KIWI HOME-FRONT CAN-AM
IN THE SECOND PART OF THIS TWO-PART STORY, GERARD RETURNS TO WHEN BIGBANGER SPORTS CARS TERRORIZED OUR LOCAL TURF FROM 1964 TO 1973
WHEN BIG- BANGER SPORTS CARS TERRORIZED LOCAL TURF — PART TWO
Pedersen and Harvey go head to head, 1970–’72
Garry Pedersen and the crew at Glen Eden Motor Bodies had spent the rest of the previous season and the following winter dialling in their Gemco Olds V8 into a very impressive machine. They were ready to mount a serious challenge to Grahame Harvey’s experience and his larger-engine Elfin 400. The Gemco was powered by a 4.5-litre Traco-built (from legendary Californian engine builders Jim Travers and Frank Coon) Oldsmobile V8, which had previously been acquired by John Riley from Australian Neil Allen. The Olds engine’s big advantage was its alloy block, which was substantially lighter than the cast-iron Chev, giving the Gemco driver a beautifully balanced machine that was exceptionally good under braking and acceleration — though lacking slightly in topend speed.
Harvey was smarting with indignation following his loss to Jim Boyd the previous season and was hell bent on reasserting himself at the front. He would be a tough man to beat in 1970–’71. This was the season that most closely conjured up the shades of a New Zealand version of the Can-am. Both Harvey’s and Pedersen’s cars were bedecked in bright orange and were operating high rear wings by the latter season. As always with the sporties, there was the unfortunate no-show of several cars. The Lola T70 didn’t reappear, and the Mcbegg, which appeared spasmodically the previous season, would only play a minor role in proceedings in the hands of its new owner, ex–international yachtsman Digby Taylor. Other notable competitors who appeared from time to time included John Monehan with the Stanton, but an interesting addition was a car that was built out of the remains of Brent Hawes’ Begg Corvette, which also briefly reappeared in Formula 5000 (F5000) form in the hands of Leo Leonard as a Begg F5000 in late 1969. This car, apparently built by Lyn Johnson from parts sourced from the Begg, was largely known as the ‘Begg’ or ‘Elmac Olds’, and was powered by a 3.5-litre Oldsmobile V8. Drivers included Lyn Johnson, Murray Elwood, Laurence O’connor, and possibly others. There was also a number of other runners who helped add spice to the fields. These included Danie Lupp in a rear-engine 2.7-litre Climax-powered Rorstan; Jamie Aislabie in the 3.8-litre Jaguar rear-engine Sid MKI (about which more later); Bob Hyslop in his very quick Lotus 7 / U2– derivative JRM Ford; Glen Mcintyre with the Wilmac Fiat; Gary Deacon in the rear-engine twincam–powered Heron; and others, including fast South Island Mallock U2 punter Dave Waldron.
Maybe it was the legacy of the Kiwi Mclaren Team’s, tidal wave of success in the Can-am, which was at the core of my love affair with the local sports car racing action.
While we’re talking about the make-up of the field circa 1970–’72, it would be very remiss of me not to mention the huge contribution made by George Begg to New Zealand motor racing. His single-seaters won three premier Gold Star titles and were often the backbone of the grid through these years. His sports cars were also major players in this era, particularly with Hawes driving. It was a major disappointment that the ‘Mcbegg’, a combination of an M1B(?) Mclaren spaceframe chassis with Mclaren M6A bodywork grafted on — which had obvious potential —was not able to be optimized. After a promising start with Barry Keen, the effort seemed to lose momentum with Geoff Mardon, and, later, Taylor also wasn’t able to terms with it, and nor was Harvey or Pedersen. Sadly, that was a lost opportunity, and I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Laurence Brownlie, who broke the New Zealand land-speed record with the Mcbegg in 1969, had gone on to race it.
Anyway, back to 1970–’ 71. I had just turned 15 and, as mentioned in last issue in part one of this article, was gripped by a full-blown obsession with the local motor racing scene. This had been mushrooming out of control for the last couple of years. I couldn’t get enough of the colour, sound, and spectacle, which totally blew me away, what with the wild phallic shapes of the pure racing/sports cars and the brutal saloons.
