Ron Roy­croft


New Zealand Classic Car - - MOTORMAN -

It was amaz­ing. Well, not amaz­ing, more in­cred­i­ble. Here was the leg­endary Ron Roy­croft show­ing me around an as­tound­ing ar­ray of mo­tor ve­hi­cles and then sit­ting down over a cup of tea to chat about the old rac­ing days. Forty-five years on, and the long-lost un­pub­lished notes from that time have turned up; al­though, sadly, the neg­a­tives and pho­tos I took are nowhere to be found.

What was in­cred­i­ble, al­most un­be­liev­able, that day, in the late sum­mer of 1973, was not that Ron was pre­pared to give me as much time as I needed, but the fact this mod­est re­tired rac­ing driver had sur­rounded him­self with so much mo­tor­ing mem­o­ra­bilia. Restor­ing cars is one thing; yet it ap­peared the amount of old ma­chin­ery around his prop­erty near tiny Glen Mur­ray in the Waikato had al­most over­whelmed the 56-year-old New Zealan­der. “You get to the stage where you are col­lect­ing them so fast you don’t have time to work on them,” he said. He was in the process of restor­ing eight ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing a 1913 Bel­gian FN, but there ap­peared to be no hurry for any of them to be fin­ished.

Much has been writ­ten about this bloke, who qual­i­fied sec­ond fastest with a 4.5-litre Fer­rari V12 for the 1957 New Zealand Grand Prix at Ard­more and led the first laps be­fore re­tir­ing. Scott Thom­son’s 395-page book Up to Speed, pub­lished in 2006, is a pow­er­ful tribute to Ron Roy­croft, and New Zealand Clas­sic Car ran a 50-page story on Ron in vol­ume two of the Lim­ited Col­lec­tors Se­ries in 2004.

Lost count

Ron’s prop­erty was down a dusty loose-gravel coun­try road in the mid­dle of nowhere. There were so many cars parked in and around the two sheds ad­ja­cent to his home that I lost count, while other ve­hi­cles were laid up else­where. He spoke of hav­ing no fewer than 30 Chevro­lets, in­clud­ing a 1918 Ran­gataua butcher’s van with wooden tail­gate and a 1967 Ca­maro SS, his new­est, which was used ev­ery day, along with a 1951 Alfa sa­loon. A 1925 Chev tourer was also driven reg­u­larly, un­like the two hearses and a 1914 Den­nis fire engine, which had pumped wa­ter non-stop for five days at Napier fol­low­ing the 1931 earth­quake, in which 256 peo­ple died.

Ron served his ap­pren­tice­ship on Chevro­lets, thus spawn­ing his ad­mi­ra­tion for the Amer­i­can brand, but he could also count a 1915 Stude­baker Race­about, a 1929 Cadil­lac show­ing a gen­uine 85,000 miles (136,794km) and a 1927 bob­tail Es­sex among his col­lec­tion. He ser­viced Tas­man Em­pire (TEAL) fly­ing boat en­gines dur­ing World War II. Two planes re­quired eight en­gines, and the air­line, later to be­come Air New Zealand, had 10 en­gines, so there were al­ways two to be re­built. Roy­croft’s legacy from bench test­ing th­ese en­gines in far-from-ad­e­quate con­di­tions was mod­er­ate deaf­ness.

So how was Ron fi­nanc­ing such a great col­lec­tion of ve­hi­cles? He said that he’d started with no more than a £5 note and then be­gan the horse trad­ing. “You give some­thing, you take some­thing, and that is the spirit which ac­ti­vates the ma­jor­ity of vin­tage and veteran car en­thu­si­asts,” he said. “The ques­tion of profit or mon­ey­mak­ing sim­ply does not en­ter into the ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween two real en­thu­si­asts. Fre­quently, if a cob­ber wants a part, you sim­ply give it to him. I have no idea how much I have spent on the col­lec­tion.”

There would al­ways be cars that slipped through his hands, like the 1915 In­di­anapo­lis Stutz once raced by Cec Suther­land and later

owned by Len South­ward, a ma­chine Ron de­scribed as one of New Zealand’s most suc­cess­ful rac­ing cars. RB Wil­son raced the Stutz to vic­tory in the New Zealand Mo­tor Cup on three suc­ces­sive years be­tween 1926 and 1928.

Al­bert James (AJ) Roy­croft, Ron’s dad, owned three Bu­gat­tis — a short-chas­sis Type 13, a T38 four-seater sports tourer, and a Type 35A — while Ron owned no fewer than five. AJ pur­chased the Type 13 from Hope Bartlett in Aus­tralia, and it was be­lieved to be an ex-works car. “It ran on al­co­hol, and the car­bu­ret­tor is still sit­ting on my bench,” Ron said. “The engine is all I have left of that car, which was fi­nally cut up just af­ter the war and made into two trail­ers.”

