KITS AND PIECES
to a time when Vince Keats was working as an A-grade mechanic in Whanganui.
Vince is one of those Kiwi blokes who is prepared to tackle almost anything, someone undaunted by the mountain of problems he may encounter along the way — seeing such problems more as a pathway to the ideal solution than a hindrance.
So when the idea of building a scratchbuilt car came to him one morning in 1965, naturally, he just decided to get on with it. To make it more of a challenge, he decided that his creation should be mid engined — mainly due to the fact that one of his favourite cars of the era was the Ford GT40 and, no doubt, because it seemed a good idea at the time. Anyway, he’d just finished tidying up his first house — a task that had included the building of a new home garage and workshop — and it seemed criminal not to get the floor dirty with a project.
With only a vague idea of what the completed car would look like, Vince got on with the job of laying out a chassis. Although it would have a simple ladderframe design, all the ‘fish-mouth’ joints for the tubular structure were machined to a fine tolerance, and solidly clamped during welding to reduce distortion.
Conveniently, Vince was helping a well-known local racing driver, Graeme Lawrence, with his racing car at the time. It was with Lawrence that he discovered that a VW gearbox, when turned upside down, is ideal for a car with a mid-engined layout. As Lawrence was racing Cortina GTS at the time, Vince also decided to install a Cortina 1500 GT motor in his car.
It took about three years to complete the chassis and suspension, but, as soon as the engine and transmission were installed and a jury-rigged radiator was plumbed in, the car was deemed fit for a basic road test. It was on this first drive that an event took place that would permanently change the direction Vince took.
At the time, the car had a bare chassis, so the driver was fully exposed to the elements, and, you guessed it, on that initial run, Vince collected a wasp right up his trouser leg! Naturally, as any bloke would do in such a situation, an emergency test of the brakes was performed, followed by a quick exit and lot of jumping and leg shaking to ensure that the offending insect got nowhere near any vital areas.
A bloke dancing around madly alongside a bare chassis would’ve captured the attention of most normal passers-by, but Vince’s gyrations were not what stopped Nick Grotenhuis, a draughtsman who worked for New Zealand Railways. While the jumping around was certainly a distraction, what caught Grotenhuis’ eye was the car’s chassis — not surprising when you learn that Nick was a passionate car designer: a few years earlier, he had shown some of his drawings to Bruce Mclaren, who evinced a lot of enthusiasm for Nick’s ideas. In 1963, Nick had even sent drawings of one of his body designs to Rolls-royce as a suggested improvement for its current production car. Rolls-royce took the time to reply, but pointed out that the economics of motor-body building did not allow the company to take much interest in freelance designs. Curiously, the next Silver Cloud to come out of the factory a couple of years later seemed to reflect many of his ideas.
However, back to Vince and that pesky wasp. On the spot, Nick decided that he wanted to see one of his body designs on Vince’s chassis. At that stage, Vince had not committed himself to any particular style, so was open to Nick’s proposal. This initial roadside contact marked the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Nick passed away in the 1990s.