A wire car made in the Karoo is more special than any digital gadget you can name. And there’s this little Northern Cape village where they race them every year…
Words: Julienne Du Toit and Chris Marais
Pictures: Chris Marais
Something’s afoot in Philipstown. There’s a buzz in the air of this little Northern Cape village. It’s not just another Friday at the off-sales. It’s the day before the Wire Car Grand Prix, the event of the year.
Wire cars, or draadkarretjies, are a country thing. The kids here don’t have the big bucks for all the digital stuff. They scrimp and save up R50 over a longish period of time and place their orders with the wire car craftsmen of the village. The crafters mostly have karretjiemense blood in them, and there’s little you can teach them about shearing sheep or working with fence wire.
Karretjiemense. If you’re of a certain age you will remember those gypsy donkey cart families that used to criss-cross the Karoo. They were hard-bitten people with wizened features, who carried all their possessions on a donkey cart and went from farm to farm looking for seasonal work. There are very few of them left on the back roads.
We’re going to meet one Amos Riet, a jovial man who works at Merino Motors and sometimes offers his services as a local guide. Amos will help us find the almost legendary Kiewiet Plaatjies, a man who has few equals when it comes to the craft of wire cars. Kiewiet is elusive, we are warned.
But look, here he is, sitting outside his two-room township house in Philipsvale, hard at work with pliers and wires. In his living room are five lovely wire cars, big ones, all still under construction. There are bakkies, Land Rovers and sedans to choose from.
Kiewiet, who also manages a successful little garden plot behind his house, will take one hard look at your vehicle and, if you come back tomorrow, he’ll have a wire version of it ready and waiting for you – for the ridiculously low sum of R50.
Here comes Kiewiet’s neighbour and childhood friend, Nikolaas Seekoei. Kiewiet and Nikolaas and Amos used to hang out as kids, each with his own draadkarretjie of the day. Their favourite game was cops and robbers (spietkoppe en rowers). They would make little emergency lights for the cars using red or blue glass, yelling “wee-wah, wee-wah” as they went. “They burnt beautifully,” says Kiewiet. “We’d run with them to the shops and back at night. Wee-wah. And then wah-wee.”
On the one side of Kiewiet’s yard is an ancient chair with springs coming out of it. This is his workshop. He works with his bony hands and wire-cutting pliers purchased from the local co-op. The smooth curved shapes of the roof can only be made with the fingers, and his hands are strong and calloused.
Goodbye Kiewiet. Will we see you and your cars at the Grand Prix tomorrow? Ever the artist, he shrugs, “We’ll see what happens tonight.”
We drive on, checking out tomorrow’s route with Amos, who is on the committee for the Draadkarretjie Grand Prix. A posse of children surrounds us and practically herds us to the home of another wire car crafter, Johannes Thile, who wears crocheted headgear in the devil-may-care style of a French Resistance fighter. You know Johannes is going to be there tomorrow. With bells on. His son Wesley is the reigning champion. Not only for winning the race but for having the best-made car. Hopes are running high in the Thile household.
Johannes doesn’t only make draadkarretjies. He also does piecework on farms and fashions big pots from barbed wire. These he transports to a farm about twenty klicks away with a home-made trailer attached to his bicycle. The farmer’s wife pays him and sells it on.
This particular year, the stakes are higher than ever. The prize for first place is R200 – a small fortune for the competitors. There are also generous prizes for second, third and fourth place, plus other prizes for the best-made wire cars, all sponsored by Merino Motors. And get this: every contestant is given a T-shirt, a frozen flavoured ice (bompie) and a vetkoek with the choice of jam or mince filling.
The next morning early, Amos and others are sorting out the excited kids, taking names and giving out numbers. Each one is given a red T-shirt, which is immediately donned. One little boy has strapped his dearest possession, an ancient stuffed baby duck, into his vehicle. What’s its name? It’s either Huey, Duey or Luey, we reckon.“Sy naam is Toy,” says the boy.
One vehicle is clearly an Amarok. Another is an Audi truck. Oh look, there’s an Isuzu. Some have other half-tins wired onto the back seat (the spare wheel) and others have Eveready batteries strapped onto the bonnet to weigh them down. One vehicle is weighted down with a stone, in a cage of wire in the middle of the draadkarretjie. They have their ways, these boys. Some have aerosol tins hacked in half for wheels. Others have pram wheels or bottle tops. Some have wire wheels, patterned back and forth like a tractor tyre.
There’s young Wesley Thile, Number 20, looking a little nervous at the start. This year he’s running against 34 other boys – more competition than he’s ever had in the three-year history of the race. The local mechanic, Doy Ferreira, and a Philipstown farmer, Izak du Plessis, are the judges for the category of Best-Made Car. Doy has a battered face but a connoisseur’s eye. As a kid growing up here, he made plenty of wire cars. He warns the children in their red T-shirts that, at next year’s race, there should be none of these new-fangled pram or rubber wheels, please. A true wire car has metal wheels, made of tin can or wire, he says. Or maybe a polish tin lid, like in his day. Then he wishes them well, warns them not to cheat like last year, and at his signal they are off.
Wesley takes the lead within a few hundred metres. Barefoot, he sprints over the stony dirt roads and ditches like a scrub hare, guiding his wire car in front of him via its elongated steering. His closest competitors, Beverley Pietersen (16), Booy Seekoei (16) and Denwion Fielies (12) soon fall metres behind. Wesley runs the race of his life, crossing the finish line three kilometres later in well under fifteen minutes.
At the finish line he doesn’t shout or throw his arms up in the air or rejoice at all. His face is attentive but neutral. It is as if he can’t quite believe it. Ever since he lost his left eye in an accident three years back, he is like this – way more solemn and contained than a little boy should be.
But when Wesley is called up from the crowd around Merino Motors to receive an envelope full of cash, he smiles shyly, unable to hide his joy. When he is called up again to receive another envelope of cash for the best-made car (created by his beloved father Johannes the day before), Wesley cannot stop beaming. He is the undisputed Prince of Philipstown.
The Philipstown Draadkarretjie Grand Prix, normally run in November, is the brainchild of the local community, who were encouraged and facilitated by an organisation called Community Health Evangelism. CHE helps communities find solutions to issues that face them. It was the local people who identified wire cars (draadkarretjies) as something very special to them. Here it is not a dying art. It is thriving.
At the end of it, we find Kenneth and Adriaan’s gang seated in a long line on the pavement, like a bunch of sparrows, happily sucking on their orange bompies while they relive the race.
But every now and then they fall silent and their eyes drift upwards to look at the newly installed ‘statues’ of children sprinting after wire cars on top of Merino Motors, created by local artist Kay Fourie.
You can just see it gives them real pride to have those effigies of themselves, in the most prominent position, on the main road of their little home town.