Allan Dick begins the story of a Kiwi who made it right to the pinnacle of world motorsport
In virtually every story that’s written about Howden Ganley, he is described variously as the “fourth New Zealand F1 driver” or “New Zealand’s forgotten F1 driver”. These have been repeated so often that they have taken on a life of their own and have become something of a standard on which to judge the career of Ganley.
Over lunch at a seaside café in Dunedin recently, Ganley asked me if I understood why his name is on one of the four apartment blocks at Hampton Downs, along with Hulme, McLaren and Amon.
I was surprised that he asked – I thought the answer was so obvious that he must have been asking me a trick question. So I hesitated.
“The four of us are the New Zealanders who have, so far, won points in F1 World Championship races.”
It was no trick question, I had known the answer, but obviously he gets asked who, when, why and what, on a regular basis.
What I didn’t know was how the Ganley block of flats got to be on pole position at Hampton Downs. Initially his name was on the fourth block from the starting line, but after the flats were constructed and named, a decision was made to reverse the way in which the track was run!
But if some people struggle to place the name of Howden Ganley in the motor racing firmament, not so with Mister Google.
Type his name into Google search and you will come up with 102,000 plus references – including one that takes you to a YouTube clip of a very fast and very scary lap of the Nurburgring.
This was filmed in 1973 with a couple of cameras bolted onto the Iso Williams car he was driving that season.
many of the comments posted on YouTube are from people stunned by the lethal nature of the circuit who praise the hero drivers in that era
This is graphic footage from when the famed North Curve (Nordschliefe) circuit had been partly upgraded with some of the most dangerous sections lined with Armco.
The voice-over was done by Jackie Stewart, who sounds remarkably like a woman, and he is critical of the high danger risk of driving a racing car around the circuit at high speeds.
Many of the comments posted on the YouTube site are from people who are stunned by the lethal nature of the circuit and have nothing but praise for the hero drivers who raced there in that era.
Ironically, it was to be the Nurburgring that ended Ganley’s racing career.
After two seasons with BRM, one with Williams and a part-time season with March, for 1974 Ganley signed with the Japanese company Maki who produced a truly appalling car.
In practice for the German Grand Prix that year Ganley found himself arriving at a fast corner with no brakes.
A part of the rear suspension had collapsed and took out the braking system. The car hit a bank on the left hand side of the track, flew into the air and careened down a bank on the other side, where he was trapped in the wreckage. It was a big one.
His recollections of that incident are crystal clear, as are as his memories of his entire life and his views of motor racing today.
He suffered serious leg injuries – so serious that his right foot was literally turned into soup and it was a long time before he could walk again.
Today, 38 years after the crash, he walks with a limp and his mobility in turning corners is restricted and walking down stairs is so limited he tends to walk down them sideways.
After years of a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, the sport has been good to him in a financial sense – “Not so much the racing, but in the cars we built and sold after I retired from racing.”
But when you have committed 19 years of your life to motor racing, you don’t walk away after a crash.
While Ganley’s racing days were over, his involvement in the sport he loved – and continues to love with a passion – was anything but.
There were racing cars to design and build, there was the BRDC – British Racing Drivers’ Club – to become involved in and was the camaraderie that had become so central to his life. And he was successful at it. Today, Howden Ganley has houses in the USA and Great Britain and he shares his year between those houses as well as regular, annual visits back home.
After years of a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, the sport has obviously been good to him in a financial sense.
“Not so much the racing,” he says. “But in the cars we built and sold after I had retired from racing.” That’s the Tiga part of his life when he and Australian Tim Schenken designed and built a variety of successful racing cars.
Apart from motor racing, he is a keen golfer and organises two tournaments a year in memory of his late wife Judy who died from cancer a couple of years back. Judy had been active in motorsport as well – both as an amateur driver and management.
IF THERE WAS A DEFINING
moment in the early life of Howden Ganley that was to dictate the rest of his life, it was at Ardmore in 1955.
“My father had been a sailor and I always thought that I would take up some sort of recreational boating myself. But he took me up to Auckland from Hamilton for the 1955 Grand Prix at Ardmore.
