For King and Country

As a self-governing British overseas territory with the large majority of settlers from the United Kingdom, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had close ties with the ‘home country’ and trade and imports generally reflected this relationship.

Despite this affinity, however, in the early part of the 20th Century, many of the cars imported into the country were actually American marques (RHD versions). These were better suited to the rough conditions of the fledgling colony – although, particularly in the case of Ford, many were sourced from Canada, being part of the Empire, rather than the USA itself. RHD Canadian Fords were also assembled in South Africa which no doubt accounted for the majority of Ford Model T and Model A in Rhodesia, the most popular forms of motorized transport in the 1920s and 1930s. (Paradoxically, the first car brought into the country was a French built 1902 Gladiator.)During the early 1930s, while still under the effects of the Great Depression, Southern Rhodesia pioneered the “strip road” concept as a ‘food for work’ programme. Comprising two narrow strips of concrete or tarmacadam set apart to accommodate the average car wheel track, it was a much cheaper option than sealing a road in the normal sense.

This initiated a country-wide road construction programme in the colony so that, post WW2, with a greatly improved road network, British cars, particularly small economical models, became a more attractive proposition.

Accordingly, to service the new car market, the British Motor Corporation financed and built a vehicle assembly plant in the eastern highlands of Southern Rhodesia in Umtali (now Mutare) in 1960, commencing production in September of that year. (At this time Southern Rhodesia was part of the ill-fated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.) This factory assembled a range of BMC models including the Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford, Morris Minor, Mini, 1100 and others, from CKD kits shipped out from England.

The first car to roll off the assembly line was an Austin A55 Cambridge Mk11 (Farina) and in the 1980s the factory, now Leyland, launched a campaign to try and find car No 1 for the local museum, offering a substantial prize in return for the car, but sadly without success.

In 1962, very early on in Moke development, two prototype short-wheelbase Mokes were sent from Longbridge to BMC at Blackheath in South Africa for assessment and, in the same year, a prototype Moke is also known to have been imported into Rhodesia for demonstration purposes.

This vehicle is thought to have been one of the original prototypes from South Africa, but it certainly bore Rhodesian registration plates. This Moke was exhibited at the Umtali Agricultural Show in August of that year, being lifted by a newly acquired Royal Rhodesian Air Force Alouette helicopter. According to reports, the pilot had great difficulty getting the Moke off the ground as it was on the limit of the maximum lift of the helicopter. Only by reducing its fuel load was the helicopter able to raise the Moke!

Sadly, no trace of that vehicle exists today and it may well have been returned to the factory in England. Subsequently, late in 1964 one of the first production Mokes (the 269th made on 10 November 1964) was sent out from Longbridge for trials by the British South Africa Police (BSAP) to determine its suitability for use by the force in rural areas – up until then traditionally patrolled by motorcycle and bicycle, horseback or foot.

This vehicle was displayed at the Central African Trade Fair in Bulawayo in May 1965, after being flown down from the capital, Salisbury (now Harare), by a Royal Rhodesian Air Force Dakota. This event was sufficiently newsworthy for the Moke’s arrival in Bulawayo to feature in the city’s main newspaper, The Chronicle. The timeline indicates that this public ‘launch’ was actually some months after Moke assembly had commenced at Umtali the previous year. After the Fair the Moke was returned to the BSAP and put into service.

Despite its low clearance being a drawback for use in rough off-road conditions, the Moke was deemed suitable by the BSAP for rural roads and peri-urban duties.

Moke Assembly

Assembly commenced at the Umtali plant late in 1964 or early 1965. Records from the BMIHT (now British Motor Museum) at Gaydon confirm the preparation of CKD kits destined for Rhodesia from early November 1964 – at the same time that the CBU ‘test’ vehicle was being assembled for dispatch to Rhodesia.

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The BMC Experience Issue 21. Apr-Jun 2017 Magazine


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