Normal Poulter’s Sportsman of the Year award in 2016, the Lifetime Achievement award in 2014, as well as the Midvaal Spectators’ Favourite Driver award in the same year.

In 2008, he became the oldest driver, at 65, to win a national championship in his Chevrolet Corvette.

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On the day I went to visit Willie, I found him working on customers’ cars, greeting me with a big smile and his usual sincerity. Yes, he’s still building not just his own cars, but cars for others, too. He recently completed a crazy-fast V8 Ford Capri and Chevy Can-Am that both raced at the Passion For Speed festival, and he’s currently busy restoring a very special Ford Capri Perana V8.

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If Willie had to write a book about his endless knowledge, racing experience and many spectacular stories, it would surely be a best seller amongst petrol-heads. But I’m not sure even a book has enough pages to contain more than 50 years of racing.

Willie has definitely had a life well lived.

Stefan Kotzé
Instagram: stefankotzephoto

Cutting Room Floor
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Need more articles like this that show not ppl in their prime but privateers that are doing their best at whatever age with whatever they've got.
Thanks for the article


Glad you like it. The crazy thing to think is that he's actually been in his prime for so many years. Dominating over such a long period of time is something else. Many guys dominate for a short while, then reach their peak


One of my all time favorite South African racing legends. Heard a lot of stories about him in the late 80's as I went to school with his nephew.

Had the privilege of meeting him a few times and he was always was (and probably still is) more than happy to discuss cars with anyone regardless of age.


He's definitely earned the title legend.

He really loves cars and will share knowledge and talk to anyone willing to listen


I love the local hero stories especially because in this day and age you don't have to live near by to get to hear them.

Does he still have his Sierra XR8? cause I would love a feature on that too!


Yeah local heroes are great, especially when they don't even see themselves that way but are just genuinely good people.

He doesn't hey, I'm sure it's still in someone's garage though


Really good article, thanks! A nice departure from the usual stuff, and the subject matter really hit home for me. As an Opel guy, I found this all the more enjoyable.


Appreciate the love. Doing a feature on the Opel soon. So keep an eye out


Stefan, this stuff is great! In the UK, we rarely hear about the car scene in SA: I worked in Cape Town a few years ago and couldn't believe how much cool stuff was rolling around! Fascinating: more please!


Thanks Guy! So happy that I can bring the world a little bit closer to stuff this side of the world. Got lots more to come!


Wow, this is a truly great story and awesome images, super nostalgic! Def need more of this on Speedhunters. I am not familiar with South African racing, and I have never heard of Willie, but his story is surely inspirational. I would literally pay for his biography right now if it was available.


Glad I could share some local history, and like Jaz said, Sarel is another local legend. His autobiography is amazing!


If you can, get hold of a copy of Sarel van der Merwe's autobiography, Supervan & I. It's equally full of crazy racing stories.


A man with understanding, grit and passion. No false pretensions, not a poser and not doing it to look cool. Real speed hunting rather than speed poising.


Sadly it's something we so rarely see these days, humble people like Willie are hard to come by.


Great Article on Willie. Watch him race as i grew up and always loved his style and cars!!
How about an article on Richie Jute of Richie Jute Racing Cams - also and old school motor sport Tuner and racer.


Never heard of him, but I see he's also local. I'll definitely look into him as well.


He Lives in George now with some of his race cars nd others in the museum there. You can be sure thatin most of the old school race cars of the 70ties, 80ties and 90ties a lot of them had cams from him, and he was a keen racing driver, now planning to go racing again at 84!


that's the stuff i want to read on SH.

that's actually interesting and not always the same ..... !

Thanks Stefan! And wow, what a ricer Will Hepburn is!


Really cool and interesting article, a Morris Minor 1000 isn't a car you'd generally think of starting out in, (I should know, I own one, not the fastest that's for sure, haha) amazing to see the progression he made through out his career. 54 years of racing is an amazing achievement, not something you hear about often.


VERY cool story, I also was unaware of the extent of Willie's success and especially how long he has been racing.
SOOOO much more interesting than looking at what someone has dumped an amazing amount of time and money into that really only they really like, and may not even be completely usable.


Mr Willie Hepburn, you are truly a legend! Respect!


Fantastic read! Have been privileged to have had Willie build a diff for my Trans Am. The man is a legend!

Graham Montanari

Something that I love, Willie and his wife travel the country, from event to event with each other in their van with the Opel in tow. At the age of 77, he loads and off loads his car by himself, and does all his own work at the track. He is so approachable, and always happy to pose for a photo, no matter how busy he is.


You know there is a saying "age is just a number"
I hope this man gets to live a long life and that diseases won't catch up to him


A true legend of all times.


One word:


Swannie Swanepoel

.Willie is a legend and a true champ. Years ago I phoned him from Bloemfontein ( D & J Conversions ) with a problem that our mechanic had with a Pontiac engine and the advice that he gave us and his helpfulness was just amazing. What about a article on the other legend and also true champ of our racing history namely Koos Swanepoel (snr) ? Even a well written book on these old school racing champions would be a marvel .


I love how when Willie Hepburn is brought up in motor racing circles in South Africa, he is always this "good oke (guy)", and just the greatest thing ever. People just gloss over his multiple arrests for running chop shops, receiving stolen property, and being involved in an armed carjacking gang (who put guns in the mouths of children and babies to threaten the parents). This is all public record, and many references can be found online. You have to provide balanced views on your articles. He is one of the vilest people in South African motorsport, hidden behind the veneer of a genial uncle.


I take my hat and hubcap off to Willie - thanks for a superb article


I feel very much like crap that i live in SA and i know so little about The Racing history from here ..


Having grown up in Krugersdorp, I remember that Morris Minor at the hill climb. What blew my mind however, was Willie's Chevy II at Rainbow drag strip, which was such a crowd pleaser and a winner of course. I have enjoyed his racing throughout the years and certainly no one can come close to " Mr V8", in what he has achieved as a driver/mechanic - and still at It! Respect!