1943 Ford Conversion for African Overland5th February 2018
We are in awe that this year marks the 60th anniversary of when Earnest Yates took his family on the adventure of their lives in a way that most of us would only dream of.
Earnest had already shown his true grit and adventurous spirit. At the tender age of just 16, he boarded a ship that would take him from his home town of Chesterfield in the UK and deliver him to South Africa to take up a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. He had no idea if he would ever see the loved ones he left back in the UK ever again.
Roll on some 20 plus years to 1956. Earnest was living in Plumstead, Cape Town and was happily married to Bertha with 3 children, Pat, Geoff and James. Earnest had been inspired by a “motorised caravan” he had borrowed previously from friends. Earnest started plotting, until one day he came home with a 1943 Ford Pickup Truck and a “sparkle in his eye” that Bertha had never seen before.
This sparkle turned into 2 years hard work transforming the old Ford into a full blown aluminium overland motorhome. It featured some ingenious design elements, a favourite being the water tank. It was made out of part of an aeroplane wing, its shape gave a fantastic aerodynamic feel, as can been seen in the pictures of the build. He also created panels that, when using the winding mechanism would drop down to give space for a double bed on each side of the van. There was a light on the dashboard that would signal when the panels were back up in the correct position before driving again. Talk about attention to detail ahead of his time!
Early 1958 and the van was complete, they locked up the house and the journey began. They were setting out on a 40,000 mile drive up the length of Africa, across the Sahara, over the Congo and on up to Europe, including Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and back to Chesterfield in the UK.
It was by no means plain sailing. Sections of the route through Africa had such bad roads that Earnest had to repair or change the springs on a daily basis.
On one occasion, as they were approaching the Sahara desert they came around a blind corner to find that the “road builders” had dumped a truckload of gravel in the middle of the road!
There was no time to stop or swerve, they shot up the “ramp” and came down with a thump narrowly avoiding turning over.
When they inspected the damage they found the driver’s side king pin had been broken. This was really serious as the nearest town that could possibly help was 800 miles away, they had no phone or back-up.
James the youngest of the 3 children recalls: “Dad was very grumpy, I don’t think he had any idea how we were going to proceed on our trip. He was busy working on the suspension shaking his head a lot! Then a miracle happened (I’m not a believer but I still have trouble explaining this), I was rummaging around in the toolbox and I found a steel rod that my father had thrown into the box thinking it might come in handy as a tommy bar. I took it to Dad and said “Is this any good?” He gave me a withering look. However he picked it up and tried it and it fitted perfectly! All he had to do was to gently tap it in and cut it to the correct length!!!”
They drove all the way through Europe and Scandinavia, took the ferry from Bergen to Newcastle and only replaced the king pin in Birmingham at the Ford agents. James finished by joking, “I still wonder at this amazing luck, if that rod had been fractionally thinner or fatter we might still be there!”
60 Years on and I’m proud, fascinated and inspired to call the youngest sibling James my father in law. We are privileged to share this story and pictures from James’s personal collection.