ROD MILLEN – RALLY & HILLCLIMB ACE
On a sunny Saturday morning, Classic Driver sat on a picnic table outside the Leadfoot gas station for a chat with multiple rally champion and Pikes Peak winner Rod Millen
From Huntingdon Beach CA to Hahei Beach, Coromandel… via Pikes Peak and the back roads of the Pacific Basin
Hahei Beach is not exactly on the beaten track. Yet this sleepy seaside hamlet is the New Zealand home of Rod and Shelly Millen. Not the normal place to find a not-really retired international rally driver. How did they end up here?
“My great aunt and uncle had one of the six baches on Hahei Beach, way before it was developed like it is now. We used to come down here during the school holidays. We would row out and fish. There was no electricity or anything like that so we had gas lanterns. It was the simplest of times but the greatest of memories. When Shelly and I met nearly 20 years ago, I brought her to New Zealand. She asked where somewhere special to me was and I said, well, there’s this little place called Hahei, I’ll take you down there and show you.”
“We came here two or three times and one time she suggested we stay here for a couple of days. I said ‘Yeah, sure!’ so she booked us into a place on the top of the hill and she mentions, ‘Oh, by the way, the place is for sale.’ In those days, 13 years ago the Kiwi dollar was at 40 cents against the US so it was VERY attractive so we purchased it.”
Since purchasing their New Zealand base, now known as “the Leadfoot Ranch” the Millens are regular commuters between California and New Zealand.
“When I had the business (Millenworks, which you read about later) I would only be down here for three or four days at a time and that was once maybe every six weeks. After we sold the business we spent around 20% of our time here. I’ve still got some other business interests in California but it doesn’t require anywhere near the same amount of time it used to when I had to look after staff etc.”
At the same time as scaling back his business commitments, Rod has also stepped back from competition driving, but not completely.
“I still compete at the likes of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. I did Pikes Peak for Toyota last year in the electric car, which we took to Goodwood for the Festival as well. I think I will do something else with them in the future, I’m just not sure what that will be but I am just more than happy to share my knowledge and experience of things like that and for them to choose a younger driver, with me to help.”
So, does a driver and engineer who is still involved with a major manufacturer’s electric car project think there is any future for plug-in electric vehicles in motorsport?
“It is quite interesting. I have been involved with Toyota’s programme now for a couple of years and it is very different. Of course it is very high tech, cutting edge technology and the cars are going fast but… the sensation of speed is not there because the noises are not there.
“The noise is I think, a major problem for the future of electric cars in the sport, so there is an opportunity there to do something unique which we are considering. It only suits a short duration event. The amount of energy you need to store, anything over ten minutes, is going to be a problem. Pikes Peak is right on that edge, we can carry enough energy but the race car is 40 to 50 per cent heavier than the traditional race cars I drove up there, so that’s a problem. In terms of having electric car racing in a 50 lap race, I just don’t see that ever happening that could be successful. The time needed to charge and do things like that… there is a whole lot of energy in a gallon of gas!”
When I think of Rod Millen, I have a 1000hp four wheel drive Toyota Celica hillclimb car in mind but he had to start somewhere and that “somewhere” is something from an era which still seems to hold an attraction to him today.
“My first car was a 1929 Plymouth truck which my brother and I shared. We paid £5.00 for it, right before the change to decimal currency. We found it on the side of the road and I think still of the fond memories of that and I still love all that stuff. In some ways I don’t think you will ever see me driving anything real modern because I really love all this old stuff.”
And as we look around, we see Rod’s ’39 Chev. truck, a Ford T or two, his ’58 Chev. Impala convertible and many other signs of a passion for cars, trucks, really any sort of old machine from days gone by. “I’m quite happy, especially the way we have the property now, just chugging around on that. Once I get on the farm I use the old Chevy (the totally original 1939 pick-up) truck there as my driver. It just runs great.”
