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.
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.