SPE­CIAL FEA­TURE

New Zealand Classic Car - - Special Feature -

Leaf­ing through mag­a­zines up in my ‘man cave’ the other day, I came across a cou­ple of ar­ti­cles in Aus­tralian mo­tor­ing pub­li­ca­tions that set me to think­ing. The gen­eral take was, ‘wake up! The end of an auto dy­nasty is nigh, and now’s the time to save what­ever ex­am­ples are left of the pre­vi­ous era’s home-grown cars’.

Two pieces seized my imag­i­na­tion — in par­tic­u­lar, a saga re­lat­ing to an Isuzu Bel­lett that was, lit­er­ally, gifted to a col­lec­tor. It turned out that this Isuzu pos­sessed real com­pe­ti­tion prove­nance, hav­ing raced in the 1966 Gal­lagher 500, the fore­run­ner to the Hardie-fer­odo 500/1000. Nowa­days any sur­vivors that raced at Mt Panorama dur­ing those early years are re­garded with the great­est rev­er­ence. The Bel­lett re­ferred to, an Aus­tralian-as­sem­bled rar­ity, was ba­si­cally an un­mo­lested non-run­ner that had pre­vi­ously been stuck in a shed, its her­itage un­known un­til a col­lec­tor un­earthed it.

This story fired my imag­i­na­tion, and got me think­ing about the pos­si­bil­ity that some gen­uine Nz-as­sem­bled pro­duc­tion rac­ing sur­vivors might still be out there, pos­si­bly holed up in a barn some­where or ly­ing forgotten at the back of a shed.

I’m talk­ing about cars of the ’60s Wills Six Hours and the Ben­son and Hedges 500/1000 races. That was a time when the magic of th­ese races was the battle for supremacy be­tween lo­cally as­sem­bled pro­duc­tion cars be­fore it all went crazy post 1978 with ex­otic, lim­it­ed­man­u­fac­tur­ing runs of im­ported high-per­for­mance fac­tory spe­cials. Not that cer­tain lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers didn’t have this idea as well — wit­ness the 1972 Fiat 125T and the later Dat­sun 1200SSS — but nei­ther of those home-grown cars could live with the Chrysler Charger. More about that later.

Lo­cal As­sem­bly

The era of lo­cal au­to­mo­bile as­sem­bly in New Zealand stretched from 1921 to 1998 — ev­ery­thing af­ter that be­ing im­ported in fully built-up form. The re­moval of sales tax on new ve­hi­cles in 1998 ef­fec­tively sounded the death knell for our auto-build­ing in­dus­try.

To­day, I’m pick­ing that here, as in Australia, pris­tine ex­am­ples of sur­viv­ing lo­cally-built cars will gain in value with the pass­ing of time. Th­ese cars are truly icons redo­lent of our mo­tor­ing past, and a time when there was a thriv­ing, buoy­ant lo­cal car-as­sem­bly in­dus­try in New Zealand.

And it’s not just the Jaguars, Rover V8s and Chrysler Charg­ers, amongst many oth­ers, that hit the spot­light — like that ear­lier men­tioned, hum­ble but cute Isuzu Bel­lett, the mass pro­duc­tion of the early Dat­suns, Toy­otas and Maz­das, plus their English coun­ter­parts, reawak­ened my in­ter­est in this era of lo­cal as­sem­bly.

While delv­ing into some lo­cal pro­duc­tion records, I ex­pe­ri­enced a small rush of ex­cite­ment when I re­al­ized the twin-cam Corolla I own was one of the very last to go down the line at Toy­ota’s Thames plant in late 1998. I can hear the scep­tics slat­ing any­thing ori­en­tal, let alone Nz-as­sem­bled, as un­wor­thy of be­ing con­sid­ered a clas­sic — heresy!

How­ever, I haven’t lost my grip on re­al­ity, and re­main un­re­pen­tant as I state loud and clear that the ve­hi­cles built in New Zealand dur­ing the pe­riod in ques­tion rep­re­sent a truly sig­nif­i­cant as­pect of the his­tory and growth of the mo­tor-ve­hi­cle in­dus­try in this coun­try.

With as­sem­bly of CKD (com­pletely knocked down) ve­hi­cles came the estab­lish­ment of sub­sidiary in­dus­tries sup­ply­ing com­po­nents to the ma­jor car com­pa­nies. Over time the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try and road­ing in­fra­struc­ture that we now take for granted evolved as a re­sult of in­creased car own­er­ship — in it­self a di­rect re­sult of a lo­cal mo­tor-ve­hi­cle as­sem­bly that meant ve­hi­cles were cheaper and more ac­ces­si­ble.

