Death of Ron Hickman, car designer and inventor

We have just learnt of the death of Ron Hickman, Val’s fourth cousin once removed, at the age of 78. Ron was a fairly distant relation, but what brought us together was an interest in family history, and when Ron came to South Africa to do some family history research he came to see us at the beginning, and then, after visiting various archives and family members, he came to see us again for a kind of debriefing session, and shared his notes and findings with us.

When he visited he was a big hit with our youngest child, Jethro, then aged 7 going on 8, and crazy about cars, and Ron Hickman was a car designer, having designed the Lotus Elan sports car.

Val Hayes & Ron Hickman; Simon, Jethro & Bridget Hayes, Feb 1989

We learnt of Ron Hickman’s death through the alt.obituaries newsgroup, where someone posted an obituary from The Independent, and there are several others, including this one: Ron Hickman obituary | The Guardian:

The prolific designer and inventor Ron Hickman, who has died aged 78 after a long illness, made his fortune from an idea for a simple but multifunctional bench with a gap down the middle to grip wood. The Workmate enabled DIY enthusiasts to saw through pieces of timber without using the edges of chairs and tables for support. The idea had come to him in 1961 when he accidentally sawed through the leg of an expensive Swedish chair while making a wardrobe. Nearly 70m Workmates have been sold since Black & Decker put Hickman’s design into mass production in 1973.

and this one: Ron Hickman – Telegraph:

After spending three years as a styling modeller with Ford, Hickman moved to the Lotus company, run by Colin Chapman, and quickly became its design director. He headed the team that designed the trendsetting Elan sports car, with its fibreglass body and retractable headlights. This was followed by the Lotus Cortina, Lotus Europa and Elan Plus 2, a design of which he was especially proud.

Others were published on web sites that were linked to Ron’s interests, such as the Club Lotus one, which said:

It’s our sad duty to report that Ron Hickman died in a Jersey hospital on Thursday morning, 17th February. He was 78 and had been unwell since suffering a fall last autumn and his health sadly deteriorated in recent weeks.

Lotus sports car designed by Ron Hickman

Ron will probably be best known to Lotus enthusiasts as the man who created the legendary Elan but he also played a key role in designing the revolutionary Type 14 Elite. The Elite’s glassfibre monocoque was a groundbreaking piece of design and established Lotus Cars as manufacturers of world beating sports racing cars.

Colin Chapman originally wanted the Elan to have a glassfibre monocoque as well, but Ron knew this could not work in an open top car.  Ron therefore rapidly designed the backbone chassis for the Elan and this became the standard Lotus chassis design until Elise with its aluminium monocoque was launched in 1996.

The common ancestors were Johan Friedrich Wilhelm Flamme (1780-1832) and Johanna Sophia Breedschuh (1782-1836).

J.F.W. Flamme was born at Twiste in Hesse-Nassau, Germany, and came to the Cape Colony as a soldier in the Waldeck Regiment. He was captured during the British occupation and confined in Fort Amsterdam. He may have worked as an assistant to John Martin Durr, butcher, who gave surety for him in 1806. In 1817 he applied for citizenship.

Johanna Sophia Breedschoe was the daughter of another German soldier, Johan Christoph Franciscus Breitschuh, and Francina van de Kaap, a slave of Pieter Hacker. Johanna Sophia and her sister Dorothea Francina were thus born into slavery, and manumitted by their father in 1787.

JFW Flamme and Johanna Sophia Breedschoe were married on 1 January 1809 in Cape Town, and had 11 children (that we know of). One of them was Petronella Dorothea Francina Flamme (1822-1893), Val’s great great great grandmother, who married Henry Crighton. Another was Johanna Louisa Christina Flamme (1814-1880), Ron’s great great grandmother, who married Samuel Beningfield.

The Beningfields moved to Durban and had eight children, one of whom, Johanna Dorothea Beningfield (1838-1900), Ron’s great grandmother, married Edward Hoste Hickman (1834-1901). One of the Beningfield sons, Reuben Widdows Beningfield, married his cousin Martha Crighton of Cape Town, and so that branch of the Beningfields is more closely related to us than the others.