“I wandered off from Dad and his mates and headed down to the corner known as the Cloverleaf and here I saw the two cars that were to change my life
These were the Tony Gaze Ferrari and the Bira 250F Maserati. I had never seen anything as beautiful as those cars – particularly the 250F.
“The Gaze Ferrari was a famous car. It was the Ascari Ferrari 625 in which he had won eight out of nine Grands Prix.”
The young Ganley was just 13 years of age at the time.
Born in Hamilton in December 1955, he had been christened James Howden Ganley and for a while he was called Jim, or James.
“But Dad was also Jim, so we finally settled on the fact that I should be called Howden.”
But there seems to have been some vacillation. When he left school he became a cadet reporter with the Waikato Times newspaper and among other duties, he got himself the motor racing beat.
This was the late fifties and the early sixties now and the success of Ardmore had not only made motor racing a legitimate interest in Auckland, but the Waikato had become a cult-centre for the sport. The Hamilton Car Club was booming and there was a very strong motor racing culture that was almost as important socially as rugby was.
The influence that the Waikato was to have on New Zealand motor racing over the next decade or so cannot be overemphasised. Many of our top drivers called the Waikato home – the father and son Palmers (George and Jim), Len Gilbert, Phil Neill, Ivan Segedin, Dennis Marwood, Brian Innes, Ross Greenville – and Howden Ganley. There were many others and a look through the programmes from that era shows a disproportionately high number of our top drivers coming from the Waikato.
So getting the motor racing beat on the daily for Ganley was a bit of a coup where he seems to have been James. H. Ganley at that time. He borrowed this from the journalist he wished to emulate, a certain Eoin. S. Young, who in turn was taking the lead from Road and Track’s Henry N. Manney III.
Writing about motor racing was one thing – competing was another. So he borrowed a mate’s E93A Prefect for a grasstrack meeting out near Raglan and was addicted.
That was followed by a Hillman, but then he made a huge leap and bought a purpose-built racing car – a Lotus 11 Climax sports racer. There were variations on the Lotus 11 theme – from road car to club racer to out-andout racer. This was the latter – a Le Mans model with 1098cc Coventry Climax engine. The car is most famously called the “ex Palmer car”, but it was, in fact, imported by speedway star Roly Crowther in 1956.
After a season it was sold to Des Wild of Christchurch before George Palmer bought the car for his son Jim to make his national debut in. This was the first in a series of Lotus cars for the Palmers.
After a year and a half the Maungatoroto Kid, Johnny Windleburn bought it and he had a successful 1960 season in it.
“Johnny wanted to sell the car and I wanted to buy it,” says Ganley today. “The price was £1300 and by scrimping and saving I had saved £650. I managed to persuade my mother to loan me the other £650 and the car was mine.”
The Lotus represented everything that the young Ganley had in the world. There was no trailer and no tow car.
The support for motor racing in the Waikato had now grown to allow the formation of the famed Motordrome Racing Team – based on the Motordrome Service Station. There were four members – Ivan Segedin (Mark II Zephyr), Dennis Marwood (Humber 80), Ross Greenville (the ex Palmer Lotus 18 Formula Junior) and Howden Ganley.
“My first race was at a club meeting on a short circuit at Ardmore. Because I had neither tow car nor trailer, I drove the Lotus up there.”
But it wasn’t a successful debut. The rear hubs had been swapped side for side and, under racing conditions, the knockon hubs unwound themselves and he almost lost both rear wheels. And then the water pump fell off.
“I had a problem. I was in Auckland and needed to get the car home to Hamilton. So I phoned dad and he came up with his trailer. The Lotus was too wide at the front to fit the trailer, so I hack-sawed down the corners and spread the steel sides flat. That got the Lotus onto the trailer and we got the car home.” It also solved another problem. “Dad looked at the trailer and said that I had buggered it, so I might as well use it for that season.”
So now he had a racing car, a trailer, but no tow car.
That was overcome by making friends. Over that and the following season, he found mates, or made friends with people with cars who would tow him between meetings. They’d arrived in, say, Levin, where the person who towed him down would have to go back to Hamilton, leaving Howden to find someone to tow the rig to Christchurch for Wigram.
But that wasn’t the end of his difficulties.
“My first big meeting was at the Ardmore Grand Prix and I had no money. I was flat broke, but I wanted to go south. That was the dream.
