MOTORSPORT FLASH­BACK

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

JAN­UARY 8, 1955 — THE DAY THAT CHANGED HOW­DEN GAN­LEY’S LIFE

The first race at the aero­drome just south of Auck­land had been a roar­ing suc­cess, de­spite scor­ing is­sues, and an­other de­cent field was as­sem­bled for Ard­more’s se­cond Grand Prix on Jan­uary 8, 1955. Peter White­head and Tony Gaze re­turned and both were Fer­rari mounted, but the name driv­ers ex­pected to draw in the crowds was about as ex­otic as it gets — Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh from Siam (later Thai­land) was an English ed­u­cated 40-year-old who’d been rac­ing since the mid 1930s, soon af­ter he’d left Eton. Funded by his cousin Prince Chula Chakrabongse, Birabongse raced as ‘B Bira’, and proved rather handy in the pale-blue and yel­low liv­ery of White Mouse Rac­ing.

Bira made his name in ERAS (English Rac­ing Au­to­mo­biles), but a Maserati and De­lages were added to the équipe later in the decade. The of­fi­cial pro­gramme for the 1955 New Zealand In­ter­na­tional Grand Prix stated that he had “held the BRDC’S Gold Star for road-rac­ing three years in suc­ces­sion.” And that, “Since the war he has driven in ev­ery im­por­tant Euro­pean event. With his lat­est car, the For­mula 1, 2.5-litre Maserati in which he com­petes today, he fin­ished fourth in the 1954 French Grand Prix. Bira is a colour­ful and ex­pert driver, well worth watch­ing.”

This was pretty heady stuff 60 years ago.

Com­plet­ing the in­ter­na­tional set were Aus­tralians Lex Dav­i­son (3.4 Hwm-jaguar), Dick Cob­den (2.0 V12 su­per­charged Fer­rari), Reg Hunt (2.5 Maserati A6GCM), and 2.0-litre Cooper-bris­tols for Jack Brab­ham and Stan Cof­fey.

Lo­cal Rac­ers

The Kiwi pur­pose-built rac­ing-car con­tin­gent com­prised Ron Roy­croft (Alfa Romeo), Fred­die Zam­bucka’s huge ex-in­di­anapo­lis Maserati, John Hor­ton (HWM-ALTA), Ge­orge Palmer in the 1950 Ohakea Gp–win­ning Jack­son — now dubbed the ‘Palmer Spe­cial’, John Mcmil­lan in a 2.9 Alfa Romeo, and Ge­orge Smith, who had in­tended run­ning a 1939 Alfa Romeo pow­ered by his suc­cess­ful Chrysler V8. How­ever, he trans­ferred that en­gine back to his ‘spe­cial’ when the weight dis­tri­bu­tion made the Alfa un­man­age­able, even for the win­ningest driver on our lo­cal scene.

In ad­di­tion were four Cooper 500s with driv­ers in­clud­ing no­ta­bles such as Syd Jensen and Ron Frost, while the field was com­pleted by sports cars in­clud­ing Bruce’s dad, Les Mclaren (Austin-healey), Ross Jensen (Tri­umph TR2) and fu­ture F1 driver Tony Shel­ley aboard a Mor­gan +4.

Rac­ing Heats

A no­tice­able fea­ture of the pro­gramme was the lack of rac­ing — this wasn’t Bay Park-type quick-fire ac­tion, and 9.30am was the first heat for the Grand Prix cars with the se­cond heat at 10.15. At 11.15 there was the Ard­more Hand­i­cap be­fore the lunch in­ter­val at noon, fol­lowed by the New Zealand Grand Prix for the NZ Mo­tor Cup kick­ing off at 1.00pm. That was it!