The first Millen competition car was as unlikely a choice of car as the shared Plymouth. “I started in hillclimbs in my Hillman Cob (Husky) which started out fairly stock and then got modified with Weber carburettors. It was quite good from the fun factor side of things. Then I built a dune buggy with the traditional VW 1600cc motor in it but then went very quickly to a Ford Capri V6 and that improved it immensely! I set a whole lot of hillclimb records in the Northern part of the North Island.
“It was nothing to go to two different events in a weekend; I think the best I did was three events in the one weekend, all in the same vehicle. Funny enough, it is actually being restored right now. I sold it in 1974 to get a Mazda RX3 and a good friend of mine, unbeknown to me, found it and bought it after it had ten owners. He bought it around 20 years ago and put it in a barn, then he showed up here with it one day and it is being restored back to how it was. It is a little beat-up now but it will be back, just as I used to have it. My brother-in-law is doing it up in Auckland.
“Other than a couple of cars, I have managed to keep most of my significantly important cars from my career. Fortunately Shelly has got the same sort of disease I have got, so it isn’t a problem. She doesn’t hold me back. See that Model T?”
We are looking at the brass radiator barn-fresh T in the front of the Leadfoot replica Mobil service station.
“We went to the auction house together, we were sitting around on a Friday night a few months ago watching TV and she said, ‘Wow, there’s an auction on, tomorrow in Anaheim.’ It’s only half an hour away so we ran up there and we’d only been there for 45 minutes and we owned those two cars (a 30s Ford hotrod was sitting alongside the T), we had not gone to actually buy anything, we just went to look! Then we waited for a few more hours and this one came up (the 1958 Chev. Impala).
“The Model T is going into the living room of our new house which we are building. The way it is, it’s just so clean and original. Apparently it is driveable but it only showed up here yesterday from the shipper. We ended up buying it at the auction and sending it straight to the port so it wasn’t until last night that I knew what ran and what didn’t. So with the Model T, I didn’t even try to get it started. But I jumped into the hotrod and it fired up straight away, just like the Impala.”
Rod made his name in rallying initially with Mazda’s RX3 rotary and it happened almost accidentally.
“A good friend of mine had just bought a new RX3 for his wife and unbeknown to her, we put a roll cage in it and entered for the 1973 Heatway Rally, which was eight days throughout the South Island. And we rolled! We ended up winning the Production class and were fifth overall so Mazda New Zealand got behind us and helped us over the next few years of rallying so it worked out ok – at the time it wasn’t so great! Mazda fixed the whole car for us and she got her new car back and it all ended well.
“There was a Mazda Dealer Team formed and we were successful in winning the New Zealand Rally Championship three times. Once we had done that, where do you go from there? I’d taken the car to Australia a couple of times to do the Southern Cross Rally and I needed to move on. I considered Europe, which was the main place for rallysport at that time but Mazda weren’t there. They were launching the new RX7 in the U.S. so they thought that could be a good opportunity so I went to the States. There was a step in between there as I got the Mazda organisation to back us and they supported us for a good ten years or so. We did the Asia-Pacific Championship, some desert racing as well and of course, Pikes Peak.
“Pikes Peak was initially in the 2WD car, in fact we were instrumental in getting the rally cars back into the event. They had asked me in 1981 to come out and do a demonstration run of a rally car on the mountain so we did that on our way back from another event with the RX7. We did a run half-way up the mountain early one morning and the time was in the top six of the stockcar class. They said, “Wow, these cars are pretty good, let’s invite you guys to run here.
“I would go there as a fun event every year as part of my rally programme just because I enjoyed it so much. There are just a lot of memories of the simple ways of doing hillclimbs in New Zealand. As a kid
Pikes Peak... was the ultimate hillclimb. We built the 4WD cars but then we did special cars with three-rotor engines, turbochargers and the like.
