fter driving for teams like Ferrari, Matra, and even March and BRM, it was a natural conclusion to think of the underfunded lowprofile Ensign équipe as something of a comedown for Chris Amon. Back in the ’70s, it was not impossible to buy yourself a Ford Cosworth engine, mate it to a Hewland gearbox, produce a Formula 1 (F1) chassis, and go Grand Prix (GP) racing — small operations with names like Connew, Bellasi, Trojan, Token, and many others that sunk without trace after a season — or less — did it, and, in 1973, so did one Morris Nunn. ‘Mo’ had been a driver — good enough in the late ’60s / early ’70s to have been a works Lotus Formula 3 (F3) driver, and Colin Chapman didn’t offer that opportunity to just anyone. By the end of 1970, Nunn had built the first Ensign, an F3, in the garage of his house in The Midlands, and, the following year, his new marque took on Brabham, Lotus, March, and Chevron. The first win came in round two, and Nunn was on his way. The first F1 Ensign was built in 1973, financed by Rikki von Opel from the German division of the General Motors family, but he didn’t last long — however, once in F1, that’s where Nunn stayed. His perennial financial problems triggered the nickname ‘No Munn’, but the lavish bodywork of the inaugural car gave no hint of a low-budget operation. The Ensign of 1974 looked much more conventional, and it was 1975 when Chris Amon turned up. Until then, Nunn had run various back-of-thefield drivers, so the arrival of Amon was something of a revelation, as Mo explained: “He’s incredible — we move the wing by a notch and he can tell. We’re not used to that.”
Chris has his own recollections of the experience: “The 174 was the ’73
car basically, but without the weird bodywork on it. I mean basically it was a three-year-old car when I ran it at Kyalami in ’76. I was still hobbling at that point, I had this foot problem, I started off near the back, but I passed a lot of people that day. I don’t know why, but I ran out of fuel and had to make a pit stop. I remember passing Mario in the Parnelli. I hauled my way up the field a bit, but it was really pushing it uphill running a three-year-old car, and the reason for that was that the ’75 car, which I’d run in Austria and Monza, belonged to the sponsors, HB, and they’d taken it away so were forced for the first couple of races in ’76 to use the old ’73 car because that’s all Mo had while they built a new one. “The ’75 and ’76 cars were fairly similar. When I first drove the ’75 car in Austria  and old Mo was a bit funny, he said, ‘We don’t want any feedback, we just want you to drive the thing and we’ll do the engineering’, and about half way through practice I said, ‘We’re going nowhere here — you need to change the springs and some of the basic stuff’. In fairness, he agreed to that and actually got the thing handling really well in the rain. “Their engines weren’t great — I had trouble on the grid at Monza in ’75. I can’t remember what, but I remember fairly early on in the race, it was Niki [Lauda] and [Clay] Regazzoni in the Ferraris lapped me and then I stayed with them for half an hour or so, getting towed along a bit. And then they made the new one for ’76. It was a bloody good car, fragile as hell unfortunately, but with a top engine in it there wouldn’t have been any contest.”
Lauda vs Hunt
That year — 1976 — was the year of the Lauda vs Hunt battle for the world championship, as immortalized by the movie Ferrari was the dominant team, with Mclaren the best of the Cosworth runners. Tyrrell, Penske, March, and Lotus won races, while the Matra V12–powered Ligier was regularly a contender as well. Despite the talent of the pilot, who could honestly take a one-car team from Walsall seriously? Chris debuted the new ’ 76 model at Spain’s Jarama circuit 40 years ago this month and qualified it a respectable 10th alongside Mario Andretti’s Lotus and ahead of the powerful Brabham Alfas of Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Pace. Chris recalls, “It was probably better than the Brabham-alfas. I remember in Spain I had a big tussle, I finished between them actually. I think chassiswise it was as good as a Mclaren, or probably better, and probably Lotus.” When he says he finished ‘ between’ the Brabhams, Chris actually finished fifth, and thereby gave Ensign the best finish it had in F1 — a fantastic result given what the team was working with. A fortnight later, on May 16, a new qualifying standard was set when Chris qualified an extraordinary eighth for the Belgian GP at Zolder. This time, however, there were no points to be had because, deep into the race, the Ensign shed a wheel and rolled — Chris: “I said to Mo — I can’t drive something that’s going to fall to pieces all the time.”