Maybe it was the legacy of the Kiwi Mclaren Team’s tidal wave of success in CanAm that was at the core of my love affair with the local sports car racing action. Pedersen and his campaign with the Gemco Olds captivated me in the summers of 1970–’71 and 1971–’72. The beautifully fabricated car looked like a Mclaren M8A, but was a superb example of Kiwi ingenuity that exceeded all expectations with its fabulous success. In hindsight, it was a minor miracle that Garry and the team at Glen Eden
Motor Co had managed to craft a formidable combination from such uncertain components as an ancient converted 1961 Lotus Formula 1 (F1) car and a previously unreliable Olds V8 motor in the hands of John Riley. I have previously covered Garry’s campaigns with the Gemco over these couple of seasons, and his later F5000 years, in an extensive three-part article in New Zealand Classic Car in 2011, so won’t rehash previous ground here. Cutting to the chase, in 1970–’71, Garry threw out the challenge to Harvey, and they had some fierce contests. The cars were evenly matched, and, in the end, it came down to reliability, which favoured Harvey at the end of the day. The experienced South Aucklander was determined to make amends, and he took out the sports car title for the second time. Costly retirements while in the lead at Ruapuna on November 22, 1970, and Pukekohe on November 15, were to ultimately derail Garry’s title aspirations that season.
But statistics never tell the full story. March 14, 1971, was the day that the Kiwi Can-am flavour exploded for me at Pukekohe. I was there, right down by the heavy cable and mesh fences on Pit Straight, as close to the action as I could get … Track safety was archaic then compared with the overkill of today. What I was about to witness was a stunning visual assault of gladiatorial combat. Sports Car Champs heat one was a ruthless duel of unbelievable raw mayhem … Harvey and Pedersen were beautifully matched that day, and drove six of the most blindingly contested laps that I have ever seen on a race track. In a wave of sound and fury, those two orange projectiles gunned down Pit Straight, locked together, twitching slightly as they jostled for position through Champion Curve, before disappearing in a wave of heavenly thunder. With their high wings, and the lead changing several times, this was indeed shades of Can-am. It was entirely fitting that they finished less than a second apart, with Harvey’s nose in front, but the spectacle had been mind-blowing!
The hard lessons the Gemco team learned in 1970–’ 71 did not fall on deaf ears. Absolute attention to detail on the preparation front was the mantra for the team, which left no stone unturned in ensuring reliability and immaculate presentation. A major improvement was fitting a new engine block and crank, increasing the power and rev range without sacrificing reliability. Following the bulletproof Mclaren Team script, everything was ready at the outset of the 1971–’72 season.
Another clash of the sports car titans was about to be unleashed, but this time the tables turned in Pedersen’s favour. There was a number of spellbinding battles between Harvey and Pedersen during this last true summer of the unlimited-capacity sports car racing championship in this country. On October 17, 1971, Ruapuna saw one of the greatest contests on that track over two 10-lap heats, between the two rivals. It was wild cutand-thrust racing all the way, with several lead changes, but, in the end, Garry was in front when it most counted. Levin on March 14, 1972 provided a repeat performance between the two contenders and was another hammerand-tongs encounter over two heats. The final result was the same, but it was anyone’s race until the last corner of each encounter. Harvey had the bit between his teeth and forced his way into the lead on several occasions, and he led more laps, but Garry timed his run perfectly in the last blast to the flag in each epic confrontation. The second heat was run in streaming wet conditions, and controlling these uncouth, raw machines made for a very scary spectacle. It went down to the final corner as well, and Harvey — in his desperation to hold out Pedersen — lost control and spun backwards into some drums, which ended his challenge, fortunately with minimal damage to the Elfin.
These two mighty duels were surely the high-water mark of the Kiwi home-front Can-am. The tide was turning in Garry’s favour, and the great preparation was paying off. Harvey won in the wet at the Teretonga Tasman meeting in Invercargill, his supereffective Firestone rain tyres helping his quest for victory, but his title was slipping away after a great defence. The next man home, in third position in the points, was Aislabie with the Sid Ford V8. Taylor appeared again with the
Track safety was archaic then compared with the overkill of today. What I was about to witness, was a stunning visual assault of gladiatorial combat
Mcbegg Chev in the latter races and picked up a few placings, as did Elwood in the Elmac (Begg) 3.5 Oldsmobile, Glen Mcintyre in the Wilmac Fiat, Gary Deacon driving a Heron Twin Cam, Bob Hyslop in the JRM Ford, plus Danie Lupp in a 2.7 Rorstan Climax, and others. They all shared some action in the minor placings.
The Gemco team certainly delivered a superb lesson in how to go motor racing in 1971–’72. Garry drove beautifully in the immaculately prepared Duckhams-sponsored Gemco Olds V8. The team was managed by its boss, Richie Wheaton, brother of original Kiwi legendary stock car racer Peter Wheaton, and followed the same formula in the Mclarenshaped car as the originator, Bruce Mclaren, of being set up and ready to race at every round. The team also successfully ran the car in several of the longer Gold Star races that season, and placed as high as third in one round.
