Sometimes the really good ones are worth waiting for.
Ismail Ahmed first contacted Bobby Nitro five years ago, dropping a picture of a rare beauty in his lap.
But Bobby wasn’t quite prepared and the feature went onto the backburner until now, when Ismail reminded him of his rare 1974 Puma GT.
Ismail, 54, is a Lansdowne local who also shows a rare quality: he’s happy with his car just the way it is.
Talking about his initiation into petrolkopness, Ismail says he was introduced to mechanical ways as a laaitie when he says he regularly would work on a friend’s father’s car.
On the thrill of first discovering the might of the internal combustion engine, he relates: “In our early teens he got a big six and after school we would pool our money and if we had a R1 we could buy some petrol and then “steal” the old man’s car and go bos on some gravel pitch.”
The Puma, as it is known, originated in Brazil and was produced there from 1964 till roughly 1995, but in the mid-1980s the factory was hit by fire, flood and harsh economic times. The first Puma was imported into South Africa around 1986, but after costs became prohibitive the importer bought the moulds to the 1973 Puma 1600 GTE and manufactured them locally.
Ismail adds: “We were the last country to still build them. Less than 400 Pumas were built in SA and so far we’ve accounted for about 60 spread across the country, with most still in stages of a rebuild. Very few are on the road and in Cape Town, there are about 12 with only two running. So, all in all, it’s a rare car to see.”
Bobby wanted to know where his passion for such a rare bird originated. Ismail says: “I saw my first Puma in 1980. A teacher by the name of Dickie van der Schyff at Oaklands [High] school had a black one. I fell head over heels in love with the flowing lines. It was the most beautiful sports car I had seen in the ‘flesh’ as it were.”
Pumas were built on Beetle platforms, with flat four Beetle engines. “Strangely, I had no experience with Beetles and just knew them to be noisy with the engine in the back. I didn’t really like the sound of a Beetle. When I got the Puma, the 1600 twin-port motor was shot and I had it rebuilt. It ran well but had no power.
“It was not what I wanted for my Puma so I did a Nissan 1400 conversion and she was much, much better.”
But he was not stopping there, especially since he does all the work himself. Ismail says: “I have just installed a Polo 1600 engine complete with fuel injection and it’s again a great improvement. I did all the work myself so there is lots of room for improvement. I learn as I go along and through my mistakes.”
He made some subtle changes to the body, keeping with the original lines just making them more pronounced. The arches have been even more flared, the two front bumpers were joined and the indicators in the nose removed.
He continues: “I’ve resprayed the Puma, replaced the taillights with LED types, the headlamps with clear Golf lights and added LED indicators and daytime driving lights.”
Ismail has paid attention to the interior driving experience, having the seats recovered in black leather, fitting new carpets, door panels, recovering the dash and even refitting a new roof lining. Electric windows were also fitted.
Recognising the interior is confined, with no natural space for big speakers, Ismail kept the audio simple, installing a Pioneer USB head unit and 6-inch splits, which he says “are doing the trick for now”.
With a nod to preserving originality, he adds: “I’ll never alter the shape of the car, but I am open-minded to modern technology.”
We can imagine that taking this beauty out on the streets must turn more than a few heads. Ismail, recalling a somewhat challenging incident, says: “The reaction to this car is overwhelming. So it was embarrassing to get stuck in the middle of an intersection on our maiden voyage. It was difficult for my wife and I to get out and push.”
Then he remembers the event that resulted in the first motor change, saying: “What put the nail in the coffin for the Beetle motor was when we went up Kloofnek Road for the first time. I had to change between first and second gear just to get up, and as you know, a Beetle motor can make a lot of noise.”
Asked about what he considers the strong points of the Puma to be, he says: “As was noted in an article, the design of this car’s shape was way ahead of its time. Being fibreglass it’s light and you can repair everything, plus the Beetle running gear is simple but also adaptable.
“I suppose I wouldn’t mind a spin in a modern sports car like a Porsche or Ferrari but, come to think of it, my Puma fulfils all my needs. The reactions it causes can be quite humorous. People literally stop and stare open-mouthed, point at it, bow to it and more.
“It’s a fun car and beautiful, it’s a classic but modern looking and creates a stir wherever we drive. People are curious about it and are really interested to know more.”
National Puma owners have a Facebook page with links in Brazil and the UK. Because the members are spread out across the country they don’t have a club as yet, but there are plans to have a Puma get together in the near future.
Ismail concludes: “The cars are available as the factory still exists in Pretoria and, interestingly, our president owns part of the company.”
If you thought that was it, well, Ismail reveals he actually has not one but three Pumas in various stages of rebuild as he ends the chat enigmatically, with a “there’s more to tell, so watch this space”.