“But at the Grand Prix meeting I won £15 for third in the sports car race and then a whopping £150 for winning the Ultimate Ecko handicap race. That gave me the money to go south.”
From that point on, the season wasn’t a good one as far as results were concerned. He had spins and mechanical faults.
Sports car racing was still in good shape in those days. There were good cars – C and D-Type Jaguars, a couple of Lotus 11s, a Lotus 15, the Lycoming, a couple of Bob-tail Coopers, a Lola T1 or two, modified road cars and home-built specials and many others.
It was also the era of Formula Libre racing, so the faster sports cars usually got a start in the main race of the day as well.
After the winter of 1961 and with the 1961/62 season coming up, Howden Ganley booked himself a boat passage to the UK after the season-closer at Waimate.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do, or how I was going to do it, but I wanted to go to the UK and see how I could further myself in motor racing,” he said over dinner in Chez Dick at Oamaru on his way to Dunedin.
And if Dunedin was a dangerous circuit in the dry – it was more so in the wet. This was not a circuit for the meek
This season proved to be better than the first with some strong placings going into the second last meeting of that season – Dunedin.
“By now, I had my own trailer, but I was still hitching tows with mates. Travelling with me that season was Dave (Speed) McMillan – who was to become a successful driver and team owner in the years to come.
“I had been to Dunedin the year before and knew how tough and spectacular the Oval circuit was. I was looking forward to it.
“But on race day – a Saturday – it was raining. We managed to put the Lotus undercover in the Army Drill Hall just around from the pits which were on the grass of the Oval. The Army people were good enough to let us start the car up and warm it up by driving it around the perimeter of the undercover parade ground!
“We went out for practice and there was a big collection of cars. What I remembered of the circuit from the year before was that there was a long, start/ finish straight and then a fast and slight right-hander that started you up the cemetery rise.
“A hundred yards further on there was another fast and slight, uphill right-hander and then a slow and tight left-hander.
“I remembered that both of those right-handers could be taken flat out in the Lotus – but that was in the dry!”
And if Dunedin was a dangerous circuit in the dry – it was more so in the wet. The entire circuit was fast and lined with footpaths, unforgiving power poles, houses, factories, service stations, brick walls and other hard stuff. The section that Howden remembered – off the start/ finish straight and up the cemetery rise, had the other attraction of a drop off to the right, a grassed bank planted with very mature trees. This was not a circuit for the meek.
What made this Saturday even worse was not just the fact that it rained, but that it rained after two dry weeks when diesel and petrol fumes accumulated on the road surface. Mixed with rain a situation called “summer ice” prevailed. In places the road surface literally could not be walked on it was so slippery.
This was a day of carnage. Cars slid off everywhere – particularly in practice. Rod Coppins put the TecMec through a flour mill backwards and everywhere you looked, there were damaged cars.
The victims included Howden Ganley.
Using his theory of taking the two uphill, slight, right-handers “flat” he found himself in trouble on the second. Hugging the right-hand side of the road so as to line himself up for the tight lefthander, he perhaps got in a bit too close to the gutter, the car was unsettled over a bump and he started a long, highspeed slide.
The season before, Jim Fenton had done exactly the same thing in the Connaught Grand Prix car that had been converted into a sports car. The Connaught had spun, crossed to the other side of the road backwards, clipped a gutter and somersaulted down the bank, crashing and banging its way through the trees. The driver had been dumped out on the first somersault and wasn’t injured.
Ganley stayed on the right hand side of the road and the out-of-control Lotus finally smote a power pole.
The car was badly damaged. Not only was the fragile alloy body mangled, but the tubular space-frame had also been damaged.
Not only was that the end of Ganley’s racing that weekend, it was the last time he was ever to race in New Zealand and the last time he was to set foot in Dunedin – until this visit!
“Colin Berryman had towed the car from Christchurch to Teretonga and back to Dunedin. He had to get back to Christchurch and I had a couple of things to attend to in Dunedin. So Dave McMillan and Colin went back that night and I hitch-hiked to Christchurch on Monday and there I arranged for the Lotus and the trailer to be put on a coastal ship that would unload it at Raglan. I caught the ferry to Wellington, hitched back to Hamilton and got ready to catch the boat to the UK.