There were those who viewed early Toy­otas and Dat­suns as cheaply made, of poor qual­ity and un­re­li­able, but they quickly es­tab­lished them­selves as to­tally the op­po­site — even if wider public per­cep­tion took a while to change. With stan­dard equip­ment that cast their English op­po­si­tion into the shad­ows, their de­sign and con­struc­tion were ex­cel­lent, but the real mas­ter­stroke for th­ese Ja­panese cars was their bul­let­proof en­gines — they thrived on revs, per­fect for rac­ing!

The in­sti­tu­tion of the Ben­son and Hedges 500 en­durance race — de­vel­oped for stan­dard pro­duc­tion, lo­cally as­sem­bled sa­loons — came at what proved to be per­fect tim­ing for the early be­gin­nings of what be­came the Ja­panese ‘in­va­sion.’

While I have a real pas­sion for this first wave of Ja­panese au­tos from the late ’60s and the ’70s, I will con­cede that un­til the first oil shocks of the mid ’70s, the lo­cal as­sem­bly of Bri­tish and Aus­tralian prod­ucts pro­vided the main­stay of our na­tional car fleet.

With Ford as­sem­bly based in Pe­tone (Welling­ton) from the ’30s, later en­trants in­cluded Gen­eral Mo­tors, Vaux­hall and Holden in Otahuhu/ Mount Welling­ton (Auck­land). Todd Mo­tors was as­sem­bling Chryslers and other makes (Mit­subishi) at Todd Park in Porirua

(Welling­ton) and in Nel­son, Tri­umph, Rover and Jaguar cars were be­ing built. Th­ese were among the larger play­ers, though Camp­bell Mo­tors’ as­sem­bly of Toy­ota and Dat­sun ve­hi­cles fig­ured more promi­nently into the mid ’70s and be­yond.

GM Holden and Vaux­hall vied with their equiv­a­lent Aus­tralian and English Ford coun­ter­parts for supremacy of the lo­cal mar­ket through­out the ’60s and much of the ’70s. How­ever, by the late ’60s there ex­isted a wide ar­ray of lo­cally as­sem­bled brands — in­clud­ing Euro­pean mar­ques such as Fiat and Re­nault Simca — all of them com­pet­ing for mar­ket share. And what bet­ter show­case than a long-dis­tance en­durance pro­duc­tion-car race to advertise the qual­ity of your wares?

New Zealand’s Tough­est Mo­tor Race

Cig­a­rette ad­ver­tis­ing was the name of the game back in the ’60s, and Wills Tobacco Com­pany cer­tainly saw a good thing when it fronted a spon­sor­ship deal to back the long-dis­tance en­durance race held at Pukekohe cir­cuit from 1964 to the mid ’80s.

And the sub­se­quent B&H 500-mile race for lo­cally as­sem­bled cars re­ally ig­nited the public’s in­ter­est in how their favoured brands could front up to the op­po­si­tion. More than any other pe­riod in lo­cal mo­tor rac­ing, the punter in the street could re­late di­rectly to ma­chin­ery that was rac­ing on the track as be­ing close to what could be pur­chased off the show­room floor.

The hard-core mo­tor-rac­ing ad­dict aside, your av­er­age bloke in the street with an in­ter­est in cars, rather than rac­ing it­self, en­joyed this event. If they didn’t al­ways turn up in droves at Pukekohe, though crowds were in­evitably good, they cer­tainly fol­lowed the race — bar­rack­ing with their mates for their pre­ferred make. Brand loy­alty had a lot to do with this style of rac­ing, even then.

And in the jun­gle of the school­yard dur­ing the end of the ’60s and early ’70s, when I wasn’t set­ting the aca­demic world alight, th­ese B&H races di­rectly fed into my greater hunger for all things mo­tor rac­ing, and I wasn’t alone in this — many vig­or­ous ‘dis­cus­sions’ of­ten took place around B&H time. We all had our al­le­giances — largely based on what your dad drove. My brother and I were in the GM camp — the old man’s se­quence of Hold­ens and a Vaux­hall Cresta dur­ing this time cast­ing a pow­er­ful spell over us for their lat­est ma­chines.

