New Zealand Classic Car - - Motor Man - Above: Tony Shelly chats with world cham­pion Gra­ham Hill at Pukekohe in 1964 Be­low: Cham­pion fea­tures Shelly in its lo­cal press advertising in 1963

ukekohe, Jan­uary 1964, the New Zealand Grand Prix (NZGP): this may have been a defin­ing mo­ment for Tony Shelly. On lap 28, he was un­der brak­ing for the no­to­ri­ously tight el­bow cor­ner and about to be lapped by Jack Brab­ham, who was fu­ri­ously chas­ing leader Bruce Mclaren. Shelly moved to take his usual line through the cor­ner, when the Aus­tralian’s Brab­ham BT7A slammed into the rear of his Lo­tus 18/21.

The Brab­ham spun in mid-air, landed back­wards, and slith­ered down the es­cape road, out of ac­tion. Amaz­ingly, Shelly’s For­mula 1 (F1) Lo­tus Cli­max was able to con­tinue, and the New Zealan­der fin­ished sixth, but, later, he was wrongly ma­ligned by the wily two-times world cham­pion, who com­plained of in­ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers, only to re­al­ize a week later that he had been too hasty in his crit­i­cism. In fact, Shelly was far from new to the sport, but, by now, he was ques­tion­ing his rac­ing car fu­ture.

Fif­teen months ear­lier, Shelly had been in Eng­land, rac­ing the Lo­tus in the 75-lap Oul­ton Park Gold Cup F1 race, with the prospect of driv­ing for the Rob Walker team in 1963 now that it was ap­par­ent that Stir­ling Moss would not be fit enough to race fol­low­ing his Good­wood ac­ci­dent. Shelly fin­ished fifth at Oul­ton Park, and, when trail­ing Gary Hock­ing, he found that he could match the South­ern Rhode­sian cor­ner for cor­ner, apart from one bend that his op­po­nent took flat out. Shelly was lift­ing off and los­ing half a sec­ond — enough to cause him to re­think his rac­ing fu­ture in the north­ern hemi­sphere. Be­sides, there was pres­sure from his fa­ther for him to re­turn home to run the busi­ness.

Mazda wave

Mo­tor rac­ing seemed but a dis­tant mem­ory when I sat down with Tony Shelly 36 years ago. While most in the mo­tor trade would

as­so­ciate Tony with sell­ing cars, to this day, the for­mer Welling­to­nian is one of just six New Zealan­ders to have com­peted in a world cham­pi­onship F1 Grand Prix (GP). Yet, when I vis­ited him in Hawaii in 1980, he was rid­ing the crest of a Mazda wave and had been a US cit­i­zen for five years.

Shelly con­sid­ered a Mazda deal­er­ship in the mid ’70s, but the make was suf­fer­ing a se­vere hang­over from the late-1973 en­ergy cri­sis. Mazda was re­liant on ro­tary-en­gined cars for more than 90 per cent of its prod­ucts into the US and had sold fewer than 400 cars in Hawaii in 1974. Tony could see the po­ten­tial, though, and bought the fran­chise for Hawaii in 1976, when com­pany for­tunes were at their low­est. The year be­fore, Mazda had not shipped one car to the trop­i­cal US state.

“Not only was the ro­tary Mazda a slow seller, but there was a lack of cred­i­bil­ity and the mar­que had a poor im­age in Hawaii,” Shelly said. Soon af­ter, how­ever, the first-gen­er­a­tion 323 hatch­back, 626, and MKI RX-7 were on stream, and, in 1979, Shelly Cars sold 3138 new Maz­das on the is­land. He went into part­ner­ship with fel­low Kiwi Neville Crich­ton to form Shel­ton Mo­tors Inc., adding Rolls-royce, Jaguar, Porsche, Audi, Rover, Tri­umph, and Fer­rari fran­chises for the 50th state. In 1980, Shelly sold 4062 Maz­das for the whole state, with 2243 of th­ese out of his Ala Moana deal­er­ship. Both men had strong mo­tor sport con­nec­tions, Shelly with his open-wheeler ex­ploits in the ’60s, and Crich­ton more re­cently, with some fine sa­loon-car races and the 1984 New Zealand pro­duc­tion-sa­loon­car cham­pi­onship to his credit.