Ron’s first Bu­gatti was a Type 23 ac­quired in poor state for a mere £20, and used only as a road car. Roy­croft se­nior man­aged sales for Morris agent Do­min­ion Mo­tors in Auck­land be­fore set­ting up his own mo­tor busi­ness in He­lensville, with Chevro­let, Buick, and Austin agen­cies. AJ’S mo­tor­trade back­ground had seen him own many cars, in­clud­ing the first Jaguar XK120 con­vert­ible to ar­rive on our shores, chas­sis no. 660,009. It had been im­ported new in 1949 by Bert Shorter, the Auck­land Jaguar dealer, and AJ had been for­tu­nate to se­cure the car when it was near new. AJ floated the orig­i­nal com­pany that es­tab­lished the West­ern Springs speed­way in 1928, im­port­ing riders from Aus­tralia and the UK, so it was un­sur­pris­ing that Ron spent sev­eral sea­sons rac­ing midgets be­fore his tran­si­tion into road and cir­cuit rac­ing.

Rac­ing the Bu­gatti

The first Bu­gatti Ron raced was the 2.0-litre Type 35A, orig­i­nally im­ported by Ken He­mus and re­pow­ered by Ralph Wat­son with a new 3.4-litre Jaguar XJ120 engine. The engine “was the lat­est thing in 1954, and then I im­ported a C-type rac­ing Jaguar cylin­der head, with D-type pis­tons and spe­cial car­bu­ret­tors. This gave me a lot more power, and, in that guise, I be­came the first New Zealan­der in the 1956 Ard­more Grand Prix, fin­ish­ing sixth over­all”. On the Ryal Bush road cir­cuit just out of In­ver­cargill, he was timed at 160mph (257kph), and, at that speed, he re­mem­bers the Bu­gatti be­ing “well out of its safety mar­gin, and it felt pretty damn dan­ger­ous”.

The Fer­rari was only slightly quicker than the Bu­gatti on this slightly down­hill stretch. “But it was tricky in the Bu­gatti, with the hot air cur­rents com­ing be­tween the cut­tings and hills re­ally caus­ing dra­mas. The Bug would al­most go off the road, and you had to work hard to bring it back. At one dip, I had to have two wheels on the left-hand side in the gravel, and, by the time I was down the dip and through the cross­ing, my right wheels were on the other side of the road in the gravel!” he re­mem­bered.

Ron re­called good-sized fields but a big di­ver­sity in speed, which he thought was al­ways a prob­lem with New Zealand mo­tor sport: “At Ryal Bush, we al­ways seemed to be pass­ing slow cars. We were rac­ing against the Fer­rari Su­per Squa­los and vis­it­ing driv­ers Peter White­head and Reg Par­nell, but their more mod­ern cars didn’t count for much be­cause of the long straights and mainly right-an­gle bends.”

There were no in­stal­la­tion prob­lems fit­ting the Jaguar into the Bu­gatti, al­though Ron re­mem­bers the costs for the day were high. “It was £250 to in­stall the mo­tor, £650 for the engine and gear­box and an­other £350 to buy other rac­ing parts at a later date,” he said. “Ralph made the usual won­der­ful job he did with all his work and I never had any trou­ble with the car.” The Bu­gatti com­peted in New Zealand events from Jan­u­ary 1954 un­til mid 1957, and, in the ’70s, Ron re­placed the Jaguar mo­tor with the orig­i­nal straight-eight Bu­gatti unit be­fore pass­ing the car onto his son Terry.

Ron raced the Bu­gatti Jaguar along­side the 1934 P3 Alfa Romeo then owned by his dad, run­ning the Bu­gatti in hill climbs and sprints and the P3 in road and cir­cuit races. Even when the Fer­rari came along, Ron con­tin­ued to cam­paign the Bu­gatti in hill climbs. “I used to drive that car ev­ery­where, up and down the is­land, and I al­ways drove it on the road,” he said. Now it seems ex­tra­or­di­nary a com­peti­tor would drive a race car on the road to get to meet­ings. “We had a young fam­ily at that time, the garage was al­ways run­ning, so I trav­elled ev­ery­where, and ev­ery­thing was in the side of the Bu­gatti — tools and spares.” Rac­ing his­tory Buy­ing ex­otic ma­chin­ery in the early ’50s for a few hun­dred quid was the norm, and Ron would surely have been aghast at to­day’s val­ues. What would he have thought of Sotheby’s Paris auc­tion in Fe­bru­ary 2017, where the same P3 Alfa Romeo he once raced sold for the equiv­a­lent of $6.44M?

Re­mark­ably, this spe­cial Alfa, which Ron said “wan­dered at high speed”, was the car that Tazio Nu­volari used to win the 1935 Ger­man Grand Prix (GP), beat­ing the might of Auto Union and Mercedes against all odds — re­ally get­ting up the noses of the Nazis, who des­per­ately wanted a Ger­man vic­tory.

