GIVEN JUST 10 DAYS , THREE TALENTED AUSTIN ENTHUSIASTS CONSTRUCTED A REPLICA OF THE FAMOUS MCLAREN ULSTER FOR ITS ROLE IN THE NEW FILM MCLAREN
BUILT JUST IN TIME FOR MCLAREN MOVIE
Most folk asked to build an exact, running replica of a historic one-off race car from scratch in just ten days would laugh you to shame. But there must be something about aged-car nuts, for Vintage Austin Register ( VAR) members Richard Mcwhannell, Joss Campbell, and Ian Williams simply knuckled down and got on with it.
It all began on March 23, 2016, when art director Roger Guise rang Richard, a friend of his, to talk urgently about cars for Roger Donaldson’s Mclaren film. “He wanted to know if my 7 Special was the same as the Mclaren Ulster. Apart from the wheelbase, it wasn’t. Clearly, he had to find one, urgently, but there is only one, in a museum in the UK.
“I told him the only way to get one is to make one, and I know a man who could make a body. So, we had a chat to Joss, who said, yes, he could build a body but it’d take four to six weeks. Roger rolled his eyes, and Joss said three …”
String and cardboard
Roger Guise went to Roger Donaldson and his team, and put the prospect to them. Meanwhile, Joss got in touch with Ian, who has the mechanical skills to make the project a running car, “but they said the only option was to dress up Richard’s car,” as the trio put it, “in string and cardboard” — something that moved and looked kind of right, to pass muster in the background of shots, “and we had a week and a half to do it”.
I can imagine the response — these guys are enthusiasts, all three have built Specials, Ian has a toolmaking background and Joss is a sheet-metal magician, and they knew their work would be minutely examined by every Mclaren and Austin anorak watching the film. “There’s no way you can do that. It’d be a shambles.” Easter was coming up, four days when you can’t get materials, and, by Good Friday — March 25 — they figured all bets were off. But, that night the phone rang, and they were told to go ahead, with $1K cash float.
By then, they’d decided if all they had was 10 days, then by golly they’d build a working, race-worthy replica in that time, one that “had to look right, not overrestored”.
Richard’s car was apart at the time, the body was off and the motor “in thousands of bits”, but Ian had a running engine from his Special, which was being rebuilt after a crash at Hampton Downs, and they knew they could cobble together a working car.
Joss says, “We knew it was built on the remains of an Ulster floorpan. There were rumours of tracings in Algies Bay, so Richard went and got them, but they were useless. We then got hold of Ian Watson, who has a replica Ulster with a Gould body, and took patterns — which obviously didn’t have the unique Mclaren body.”
Using that car as a guide, they pored over photographs to produce scale drawings, and, first thing Saturday, they hit three Mitre 10s in quick succession to get enough tube for the body, than ran backwards and forwards, trying to get materials. On Saturday night, they had a project meeting to pin down what had to be done.
Don at Fagan and Hannay had some sheet aluminium and ordered more in a rush. Joss made a ply base, and, by the end of Sunday, the trio had bent out the elements of the tube frame.
Meanwhile, Richard had sweet-talked a Ruby bonnet out of the VAR spares shed on Easter Day, but they rapidly discovered it was seized in the folded position. “We cut this off; that off; wrestled with it; and finally, had to call the VAR and say [that] we needed another.” Fortunately, the VAR had one that folded nicely and went in easily. It was the right length and just needed a trim, while Ian had a louvred section from a Box Saloon bonnet, so, by the 30th, the frame was finished and about half the aluminium was fitted.
On the 31st, Ian and the VAR’S Richard Bampton collected the chassis to take it to Joss’ garage, which, as always, was already packed full of cars.
Meantime, Richard Mcwhannell had shot over to Brian Blackie, the engineer who had the block for his Dieppe. “He worked his tits off to get it ready.” Richard says he had to wait for Brian to finish the mods to the block and crankcase before reassembly, “which I did in one sitting, plus breakfast!”
Meanwhile, Joss worked on the panels, using the rough techniques likely to have been used on the original, bending the aluminium “over old pipe, and my knee”, before donating his trouser-retention device to strap the bonnet shut while Richard scoured op shops for another for the rear.
As all this went on, Ian was constructing a manifold. “We knew the exhaust manifold was a distinctive feature of the car and it had to look correct, so, while Joss
worked on the panels and Richard on the engine, I fabricated the exhaust,” he says.
The trio wanted to get the colour right, a bit tricky given the quality of old photos, but the paint shop no longer used Pantene colour matching, so they got it as close as possible, and took the finished bodywork over to Fagan and Hannay, where Don let them spray it, before it was put outside to bake in the sun to dry as fast as possible.
It was then carted back to Joss’ workshop, where they put the body on the chassis. It was apparent that the Dieppe rear springs were the wrong camber, so the back of the car sat too high. Fortunately, Ian had a spare set with the right camber, so these were hastily fitted.