Crich­ton em­i­grated to Aus­tralia in the early ’80s, held the Suzuki fran­chise for New South Wales and then with the Ateco Group, which he still con­trols, and has han­dled sev­eral fran­chises, in­clud­ing Chrysler Jeep, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Citroën, Fer­rari, Lo­tus, Maserati, and Kia. By the early ’80s, Shelly Cars, with its head of­fice lo­cated on Ala Moana Boule­vard, between the in­ter­na­tional air­port and Honolulu, was a $4M busi­ness with 121 em­ploy­ees that was sell­ing more Maz­das than any other dealer in the world. In 1988, came the ac­qui­si­tion of Oahu’s BMW deal­er­ship.

I had met Shelly in the ’60s, when he was al­ways forth­com­ing in pro­vid­ing new Jaguar cars to road test. In 1967, Tony was happy to hand over his per­sonal dark blue 4.2 E-type coupé to me to test and later went to con­sid­er­able lengths to ar­range one of the first XJ6 saloons to ar­rive in New Zealand. Twelve years later, it was good meet­ing up with him again in Hawaii when, as usual, he was mod­est about his suc­cess. And while he might have been sell­ing Maz­das, his per­sonal trans­port was a 450SEL Mercedes.

Tony and his wife Leslie were kind enough to host Bob Bil­ton — who was Mazda New Zealand’s sales man­ager at the time — and my­self for din­ner at their com­fort­able home, di­rectly ad­ja­cent to the Wa­ialae golf course and over­look­ing pic­ture-per­fect blue sea. He was en­joy­ing the free­dom of the mo­tor trade in Hawaii af­ter the re­stric­tive con­fines of New Zealand.

His fa­ther, Jack Shelly, was a well-known early Jaguar dealer in Welling­ton, and In­de­pen­dent Mo­tors be­came syn­ony­mous with good-qual­ity cars. Tony as­sumed com­mand of the fam­ily deal­er­ship af­ter his fa­ther passed away in 1972, han­dling Jaguar, Gen­eral Mo­tors, Tri­umph, Dat­sun, Citroën, and BMW prod­uct. Ex­pan­sion to Hawaii was long part of the fam­ily plan since his fa­ther had opened a car deal­er­ship in Honolulu in the late ’50s.

Like fa­ther, like son

An­thony ‘Tony’ Lionel Shelly was born in Welling­ton in 1937 — the same year as Bruce Mclaren. For no ap­par­ent rea­son, this was a pop­u­lar year of birth for prom­i­nent rac­ing driv­ers, with others in­clud­ing Paul Hawkins, Jean-pierre Bel­toise,

Vit­to­rio Bram­billa, Mark Dono­hue, Tony Maggs, Roger Penske, David Prophet, Brian Red­man, and Chris Bris­tow also born that year. Cars were al­ways go­ing to con­sume Tony, given that he grew up with a dad who was not only in the mo­tor in­dus­try but also keen on mo­tor rac­ing. Jack bought Bob Gib­bons a new MKV Coop­erJAP 1100 in 1952, and, in the car’s first out­ing at a Plim­mer­ton hill climb, Gib­bons set the fastest time of the day and chipped three sec­onds off the record, beat­ing Tom Sul­man’s 4CM Maserati in the process. Shelly Senior then spon­sored Gib­bons in a Jaguar D-type, which he cam­paigned well.

At 17, Tony was driv­ing a 2.1-litre Stan­dard Van­guard– en­gined Mor­gan Plus 4 but failed to qual­ify when he en­tered the sports car in the 1955 Ard­more GP. Me­chan­i­cal re­tire­ments dogged his early ca­reer, when even fin­ish­ing was some­thing of a bonus. His first open-wheeler was the ex–ron Frost 1.5-litre sin­gle-cam F2 Cooper Cli­max, in which he won first time out at a Tere­tonga na­tional meet­ing. He then ac­quired the Syd Jensen 2.0-litre Cooper Cli­max but re­tired from the 1959 Ard­more GP. The lit­tle Cooper took him to fourth in the 1961 Levin In­ter­na­tional but ex­pired the fol­low­ing week­end at Wi­gram. Tony made it into the front row of the grid for the Tere­tonga In­ter­na­tional, fin­ish­ing fifth, be­fore post­ing a third plac­ing be­hind Pat Hoare (Fer­rari) and An­gus Hyslop (Cooper) in the Wai­mate 50. He ended the 1961 sea­son fourth in the Gold Star Cham­pi­onship.

