EVERY SUBSCRIPTION GETS TO BIG BOYS TOYS 2016
New Zealand GP on the Ardmore airfield, south of Auckland, in 1955.
Named Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh by his royal parents, Bira was the only Thai driver to race in F1, and he seemed surrounded by an aura, whether in or out of his Maserati painted in his country’s motor-racing colour of pale blue. Educated at Eton, the Thai prince began racing a Riley at Brooklands in 1935, and, in post-war days, ran two other Maseratis — a 4CLT and an 8CM. Two days before Christmas in 1985, and three decades after his New Zealand success, which was effectively his motorracing swansong, the 71-year-old prince was at Barons Court on the London Underground when he suffered a heart attack and died. It was an ignominious end to a grand and majestic life.
Chassis Number 2509
Now, at this point, the story may seem to get boring, but stick with it, because the excitement will eventually return. Maserati built 34 of these quintessential GP cars between 1954 and 1958, and several of them raced down under. No fewer than seven 250Fs were entered for the 1959 New Zealand GP.
This is a machine that joins the Mercedes W196 and Lotus 49 Cosworth as a rare GP car to win first time out. A further seven F1 GP victories followed, plus 35 wins in significant races for premier-formula cars. Stirling Moss remembered the 250F as a beautiful and stable car that was lovely to drive. It steered superbly and was inclined to stable oversteer, which Moss said could be exploited by balancing it against power and steering in sustained drifts. Moss believed a season behind the wheel of this car left him a far better and more experienced driver.
The late Chris Amon’s 250F is the lone example remaining in the country, safely on display at the Southward Car Museum, Kapiti; others are long gone, having travelled to distant shores. When Amon was reunited with the car at Ohakea for the 40th jubilee of the New Zealand GP in 1990, owner Len Southward jokingly suggested the onetime Ferrari works driver might like to buy it back for the £500 that he had sold it to Len for so many years earlier!
But Chris recalled how he considered himself lucky to get the equivalent of $1K for what was then simply an outdated racing car. The demonstration outing on the Ohakea airfield was the first time Amon had driven an open-wheeler since the F1 Ensign way back in 1976. In spite of running on 30-year-old tyres and needing more time for set-up — forget not Amon’s brilliant ability as a test driver — he was impressed with the performance of the car, an early chassis number 2509 built in 1954.
Originally owned by the Owen Racing Organisation while its British Racing Motors (BRM) P25 F1 was being completed, the Amon machine was raced by Englishman Ken Wharton during the 1954 season but was troublesome. Wharton brought a 250F to run in the 1957 New Zealand GP, but the car would sit idle in the pits after Ken was tragically killed in the Monza Ferrari when leading the sports car race earlier in the day. The 250F run by BRM was fitted with disc brakes, and the British team also moved the engine forwards and repositioned the oil tank from alongside the motor to the cockpit, in line with modifications being carried out by Maserati. The car’s last race with BRM was in the Argentine GP, driven by Mike Hawthorn to third. It was then sold to Jack Brabham, who disliked it; run by Gavin Quirk; raced briefly by Jensen; and campaigned by Len Gilbert, who acquired the Maserati from Quirk, “in 15 kerosene cans”.
Gilbert reckoned the car needed about 200 hours of work for an hour’s driving. He blew the engine at Ardmore in 1961, but, two weeks later, had the satisfaction at the wet Lady Wigram Trophy to be the only driver other than Brabham not to spin in practice. Eighteen-year-old Amon first drove 2509 in November 1961 at Renwick, finishing a fine fourth, and won a preliminary race at Levin in early 1962. His driving in the 250F came to the attention of British team manager and 1957 New Zealand Gp–winner Reg Parnell, culminating in Amon’s F1 debut in 1963.
What other 250Fs had a New Zealand connection? To delve into the history of the car is to meet with confusion, and, in researching of several sources, I became increasingly bewildered by the amount of contradiction, especially in regard to chassis numbers. Maserati used the same number for chassis and engine, with identity plates simply screwed on to the instrument panel, but, during repairs and rebuilds, plates were often switched. So, some 250Fs had two different numbers, and there ended up being more cars than chassis numbers in what became a nearcomplete shambles.
Even owners became confused. Jensen initially thought his ex-moss car was chassis number 2513, but noted journalist and historian Denis Jenkinson swore Moss would never race a car with that number, because of his suspicious views of the number 13. In 1967, Jensen suggested to Jenkinson that he have the chassis plate removed to see if there was another number underneath it. There was, and apparently it was 2508, although Jensen remembered it as being 2504 — which is the Bira 250F! Confused? You should be, and I certainly am.
Years later, Swiss journalist and entrepreneur Hans Tanner said, “There has been much misinformation on these cars despite their
for the car, which seems not much for a lot, and, despite his Ardmore disappointment, he won the Dunedin road race and took the Gold Star championship that season. At Teretonga, Jensen was brilliant, setting the fastest ever lap of the Southland track and beating the newer Coopers of Mclaren and Brabham in qualifying.
