Honouring Historic Racers – Willie Hepburn

Been there, done that, got the T shirt, in short, that sums up the racing career of one of South Africa’s best know motor sport personalities, Willie Hepburn.

Willie, born on July 3, 1942 in Durban, has always had a need for speed. He has been married twice and has 6 children. Kevin lives in Glasgow. Tim lives in Los Angeles and Derrick in Johannesburg. Audrey and Jessica live in the U.K. and the youngest, Gillian, graduates this year. After working for Basil Green and helping to develop the Ford Capri Perana, Willie started Hepburn Conversions, way back in 1974. He runs a successful business, importing performance parts, tuning and modifying V8’s. He has, in recent years turned his attention to building and restoring Muscle Cars – for race and street preparation.

Willie’s race career started more than 55 years ago when he took part in a novice event in a Morris 1000, fitted with a Cortina 1500 GT engine, at Kyalami circuit in 1965. Starting 36th, because he arrived too late for practice, Willie won this race easily, lapping almost everyone! He took home the Johan Renken Trophy for the most Promising Novice Driver.

Willie competed in the Krugersdorp hill climbs in his Morris 1000 – blowing off Basil van Rooyen in his Lotus Cortina. He raced at Wembley Stadium’s oval track and won championships in drag racing in the famous Wynn’s Chevy ll in the 70’s. It was during this period that he met his second wife, Sue in Cape Town. At the 100mph days at Kyalami, the Chevy ll ran 225km/h and his C10 truck 210km/h!! The Super Cars were really teed off!

January 1975, Willie started circuit racing in a standard production Mazda RX2, with a little sponsorship from Aloes Motors in Witbank. Often described as the most exciting race of the day, racing was fast and furious against Dave Charlton, Koos Swanepoel and Brian von Hage, John Rowe, Rick Davis and. Of course, Dennis Joubert, all in Mazda’s. Sarel van der Merwe, Geoff Mortimer and Tommy Dunn raced Alfetta GTV’s and big 6 Cortinas, whilst T Boncompagni an Alfasud TI. Willie won various provincial Championships around the country, thrilling the crowds with close racing.

The latter half of 1976 and beyond saw Willie competing in a modified saloon car in a Mazda Capella. He had many ding dong battles against Hennie van der Linde in the Nissan, the late Tony Viana, Eddie Keizan and Paddy Driver in their BMW’s, Arnold Chatz and Abel d’Oliviera in Alfa GTV’s, Sarel van der Merwe in the Turbo Audi. In those days, when competion was tough, the overall championship usually went to “lower” classes.

After Willie’s phenomenal start, he turned his attention to a Mazda RX7, and then, the famous Ford “Animal” Sierra. Willie has always been a Chevy man at heart, and it was for this reason that he built several Chev and Opel Records, including the Chev SS. Recently he built the Chev Camaro when the Opel Record became obsolete. For the past year Willie has competed in his Wynn’s Ford Mustang, teaching the youngsters a thing or two!! Willie continues to race his old faithful, “Blue” Opel Record in Super Saloons. Winning most of the time……

During Willie’s long and colourful racing career, with a never say die attitude towards racing, he has only once won a National Championship: The Star Modified Saloon Car Championship in a Chev SS in 1982.

Willie was invited to race in Seattle, USA on the weekend of 4th July 2000. Driving Ray Cohen’s MacLaren M*C CanAm sports car. Willie finished 5th in the 1st heat and in the subsequent two races, won both events. According to Ray, the other competitors still ask after Willie!

Wesbank, together with Samcar, has become a real crowd pleaser on South African circuits around the country. The formula has been improved over the years, making for closer and more exiting motor racing. Next year promises to be no different.

Willie has become the epitome of Modified Saloon car racers, having competed and won in some of the biggest and most spectacular cars to come to our circuits over the years.

Others have tried similar, or the same cars and failed, where Willie has succeeded, out of sheer determination, guts and against all odds, on very limited budgets.

Willie is a racer, of which there are very few, a tough character who will not be put down for the need to change an engine, gearbox or diff at the last moment, or lack of a spare part. He is also more than willing to assist in any way, his fellow competitor.

Willie has won the Man of the Meeting and Dedication to Motor Sport Awards many times both for his winning performances and his sheer will to get the car to the circuit, make it go and compete in a way that would please any crown anywhere in the World.

The king of hard work, the evergreen Willie Hepburn’s name is synonymous with V8’s as well as modified saloon car racing and his fans around SA go mad to see Willie in his V8, no matter what make.

If it is exposure a sponsor wants, and that’s the name of the game, then win or lose, Willie Hepburn has proved to be a media favourite.

Willie has won hundreds of trophies, but, there are some that rate as “special”…

  • During the 70’s 80’s and 90’s many 1st 2nd and 3rd places in Standard Production and Wesbank Challenge events.
  • 1977 1st Standard can Wynn’s 100
  • 1978 Asseng Natal Championship for Standard Cars
  • 1979 Asseng Natal Championship for Standard Cars
  • 1980 State President’s Sports Merit Award for Motor Racing
  • 1984 Kyalami 1000 – 2nd SA home
  • 1986 OFS and National Champion Production Championship, Overall Winner
  • 1990 3rd Group N National Champion Class A
  • 1990 SA Land Speed Record in a street legal Pontiac Trans Am @ 372.401 Km/h. Willie held this record for 12 years.
  • 1991 Autoquip Bridgestone Champion of Champions 3rd Overall.
  • 1995 National Wesbank Class B Champion
  • 2001 Wesbank V8 Championship Best Privateer Performance Award

Willie Hepburn, we as supporters and enthusiasts salute you. May your achievements and motorsport success be an inspiration to us and our next generations for a long, long time to come.

SA Car Clubs Magazine, For the love of all things wheels