BETTER WITH AGE
FORMULA FORD DRIVER’ S RETIREMENT PLAN
R ecently retired from his Tiwai Smelter job, Dave Harris will now be able to spend more time working on something special in his garage. It will not be long before he celebrates 30 years’ ownership of his Johnston Formula Ford (FF). He’ll still get in some quiet moments fly fishing, but, last season, he set his best ever time at Teretonga Park Raceway, Invercargill, in the opening meeting of the season, with a 1min 7.9s time around the challenging Southern circuit. “I love driving it. It’s fun. It’s an easy car to drive, and very enjoyable,” Dave says, the accompanying grin saying it all. Built in New Zealand for the fledgling Formula Ford class Dave’s Johnston FF, chassis number 05, was built by Johnny and Bob Johnston in Christchurch in the 1970s. “This car was completed for Wally Austin, who wanted something for his sons Garth and Shaun to drive. It is still Brabham based, but the front suspension is different, with the top wishbones replaced with links and a radius rods,” he says. The body on 05 is original, as the Johnstons changed it to a fibreglass copy of the original Johnston 01 aluminium body.
“It’s lasted pretty well, although I have had it upside down once,” he laughs.
He has thoroughly enjoyed racing it over the now nearly 30 years since he first bought it, saying, “I bought it off John Crawford in 1990. He had an ’86 Van Diemen that Jim Spillane in Timaru wanted and Jim had this Johnston. John traded it on the Van Diemen.”
Taking possession of the car was not entirely straightforward, as there was a bit of work to do. “John had to build a new motor for it, as the previous motor was in a million pieces, more than it should have been because of a broken crankshaft. I picked it up in July 1990, and, basically, I’ve raced it ever since,” he says. There were a few teething issues, including a major motor blow-up and a few minor engine issues, which were eventually sorted. A few more horses, and some reward “It’s never had a Formula Ford– spec motor in it. It’s always had the wrong camshaft. The present motor is running a mild Kent cam and illegal dual valve springs, plus all the other bits
that go with it, so I’m getting a few extra horsepower out of it. It’s also over-bored 60 thou, which isn’t legal either, but it does make good horsepower,” Dave explains.
He has been successful at many local events, including the Gore Vintage Car Club ( VCC) hill climbs and Ngapara (a combined event between the Otago Sports Car Club and North Otago VCC) in the VCC class. Some of his best results include winning the Southland Sports Car Club (SSCC) Sports/ Racing Car championship back in 1994–’95 at Teretonga. This showed just how the sum of improvements were continually adding to the car’s performance, and he won the same trophy again in the 2015–’16 season. A small gap between winning the silverware!
“I’ve had some successes with the car. It’s never gone particularly fast, but it’s always been good fun,” he tells us. As with any race car, long hours in the garage are usually required to rectify problems. “There has been some suspension rebuilding required. The last accident was when I flipped it over and it needed rebuilding. Luckily, I’ve got jigs for most of the suspension items. I also rebuild all my own motors and do all my own maintenance,” he says.
Dave has raced the Johnston on most South Island race tracks, including at Highlands Motorsport Park last April.
Dave’s wife Barbara has a different view on motor racing and doesn’t follow the sport with quite the same enthusiasm, although she likes to see it return in one piece: “He comes back from racing, and I ask him if the car is alright, and then I ask him if he’s alright,” she says, laughing.
Despite being late-’60s tech, the Johnston is still a reasonably quick circuit car, with Dave’s personal best lap time last season around Teretonga being very respectable. “It’s not super quick, and, without me in it, weighs only 395kg,” Dave tells us. “About four years ago, I borrowed Barry Leitch’s corner weights to set it up, and that’s when we found that it is very light. It’s actually under Formula Ford weight.”
When asked if he intends keeping the car for a while, since he enjoys it so much despite a bit of ribbing from Barbara, he replies, “Oh yes, I’ve got to put some nice new tyres on it for this season, and it will be ready to go.”
Last season, running a day after the endurance race, the track was clean, which enabled Dave to set a personal best time: “I had a good run in qualifying last season at the opening round with 1min 7.9s lap, my best yet. I didn’t think I was going that quick, so it was a surprise when I got that time.”
A few oil-pump issues, a clutch and hydraulic problems have also been solved. Burton pistons have been fitted along with a little extravagance — a Burton rocker cover to dress up the engine — but, for its age, this is a well-used and well-preserved slice of New Zealand motor racing history.