Cam­paigned by Scud­e­ria Fer­rari for two sea­sons, the P3 had a 2.9-litre, 255bhp (190kw), in-line, eight-cylin­der, dou­bleover­head cam, su­per­charged mo­tor, driv­ing through a three-speed gear­box. Early P3s had 2.6-litre mo­tors, and then the 2.9, while a spe­cial 3.2-litre engine was in­stalled for Nu­volari. Once it was re­fit­ted with a 2.9-litre power train, the late Les Moore brought the car to New Zealand in 1950, sur­viv­ing a fright­en­ing ac­ci­dent at the Maire­hau road race in Christchurch in Fe­bru­ary 1951 when the P3 clipped an­other car. “It went off the road and through a hedge and knocked a pole down,” re­mem­bered Ron, who was fol­low­ing in the Jaguar XK120. “Through a great cloud of dust, I could see the pole and all the wires com­ing down. I couldn’t do any­thing, so I had to keep go­ing.” How­ever, the P3 gave Moore vic­tory in the 1951 and 1952 Lady Wi­gram Tro­phy, and Ron made it three in a row the fol­low­ing year for the black Alfa that be­came known as the ‘Glen Mur­ray Ex­press’.

When AJ ini­tially ac­quired the P3, he would drive it oc­ca­sion­ally on the road, but it was Ron who cam­paigned the car com­pet­i­tively un­til 1955, when it was sold to David Cald­well af­ter the Dunedin road race. Two years later, John Mansel, who had been a me­chanic at the Roy­croft garage, as­sumed own­er­ship of the Alfa that would much later be re­stored by Bill Clark and even­tu­ally leave New Zealand.

An­other trea­sure lost to our coun­try was the Alfa 8C 2300 LM owned by Les Moore. Ron re­called this as the ac­tual car that Lord Howe and Sir Henry Birkin used to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1931, but, by the early ’70s, the Alfa had been sold to North Amer­ica.

“The ex-nu­volari P3 was the most won­der­ful mo­tor car,” Ron re­called. “It was a car that, if you were try­ing, it would try too. It was one of those real rac­ing cars, and I loved driv­ing the P3. The first race I ran in the Alfa was at Maire­hau, where I won, and made the fastest time. Oh boy, it was mar­vel­lous,” he said, show­ing a level of un­char­ac­ter­is­tic en­thu­si­asm.

“I was us­ing it both as a road and race car, and it was very re­li­able. Re­mem­ber, I was rac­ing the Alfa in the ’50s and that car was a 1934 model. Of course, it was a pure Grand Prix car, but it ran on 90 per cent methanol. My fa­ther used to take it around and do the odd shop­ping with it. One pull of the han­dle, and it started ev­ery time,” he said.

When the P3 be­came un­com­pet­i­tive, the Roy­crofts cast around and came up with the Louis Rosier Fer­rari, in France. Both Rosier and Ron thought chas­sis no. 375-2 was the only 4.5-litre 350bhp (261kw) nor­mally as­pi­rated GP Fer­rari that had been sold brand new to a pri­va­teer, but the car had ac­tu­ally been run by the works in 1951. Ron said: “It was works ser­viced and prob­a­bly works pre­pared, too. The sports car body was built

“The ex-nu­volari P3 was the most won­der­ful mo­tor car,” Ron re­called. “It was a car that, if you were try­ing, it would try too. It was one of those real rac­ing cars, and I loved driv­ing the P3”

by Rosier, who had a mo­tor-body busi­ness in France. We made one mis­take when the Fer­rari ar­rived here, by go­ing to a lot of trou­ble and build­ing a replica Grand Prix body so that it was back in its orig­i­nal form. We should have raced it ex­actly as it was, and it would have been just as quick. The car had been driven down to Mar­seille from where Rosier lived in mid France, and some­one had over-revved it and bent valves and all sorts of things.”

Ron was in Christchurch for the Maire­hau race with the Bu­gatti when his fa­ther called and sug­gested he take the Fer­rari for its first com­pet­i­tive out­ing. “So I got on the plane home and drove the Fer­rari right down to Christchurch. I didn’t think it was go­ing as well as it should, but never put a span­ner on it, think­ing it was sold to us in per­fect or­der,” Ron re­mem­bers. The car broke an axle in the race, and a sub­se­quent check re­vealed only nine of the 12 cylin­ders were fir­ing. Ron re­turned home on the train.

“It was then [that] my fa­ther had the proper body built on it, and that body went through a lot of own­ers,” he said. “The lin­ings spec­i­fied by Fer­rari were too small in the drums. Even in prac­tice for Ard­more, we found that the in­ter­nal steel part was buck­ling out with the heat. When I started the race [in 1957], I didn’t give much hope for the brakes at all.”

