WE TAKE A GUIDED TOUR OF ROD MILLEN’S PERSONAL COLLECTION
Whatever else makes it famous, the Coromandel Peninsula has never been known for motorsport. But, thanks to Rod Millen — one of the most iconic figures in New Zealand motorsport — that is beginning to change. The reason is his Leadfoot Festival, which is one hell of a driveway party held annually in February at his Hahei ranch. For the rest of the year, the ranch is much like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, as the large wooden gates are rarely opened to the public. Housed on the property is a car collection that serves as a chronicle of Millen’s career, from running rallies in New Zealand when he was scraping together pennies and sacrificing everything to realize his motorsport dreams to running rallies in Europe, Asia, and America, alongside involvement in other forms of racing from hill climbs to stadium trucks, off-road, Indy, and the 24 Hours of Daytona. Rod spent the majority of his life living in America, where he built up a very successful business as well as adding his initials to many motorsport record books. But, once he retired, he and his wife Shelley settled in Hahei and brought their huge car collection with them, and this month Rod offered his time to walk us through it all.
The oversized ranch gates swung open as the man who needs no introduction to anyone with even the most fleeting interest in New Zealand motorsport history pulled up alongside. Photographer Richard Opie and myself did feel like we were Charlie and his granddad waiting at Willie Wonka’s gate (Richard can be the grandad), but, instead of a chocolate factory, we were about to enter the holy grail of garages, located smack-bang at the centre of the ranch. As we followed Millen to the barn along his driveway-cum-race-track, the countless in-car videos we’ve watched began to kick in, and it all became familiar: that’s the start line, that’s where the Rat Trap ended up in the drink, there’s where ‘Mad Mike’ Whiddett tagged the brick wall going over the bridge, and then the long black marks from Shane Allen and the Rattla Falcon lead us right to a set of barn doors.
The first barn we found ourselves in is actually the workshop where the famed Pikes Peak Celica and Rod’s Mazda RX-3 rally tribute car were awaiting some maintenance. Over the back was the farm shed housing a few yet-to-be restored project cars that I had no idea even existed, and then we were off to the main barn, where most of his competition machines (the ones that survived) are housed. Apart from the yet-to-be-restored machines, everything else is ready to run, and, as in the past, a handful of them will be driven in anger at next year’s Leadfoot festival.
When you chat to Rod, he instantly comes across as a downto-earth Kiwi petrolhead. You nearly forget this man built an empire while also engineering a ridiculous number of race machines, each more innovative than the last. His company, MillenWorks, built military and concept machines and developed industry-leading technology. Rod told me, “When I sold the company, I had 70 really good mechanical and electrical engineers and designers and a full machine shop and fabrication shop with all the CNCs and that. We put a lot of effort into design. We had some really good guys working on unmanned vehicles and hybrid-electric stuff for the military. Our first hybrid electric was in ’93 that we had running around, with lead-acid batteries. So, the battery technology was not there, but we had all the rest of the system there, and we knew that the battery systems would eventually come around, as they did. In different [motorsport] programmes we got involved with, we could grab different talents for periods of time to work on something unique and special.”
But enough of the small talk, we were here to look at his cars. Let the geek fest begin!