The next year was a turn­ing point, and, with the Cooper re­built, Shelly was eighth­fastest qual­i­fier for the wet NZGP and sec­ond-best res­i­dent lo­cal driver. Start­ing from the sec­ond row looked good, but Aus­tralian David Mckay was overly anx­ious to pass the Welling­ton driver and banged wheels, so Tony was out af­ter lit­tle more than a lap. A ninth-place fin­ish at Tere­tonga was small con­so­la­tion for a dis­ap­point­ing sea­son, and his pole po­si­tion for the Dunedin road race came to naught when the Cooper re­tired. How­ever, he was third once again in Wai­mate, and at the March 1962 Levin Cham­pi­onship Meet­ing won the fea­ture race, end­ing the sum­mer sixth in the Gold Star se­ries. Shelly ruled supreme at Levin in Novem­ber that same year, win­ning the Fred Zam­bucka Memo­rial fea­ture and smash­ing the lap record on ev­ery one of the 10 laps. He im­proved on his ear­lier record in a sec­ond open-wheeler race that day with a time of 53 sec­onds — a solid 2.2-sec­onds bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous of­fi­cial record set by Swede Jo Bon­nier in Jan­uary 1961.

Rac­ing ca­reer

Five years ear­lier, Tony had made the de­ci­sion to look se­ri­ously at be­com­ing a rac­ing driver af­ter watch­ing the Ger­man GP at the Nür­bur­gring. By 1962, he re­al­ized that there was only one place to be to fur­ther his ca­reer — Europe. He would drive nine races there that north­ern sum­mer, ini­tially in a Lo­tus 18/21 and then in the John Dal­ton– Au­tosport Team Wolf­gang Sei­dal Lo­tus 24. Ini­tially, Shelly’s less-pow­er­ful four-cylin­der Cli­max-en­gined car could barely match it against the new Cli­max V8s, but the New Zealan­der was con­sis­tently good mid­field.

In his first race at Snet­ter­ton, he was fifth, and, a week later — at the Easter Mon­day Good­wood meet­ing at which Stir­ling Moss suf­fered his bad ac­ci­dent — Shelly made the front row and fin­ished third be­hind Bruce Mclaren and Roy Sal­vadori in the La­vant Cup for four-cylin­der 1.5-litre cars. He was sixth in the fea­ture race for F1 cars later that same day and first pri­va­teer en­trant. Moss had pit­ted with a stick­ing throt­tle and was roar­ing back through the field in the Lo­tus Cli­max V8. The Bri­tish driver had just passed Shelly, who then saw the ac­ci­dent at Saint Mary’s cor­ner un­fold in front of him. He would dis­cuss the un­ex­plained ac­ci­dent sev­eral times with Stir­ling, and held to his the­ory that Moss was sim­ply over the limit, with parts of the cir­cuit still damp in places.

A sev­enth place fol­lowed at Ain­tree, and, by May, Tony had his first semi-works drive in a Lola For­mula Ju­nior but was find­ing the com­pe­ti­tion in­tense and of­ten ag­gres­sive. He was pushed off the cir­cuit at Sil­ver­stone. Soon af­ter, on the fa­mous Monaco street cir­cuit, he qual­i­fied the Lola fifth, only to be squeezed against the wall af­ter the start. Shelly re­cov­ered from the tail of the field and made up sev­eral places be­fore an­other com­peti­tor slammed him against the bar­ri­ers.

Shelly was sixth in the Naples GP at Posil­lipo, but over­heat­ing forced a non fin­ish in the Reims GP. An op­por­tu­nity arose to drive with Les Leston in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1962 with a Lo­tus 23 pow­ered by a spe­cial high-revving 750cc Cli­max en­gine. It would have started as favourite for the In­dex of Per­for­mance class, but, years later, Tony re­called that the French were aware of the car’s po­ten­tial and spent hours ex­am­in­ing it dur­ing scru­ti­neer­ing, fi­nally re­fus­ing to let it race, be­cause they claimed that it had in­suf­fi­cient wheel studs. Shelly was dis­ap­pointed that the Le Mans drive did not even­tu­ate.