Final GP race
At the end of May was Monaco, where only 20 cars could qualify, but, with 12th-quickest time, the Amon/ensign combo was easily in. However, in the race, a painful wrist meant he was four laps adrift at the end. On June 13, in Sweden, Chris and the Ensign shocked the establishment — the six-wheeled Tyrrells clearly suited the Anderstorp circuit and qualified first and fourth. Andretti’s Lotus shared the front row,
and Niki Lauda’s Ferrari was fifth. The best of the Mclarens, James Hunt, was eighth, but, third on the grid, remarkably, was the lone Ensign. “I remember in Sweden, Mario was on the front row and I was third. I’m sure the Ensign was a better car than most people realized … in fact definitely. Once again, James with the Mclaren had all sorts of horsepower, particularly when they wanted it. But the problem with the Ensign was that it was fragile, and under-funded too. Some of the things that happened probably wouldn’t have happened had it been well funded.” Again the car failed — this time a suspension breakage and another crash. The next time Chris slid into the Ensign was at Brands Hatch for the British GP, and again he put in a stellar lap to qualify sixth. This time, a water leak put the car out after eight laps. The German GP on August 1 turned out to be the last GP start of Chris’ long career — not that he or anyone else knew it at the time. This was the now legendary race in which Lauda crashed and was never expected to survive let alone return to the cockpit later in the year. Chris refutes any speculation that he quit after Germany because of Lauda’s accident — “I’ve got to say that I wasn’t keen to drive the Ensign … given the fact that every second race a major component was falling off. But equally I had decided not to continue in F1 by then, because Teddy [Mayer] approached me at the Nürburgring and asked ‘what are you doing next year?’ and I said ‘basically not a lot’, and that I was ‘pretty much going home’. They [Mclaren] were quite keen to have me in ’77.”
after that. It is absolutely fantastic — it’s moved on from being ‘a truck museum’, although lorries and units that tow big rigs form the bulk of the collection, but there are cars, buses, vans, toys — all laid out in the generously proportioned structure with an art-deco facade.
Southern road trip
How many places can you arrive at opening time on a Monday morning to a world-class exhibition and be greeted by the mayor, who just happened to be sizzling sausages at the entry? I’d travelled down to Southland with Howden Ganley — it had been a mere 54 years since he’d last been to Teretonga — and we aimed our rental car out of Queenstown airport and made for Invercargill. It’s a lovely drive, and something I recommend you do. The Southern Festival of Speed classic meeting is special, and, if you haven’t been — next year is the 30th, so put it on your list.
From the museum, Howden and I swooped by and collected Wal Willmott for the run out to Riverton to have lunch with Noel Atley. Ever since I’ve known Noel, a visit to his workshop has never failed to impress — this time, we saw the ACE IV and one of the three FM3S made by the legendary George Begg not far away in Drummond. Over lunch, we tried to explain to Howden the car Noel has in another workshop, and it begs to be visited — Howden can scarcely believe what he’s heard … then there it was, the Continental. I’d only previously seen photos of the ‘Can-am–type’ sports car that was built at the end of ’60s in Christchurch, so I was not quite prepared for how extraordinarily short the wheelbase is for a car housing a 7.7-litre Continental engine in the back. The Continental is a project once the ACE is finished — like the ACE III so impressively conducted by Graeme Hamilton at Ruapuna, ACE IV was originally powered by a straightsix Zephyr engine with a sought-after Raymond Mays head. At one time, ACE IV was converted to a rear-engined configuration, but Noel is returning it to how it was — how it should be — with the engine up front and a body reminiscent of a Ferrari 246 like the car Mike Hawthorn drove to win the last world championship for a front-engined car in 1958. From Riverton, we dropped in on another regular stop when in the deep south — David Brown produces world-class D-type Jaguar and Ford GT40 replicas from his workshop in Invercargill. Indeed, a replica of the GT40 Denny Hulme drove in the distinctive white-with-emerald-greenstripe livery of outrageous Irish entrant Sidney Taylor was looking glorious adjacent to the entry. Both Howden and Wal were working for Mclaren in 1965 when the young team was entrusted by Ford with a Group 7 (Can-am) version of the 7.0-litre GT40. The unloved project was sarcastically nicknamed ‘Big Ed’, so, when a wealthy enthusiast decided this unloved piece of history should be recreated, where better in the world to turn to than Invercargill? David’s jaw visibly dropped when two
This year, I had another reason to be Invercargill for its annual classic meeting at the wonderful Teretonga — there was a book to be launched. As the cover says, is a photographic selection from Bill Pottinger. The cover also hints that it was edited by yours truly; however, the reality is that this is ‘Bill’s book’. And who better to introduce you to Bill than Eoin Young, who wrote the foreword shortly before he passed away? “His Southland rectitude contributed to his quiet manner behind the lens that earned personal opportunities like being invited to join Jochen and Nina Rindt, Piers Courage, Graham Hill and Frank Gardner when they took an afternoon off to play golf. Bill’s photographs of their efforts were gems, and appreciated by the drivers.”
Bill started his hobby while still at school, and rode his bike to nearby Teretonga, which is where most of the photographs in the book were taken. And, despite having lived in Christchurch since the early ’70s, Teretonga was where Bill always wanted to have the book launched. Mayor Tim came along — on his 69th birthday — to do the honours, all of which was superbly conducted by Donald ‘The Voice of Teretonga’ Mcdonald. Bill was encouraged to put his best photos into this scrapbookformat book by friends who suggested he needed a project to occupy his mind when he was told, on Christmas Eve 2013, that the dreaded lymphoma had returned. Bill