This paper addresses the innovation activities of automotive component manufacturers in South Africa. It looks at the technological trajectory of a handful of firms that stand out from the crowd and analyses the results of their endeavours in the context of their interaction with foreign capital, their internal upgrading and R&D agenda, and their interface with South Africa’s national innovation system (NIS). The analysis makes use of eight case studies, and illustrates the conditions under which indigenous innovation in the automotive industries can happen in a developing country. This finding contradicts at least part of the conventional wisdom concerning the location of innovation activities in global car value chains. Results also point to a deficient NIS insofar as there appears to be a disjuncture between the demand for engineering competence in the manufacturing sector on the one hand and output from the tertiary education sector on the other. Open questions that need further attention include among others the overall functioning of the NIS, and changes over time in the perception of local innovation potential by car assemblers.