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.
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.
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.