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The 1960s delivered a colourful cosmic wake-up call to the Shaky Isles
Somewhere just past the mid ’60s, something came out of nowhere. There we were, sailing along innocently, young boys in the midst of drab post-1950s conservatism. One minute, everything seemed locked in that grey, colourless state-house Farmer’s Trading Company fashion-clone formula (unless you were lucky enough to own a two-tone Holden sedan, as we were, yee ha!), then, like a bolt from the blue, the hurricane of the 1960s youth culture exploded in our own backyard! It was a breaking out of the straitjacket of the old repressive post-war world, and, with all the new, groovy fads, it was pretty intoxicating.
Gone from the popularity stakes were Sunday church and an afternoon with the grandparents, having endless cups of tea and scones with the vicar, or attending the church picnic and bible class (despite what it may sound like, I don’t have any beef against religion). Piano lessons, the previous social Mecca of the tennis club, even that old institution, the Boy Scouts — none of it looked flash compared with the onslaught of the new wave of ‘selfexpression’ culture that broke upon us in the late ’60s.
Actually, to be brutally honest, it wasn’t quite like an explosion; it was more a slow dawning of a shift of power and the arrival of the impact of youth demands for change.
There were plenty of signposts around screaming that the old order was under siege. One of the most agreeable expressions of this was when dress hems raced upwards, to finally reach the length of that wonderful mini skirt, a fashion which fast-tracked so many boys into hyperventilation! The move out of gym frocks and into bikinis had a similar effect.
Everything was changing, and it was pretty exciting for my group of testosterone-charged young pretenders. The revolution was firing on all fronts, not just in fashion, music, movies, and hippy ‘ free love’ scenarios. New lifestyle pursuits like surfing and skateboarding were captivating youth with their free forms of expression, drawing them away from traditional sports, and things were changing in other areas, too.
Wild electric-painted wheels blow us away
Part of that same groundswell, hot rodding, car customizing, and motor racing — all arenas of fascination for me — became bolder and more exciting. Loud, colourful paintwork and wild signwriting were emerging. I was gobsmacked by the electrically garish, hypnotic beauty of the new wave of ‘ inyer-face’ metalflake and Day- Glo paints appearing on the odd street cars cruising the North Shore beach circuit in the late ’60s.
They stood out like beacons, these early 1960s mildly customized Holdens, Ford Zephyrs, and other American fare. They appeared to represent the dangerous edge of supreme decadence to us young worshippers. We’d see them parked up at the seafront, with a glamorous lady in a skin-hugging sweater top and stovepipe trousers pressed up against her rebel-without-acause bloke on the driver’s side — our imaginations ran riot over what might be happening inside that fur-dicedraped venetian-blind-rear-windowed passion pit.
All it took to set yourself up as a chick magnet back then was a set of widened steel wheels; a noisier exhaust; and, if you were very serious, a slightly warmer cam and dual carbs — along with that allimportant cosmetic makeover!
It all seemed impossibly cool to our impressionable eyes, and, I have to say, that deep-lustre metalflake paint had a lot to answer for. OK, so the curvaceous babes decorating the scene had, I will admit, stirred significant chemical reactions as well.
Seduced by metallic blue heaven — Red Dawson’s Shelby Mustang
The seismic moment when the drug of wild metallic paint and bold signwriting seized us with a vice-like addiction was the day we first sighted Red Dawson’s electric blue Shelby Mustang racer in the pits at Pukekohe, circa January ’69, for the New Zealand Grand Prix meet. The earth moved for us — almost literally — as the dazzling aura of this car cast everything we’d known previously into the shadows like so many faceless nonentities. Low, lean, mean, and muscular looking, that Mustang drew us like a magnet, its stunning, rich, entrancing deep blue, sparkling metallic paint offset by huge yellow-and-gold numbers emblazoned on the doors. It looked like 160-pluskilometres-per-hour just sitting still in the paddock.
Nothing was ever quite the same again, and we embraced the new order of lurid colours, designs, and artwork with a serious vengeance — well, as much as 13- or 14-year-old boys could.
Red was our hero, and his impossibly sexy Mustang set the landmark of a new frontier for us. Its outrageous — for the times — décor seemed to stick the finger to the old order of social blandness and conformity.
Day-glo high performance arrives on home turf
The floodgates of change hadn’t exactly been thrown open in the remote backwater of Kiwiland yet. However, by the late 1960s, there was growing evidence that the new unrestrained art forms, music, and styles were being hungrily devoured by a large chunk of the young and not so young population who wanted to escape the repressive cloak of the hangover from English Victorian values that was still otherwise being seriously clung to.