The final season
The final season for the big-grunter sporties was 1972–’ 73, as a new 2.0-litre formula was being introduced the following season. The last showdown of the Kiwi home-front Can-am could have gone out with a real bang, but instead it staggered off with a whimper. All the hardcore sports machinery was still holed up in garages around the country, but most of them didn’t show. The Lola T70, Elfin 400, Stanton Corvette, and Gemco Olds were all non-starters in what was to become a very brief farewell to the fire-breathing rear-engine monsters’ last blast.
After four seasons in the Elfin 400, Harvey decided to call it quits. Pedersen had moved on to F5000 racing, initially with the ex– Graham Mcrae Mclaren M10A, which he wrote off in a practice crash. He then followed that with a successful campaign with the ex–david Oxton Begg FM4, before a less productive and incident-riddled final season with the tricky ex–evan Noyes Mclaren M18. F5000 was the favoured formula at the time, and there was a view that V8 sports cars were watering that down. The idea was to encourage the front-line big-banger sporty drivers into the F5000 ranks.
At Ruapuna, only Taylor in the Mcbegg Chev, Aislabie in Sid’s MKI Ford V8, and O’connor in the Begg Olds V8 fronted in the large-capacity class. For once, Taylor’s Mcbegg ran faultlessly, and he won easily from Aislabie, who only just saw off Waldron’s supercharged 1500 U2 and Lyndsay Mccutcheon. A week later, it was all over at Timaru, in sweltering conditions. Taylor’s Mcbegg expired, and Aislabie went on to win the sports car title from Mccutcheon and Waldron. It was a sad ending to what had been a long and fascinating era of thoroughbred and hybrid V8s, smaller capacity racing sports cars, the club racers, and production sports cars since the mid 1950s.
The race tracks across the country at this time could be described best as rustic, and that was probably an understatement: facilities were very basic and safety almost non-existent
This account of the rear-engine V8 Kiwi Can-am has focused on the four seasons of mega combat, initially between Harvey, Hawes, and Boyd, and later between Harvey and Pedersen. But it would be incomplete without reference to the two years of domination (1966–’67 and 1967–’68) by Andy Buchanan, first with the Scuderia Veloce 250LM Ferrari V12 and the following season in his new Elfin 400.
The race tracks across the country at this time could be described best as rustic, and that was probably an understatement: the facilities were very basic and safety almost non-existent. Spectator protection was minimal, with heavy cable and mesh or wooden fences, waterfilled drums, and hay bales being the usual fare. The season of Buchanan’s first sports car title was 1966–’67, and it was contested over seven rounds, two of them on rough and hazard-lined street circuits. Andy’s main opposition was Geoff Mardon in the Stanton Corvette. He scored two wins to Buchanan’s five, but he did win at that tight narrow road circuit at Renwick/marlborough. That would have been something to see, controlling that brutal chain-driven rear-engine Chevy V8, holding out Buchanan’s 3.0-litre V12 Ferrari and John Riley’s 2.7 rear-engine Lotus Climax 19B!
That 1967–’68 season was really the first major one of the Kiwi rear-engine V8 CanAm. Buchanan had exchanged the Ferrari for the biggest rear-engine V8 grunter to ever grace the sports racing circus in New Zealand. Armed with a 6.5-litre (396ci) Hamlin and Charles–built Chevy, with all the good gear, he was unstoppable in ’67–’68. The opposition — Mardon in the Stanton Corvette and Brent Hawes in the Begg Chevy — were simply out gunned. Riley replaced the Climax motor in his Lotus 19B with a well set up Traco-built Oldsmobile V8, sourced from Australian Neil Allen. This looked to have real potential with the light alloy block engine, but, after some initial promise, Riley was beset with a grim saga of problems.
Buchanan was beaten only once in the series, although he missed the opening round — he was still preparing his new machine — where Mardon won in possibly the most entertaining race. Buchanan was totally dominant, except at the wet Teretonga Tasman Series meeting in January 1968. He was to discover the hazard of having too much lusty power and a heavy lump of rear-engine Detroit iron on a greasy, wet track. The Elfin was a lurid handful on the slippery surface. Ron Rutherford, in his Lotus 23B Twin Cam, had the perfect package in the circumstances, and he delivered a lesson that power isn’t always everything, with the nimble-handling Lotus outrunning the Elfin. However, apart from a third place at the Timaru round, this was Rutherford’s only moment in the limelight. Mardon and Brent Hawes finished second and third, respectively, in the title chase, both on 24 points, Hawes without the benefit of a race win. Buchanan was in another stratosphere on 47 points. It was also Jim Boyd’s last season with the venerable Lycoming, before joining the V8 brigade. With the arrival of the 2.0-litre sports category, in 1973–’74, came a new innovative phase to sports car racing, but that’s another story for another historian. With the closing of the door to the V8 rearengine fire-breathing hybrid monsters that entranced me as an adolescent, it strikes me that a good way to wind this up would be to reflect on the fates of those cars that blew me away during the golden era.