Is this the ultimate hillclimb car? The Pikes Peak and Cardrona Race to the Sky Toyota Celica
I’d always read about Pikes Peak; it was the ultimate hillclimb, 12½ miles to 14,000 feet.”
“So as we continued our involvement with the event, we built the 4WD cars, primarily for rallying but then we did special cars for Pikes Peak, with threerotor engines, turbochargers and the like”.
“We then did it for a couple of years with Hyundai. In the early 90s I started driving for Toyota in the off-road series and it was during that time (we’d been with them for three years) and won the off-road series 3 times when they said, ‘You know, we’ve got a whole lot of engines available?’”
“They had pulled out of Dan Gurney’s IMSA and Daytona 24hrs operation. They had all these little 4 cyl, 1000 hp engines sitting around… lots of them!”
“They thought they would be pretty good for the altitude of Pikes Peak so we struck a deal with Toyota and designed and built the Celica with our 4wd system, their motor and then we got some aerodynamicists involved to make sure the thing had a lot of downforce. We set about doing that and the first year we went to Pikes Peak with that car, I’d been going there for a dozen years and we lowered the record by 39 seconds and it stood for 13 years after.”
Urban legend has it that Rod had some involvement in developing the Quattro 4wd system for Audi so I put this to him.
The reply? “No, no involvement at all. The only thing we did do, we won the US rally championship in 1981; Audi were running their front-wheel drive car then. We won most of the rallies that year, it was very successful for us in the RX7. Then they came out in 1982, just kicked the shit out of us with that Quattro, a factory effort.
“In the first event I nearly beat them, only because their driver John Buffum was still getting used to the car, but once he got accustomed to it, they were on a different planet completely. We thought about it all year long, then showed up at the first event next year with our own 4wd RX7 and we won the second rally of the year. It wasn’t until 1985 though, that we actually won the championship again. I still have that car in my barn, there are three of them here now. I built four, one got destroyed… no, we built more than that because we had a Pikes Peak one as well.
“In the mid-80s I met a guy called David Bruns who started Swift cars. He also was located in Southern California, very close, only ten minutes from my shop. He designed my third evolution 4wd RX7. I quickly learned then that when you get a really good designer working with you, you can build a much better machine. Not only was our racing programme more successful, we were building a reputation for our business involving doing different vehicles. By the early 90s we were doing stuff for the Marine Corps, the army and lots of other different military agencies as well.
“We had really good engineers to design our race vehicles, especially our off-road cars with long-travel suspension, this and that, you need to have all your geometry correct, the weight; those were fully engineered vehicles with full analysis of all the componentry.”
“Everything was made from scratch and we weren’t just doing our own race programme, we were doing a lot of other defence programmes at the same time so we had not only the mechanical and electrical engineers doing their side of it, we had a full support shop with CNC machines to do all the building and fabrication of components, testing and so. That became our core part of our business so if ever a race programme came along we had all the talent in-house; it was fabulous. When a race programme came along, we could build better machines than the other guy; that was what gave us our advantage for a long time.”
Rod was at his peak in rallying when the fearsome, fire-breathing monsters of Group B were outlawed in favour of the slower, safer more productionbased Group A cars. The RX7 was swapped for a Mazda 323 What did he think of that?
“I didn’t like that much. You know, of all my collection, I have no Group A cars, and I had a lot of them. The year we won the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, 1989 and we won the U.S. championship as well, I had four different cars to be able to do that and I sold them all. They were production-based cars which we just bolted suspensions on and modified the motor and transmission, all the drive train but you know it just wasn’t exciting. So I don’t have one of them. Sometimes I think it would have been fun to have kept one but, there just is no desire at this stage.”
When I suggested perhaps he would prefer another Model T, his face lit up immediately.