A little bit of history
Dave has collated a little bit of history on the Johnston cars. Most appear to have survived and are still raced.
Johnny and Bob Johnston built just nine chassis in Christchurch. Their first car was a Brabham BT21 that Les Jones had crashed at Ruapuna. The Brabham was a National FF championship car fitted with a Lotus twincam engine of 1500cc. That car was kept as a Brabham design. Johnny and Bob were part of the Jones team at the time. Their next car was also a crashed Brabham, being the car owned by Laurence Brownlie, which he had crashed when he tangled with Denny Hulme at Pukekohe in January 1968. The car had sat for some time, and it was eventually rebuilt to become Johnston FF 01. Basically a Brabham chassis design with its own aluminium body, the car was one of the very first FFS in the South Island. Now owned by Keith Cowan of Christchurch, it is a regular runner at the Classic Speedfest at Teretonga, now with a replica Brabham body instead of the original Johnston, which was starting to show its age.
Johnston FF 02 was built for Norm Smith, who did very well with the car, taking second in the National Formula Ford Championship in the 1972–’73 season. It was rebuilt by the Johnstons and given a new chassis number, 07. The car was now owned and raced by Snow Chisholm. The third car, 03, was built for Stephen Anderson and resides in England. It was brought out to New Zealand a few years ago and raced in classic speed-fest events. The next car built by the Johnstons was a different design, with a square-tube chassis. It was sold as a bare chassis but never completed. Johnston 05, the car completed for Wally Austin, is the subject of this article. Well looked after by Dave, it looks set for a lot of racing distance yet. Johnston 06 was a works car for Bob to drive, and, initially, it was similar to 05. A number of modifications have been made to it, with a change of shape using a Van Diemen body but retaining the Johnston nose. Duncan Wright of Queenstown owns it and also has the moulds taken from the original aluminium body. Johnston 08 was built some time later, and raced by John Douglas of Dunedin. It was based on a 1980 Van Diemen. John had a lot of success with this car, and won the New Zealand FF Class 2 championship. The last time it was seen, it was owned by Clive Kirkland of Dunedin. Johnston 09, the final car, also had a Van Diemen–based body but with numerous changes, the most obvious being side-mounted radiators. Bob Johnston was racing it in
“It’s lasted pretty well, although I have had it upside down once,” he laughs. He has thoroughly enjoyed racing it over the now nearly 30 years since he first bought it
1990 when Dave purchased 05 in 1990, and he saw it being raced by Steve Donaldson of Christchurch. Formula Ford in New Zealand The first FF championship in New Zealand was won by David Oxton in 1972 in an Australia Elfin 600. Others to begin their careers in the class included Craig Baird, Ashley Stitchbury, Scott Dixon, Leroy Stevenson, Fabian Coulthard, Johnny Reid, Daniel Gaunt, Richie Stanaway, and Andre Heimgartner. South Island Formula Ford Racing in the South Island Formula Ford (SIFF) series began in earnest in 1981, and the cheap formula quickly attracted good entries from young drivers eager to enter single-seater racing. It proved to be a very good learning ground for South Island drivers to enter the national series.
The SIFF series also caters for all ages of FF in championship classes held over six meetings, with three races at each circuit at Mike Pero Motorsport Park, Ruapuna; Timaru International Motor Raceway; and Teretonga. Well-known SIFF drivers include Jason Richards, Brent Collins, Daniel Gaunt, Ken Smith, Dave Mcmillan, Paul Radisich, Greg Murphy, Simon Wills, John Crawford, Andy Neale and Ross Stone.
SSCC driver Jordan Michels in a Mygale placed second and Steve Heffernan in his Stealth placed fifth overall in the SIFF Championship for the 2016–’17 season.
Left: By a nose: slim lines and an attractive shape of the Johnston Below: Not a bad day: 2015 Josephville Hillclimb entrants relax after a great day out in the sun — trophy and overall winner Dave Harris is in the front row at right Below left:...
Above: Easy work: everything major is easy to work on in the Johnston Below: Smoking it: Dave Harris drops the clutch on the start line at the Josephville Hillclimb in 2015
Above: Mixed bunch: variety in the Josephville Hillclimb: the Johnston FF with the Ryan V8 Special followed by the Taylor Morris Minor Below: Anticipation: Dave Harris looks forward to an early start for the season