This was the bare bones of the genealogy we were able to give Ron Hickman, and when he visited the Cape Archives he photocopied enormous quantities of documents to fill out the family story, with lots of biographical information on Sam Beningfield and some of the others.

Of the Flamme family, only the daughters married and had children, and most of the sons died young (one while a student at Heidelberg University in Germany) so there are no descendants with the surname Flamme. But some of the daughters were prolific, and, in addition to the Beningfields, Crightons and Hickmans, their descendants include members of the Mechau and Burnard families, who in turn married into the Enslin, Haupt, le Roux and de Villiers and von Backstrom families, and many more, far too many to list here.

We’ve met some of them, and corresponded with some, but Ron Hickman was the one who was most interested in the family history, and he also met many others on his visits home to South Africa, and we first came to know of many of the later generations of the Beningfield and Hickman families through him.

In Pietermaritzburg

On Saturday 16th August Val and I drove down to Pietermaritzburg, through Delmas, Standerton, Volksrust and Ladysmith (thus, among other things, avoiding the toll roads). We had breakfast in Delmas and lunch in Ladysmith. The road from Delmas to Leandra (which I still think of as Leslie) has recently been resurfaced, and the road between Leandra and Standerton has ruts and potholes. The poor condition of the roads is a result of privatisation. When the roads were built, they weren’t designed with today’s 26 and 32-wheelers in mind. Most of the heavy goods went by rail, and in fact most of the heavy trucks we saw were carrying containers, which could just as easily go by rail between the main centres, and be distributed from there by trucks. But deregulation has meant that a lot more of the heavy stuff goes by road, so for the first time the sight of a raised middelmannetjie is becoming quite common in tarred roads.

Eloise and James Aitchison

Eloise and James Aitchison

We arrived in Pietermaritzburg in mid-afternoon, and went to see John and Jenny Aitchison. Except that my cousin Jenny Aitchison (nee Growdon) was in the UK, visiting her newest granddaughter. So John was there, and their youngest son James with his wife Eloise. James and Eloise are taking part in a play Cabaret, which got a good review in the local paper, the Natal Witness. We are staying at the Aberfeldy bed and breakfast in Scottsville, which is in a traditional Victorian pink-brick house, with very comfortable cottages in the ground, also built in the Victorian style. We stayed here once before a few years ago and enjoyed it, and now it is under new management of Phyll and Ron Geyser, it is still very comfortable and convenient. The cottage we are staying in thas a bedroom and a sitting room, so when I wake up at 3:00 am, as I often do, I can work in the computer or read without disturbing Val. Unfortunately we discovered that I had left the AC cord for my laptop behind at home when we were packing, so I wasn’t able to do any work on the computer.

Our cottage at the Aberfeldy B&B

Our cottage at the Aberfeldy B&B

On Sunday we went to church in the new St Nicholas Church in Durban North, where I served with Fr Chrysostom and Deacon Raphael Hawkes. Afterwards we visited shopping centres to see if we could get a spare AC power supply for the computer, without finding any. On Monday morning we went to the archives to do some family history research. The archives buildings are being renovated, so the hours have been shortened, and there is also a limit on the number of items one can look at in a day, as the reading room is crowded into a tiny back room, and the records themselves are being moved from place to place ahead of the builders. Every now and then there is the sound of drilling, and the smell of wet cement is all pervasive. It seems we picked the wrong time to do our research. We’ve made no astounding discoveries so far, but have managed to confirm quite a few items of information, and been able to add some names of spouses and children, and dates and places of birth for some family members.

St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Durban North

St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Durban North

In the evening we went out to dinner with John Aitchison to have more time to chat and catch up on news of family and friends. In addition to being married to my cousin, John is one of my oldest friends, as we werer students together in Pietermaritzburg more than 40 years ago. We’re considering a joint project of analysing South African security police surveillance of opponents of the apartheid regime in the 1960s. We have both got copies of the reports they sent about us to the Department of Justice, which are quite revealing of the mentality of the apparatchiks of the regime at the time. Back then we could only speculate on their motives and their mental processes, but now the evidence is available, so it is perhaps worth recording.

Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot -- undergoing renovations

Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot -- undergoing renovations

We spent more time in the archives this morning (Tuesday), and then at last managed to get a spare AC cord for the computer, so I was able to write this blog update.