Back then, the FD Vaux­hall Vic­tor had se­ri­ous street cred, and the hot-rod Vic­tors were the ‘top guns’ of the first two B&H 500 races, and my ul­ti­mate favourite. They looked quite sexy, yet were very com­pact with their swoopy waist­line,

and with an ideal wheel­base they han­dled well, de­spite the weight of their cast-iron 3.3-litre six-cylin­der donk. Some time later, the Vaux­hall’s qual­i­ties wouldn’t es­cape the ace race-car builder, Jimmy Stone, who chose the FD Vic­tor as the ba­sis for Jack Nazer’s leg­endary Chevpow­ered Miss Vic­to­ri­ous.

By the 1969 B&H race, the Vic­tor had real com­pe­ti­tion as the 5.2-litre Chrysler Valiant Re­gal V8 ap­peared and was faster — but Leo Leonard and Ernie Sprague tac­ti­cally out­foxed them to win a great race, though more about that later. The Valiant was an im­pres­sive run­ner, and would have its day in the sun very soon.

My fa­ther’s ’66 Vaux­hall Cresta was pow­ered by the same 3.3-litre power plant as the B&h-win­ning Vic­tors, just in a slightly heav­ier body. As­so­ci­a­tion was ev­ery­thing though, and it felt as though we were hard­wired into the rar­efied glam­our of the rac­ing elite. Delu­sions are free, of course, but the fact that an iden­ti­cal Cresta scored a third out­right in 1966 with Frank Bryan and Don David at the wheel hadn’t es­caped my no­tice.

I guess you’re get­ting the pic­ture — the race was a big deal, be­cause it re­ally did cap­ture our imag­i­na­tions. The ul­ti­mate rea­son be­ing, as pre­vi­ously men­tioned, that th­ese were stan­dard pro­duc­tion cars be­ing flogged to within an inch of their life over seven to eight hours, with all the drama that brings. It’s not hard to imag­ine the chal­lenges of rac­ing for hours on a slip­pery, oily track sur­face with fad­ing brakes, tired gear­boxes, fal­ter­ing clutches and skinny rub­ber — all on New Zealand’s most-de­mand­ing race cir­cuit.

An­other big draw­card was that most of the top lo­cal cir­cuit rac­ers from all other mo­tor sport cat­e­gories turned out for our ‘great race’. It cer­tainly was a big day when the 500-mile battle took place — al­ways, it seemed, in ad­verse weather con­di­tions — each Septem­ber.

Boy’s Own Hero­ics

Pukekohe was our home track, the long­est per­ma­nent rac­ing cir­cuit in the coun­try — and the fastest. The B&H al­ways used what was termed as the long cir­cuit, this in­cluded the sec­tion known as The Loop that cre­ated an ex­tremely tight left-hand cor­ner off pit straight — the El­bow — and was the down­fall of many driv­ers, es­pe­cially for those of the de­mon late-brak­ing va­ri­ety. There was al­ways the po­ten­tial for car­nage here, and the ad­ja­cent spec­ta­tor area was in­vari­ably packed.

The an­nual ‘pil­grim­age’ to Pukekohe for the B&H 500 was not for the faint-hearted dur­ing th­ese years. As young lads with­out wheels, the trip in­volved a marathon bus ex­pe­di­tion from Auck­land’s North Shore. Duf­fel bags were crammed with pro­vi­sions, such as

egg sand­wiches, although they quickly lost their ap­peal when we caught sight of the hot-chip stand.

As we set­tled in to watch the rac­ing, it seemed that the heav­ens would open up and dump their con­tents on us — usu­ally sev­eral times — and the oil­skin rain­coats that were the style of the day seemed to sweat more mois­ture than they re­pelled.

Septem­ber in Auck­land — the weather is al­ways no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able, and Pukekohe on B&H days seemed to have an un­shake­able deal with the rain gods! Of course, this wasn’t all bad — as they say, once you’re wet, you can’t get wet­ter, and the ac­tion on the track also got bet­ter as it got wet­ter (in our eyes at least). The mix of rain, oil and grease pro­vided a slip­pery sur­face that, along with fad­ing brakes and worn tyres, meant some­thing had to give.

We gen­er­ally sta­tioned our­selves at the hair­pin bend at the end of the main straight (Lion Mo­tors Hair­pin), hang­ing around like vul­tures wait­ing for vic­tims and, in due course, we were al­ways re­warded with some ex­cel­lent spin-outs, ‘grass cut­ting’ and an oc­ca­sional ma­jor lose. The un­lucky com­bat­ant usu­ally dis­ap­peared back­wards out of sight at high ve­loc­ity into the old tyres piled up a short dis­tance be­yond the run-off area. This, of course, was the cause of much cel­e­bra­tion and revelry by the heart­less hair­pin spec­ta­tor mob.