On home turf, the image and purpose of the automobile changed, as it grew to reflect the new youth culture’s desires and growing spending power. The arrival of cars like the Holden Monaro, Torana XU-1, Falcon GT, and Valiant Charger came to embody all the bold new design and art forms, as they emerged with an explosion of colours. Remember the heart-palpitating excitement when you first laid eyes on a bright-yellow 1968 5.4-litre 327 Monaro GTS four-speed manual — with the black racing stripes? What a gas! It seemed like something from outer space and kind of put everything else on the road at the time into the second division.
Day- Glo paint like Strike Me Pink or Canary Yellow was the norm, and when combined with ‘go-faster’ stripes and performance badging, it all proved pretty seductive to us young lads in the street or at the race track.
The muscle car thing ignited a desire deep inside me for these raw untamed machines, in all their gaudy radiance. It took me 20 years to get my hands on one from the classic era — a 1970 Holden Torana GTR XU-1 — but it was worth the wait.
‘High performance’ became the buzzword, particularly in the late ’60s and early ’70s, even for most of the utilitarian car makers. Manufacturers would provide a model with various extras; uprated engine and handling; and, of course, the cosmetic package to attract the youth buyer. Cars like Viva GTS, Avenger GTS, and Cortina GTS were among the many offerings.
Baron’s, an automobile company of the time, had rapidly caught on that the humble motor car was now a statement of the buyer’s personality, so it quickly began to offer a vast range of performance and leisure options to meet diverse demands. Manufacturers had clearly worked this out, too — just witness, for example, the growth of the stylized panel vans in Australia from Holden, Ford, and Chrysler in the early to mid ’ 70s.
Boyhood adventures in the psychedelic colour explosion
All these changes we watched from the sidelines; we were captivated but too young to play an active part — in a hot set of wheels, that is; there was plenty of action for 12- to 13-year-olds who had competitive instincts. We had our bikes and the new revolution in colour and parts, so had plenty of neat stuff with which to customize our steeds.
Ape-hanger handlebars and banana seats were just the start. There were speedos (not the Aussie swimming togs …), horns, chrome mirrors, headlights with dynamos, etc. — you could take it as far as you wanted, or your budget allowed, and some did. In our early years at high school, the bike-parking racks were the place to hang out and admire your mate’s hardware. It was a showcase, and there were several fine examples of metalflake cool. I still remember Michael Lynch’s iridescent blue beast, with ape hangers and a sparkling blue banana seat, plus threespeed Sturmey-archer gears and a speedo — it was absolutely state of the art!
Unfortunately, my Raleigh had hardly any of this exotic equipment, and no one was drooling over its custom straight handlebars and extra front handbrake plus headlight.
Slot cars and plastic model kits were mega popular back then, and the crew I hung out with was into it big time. It was the high watermark of the slot-car craze in the late ’60s and early ’ 70s, and we timed our run to perfection. With a huge array of slotcar kits available, a vibrant local industry manufacturing aftermarket custom parts, plus many commercial raceways around the country, this was the golden era of slot racing.
Modifying and decorating your latest racer was a prime motivation in life during these halcyon years. And yes, the school work did suffer. Presentation was critical, as everyone was trying to get one up on the rest with their dazzling metalflake/day-Glo colour schemes. Honour was always at stake when it came to racing for our coveted championship, and you had to be a ‘ hot thumb’ to see off the competition.
Anyone remember Pit Stop Raceways, above the old Regent Theatre on Queen Street, central Auckland? This place was the epitome of cool, with its subdued lighting, three big six-lane tracks, evocative motor racing paintings and pictures on the walls, and the ultimate slot cars on display in flood-lit glass cases at the counter. Our misspent youth was played out in this entrancing shadowland at every possible opportunity during school holidays. We raced away our hard-earned pocket money and newspaper-delivery funds during those golden years of 1970 to 1972.
Groovy poster art
The ’60s art revolution and Southern California hot rod culture was also making its presence felt on the local scene — via the wild psychedelic designs of posters, magazines, and stickers — or ‘transfers’ as they were known then. A lot of this originated from the strangelooking goatee-bearded Californian radical hot rod builder Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, who was also a cartoon artist. He invented a weird hot rod–fiend character called ‘Rat Fink’, who was never up to any good. This launched an extremely evocative style of wild, lurid hot rod and drag-racing litho art that was mostly manifested in posters, T-shirts, and comic strips.
Soon, local versions began to appear, featuring home-turf machinery such as Monaros, Falcon GTS, and even Ford Capris. Using silhouette style and three-colour lurid litho, they were printed on small presses and featured overblown engines and huge tyres, with flames and smoke belching everywhere. A print like this was just about the most hip thing you could want to emblazon your bedroom wall with in the early ’70s.
The day we stumbled across a young dude running a small litho press in an upstairs commercial building in our local stamping ground, Mairangi Bay on the North Shore, Auckland, was on a par with discovering that the sex goddess of the time, Raquel Welch, might be interested in taking a skinny dip with us at the local isolated swimming hole … He was doing all this magic hot rod, rock ’n’ roll
stuff, and we bought up when funds allowed. Of course, none of it has survived, and I’d probably pass on the latest iteration of Raquel to get my hands on some of these originals again.