“Yeah I really would! It was good times, a wonderful experience doing all that and we did it for four years but I much more enjoyed working with the engineers to build something unique and special. Perhaps that was what I enjoyed about a lot of the different U.S. rally series, be it the off-road series or Pikes Peak, there were not a lot of rules and so that gave us the freedom to be creative in building a machine. That’s what I found so attractive. Then to be able to go out and develop that machine into a winning machine against your competition, not competing against a f***ing rule book. I really enjoyed that, I think that’s why we were successful at Pikes Peak and off-road.”
“That translated into our company being so successful and growing the way it did. Different defence departments would come to us and say, “We need a vehicle, we need to transport this helicopter and the missions require us to carry this much stuff” and we could sit around the table and try to analyse that, what that machine might be, what it’s capabilities might be and come back to them with a proposal of how to do it as a joint effort. I really enjoyed it, we would work with all the major defence contractors and one thing would lead to another. We would never do production, we built demonstrators which they would put in the hands of the user groups and collect feedback and that would help write the requirement for the next generation of vehicle. We were the prototype house but our partners who we teamed with would take up the production so we would be working alongside them. They wanted our skills, knowledge and know-how and we knew always that they would be the production-house. Everyone was happy with that and it worked out great.”
While rallies and hillclimbs were the major focus of Rod’s career, there was some time spent on a race circuit as well.
“I did a little bit in New Zealand, I even did Bathurst one year – 1983 in an RX7 for BF Goodrich. I ran it on street tyres while everyone else was on slicks! What was all that about? We ended up 11th overall. Because of my connections with Mazda, they would get me to come in and help pick up one of the roles for driving at the Daytona 24 Hours so I drove for their team and they would put me out at night-time. I would come in to get out of the car and there’d be no driver waiting so they would just fill me up and send me back out again. I did that twice but I did some other road racing events, long distance stuff as well. But that was only on the side, road racing was not my thing. I enjoyed it but not as much as rallies or off-road racing.”
Stadium truck racing is a sport unheard of outside the USA. There it was A BIG THING and Rod Millen was one of the stars.
“Mazda had a team in the series and after a couple of seasons they asked me to test for them. I got a ride, just driving for the team and I did that for a couple of seasons. It wasn’t a fulltime deal. Then while I was doing the Asia-Pacific championship, Toyota approached me and asked if I could drive for them. I said, “Well, I’m doing Asia-Pacific for Mazda” and they said, “Yeah, but it’s a different market”. I told them Asia-Pacific would have to take priority and I did two years driving for Toyota and Mazda, plus Hyundai at Pikes Peak and everybody agreed to let me do it!
“The Toyotas I really enjoyed as they had me doing all the development of the car. They had their main driver, Ivan Stewart who was their “name” driver, my role was, not initially but this is how it developed, overlooking the engineers doing all the development. We would go out and test and test and test and I ended up winning the championship three years in a row. That was when Toyota said, “Well, how about Pikes Peak?”
I was up against the Porsche team running twin-turbo 911s and I had them on the pavement, but on the gravel they were all over me. They really made me work hard but I ended up beating them in the end. I said to Rhys, “That was great driving your car but I don’t know if I want to do it again.”
“Audi and Peugeot had been going there and setting records. Vatanen had the record and I hadn’t been for a few years. They said, “We’ve got the motor, what else do we need?” So we struck a deal and went there and lowered that record by 39 seconds. It was all gravel in those days and that record wasn’t broken until the road was 2/3 paved. It was a good car. I honestly think that if we took that car back, I don’t know about today as Loeb did such a terrific job last year, but prior to that it would have easily have got the record back again, the same car that would have been 20 years old.”
So, has Rod finally finished with Pikes Peak?
“Well… I went there last year with the electric car and that was fun but you know, to go for the overall win, I think there are too many risks that I’m just no longer prepared to take any more. I’ve done that, I went and drove for Rhys (Rod’s son) three years ago in his Hyundai drift car and we ended up winning the class in that, it was fun. That was 2/3 pavement and 1/3 gravel in a 2wd drift car… on slicks! Rhys builds a car that makes LOTS of horsepower and that thing had 850hp or so. Put that on gravel on slicks… jeez it was slippery!