At the time, How­den had no idea how a last-minute de­ci­sion to join his fa­ther and brother in a Vaux­hall Velox from

Hamil­ton to Ard­more would colour his en­tire life

The Ard­more Hand­i­cap com­prised an eclec­tic en­try, and amongst those first away was one TR Sh­effield in a Singer Le Mans — Trevor be­ing not only some­thing of a le­gend in Auck­land mo­tor-rac­ing cir­cles but also, many years later, the au­thor of a fab­u­lous book on Ralph Wat­son’s Ly­coming.

Af­ter the heats, Bira oc­cu­pied the pole in Maserati 250F chas­sis No. 2504 (the first of these fa­mous cars to race in NZ), while the bal­ance of the four-car front row com­pleted an all-ital­ian af­fair with the Fer­raris of White­head and Gaze, and Hunt’s Maserati sit­ting be­tween them.

Al­though beaten off the line, the Si­amese prince took the lead and open­ing lap and that, as they say, was that. For lap af­ter lap po­si­tions at the front re­mained un­changed with White­head, Hunt and Gaze lead­ing the charge from a slid­ing tail-out Brab­ham in his black Cooper-bris­tol that was, some­what con­tro­ver­sially, en­tered as the Redex Spe­cial — this was a time when any form of com­mer­cial spon­sor­ship on cars was con­sid­ered tacky.

To many of the large crowd, the race would have de­scended to te­dium — the Fer­raris stopped mid-race for fuel but Bira drove on without pit­ting, al­though he had no brakes by the end and was us­ing his gears to slow down.

Life Changer

To one 13-year-old boy at­tend­ing his first-ever mo­tor race, this was all won­der­ful. How­den Gan­ley had never in­tended be­ing at Ard­more that day — his plan was to get his P-class onto Hamil­ton Lake and fine-tune his sail­ing skills.

The pre­vi­ously men­tioned Velox was go­ing to be leav­ing early with mo­tor-rac­ing en­thu­si­ast Jim Gan­ley driv­ing his se­cond-el­dest son, Denis, who, as How­den re­mem­bers, “shared our fa­ther’s pas­sion.” Jim had com­peted in grasstrack and hill-climb events, but none of that in­ter­est had rubbed off on his el­dest son, who dreamed of a life rac­ing yachts. Yet How­den is in no doubt that the events that day changed the di­rec­tion of his life: “For a start it was a beau­ti­ful cloud­less day, and the look and sound of the 250F and the Fer­raris was just magic — es­pe­cially the Maserati; there was some­thing about that pale-blue and yel­low colour scheme.”

So, was it bor­ing? “I had no ex­pec­ta­tions — I guess when I look back there wasn’t much hap­pen­ing at the front, but if we wanted ex­cite­ment, there was al­ways Jack Brab­ham each lap — ar­riv­ing at the clover­leaf all crossed up. And one guy got com­pletely out of shape and took to the grass — he seemed to be head­ing straight for me, and it wasn’t un­til af­ter he’d gath­ered it all up that it oc­curred to me that there was only a piece of wire sep­a­rat­ing him from us. That was pretty ex­cit­ing!”

How­den was be­sot­ted — by the time he’d climbed back into the Velox for the re­turn trip, he’d de­cided the course of his life would be dif­fer­ent — sail­ing had been rel­e­gated into se­cond place by a life in mo­tor rac­ing, a life that con­tin­ues to this day.

In a com­plete switch of in­ter­ests, his brother Denis be­came an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed yacht de­signer while his elder brother, How­den, em­barked on a life of mo­tor sport — from am­a­teur driver/self-taught me­chanic to a works For­mula 1 driver then con­struc­tor/en­gi­neer, di­rec­tor of the BRDC, and now au­thor of a book that tells all about what it took for him to get onto The Road to Monaco — the ti­tle of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

Rac­ing roy­alty — Prince Birabongse of Siam

Bira shows off the unique colour scheme of his White Mouse Maserati 250F The 1955 Ard­more NZIGP — a piv­otal mo­ment for How­den Gan­ley The 1956 Ard­more NZIGP pro­gramme fea­tured the 1955 win­ner — Bira and his 250F — on the cover

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