Michael J Nidd was, and still is, a wonderful local artist, whose Day-glo images of the ultimate hardware of the local motor racing scene of circa 1969 to 1974 remain some of the best pieces of dazzling motor racing art I’ve seen anywhere. His work appeared in motor racing mags of the period, but it was the poster art that was to die for. These were commercially offset printed for a while and were sublime, but the copies I had of the Fahey PDL Mustang and Mcrae GM1 were both casualties of time. Some of these colour images appeared in the Michael J Nidd and Terry Marshall booklet Tasman ’ 72: An Insight.
Memories of the ’60s and ’70s colour extravaganza
All these colourful art forms were bursting out of the woodwork on all sides. They were part of the reaction to the years of grey, grim hardship lingering following the 1930s Depression and into the war years and the post-war entrenchment, which finally released all this amazing long-repressed energy and creativity in the second half of the 1960s and early ’70s. It was an amazing time of exploration and selfexpression in all its forms. Well, OK, maybe not everything was totally groovy; the drug thing did get slightly out of hand, the Vietnam War was a disaster, and racial, and female inequality was a serious problem that benefited from greater publicity during this era.
That 1960s ‘revolution’ was the catalyst for much of the change in the decades to come. It was just unfortunate that, in the later years, commercial exploitation tainted some of its aura.
I still have clear memories of some of the best examples on the automotive front. Red’s Pony Express was really a cosmic awakening for the performance-car crowd, newly aware that ‘in yer face’ was pretty sensational. The hot rod crew, which already had a slightly shady and rebellious reputation — at least to the conservative public — well knew the impact of paintwork designed to shock.
Inspired by the Dawson car, my mate Johnny Riley transformed his white ’66 Shelby race Mustang with deep-lustre metallic green paint and the bold number 222 running the length of the doors. Overnight, this machine — which had already been pretty sharp — became a favourite with the crowds. Its stunning appearance matched the hard-charging attitude displayed by folk-hero driver Big John, as did his sometimes wild departures from the hot mix into the scenery. He seemed more interested in putting on a good show for the crowd than winning races, and this really seemed to embody the spirit of the times. The fans loved him for it, as he was primarily an entertainer. The least of his concerns seemed to be damaging his expensive equipment during encounters with the solid objects he ran into on his off-track excursions.
Other cars that lit my fire in the late ’60s and early ’70s included the Ken Smith’s iridescent blue Lotus 41, Max Pennington’s metallic crimson Twin Cam Escort aptly named ‘Wildfire’, the gold Winfield-sponsored Begg FM4 of David Oxton, and the Chev Camaro of Rod Coppins. But possibly the most radically beautiful example of semi psychedelic–styled Day-glo paintwork of this era was exhibited on the PDL cars, particularly the ’70 Boss Mustang in its fabulous green and pink versions when piloted by Graham Baker, and the PDL Begg FM5 F5000 in similar pink when run by Allan Mccully. Simply strike-me-dead gorgeous.
This era of race cars presented in extravagant surreal paintwork as an art form seemingly ended with the advent of greater commercialism. Of course, a growing number of enticingly beautiful, painted customized cars and hot rods trolled public roads around this time. But the times have changed, and what was once an art form and a new lifestyle that directly reflected the energy and creativity of a phoenix rising from the ashes of mid20th-century repression is, in more recent times, largely a commercial exploitation of the integrity of that special time.
I have an enduring love for the signposts of the 1960s new-wave culture; posters, stickers, album covers, clothing items, and magazines — I collect them all. They have a richness in colour and design that reminds me what a wonderful time it truly was, when we rode that strange torpedo into the new frontier of ‘no limits’ — or so it seemed then …
Day-glo hot rod artwork from the ’70s (artist unknown)
Top left: Ford Zephyr Mk3 at 1971 Hot Rod Show, Sanitarium card (photographer unknown) Above left: 1936 Ford Coupe Custom, 1971 Sanitarium card (photographer unknown)
Below: Classic pin-up hot rod art by local Auckland artist Jack Wilson (2013)
Above: Groovy fashions of the late ’60s in-crowd gathered around a new Triumph (advert April ’70)
Below left: Day-glo green PDL Mustang at Bay Park 1973, Graham Baker driving Below right: ’32 Ford V8 roadster at Christchurch Autorama Show, January 1970
Classic hot rod art from the early ’70s, copied by the author in felt pen around 1973
Above: Legendary Michael J Nidd motor racing posters, advert from 1972 Below: Michael J Nidd painting of ’72 Tasman Champion Graham Mcrae
John Riley’s metallic green ’66 Shelby Mustang, Bay Park, 1971
Pink Day-glo E38 Chrysler Charger, 1971