Sid MKI / Jaguar 3.8 / Ford 4.7 V8
The origins of this car are a bit unclear. I always thought it evolved from the Ross Baker–built Heron Daimler V8, but apparently this wasn’t the case. The car was conceived by Jamie Aislabie and built by him, with help from Frank Hanen and Don Mcneil. It did use the front suspension from the aborted second Heron Daimler, but the spaceframe chassis was Aislabie’s design. The front bodywork was from the Heron, and it was attached to an Aislabie-designed rear section, and this was joined in the middle by a Cessna 175 aircraft canopy. The car had a long and successful racing life, mostly filling the role of first-finisher behind the rear-engine V8s, but, in the last abbreviated two-round unlimited-capacity sports car championship in 1972–’ 73, it was victorious. It was retired at the end of that season, when the formula changed, and mounted above Aislabie’s office (minus Ford motor) for the next 13 years. It was apparently sold to Grahame Vercoe in 1986 with the Jaguar motor, minus wheels and gearbox. It seems that Vercoe later traded it to Jim Baird for his Cooper MKII. Baird is said to have completely restored it in the late 1980s. Its current whereabouts remain unclear. have passed through the hands of relation John Monehan, then on to Murray Smith and Rod Matthews, before being sold to Russell Greer. It was restored a number of years ago by Greer, who was the last driver to race it in period. Over several years in the mid ’ 70s, it was stripped back and raced on the sands at Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach and in hill climbs. It won the 1980 New Zealand Hill Climb Championship and the 1976 and ’77 New Zealand Beach Racing Championship in Greer’s hands. It is now back in full sports car format, and Greer still owns it at last count.
I have only included the rear-engine V8 sports racers for this roll call of the major players during the legendary 1964–’73 era. However, I would also like to acknowledge the wonderful contributions to a fascinating racing category played by many of the smaller capacity competitors mentioned throughout this story but not listed in the role of honour. These would include the Ross West / Ron Rutherford / Ivy Stephenson Lotus 23B; the Baron Robertson / Gary Deacon / Don Elvy Heron Twin Cam, the Barry Cottle / Red Dawson / Dave Wallace Lola Climax MKI; the second Lola MKI Ford driven by Doug Lawrence / John Riley / Don Mcdonald / David Oxton / Ray Olenius, etc.; Bob Hyslop’s JRM Ford; Dave Waldron’s Mallock U2; Danie Lupp’s Rorstan Climax; Glen Mcintyre’s Wilmac Fiat; Peter Slocombe’s PMS Climax; John Armstrong’s Lotus 15 Climax; Peter Bruin’s Targa Fiat; and Lynsey Mccutcheon’s Mallock U2; among others too numerous to list here. I would also like to acknowledge the many productionbased sports cars that also competed, particularly in the earlier years. It would be great to hear from anyone who has any further updates on the history of any of these large- or small-capacity sports racers that were relevant in these years. It’s always fascinating to hear the historic trail of these old racers and see any pictures people might have.
In wrapping this up, I want to acknowledge the unsung heroes of the Kiwi Can-am era. To all the drivers and crews who trailered their cars around the country and lined up to race some fearsome beasts on some pretty agricultural tracks for little reward except for the thrills, I want to thank you all for a very entertaining and fascinating era of New Zealand motor sport!
Below: (Top) Dave Waldron’s quick Mallock U2, leads Jamie Aislabie Sid Mk1, Timaru 1970-71 (photographer unknown) (Bottom) Sports car grid, Pukekohe New Zealand Grand Prix meeting, January 10, 1970 — Harvey and Boyd are in the front row, with carnage...
Above: Danie Lupp (Rorstan Climax), Levin, early ’70s (photo: Bob Homewood collection) Left: Lyn Johnson in the Begg Olds 3.5 V8, Ruapuna, 1970–’71
Harvey leads Pedersen at Pukekohe, early 1971. Motorman cover, April 1971 (photo: Jack Inwood)
Left: Laurie Powell flags away the big-grunters of Pedersen (Gemco) at right, Harvey (Elfin 400) in the middle and Aislabie (Sid MKI) at left — Pukekohe 1971–’72 season (photo: Phil Myhre) Below: Hawes (Begg) and Armstrong (Lotus) head the Ruapuna...
Top: (Left) Pedersen (Gemco Oldsmobile V8), Pukekohe paddock, 1970–’71 (photo: Gerard Richards); (right) Digby Taylor (Mcbegg Chevrolet), Levin, early ’70s (photo: Martin Bearda) Bottom: (Left) The Sid MKI Ford V8 at Bay Park, 1971–’72 (photo: Bob...