He sold the car to Johnny Mansel and, while in Europe in 1958, acquired the Bira car, which had been subsequently raced by Bruce Halford. While it was in Italy, it was restyled to match the Buell Piccolos, but it lacked the five-speed gearbox and disc brakes fitted to the American’s Maseratis. Medardo Fantuzzi, a master in aluminium, worked for Maserati and rebuilt the bodies while Tanner designed the twin-nostril modification for the first car and made even more changes with the second. Jensen said that his second 250F was definitely better than the Moss car, so the upgrades had been worthwhile.
Guerrino Bertocchi was Maserati’s famous chief mechanic and a test driver whose skills matched those of the best drivers in the world. He was part of the Buell team to visit Auckland for the 1959 GP, and, when one of the 250Fs needed some running prior to Ardmore practice, he did not see this as a problem. The Maseratis were stationed at Ross Jensen’s workshop in Newmarket, and Bertocchi simply drove the 250F out among the Auckland traffic and south on the motorway to Ardmore. What a sight that must have been! Bertocchi was not averse to boasting about his driving talents and said it was not Juan Manuel Fangio, Jean Marie Behra, or Moss who held the lap record testing at Modena airfield four years running but himself. Bertocchi had begun in motor sport as a riding mechanic with Alfieri Maserati in the 1926 Targa Florio, and it was bizarre that he should die, in 1981, aged 75, not driving but as a passenger in a de Tomaso Deauville four-door in a road accident with a truck in northern Italy.
By 1959, the Maseratis were clearly struggling to keep up with the rear-engined Coopers. Moss set a lap record of 1min 24.8s on his winning drive with a Cooper in the fifth New Zealand GP, while Schell’s 250F made 1min 27s and the 250Fs of both Jensen and Jo Bonnier recorded 1min 27.1s. On Ardmore’s back straight, the Coopers were timed at an impressive 152mph (245kph) — almost 32kph faster than the Italian cars.
Jensen had clutch trouble in the 1959 New Zealand GP but was still first resident competitor home, in fifth place, as the thirdplaced Mclaren was classed as an overseas driver. On Easter Monday the same year, Jensen fairly flew in the Bathurst 100-miler. Veteran writer and driver David Mckay reported that Kiwis were not supposed to fly, but Jensen flew fast enough to beat Australia’s best. In fact, this was the first time a New Zealander had won a major Australian car race. “Making no mistakes, Jensen put his Maserati in front on the fifth lap and kept it there, trouncing Australia’s top road-racers by comfortable margin,” Mckay said.
Soon after, Jensen was hospitalized for weeks with pneumonia, and the car was sent back to Modena, where he lost track of the 250F for several months. After Ardmore in 1959, Buell decided to give up racing, as he rightly
Throughout his working life, Peter Parkinson saw his profession of teaching as necessary to enable him to pursue his hobbies of building cars and travel. Most years, he would find work in South Island country schools, then, once he had saved up enough money, he and his wife would set off on another world adventure. As most country towns did not have much of a nightlife, evenings would be spent in the shed building cars. These were sold to help raise additional funds for travel. The system worked well throughout his working life, until, eventually, Peter retired with his wife, Margaret, to the quiet Canterbury town of Rangiora. With work no longer a distraction, he was able to fully focus on his hobbies.
Retirement is also a time to reflect on the past: for many men, one of their fondest memories is of their first car, especially the times spent parked at the side of the road in the pouring rain with the bonnet up or under the car knowing that the wife is inside tapping the dashboard with her fingernails. For some unfathomable reason, in their twilight years, men like to park the cause of those memories in their garages again, this time in the form of an identical ‘classic’ car.
Peter fell into this category when he decided to hunt down his first car — a task not too difficult if your first was a Humber 80, but Peter’s began life with the aid of a bathtub and his mum’s kitchen table.
Design and build
As an 18-year-old, Peter decided to design and build his own car. He was certain he could build a car lower than the 1016mm / 40 inches of the Ford GT40 and still cross railway lines without losing his exhaust pipe or putting a hole in his trousers. To get the sizes right, initial measurements were made using an old bathtub — first, by lifting it up to attain the right ground clearance and, later, to work out a good reclined seating position. The kitchen table was important, because, at only 914mm high, it became the roof of the car. This mock-up allowed Peter to explore various seating positions, with a dinner plate doubling as a steering wheel. Fortunately, this was all watched over by a very understanding mum, who dutifully took the measurements.
An Australian car called the ‘Brolga’ was the inspiration for the project, now known as ‘Lucy’. In the early ’70s, while attending Dunedin Teachers College, Peter prepared a full set of drawings of the car as a study of mobile art for an assignment he was given.
From the outset, he decided that this car would be totally built by himself, and the skills required to build it would be learned as he went along. Most of the car was constructed on the lawn outside his mum’s house. As the house had no drive-on access, everything had to be carried up three flights of stairs. Once the chassis was mobile, it was carried down the stairs and driven up and down back roads to see what broke. If it didn’t break, it was deemed to be of good engineering quality.