He won the first race he ever
competed in (appropriately at the historic East London grand
prix circuit in 1960) and also won his last (a charity celebrity
race at Zwartkops Raceway in 1990). He competed in 13 World
Championship Formula One Grands Prix and was South Africa’s
champion driver for six successive years, from 1970 to 1975.
David William Charlton - or Charlie, as he was affectionately
known by his friends – was born in Yorkshire, England
and emigrated to South Africa with his parents when he was 10.
He was brought up in Springs, a town he was proud to associate
himself with, although he did not have fond memories of his
schooling there. “I hated school. I don’t like being
told what to do. Still don’t!” he once said.
A loyal friend, who in turn
had many loyal friends, Charlie was known for his definite opinions,
no nonsense approach to life and a famous fastidiousness that
used to know no boundaries. He loved cats, at one time owning
as many as 21, and several were named after people he knew,
including one of his motor racing rivals.
He won his first race at the age of 24, a late start for a racing
driver, at the wheel of his own Austin Healey 100/6 in a supporting
race for the 1960 South African Grand Prix at East London. He
went on to take over from his great rival, Rhodesian John Love,
as South African champion racing driver in the days when the
championship was contested by Formula One cars. He won the first
of his six successive titles (emulating Love’s performance
between 1963 and 1969) in an ex-Jo Bonnier Lotus 49C. The same
year he finished 12th in the SA GP at Kyalami in the same car.
His first world championship
GP (he is one of 20 South Africans to race in Formula One) was
at the wheel of an Ecurie Tomahawk Lotus 20 in SA in 1965 and
thereafter he competed in the SA round of the world championship
on another six occasions in an ex-Jack Brabham Brabham BT 11
(1967 and 1968), the Lotus 49C (1970), a works Brabham BT33
(1971) and the Scuderia Scribante Lotus 72D (1972 and 1973)
and McLaren M23 (1974 and 1975). He also competed in the British
GP in 1971 in the ex-Reine Wissell works Lotus 72D, which was
subsequently bought by his patron, Aldo Scribante, for him to
It was in the Scribante Lotus 72D, sponsored by Lucky Strike
and Sasol (the oil company’s first venture into motor
sport), that Charlie, as the reigning South African champion,
contested the French, German and British rounds of the 1972
F1 world championship.
A mysterious inner ear infection
prevented him from performing at his best, but he will always
be remembered for not only bringing his own car to Europe, but
also his own petrol (44-gallon drums of Sasol from Sasolburg
flown over by South African Airways) as well as his own mechanics
and media officers (this writer and Robin Emslie).
Such was his dominance at Kyalami
that the famous Rand Daily Mail cartoonist, Bob Connolly, penned
one of his topical “Breakfast Quips” on a Monday
morning after yet another Charlton win the previous weekend,
referring to Kyalami as the “Charlton Centre”.
On his 70th birthday he was
asked what made the top drivers different? “Their brain
is properly connected to their arms and legs,” he replied.
“They understand and feel what the car is doing. The top
drivers just have an inherent skill and ability.”