50 YEARS NEW ZEALAND
OF RALLYING IN F ROM HUMB L E B EGINNINGS — W E TA K E A LOOK AT F I V E D EC ADE S O F LOC A L R A L LY I NG
Rallying in New Zealand is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017. Over the last five decades, it has seen a driver — Hayden Paddon — win a round of the World Rally Championship (WRC), and several other drivers win international events and championships beyond our shores.
But the sport had much more humble beginnings. Apart from motor racing, the early days of New Zealand’s motor sport scene consisted of car trials and timed events designed to keep to the legal speed limits. Then, in the late ’60s, the influence of European ‘special-stage rallying’ (rallying on closed roads on which drivers could go as fast as possible) started to take over. New Zealanders took to this new form of motor sport like ducks to water. Our smooth, flowing gravel public roads, and the abundance of well-maintained Government forest roads, saw the early days of rallying quickly build to events that attracted up to 135 starters. speed-timing principles, was the 1966 Rally of the Pines, organized by the Hamilton Car Club. It is reported to have taken place near Taupo, the scene of many early car trials. The Auckland Car Club also organized a similar type of speed event, in August 1966, called the ‘Midnight Madness Rally’. It ran through the night-time, using back roads between Port Waikato and Huntly. Blair Robson won this event in a Mini.
The following year, on May 21, 1967, the Hamilton Car Club organized the Rally of the Pines event again, held in the forests north of Taupo. The emphasis was now more on driving, with the 41 entrants able to experience speed and conditions they would not normally encounter on public roads. Drivers in these early events made use of little more than road-going cars. The 1967 event was won by Bill Purvis, in, of all things, a Ford-engined Morris Minor 1000. Drivers voted the event a resounding success, and word soon spread about this new test of man and machine.
Silver Fern Rally
The first true high-speed special-stage rally, using closed roads, happened in April of 1969. The Shell-sponsored Silver Fern Rally was organized by the Wellington Car Club. Starting from Taupo, a total of 32 competitors made their way through a series of closed-road special stages, some up to 50km long, as they travelled north to Auckland, and then south again to the finish in Wellington. The event saw 22 finishers, with the overall winners being Grady Thompson and Rick Rimmer in their Holden Monaro V8. Other notable names in the finishing list were Paul Adams, Neil Johns, Jim Richards, and Colin Taylor. The South Island was the venue for the 1970 Silver Fern Rally, again sponsored by Shell. This time, the Canterbury Car Club organized the event, for which there were 67 starters. The 32-special-stage event covered a total of 740km and was won by Paul Adams and Don Fenwick, driving a BMW 2002Ti. Mike Marshall won more stages than anybody in a purpose-built 1600cc Anglia but finished down the field. The media were now beginning to take notice of rallying, with radio and television closely following the event.
In 1971, the Silver Fern Rally became the ‘Heatway International Motor Rally’, and the name change saw New Zealand achieve some international status. There were 15 entries from outside New Zealand, and several local dealer supported ‘manufacturer’ teams. The New Zealand Motor Corporation had a team of Minis, with their lead driver Andrew Cowan, while Todd Motors used Hillman Avengers, and there were plenty of Fords, Skodas, and Holdens. Australian
won more stages than anybody, but, due to a series of mishaps, he finished 48th.
In these early days, there were few events other than the large Silver Fern / Heatway International. But, from 1974, this changed dramatically, and there were fixtures held by many car clubs throughout the country, with events like the Waitangi, Woodhill Forest, Maramarua Forest, Ngaumu Forest, Tokoroa, and Rotorua rallies, in the North Island, as well as events in the South Island at Canterbury, Otago, Westland, and Southland. Some of these continue in similar formats today. New Zealand’s largest international rally by far was held in 1973, the Heatwaysponsored event taking in many nighttime special stages and extensively covering both islands. The Woolmark Ford team entered two ‘works’ Escort RS1600S. Hannu Mikkola / Jim Porter were popular winners in one of the cars, with locals Mike Marshall / Arthur Mcwatt second overall. Mike had used his own righthand-drive bodyshell but had transferred the ‘works’ mechanicals from the second left-hand-drive car. In the event, Mikkola pulled away and won easily, using his considerable European rallying experience.
Many drivers had learned from previous years about the need for faster betterprepared cars. So began the serious importation of ‘ex-works’ and factory-built cars, with three Ford AVOS built and Ford Escort RS 1600s also coming to New Zealand for the 1973 event. These cars were sequential in their registration numbers: GK778 (George Kuttel), GK779 ( Jim Richards — Dulux Ford Team) and GK780 (Blair Robson — Woolmark Ford Team). It is interesting that the 780 plate number later became a feature of New Zealand Rallying, with the
Datsun and Peugeot, and Colin Mcrae, who completed a hat trick aided by his mastery of the Motu stage in the eastern Bay of Plenty in both Subaru Legacies and Imprezas.
This era saw huge crowds following the world superstars and the efforts of the top locals, spearheaded by Possum Bourne, who won three Asia-pacific titles and nine Australian championships in his career.
Carlos Sainz won four times in four different Toyotas, while Sébastien Loeb managed a three-peat with Citroën. But the winningest driver in New Zealand has been Finn Marcus Grönholm, who had five successes, three in the Peugeot 206 and two driving a Ford Focus. He has the distinction of recording the narrowest WRC victory in history in 2007, when he beat Loeb by just 0.3 of a second, claiming the win on the final super stage around Hamilton’s Mystery Creek. New Zealand hasn’t hosted a round of the WRC since 2012, but strenuous efforts are being made to return the event here in 2018.
Below this top rung, a healthy national championship has provided another step on the ladder to fame. Rod Millen won the inaugural title in 1975, his first of three championships, all in Mazda RX-3S, which made a great noise on any rally stage in the still of night.
Jim Donald won twice in an Escort RS1800, while Tony Teesdale achieved the hat trick, first in an Escort; then a Nissan 240RS; and, finally, a Metro 6R4. Ford man Brian Stokes had two successes in the late ’80s, and, over the same period, Neil Allport also claimed three titles, first in an RX-7 and then in Mazda 323 4WDS.
The flamboyant Joe Mcandrew won three times in the ’90s in a Subaru Legacy, while Geoff Argyle did it twice in Mitsubishi Lancers, the same marque Bruce Herbert used for the first of his four titles before swapping to a Subaru Impreza STI. In the last decade, Hayden Paddon has won three times, all with a Mitsubishi, while Richard Mason has been the most successful, claiming five championships with Subaru.
The national championship has been underpinned by regional events throughout the country, the longest running being the South Island’s Mainland Championship, where the sport is stronger at the moment. In the North Island, the Top Half Rally Series and the Central Region Rally Series have both gone into recess after successful histories dating back to the late ’ 70s.
It would appear that the difficulty of access to venues and the higher cost of organizing events in the North Island are hindering the sport’s future development north of the Cook Strait.
Two six-day-long 50th Anniversary Rally Tours have been organized — one in the South Island, just before the Otago Rally, and one in the north, leading up to the International Rally of Whangarei — both designed for former and current competitors, their crews, and fans to drive some of the stages used in the international events. They are non-competitive events that will also provide participants with the opportunity to see some of the country’s great scenery, while reminiscing about the past.