I was up against the Porsche team running twin-turbo 911s and I had them on the pavement, but on the gravel they were all over me. They were 2wd as well but being rear-engined, they really made me work hard but I ended up beating them in the end. I said to Rhys, “That was great driving your car but I don’t know if I want to do it again.”
The following year he went back with the same car and he set the overall record in it. It was a fast car, a drift car. He would change the suspension-not much, but a lot of horsepower. The year that they held the overall record was the first year it was all paved.”
Our conversation moved to the collection of cars, trucks and equipment which surrounded us and I was interested if Rod went out looking for anything specific, or did he just keep his eyes open for anything which might take his eye? “We went to that auction and got these three cars, when we weren’t looking for anything. But when I built the service station I needed a fuel truck and a tow truck, so those things were all “gotta haves”. I’ll be quite honest I really don’t enjoy doing it like that, I really enjoy just finding things. It’s getting harder to find good stuff now. I guess I’ve always liked stuff a bit different to what most people are after.
“What’s fun about here (the Leadfoot Ranch and Hahei) with these old cars like the T is I can drive them around here, where as in California what was happening, you would take them out and you are a pest on the road to everyone. I just want to start out slow and next thing cars are pulling out around you to get by. I want to make a left turn in a three-lane stretch of road and I can’t, I’m too slow to get across so I end up doing a right and a right and a right to avoid my left turn.
I would bring the Model T home from work which is 20 minutes away and I would have to go and pick it up early Saturday morning and get it back to work on Sunday night when there was no traffic, just so I could drive it around home at the weekend. It got to when I didn’t even want to drive it at home, it was just no fun.
“It was not my intention to bring everything down here but it has turned out the property is such that I actually enjoy it a lot more. I’ve still got a Model A in L.A. and some more of the old race cars, but most of them are now here. I will keep a few up there, I’ve got a workshop that I just potter around in and just enjoy things. Otherwise I’d go a little crazy!”
The Leadfoot Festival was rapidly becoming one of the “must-do” historic motorsport events in New Zealand. A hillclimb up Rod and Shelly’s driveway for a range of cars you won’t see anywhere this side of Goodwood, it didn’t happen this year and there were rumours it wasn’t going to happen again.
“We are planning on it for February of next year. I think we will run it over Waitangi weekend. All of the North Island classic meetings are over and it is six weeks before Beach Hop. There are a lot of guys who go to Beach Hop who like what we do here as well. We want to look at how we can make our event that little bit different as we are on private property. So we are looking at some evening entertainment as well, there aren’t a lot of things for people to do here at night. It’s all going to be around cars and music. Moving it earlier in the year the weather should be better, certainly the evenings will be warmer. Shelly is the organiser, it’s a huge amount of work and we are trying to distract her so she doesn’t make it a full time job. We sold the business because we wanted to do different things without worrying about work…”
So, keep Waitangi weekend free, the Millens are wonderful hosts and Leadfoot is an amazing event, the setting at Hahei is stunning, and the drive there is almost as much fun as the event. And Rod will have many of his toys out for all to see. Competing, engineering or organising, the Millen touch makes sure that everything is done in a faultless manner. And when the Celica rolls up to the start line, be prepared to see what got the Millen name to the top of Pikes Peak in record time.
Looking focussed and ready for action. Baypark 1977 and Rod congratulates Steve after beating Keke Rosberg in the Formula Pacific Chevron B39
Rod Millen in a Mazda RX3 on a New Zealand rally stage. His performances here set him up for his move to the big time in North America
A real change of pace, but Rod is as happy in one of his Model Ts as he is behind the wheel of anything else
Could this be the future of motorsport? Toyota’s electric hillclimb car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed
The Millen-developed Toyota Tundra desert-racing truck, seen here last year at the Leadfoot Festival
The MillenWorks/Team Toyota Baja 1000 race truck