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South Africa continues to produce outstanding entrepreneurs in all aspects of business. They are driven by dedication to excellence and a determination to succeed, even when they meet obstacles on life’s journey. There have been many of them in all aspects of the automotive world, with several going on to achieve international fame.

Richie Jute, who is now 85 years old and was once nicknamed “Mr Camshaft”, is one of those people. He did not make it onto the main stage but still made his mark in the industry driven by an obsession “not to work for a boss.”  He had this as an ambition from his schooldays in Johannesburg, which saw him matriculate from the Johannesburg Trade School and accept an apprenticeship in turning and machining.

Richie came from a humble beginning, but when he decided to retire in 2002, he was heading up a successful company, Camshaft Remanufacturing Centre, in Johannesburg, which had a staff of more than 20 people. They produced 10 reconditioned or modified camshafts a day from each of five cam grinding machines, with other staff members busy remanufacturing and modifying cylinder heads. At that stage he also had a dyno tuning division with both engine and rolling road dynamometers, as well as a race car development area.

Not only did he control all aspects of the business, but it was also self-financed, other than bank loans when he moved premises and bought property. 

“I was very much hands-on and stayed actively involved with all the operations right until the day I retired to the Garden Route. I was a tough boss to work for!” quipped Richie.

Looking back at his long and distinguished career, he said in a recent interview at his workshop in the George industrial area, that the South African motor industry is “not a place for sissies.” 

“I found that one of my biggest challenges was working with other people, particularly in my business which requires precision from all those working in operations such as grinding and machining. We did not have many comebacks and when these occurred, I was able to track the job back to the specific machine and operator involved. 

Fortunately, I had a dedicated team that took pride in their work and this approach provided a solid foundation for the company.” During most of his working career Richie was deeply involved in motor racing and has a huge trophy collection to show for his troubles. 

“Not only was I very keen on racing, but my involvement proved an excellent test bed for the products we manufactured and sold. Not only was it in line with the adage that racing improves the breed but was also excellent as an advertising and promotional medium,” explained Richie.

When he left school, he had chosen general engineering as a career, ahead of automotive or aeronautical engineering. He served his apprenticeship with a mining engineering company which had a fully equipped workshop that saw him add tool- and die making to his skillset. On qualifying as an artisan, he moved around as he climbed the ladder from being an employee to becoming an employer. This included working at companies involved in engineering for the mining industry, which saw him move to the draughting department. 

Richie had already started racing at this stage in his working career – initially on a scooter at the Grand Central track and then in a GSM Dart fitted with the venerable 1172cc side-valve Ford Anglia/Prefect engine. His Dart was production number 5805 which meant it was the fifth car off the production line in Cape Town in 1958.

Alan Kirkman, a fellow member of Ecurie Aquila, suggested Richie put the 1 000 cc OHV engine from Alan’s road car, a Ford Anglia, into the Dart and that they then take part in the Nine-Hour Race at Kyalami. 

Wanting to increase the engine’s power Richie went to Superformance, established a couple of months earlier by Basil van Rooyen, another successful racing driver. Richie had only wanted the cylinder head modified but turned out to be enthralled by what he saw at Superformance. He was so impressed that he asked Van Rooyen for a job and was told to report for duty the following Monday.

“I spent about three years at Superformance, and it was here that I had my first opportunity to work on a camshaft grinder. Basil and I both learned a lot working together but a disagreement resulted in Basil saying the company was too small for both of us, so I got fired,” (Basil van Rooyen said recently this was the first and last time he ever fired one of his employees).

Now he was out of formal work, so began modifying cylinder heads at his home workshop and this became a good, steady business. 

However, Jute was happy to return to formal employment when the opportunity came to join Angelo Pero Motor Works. Then it was on to VOMS (Vehicle Overhaul and Maintenance Service) and more experience working on a cam grinder. After six years at VOMS Jute was offered a 10% share if he joined Stolk and Owgan, an automotive engineering company, which bought him a cam grinder. 

“I ended up buying all the cam grinding equipment and moving on again. This time it was to Focus Automotive. They gave me a 51% share in the camshaft reconditioning business which later became a standalone operation in a portion of the Focus building.” 

Finally, in 1975, Richie achieved his goal by buying Camshaft Remanufacturing Centre, commonly known as Richie Jute Cams, from Focus. Now he really was the boss!

The fame of Richie Jute cams began to spread globally with orders coming in from other countries in the world, including the United States.

Although no longer involved in business, Richie continues to tinker with his collection of historic racing cars at his workshop in George and says he would still like to return to the track with one of them. He says he is also investigating the possibility of getting his one remaining cam grinder back into operation so that he can train somebody to operate it as a potentially profitable business. 

Richie, who lost his first and second wives to cancer, has a son and daughter living in Cape Town, but says he has no plans to put his feet up and stop working on cars found in his crowded George workshop.

 

by Roger Houghton