Richard took the correct radiator core — he had a spare — and replicated the distinctive number 58 seen in many period photographs, doing it late at night to calm his nerves, before working on the patina. Ian borrowed the seats off the Special he’d crashed at Hampton — “We robbed bits and bobs off all sorts of cars, we noticed the tyre tread on photos matched the tread on my Nippy, so those were the fronts,” he says — and they took the Dieppe’s racing 16 rears.
Richard, an artist, says by this time, “Roger Guise kept emailing. I had a retrospective exhibition on at the same time and was trying not to panic, Ian was recovering from a head injury from his racing accident, and Joss was determined to finish the car to the sort of quality he expects. I was exerting stress on Joss, no one was trying to stress Ian, then Joss started saying, ‘if we don’t finish in time, we’ll be really close’ — but close wouldn’t be good enough!”
Fortunately the engine started first time — they were impressed with how well it went, but “[t]hen it made bad noises, and stopped”. Thank god for Ian — “he quickly found the distributor drive gear in the generator was stripped, and did a quick rebuild.”
Roger Guise turned up at that point, looking worried, “but having seen the car, he looked happier; when it started and we took it up the road, the look on his face was tremendous.”
Richard says, “We were meant to have it finished on April 7, but a shooting delay meant we had until 11th, when we had to deliver it at Muriwai for filming Bruce driving it down the beach.”
It got there OK, “but the first thing Roger Donaldson said was ‘wrong colour’, and Ian said ‘right, let’s go, on the trailer, we’re off!’” They calmed him down and started it, “And Roger said, ‘It goes!’”
Richard had to teach the stunt driver, Gareth, how to drive it. “He went very sedately, so we swapped and I gave him audio on the rev range, took it to 5000rpm, so he took it a bit higher — but on the beach he took off, and had 6000rpm in three seconds, I said ‘whoa!’” Mind you, “He went to grab third gear [the top gear] right in front of the cameras, and missed it.”
“They did some tracking shots with Roger Donaldson and the film crew of five in the back of a ute, and it was going down the beach at 100kph with Roger shouting ‘ faster faster’ and this little red Austin came shooting down the beach and passed him, and into the distance. Then they all disappeared toward South Head. We could hear it, sometimes.”
It’s safe to say the crew was impressed.
The World’s Fastest Austin
“Gareth said in the hill-climb scenes he loved it — it was his favourite of the cars he drove in it, and Roger Donaldson ended by calling it ‘The World’s Fastest Austin’ and that’s how he signed the bodywork.”
It sounds as if the car appeared more often than initially planned. After Muriwai they did workshop interior and garden shots, and the garage scenes gave Ian his directorial debut. “Bruce and his dad were meant to be working on the car, and I waved and said ‘ hang on a minute, you can’t just wave a spanner, you have to do something!’ So we showed them a job to do, changing a spark plug or something.” And halfway through, someone said, “Hand me a no. 10, Bruce,” and three Austinistas stuck their hands up and said, “B-b-but, it has to be Whitworth!” — they weren’t recording; the crew were having them on …
Luckily, the trio had insisted they’d retain ownership of their work, so they could put their cars back together. Joss says Roger Donaldson asked, “Whose is this, anyway?” and he replied, “Which bit?!”
At the finish, “[t]he crew asked what we were going to do with the car. ‘Oh, we’ll rip it apart,’ and they said, ‘you can’t do that!’” But it was stripped a week later. After all, Richard wanted his Dieppe together; Ian’s Nippy needed its wheels; and, a week after filming, their cars were on the road and the body was sitting in state at Fagan and Hannay.
“Then it turned out they didn’t have any sound,” Richard says, “but the car then didn’t exist, so they wanted a soundtrack using my Dieppe. But it had the wrong manifold on, and we weren’t going as fast. Still, that’s what they used.”
I think all three guys winced at that, for, by all accounts, they’d even got the soundtrack right. “Jan Mclaren and her husband were there when we unloaded it at Muriwai, and, when we fired it up, she said, ‘Oh, that sound!’ and told us [that] it brought back memories, as it sounded just right …”
By now, the kettle was back on, the table was strewn with sketches, and the talk had moved on to their next project. Seems these guys don’t realize just how epic their feat was — let’s hope at least some of the in-the-know viewers appreciate their handiwork.
“Jan Mclaren and her husband were there when we unloaded it at Muriwai, and, when we fired it up, she said, ‘Oh, that sound!’ and told us [that] it brought back memories, as it sounded just right …”
Above: Getting the frame underway Below: Joss checking the seating position
Left: Richard Mcwhannell, Joss Campbell and Ian Williams making progress
Above: Richard teaching the stunt driver a thing or two
Above: Ian placing louvred section
Above: Stunt driver in place Left: Roger Donaldson during a workshop scene Below: Testing the cameraman’s position — Ian supplied a metal retainer to hold him in while filming alongside Below Right: The final scene shoot at Muriwai