We were hell-bent on scor­ing the ul­ti­mate view­ing spot clos­est to the ac­tion, and this in­evitably meant lock­ing horns with the dreaded ‘white coats’ — the over of­fi­cious, seem­ingly power-hun­gry car-club stal­warts whose only mission in life ap­peared to be to thwart our plea­sure. It never oc­curred to us that they might be try­ing to keep us safe and, nat­u­rally, when they were out of sight, or had their backs turned, we would sur­rep­ti­tiously ad­vance into non-spec­ta­tor zones, to grab a few pho­tos.

For years our main nemesis was a gin­ger-headed char­ac­ter who was al­ways sta­tioned within the esses and hair­pin area — over the years, we en­gaged in a strange battle of cat and mice with this chap. On ar­rival at ‘his’

The only Vic­tor to have a fault­less run was the Leonard/hawes car, which with a skil­ful race strat­egy came through to win in the fi­nal laps, over­tak­ing the late race-leader Gra­ham Har­vey when his Vic­tor suf­fered com­plete brake fail­ure and hold­ing out Ernie’s Zo­diac, which was closing af­ter chang­ing brake pads in the lat­ter stages. It was a an­other great victory for Leonard.

Of all Leo’s four wins in the B&H 500 — plus three more wins in the 1000-kilo­me­tre ver­sion — prob­a­bly the 1970 500-mile race was his and Ernie’s great­est mo­ment. Run­ning the Valiant Re­gal V8 for the first time, Leo was com­fort­ably in the lead when he lost con­trol of the big car. He was ne­go­ti­at­ing the Loop sec­tion, and with the rain pelt­ing down and fresh oil on the high-speed curve the Valiant got away from him, spin­ning into the wet grass of the in­field where it promptly got stuck.

Many driv­ers would prob­a­bly have thought ‘game over’, but Leonard was made of sterner stuff — a man im­bued with a clas­sic case of South­land grit! Or maybe he was more con­cerned about in­cur­ring his co-driver’s wrath re­gard­ing his in­dis­cre­tion! What­ever, af­ter push­ing and shov­ing and try­ing to wheel­spin his way out wasn’t work­ing, he grabbed some sacks out of the car’s boot (those South­ern­ers didn’t over­look any­thing in their car prep), ripped off the top part of his driv­ing suit, stuck ev­ery­thing un­der the rear wheels, and the ex­tra trac­tion al­lowed him to get the car back onto the black­top. Un­der the rules, no out­side help was al­lowed in th­ese cir­cum­stances, and the off-track ex­cur­sion had lost Leo and Ernie sev­eral laps, drop­ping them back to 28th place. Their sub­se­quent no-holds-barred drive back through the field to a mag­nif­i­cent victory has to be one of the truly leg­endary tales of lo­cal mo­tor sport.

The Mighty Charger’s Glo­ri­ous Reign

“Hey Charger!” was a mar­ket­ing mantra from heaven — one that cap­ti­vated the young car-buy­ing fra­ter­nity in the early to mid ’70s. It sig­nalled the ar­rival in New Zealand of the most sexy and po­tent sports coupé to ever be as­sem­bled on th­ese shores. This was, in many ways, the high-wa­ter mark for lo­cally as­sem­bled

Fair­mont V8, but the flavour of the race had started to change by then, lean­ing more to­wards limited pro­duc­tion, high-per­for­mance sa­loons. This was the case of the SS Holden Com­modore of the early ’80s, a lo­cally as­sem­bled high-per­for­mance ver­sion, limited-pro­duc­tion-run car built specif­i­cally with the in­ten­tion of win­ning the B&H race. In re­flec­tion, the hal­cyon days and tor­rid bat­tles be­tween to­tally stan­dard pro­duc­tion cars, with all their lim­i­ta­tions, had passed.

And with that pass­ing, the true charisma and flavour of en­durance rac­ing — which re­quired spe­cial skills to drive around the many lim­i­ta­tions of ba­sic ’60s and ’70s four-door fam­ily sedans over seven to eight hours of hard rac­ing — was gone.

Are There Any B&H Clas­sics Still Out There?