Adding to his frus­tra­tion, he ar­rived at the Nür­bur­gring for the Ger­man GP only to be re­fused a start, af­ter over­heat­ing prob­lems in prac­tice meant he had failed to com­plete the min­i­mum num­ber of laps re­quired. A BRM V8 en­gine was put in the John Dal­ton Lo­tus 24 for Shelly to drive in the Ital­ian GP, and he qual­i­fied 22nd but was squeezed off the grid as best of the non-qual­i­fiers. He had chanced his arm in Europe, but de­cided he would head home and, with busi­ness in­creas­ing, race only in New Zealand and Aus­tralia. To re­mind him of what might have been, two Michael Turner paint­ings of the black Lo­tus at Good­wood and Oul­ton Park graced the Honolulu Mazda of­fices.

Shelly re­turned to New Zealand with the Lo­tus 18/21 now equipped with a 2.7-litre Cli­max FPF en­gine and Col­lotti gear­box, win­ning at the Levin spring meet­ing and dom­i­nat­ing the Christ­mas Bay of Plenty road race. From the third row of the grid for the 1963 NZGP at Pukekohe, he ran a strong race and was chal­leng­ing Hyslop for sec­ond when his en­gine let go. A bro­ken en­gine mount pre­vented him from start­ing in the heat for the in­ter­na­tional Levin race. But, when it came to the Vic Hud­son Memo­rial Tro­phy fea­ture event, Shelly drove like a cham­pion, run­ning third and then pass­ing South African Tony Maggs for sec­ond place. Sadly, a rear-sus­pen­sion up­right broke, and Shelly spun at high speed in front of Maggs on the penul­ti­mate lap. He was still listed fourth, one lap down be­hind Jack Brab­ham, Maggs, and Innes Ire­land in what was ar­guably his best race of the sea­son.

Gear­box trou­ble put him out at Wi­gram, but he fin­ished sixth at Tere­tonga the fol­low­ing week­end. With the Lo­tus en route to Aus­tralia, Tony drove his Cooper to sec­ond at Wai­mate. A sev­enth fol­lowed in the Aussie GP at War­wick Farm, while he was sec­ond to Mclaren in the Sandown Park pre­lim­i­nary and sixth in the fea­ture Tas­man race. He was sev­enth at Lake­side in Queens­land, but, at Long­ford in Tas­ma­nia, the en­gine in the Lo­tus blew spec­tac­u­larly while pass­ing the pits on the sec­ond lap. Parts of the pis­ton were later found in the cock­pit of the Frank Matich car. Get­ting back in the Cooper for the Levin Cham­pio­ship Meet­ing re­sulted in two wins and a third, and later in 1963 he shared a win­ning drive with Ray Archibald in a 3.8 Jaguar in the first Wills Six Hour pro­duc­tion-sa­loon race at Pukekohe. Three years later, the pair re­peated this suc­cess at the same meet­ing in what was Shelly’s fi­nal com­pe­ti­tion drive.

The 1963/’64 sum­mer was his fi­nal open­wheeler sea­son and re­sulted in a sec­ond at Ren­wick, vic­tory at the Novem­ber Levin meet­ing, a third at Mount Maun­ganui, a fifth at the Tas­man Levin meet­ing, a sixth at Wi­gram, a fourth at Tere­tonga, and two wins at the au­tumn Levin na­tional. Shelly fin­ished third to Jim Palmer and Mclaren in the 1964 Gold Star Cham­pi­onship, and his in­ter­na­tional swan­song was a fourth in the Lake­side Tas­man Cup race.

In his fi­nal years, Shelly di­vided his time between Honolulu and Taupo. He al­ways looked youth­ful, and it was ironic and sad that can­cer should claim him in 1998 at only 61. In a fit­ting trib­ute, the Honolulu Star-bulletin de­scribed him as “a class act, al­ways a gen­tle­man” — it could not have said it any bet­ter.

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