Their forwards were dominant throughout the tour but the backs failed to turn possession into points during an enthralling Test series.
All of the first three internationals were close affairs but on each occasion the Springboks finished victorious. A 26-22 defeat in the opening rubber in Cape Town was followed by a 26-19 reverse in Bloemfontein, before a 12-10 loss in Port Elizabeth secured a series win for the Boks.
As a result, the Lions entered the fourth and final Test with the series beyond them. The best they could to was to prevent the home side from making it 4-0 when the teams arrived in Pretoria.
Failure to come out on top at Loftus Versfeld would have seen the Lions enter the archives as the only Lions side to be whitewashed in South Africa. It was a strong motivating factor for a squad who felt they deserved more than they had gained from the previous three internationals.
Instead of the Springboks achieving a magic milestone, it was the Lions who created an unbreakable record of their own by becoming the first ever Lions side to win a fourth Test in the Republic - a feat not even the legendary Lions of 1974 had achieved six year earlier.
SOUTH AFRICA 13 LIONS 17
Half-time: 3-7 Venue: Pretoria Attendance: 68,000
Scorers: Lions: Tries - Williams, Irvine, O'Driscoll; Con - Campbell; Pen - Campbell, South Africa: Try - W du Plessis; Pens - BothA, Pienaar (2)
Bill Beaumont (right) was team manager in 2005 after captaining the Lions in 1980
Despite the disappointment of losing the Test series a fortnight earlier, the Lions made only two changes to their starting XV for the fourth and final international against the Springboks.
Leicester's Clive Woodward, the man who would lead England to World Cup glory 23 years later, dropped out of the side, with fellow countryman John Carleton named on the wing having featured in the first and second Tests.
The only other alteration also came in the backline, with Colin Patterson being replaced by Ireland's John Robbie who made his one and only Test appearance for the Lions.
Patterson had started the three previous internationals but his tour came to a frustrating and painful end a game earlier than he would have liked. The Instonians and Scotland No9 badly tore the coaxial and medial ligaments in his right knee while making a tackle in the sixth minute of the narrow win over Griqualand West four days before the fourth Test.
His absence from the final international led to the inclusion of Greystones' Robbie who linked up with his Ireland team-mate Ollie Campbell at halfback.
Remarkably, Patterson's absence and Robbie's inclusion meant the Lions had featured a different half-back partnership in each of the four Tests.
Elsewhere in the backline, Andy Irvine made the last of his nine international appearances for the Lions. The Scotland star appeared in the second and third Tests in 1980, following two internationals in 1974 and all four Tests in New Zealand in 1977 before bringing a fine Lions career to an end with victory in Loftus Versefeld.
Wing Bruce Hay and centres Paul Dodge and Ray Gravell joined Irvine and Robbie in taking their final Lions bow, with Carleton and Campbell the only backs to earn Test selection against the All Blacks three years later.
Ireland's John Robbie started at scrum-half for the Lions in Pretoria
As for the forwards were concerned, team manager Syd Millar and assistant Noel Murphy kept faith with the same group that had played in the narrow third-Test defeat in Port Elizabeth. In fact, Millar and Murphy made only one change to their pack throughout the entire four-match series, with Jeff Squire moving from the blindside flank to No8 and fellow Welshman Derek Quinnell dropping out in favour of Ireland's Colm Tucker after the second Test in Bloemfontein.
Fresh from captaining his country to Grand Slam success earlier in the year, England's Beaumont skippered the Lions for the final time in his seventh Test. He was joined in the second row by Maurice Colclough, his England team-mate who started all four internationals for the Lions in both 1980 and 1983 and was most famous for two distinctly different incidents during his time in international rugby.
The Angouleme bar owner, who later joined Wasps and then Swansea, scored the crucial try in what was just England's second win over the All Blacks in 1983. A year earlier, Colclough had earned notoriety thanks to a stunt at an after-match dinner in Paris. The 6ft 4in, 18st lock emptied the contents of his gift bottle of aftershave, refilled it with water and then downed the bottle in front of team-mate Colin Smart who duly followed suit. Smart's bottle still contained the original contents, however, and the Newport prop was taken to hospital to have his stomach pumped!