Re­call­ing those epic B&H races rekin­dled my be­lief that th­ese were truly New Zealand’s great­est auto races. A bold claim, but one that I be­lieve is jus­ti­fied due to the many re­quire­ments those races de­manded — from fault­less car prepa­ra­tion to driv­ing in­volve­ment that in­cluded main­tain­ing race-win­ning speeds while con­serv­ing the ma­chine’s me­chan­i­cal well-be­ing over a long pe­riod of time.

In wrap­ping this up, I find my­self re­turn­ing to a re­cur­ring thought — are there any gen­uine B&H sur­vivors from the late ’60s and ’70s era still out there? Many of them would have ended up back on the sales lot the week af­ter the race! Prob­a­bly sales pitched as be­ing a low-mileage ex­am­ple with one care­ful el­derly lady driver!

It would be great to hear whether some or any cars with a gen­uine B&H pedi­gree still ex­ist? I know of a few Fiat 125Ts — due to their semi-ex­otic ori­gins — that have been re­stored or main­tained. Pos­si­bly a few of the Dat­sun SSS ‘spe­cial rac­ing per­for­mance ver­sions’ of­fered by Den­nis Mar­wood’s Per­for­mance De­vel­op­ments — com­plete with their Dell’orto sid­e­draughts and other drama — still ex­ist, and maybe one or two that raced in the ‘great race’ are still out there? Then there are the Charg­ers — it’s con­ceiv­able that some of them might have sur­vived.

Much less likely are the chances that any of the Vaux­hall Vic­tors, Ze­phyr V6s, and Valiant V8s es­caped the junk­yard or the crusher, let alone other, more hum­ble util­i­tar­ian of­fer­ings like Dat­sun 180Bs and 1600s, Ford Es­corts and Toy­otas that raced in anger at New Zealand’s ul­ti­mate rac­ing event. How­ever, you never know — and if you know the where­abouts of one of the vet­eran B&H sa­loon rac­ers, I’d cer­tainly be in­ter­ested in hear­ing from you.

Valiant V8s mo­nop­o­lize the front rows of the grid for the 1969 B&H – the smart money favoured them, but Leonard and Sprague would win for a sec­ond time in a Vic­tor 3.3 (Photo Euan Sar­gin­son)

Words: Ger­ard Richards Steve Buchanan, Terry Mar­shall, Ger­ard Richards

A shot of Lin Neilson’s Vaux­hall Vic­tor 3.3 com­pet­ing at the 1968 B&H 500 fea­tured on the front cover of Mo­tor­man’s Novem­ber 1968 edi­tion

Clas­sic pe­riod shot of the field form­ing for the 1965 Gold Leaf Three-hour Chal­lenge – in­clud­ing Ivan Segedin’s ‘Fleet­wood’ Mus­tang, plus Mini Coop­ers and even a Daim­ler Dart (Photo Steve Buchanan)

The gi­ant-killing Dat­sun 1600 raced by Den­nis Mar­wood and Brian Innes in the pits prior to the start of the B &H 500 in 1968 (Photo Steve Buchanan)

Two Dat­suns and an Es­cort roar past the pits dur­ing the 1969 B&H 500 (Photo Steve Buchanan)

The Grady Thomp­son / Rick Rim­mer Valiant Re­gal V8 prior to the start of the 1969 B&H 500 (Photo Steve Buchanan)

Smaller ca­pac­ity du­els gets un­der­way dur­ing the 1973 race – many of th­ese small Ja­panese pocket-rock­ets punched well above their weight against the big­ger ca­pac­ity cars (Photo Terry Mar­shall)

Leo Leonard charg­ing through the Loop on his way back through the pack af­ter an early spin that lost him sev­eral laps, but ul­ti­mately he and Ernie Sprague recorded their third con­sec­u­tive B&H victory in 1970 (Photo Euan Sar­gin­son)

1971 B&H 500–win­ning Valiant V8 of Leo Leonard and Graeme Richards on the cover of Au­tonews

Mazda RX-2S – led here by the Gulf Mazda en­try of late ro­tary guru, Bill Shiells. They were fiece con­tenders in 1973 for out­right honours but ul­ti­mately the best RX-2 could only fin­ish in fourth po­si­tion (Photo Terry Mar­shall)

Mightly lit­tle Dat­sun 1200s ran like a Swiss Watch all day and in­evitably moved into con­tention with large­dengined op­po­si­tion by the con­clud­ing stages of the 1973 B&H (Photo Terry Mar­shall)

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