“I had to leave Dad with the task of getting the Lotus back from Raglan, having it repaired and selling it.”
Eventually it was repaired but, according to Vercoe, it wasn’t until December the following year that the car was sold.
“After Mum had been repaid, all I got back was £25,” muses Howden today.
But it had been the start of a worthwhile career, even though in the UK it would take him five or six years to be able to afford a Brabham which was to lead to a drive in the works McLaren F5000 cars and on to Formula One.
HOWDEN GANLEY WAS ON
top-line racing in the era of big hair – period photographs show him with this mass of dark hair and enormous sidelevers. Today, the sidelevers are gone, his hair is shorter but it’s still thick although the dark is now almost pure white. Through Eoin Young, Howden expressed a wish to go back to Dunedin and find the pole he hit. Eoin planned the visit meticulously – a two day expedition out of Christchurch with an overnight stop in Oamaru. Trouble is that Eoin fell victim to the flu and was confined, spluttering and wheezing, to bed. So Howden Ganley was entrusted to the care of Tony Haycock and Terry Marshall.
Dinner that night at Chez Dick in Oamaru was a great affair. Howden is an international motor racing celebrity with a genuine Formula One career and an insider’s knowledge. I’m reluctant to talk too much motor racing at first in case he’s over it. But I needn’t have worried. He’s as passionate as he ever was and his knowledge is detailed – both in current motor racing and historic.
We talk “Bernie” and we talk the current drop of new F1 drivers. He’s not a particular Schumacher fan despite his championship wins. “He owed a lot to the team he built around him.” He likes Alonso – “He drives really hard and he’s not in the best car.”
He is a totally dedicated fan of Stirling Moss.
Somehow the name of Lance Macklin surfaces. Macklin was a British amateur driver who showed a lot of talent in sports cars and the occasional F1 drive. In the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hour Race, Macklin, in an Austin Healey, became a fall guy for what happened when Mike Hawthorn hit the brakes really hard after apparently forgetting a fuel stop. Hawthorn’s sudden and unexpected move caught Macklin by surprise; he swerved and swerved right into the path of the Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh. The rest, as they say, is history. Eightythree people died after the Mercedes scythed through the crowd.
Macklin tended to get the blame and dropped out of sight after the disaster.
Howden is surprised that I know Lance Macklin married a New Zealand girl and came to live here, operating a fish and chip shop in Otaki for several years. A decade ago, Macklin’s former mother-in-law used to phone me on radio talk-back and talked about it. I am surprised that Howden not only knows, but has researched Macklin’s movements in New Zealand, writing a story for the British magazine MotorSport. Howden says Macklin and his wife first lived in Auckland, then Hawkes Bay before settling in Otaki where they also had an ice-cream parlour down by Otaki Beach.
Howden hasn’t forgotten his early craft of journalism. Apart from the occasional story like the Macklin one, he still knocks out book reviews.
The flame still burns brightly.
THE NEXT DAY
we make the trip to Dunedin and back. You can no longer drive completely around the old Dunedin “Oval” circuit – roads have been changed – but where Howden had his accident is still the same. There’s new guttering and the lampposts are now metal and back from the gutter. Howden quickly finds the bump that set him off course – it was a gutter crossing – and he finds where the big, hardwood lamppost he hit stood.
I show him where John Mansel had his fatal crash – just 100 yards before his own crash.
We drive around as much of the circuit as we can this day and go inside the Army Drill Hall where he warmed the Lotus up that dark day.
His interest is high. He asks questions. He remembers things. It’s been fifty years since he was last here. The flame still burns.
“All for you, Mr Ganley!”The too good to be true Maki F1, which spelt the end of Howden’s F1 career
Howden in works BRM uniform
Howden driving the BRM P160 at Paul Ricard Circuit. 1971
As Bruce McLaren’s protégée, the works supported McLaren M10B F500 was to be Howden Ganley’s stepping stone to Formula One with the team. Bruce’s untimely death put paid to this
Howden on the left inspects the remains of the Lotus 11 after the Dunedin crash
Howden aboard the ex-Crowther/ Wild/Palmer/Windleburn Lotus 11. It was this car Howden crashed at Dunedin 1962
Howden in Dunedin recently revisiting the scene of the accident