Ireland contributed two members of the back row in John O'Driscoll and Tucker, with Wales providing the other in No8 Squire, while in the front row, English hooker Peter Wheeler packed down between Welsh props Graham Price and Clive Williams.
Beaumont, Wheeler, Williams and Tucker would never appear in Lions colours again, but O'Driscoll, Squire, Colclough and Price would all be seen in the 4-0 series defeat in New Zealand in 1983, with the later starting all four Tests against the All Blacks to take his Lions tally to 12 internationals across three tours.
As for the Springboks, captain Morne du Plessis led a side that made just one change from their series-clinching 12-10 win in their last outing.
Hooker W Malan came in for W Kahts after being used as a replacement in the third Test win, but the rest of the XV remained the same as it had done for the vital triumph two weeks earlier.
Consistency was a key factor the Boks throught the series, with only one other change to personnel taking place across all four matches. The South African backline remained constant throughout, while second row K de Klerk starting above J van Heerden in the second Test, with van Heerden being preferred for each of the other three internationals.
John O'Driscoll started on the flank and scored one of three Lions tries
South Africa: G Pienaar (Orange Free State); R Mordt, D Smith (both Zimabwe), W du Plessis (Western Province), G Germinshuys (Transvaal); H Botha (Northern Transvaal), D Serfontein (Western Province); M le Roux (Orange Free State), W Malan (Northern Transvaal), R Prentis (Transvaal), L Moolman (Northern Transvaal), J van Heerden (Transvaal), T Stofberg (Northern Transvaal), R Louw (Western Province), M du Plessis (Western Province, captain)
Lions: A Irvine (Heriot's FP/Scotland); J Carleton (Orrell/England), P Dodge (Leicester/England), R Gravell (Llanelli/Wales), B Hay (Boroughmuir/Scotland); O Campbell (Old Belvedere/Ireland), J Robbie (Greystones/Ireland); G Price (Pontypool/Wales), P Wheeler (Leicester/England), C Williams (Swansea/Wales), B Beuamont (Fylde/England, captain), M Colclough (Angouleme/England), C Tucker (Shannon/Ireland), J O'Driscoll (London Irish/Ireland), J Squire (Pontypool/Wales)
Referee: Mr JP Bonnet (France)
Just as they had done throughout the series, it was the Lions forwards who showed their backline partners the way. Beaumont and co led by example, taking the game to the Springboks at every opportunity.
The Lions won three times as much lineout ball as their opponents and also dominated the rucks and mauls but they had little to show for holding the upperhand. In the first half alone, the Lions could have easily added a further 15 points to their seven-point tally. Instead, the game remained in the balance and the Lions very nearly came unstuck.
It wasn't until the latter stages of the first half that either side put points on the scoreboard. Campbell kicked the Lions into the lead before Botha levelled the scores with what proved to be his only successful effort of the day before Pienaar took over the kicking duties.
The Lions finally earned some reward for their first-period dominance when Williams found his way to the South African line following another impressive maul from the visiting pack. Despite being much-maligned on tour, the backline deserve a great deal of credit for the role they played in the opening try, with Irvine and Campbell having joined O'Driscoll in making 40 yards with ball in hand.
Campbell was off-target with the conversion to leave the Lions with a 7-3 lead at the interval. They had deserved so much more, but at least there were ahead rather than behind.
The Lions had been leading by the exact same scoreline at the halfway stage of the third Test and, once again, it appeared as though they would be punished by their inability to the kill the game off before it became a real contest.
Having butchered a number of openings in the first 40 minutes, the Lions watched the Boks make the most of one of the few chances they created throughout the match. Inside centre Willie du Plessis raced 30 yards for his country's opening try to remind the Lions of the dangers they faced if they let their guard slip at any time.
To make matters worse, Pienaar added two penalties, including one from inside his own half, to give the hosts a six-point advantage at 13-7 earlier in the second period.
It was then that Beaumont's men showed the kind of spirit that has made the Lions such a respected concept the world over. Chasing a Springbok lead that the South African's did not deserve and facing the first South African whitewash in Lions' history, the tourists somehow turned things around with a brace of tries inside three minutes.
Irvine was the first to get the Lions going again, crossing in the left-hand corner after Gravell had been stopped five yards short. Campbell was off-target with the difficult conversion but the Lions were back to within touching distance at 13-11.
Andy Irvine scored the Lions' opening try after good work from Ray Gravell
A two-point deficit became a four-point advantage just moments later as O'Driscoll claimed his side's third try of the match. Again it was Gravell who was the catalyst for the decisive score as his run took play deep into Springbok territory. The Llanelli centre was brought down just shy of the line but, when the ball rolled clear, O'Driscoll was on hand to dive over for his second try of the series.
It proved to be the match-winning moment, as the Lions moved back in front once again. Campbell put his earlier misses behind him to add the extras that took the Lions into a 17-13 lead that they would never relinquish.
The Boks pushed hard to avoid defeat but, despite a notable opportunity for flanker T Stofberg, the Lions limited South African opportunities and spent the majority of the last quarter in opposition territory.
Understandably considering the magnitude of the occasion, the Lions did make mistakes in the closing stages but, this time, none were costly. Unlike in the third Test, they held on for a remarkable victory, one that showed great character, secured their place in the Lions archive and prevented the Springboks from making history of their own.
WHAT THEY SAID
Morne du Plessis (Springbok skipper)
In the build up to the fourth Test
"The Tests could have gone either way, believe me. You'd better believe me. I know how close they were. I was there.
"Despite everything, I think the Lions go into the last Test as slight favourites."
After the match
"It was a strange game, not like any of the others in the series. We were stuck in our own 25 for so long. We could never get going.
"We've played six Tests since April. I think there were some of us who felt we couldn't lose. Perhaps it was a good thing we did."
Peter Wheeler (Lions hooker)
"A lot of boys out there today put on the old red shirt for the last time. I'm happy for them.
"I'm also happy for Ollie Campbell. He is the best kicker of a ball from the ground I have ever seen, and it would have been tragic for him if we'd lost the Test because he hadn't kicked his goals."
Peter Wheeler (visible second from right) played his part in an impressive Lions victory
Chris Greyvenstein (author of Springbok Rugby - an illustrated history)
"An easy victory over Western Province and a narrow win over Griqualand West prepared the Lions for the fourth Test, in which they faced the disturbing prospect of being the first Lions side ever to be whitewashed in South Africa.
"The vast majority of South Africans were quite happy that Beaumont's men managed to avoid this dubious distinction. Comparatively little heat was generated during the tour and with the series won, it was no great hardship for all but the most violently partisan to see the Lions win the final Test. They thoroughly deserved their 17-13 victory."
John Hopkins (author of British Lions 1980)
"The Lions had at last given an accurate demonstration of their ability. And once again they had showed that unquenchable spirit that was so striking to those who had observed them on their 10-week trek."
THE LIONS IN PRETORIA:
The Lions have played 15 fixtures in Pretoria, having toured South Africa on 12 occasions to date.
The venue did not feature on either of the first two Lions tours to the country in 1891 and 1896 but has been on the itinerary ever since.
Of those matches, four have been Tests, with the Lions winning three of the internationals. Those three victories include the 28-9 thumping of the Springboks on the unbeaten 1974 tour and the narrow third-Test win in the drawn series of 1955.
Despite their impressive record in the big games in Pretoria, the Lions won't be taking anything for granted in 2009. Ian McGeechan's men fell to a 35-30 defeat to Northern Transvaal the last time the Lions appeared in Pretoria, something they will be desperate to avoid when they face the world champions at the newly-named Coca Cola Park in the second Test this July.
P 15 W 11 L 4 D 0
1903: Pretoria 3 Lions 15
1910: Pretoria 0 Lions 17
1924: Pretoria 6 Lions 0
1938: Northern Transvaal 12 Lions 20
1955: Northern Transvaal 11 Lions 14
South Africa 6 Lions 9
1962: Northern Transvaal 14 Lions 6
Junior Springboks 11 Lions 16
1968: South Africa 25 Lions 20
Northern Transvaal 19 Lions 22
1974: South Africa 9 Lions 28
Northern Transvaal 12 Lions 16
1980: Northern Transvaal 9 Lions 16
South Africa 13 Lions 17
1997: Northern Transvaal 35 Lions 30