Ron was mod­est about the fact that he claimed pole po­si­tion and led the open­ing eight laps of the GP, to the de­light of the huge crowd. “The night be­fore the race, we were chang­ing the gear ra­tios, as the car was not quite peak­ing at the end of the straight,” he said. It was a lengthy process, and Ron be­lieved that he should have fol­lowed his fa­ther’s ad­vice and left well alone, be­cause he didn’t get to bed un­til 1.30am race morn­ing.

Then there was the prob­lem with the body. “The air scoop in front of the wind­screen fit­ted to other Fer­raris was not on my car, and the heat from the engine dried me out. It was heat ex­haus­tion that took me out, and I don’t think I was prop­erly fit. I started to drop back as the brakes went, but I knew I could keep go­ing with them,” he said. “I still had the legs of the other cars, but then didn’t re­al­ize at times [that] I was suf­fer­ing from the heat.”

At the first pit stop, a bot­tle of lemon­ade was poured over 40-year-old Ron, and, af­ter just one more lap, he re­tired and had to be lifted from the Fer­rari. Still un­well, he with­drew from Levin the fol­low­ing week­end, but re­garded this a bless­ing in dis­guise, since he did not par­tic­u­larly like the cir­cuit. “The Fer­rari was not a good car to drive there — it wasn’t a very good car, full stop! All the years [that] I had the Fer­rari, I never won a sin­gle race with it. The best I ever got was third in the 1958 New Zealand Grand Prix, and, by that time, the car was non-com­pet­i­tive,” he said. Af­ter se­cur­ing pole po­si­tion again, the heat and fume prob­lems re­turned for the 1957 Wi­gram Tro­phy, and Ron spent most of the race with his head out in the fresh air. “Then we cut a great hole in the front of the body, and never had any more bother with heat.”

The Fer­rari was ex­pen­sive to both buy and run, chew­ing through a set of tyres at ev­ery race, while the lit­tle rear-en­gined Coop­ers would run a full sea­son on the same rub­ber. “I used to keep books, but I never ever made money mo­tor rac­ing. The losses were not great ei­ther, what with the spon­sor­ship from BP. But I still drove be­cause I en­joy driv­ing, and the thought of re­ally mak­ing money out of it never en­tered my head,” said Ron.

Cooper 500 driv­ers Ron Frost and Arnold Stafford sug­gested to Roy­croft that he buy a Cooper and join them in race bat­tles, but Ron said that this wasn’t an op­tion, be­cause no one wanted to buy the Fer­rari. “The last year I raced the Fer­rari was in 1960, and I had mag­neto trou­ble and it banged and cracked, and, by that time, I was los­ing faith in it. I had raced from 1934 right through [for 25 years] and never had a de­cent hol­i­day, so I was los­ing in­ter­est in mo­tor rac­ing,” he said.

“I had the car a long while af­ter I ceased rac­ing, and one day got a ring from speed­boat racer Ernie Nunn in Syd­ney. He was in­ter­ested in buy­ing the mo­tor — for a boat — or the whole car, and the up­shot was [that] I sold him the engine and spares and re­tained the car. He didn’t even want the clutch — he used to start the engine with a piece of rope around the fly­wheel,” Ron ex­plained.

The chas­sis went to the late Fer­ris de Joux,

The Fer­rari was ex­pen­sive to both buy and run, chew­ing through a set of tyres at ev­ery race, while the lit­tle rearengined Coop­ers would run a full sea­son on the same rub­ber

who cre­ated the two-door Fer­rari coupé in 1963 and in­stalled a re­con­di­tioned 3.4-litre Jaguar engine. Five years later, Gavin Bain man­aged to re­trieve the Fer­rari V12 power unit from Aus­tralia, and the car was re­stored to its orig­i­nal form af­ter sev­eral years. Ron was hav­ing dif­fi­culty re­mem­ber­ing facts and fig­ures by the ’70s, and did not seem to be aware that the French pow­der blue Fer­rari he had owned was the ac­tual car José Froilán González drove to win at Sil­ver­stone in 1951 — the first GP vic­tory for the fa­mous Ital­ian mar­que.

Ron’s ill-feel­ing to­wards the Fer­rari is un­der­stand­able given its lack­lus­tre re­sults, and he men­tioned it again when talk­ing about the gutsy six-cylin­der Con­ti­nen­tal air­craft-en­gined HWM sports car that was the last car he raced. “Af­ter driv­ing that Fer­rari, the HWM was won­der­ful to drive, and pre­dictable. The Fer­rari was a real old goat, couldn’t han­dle, and you couldn’t do any­thing with it. It was a pest of a car, that’s the only way to say it. At speeds over 130mph [209kph], in the cock­pit, your gog­gles wanted to float off, and you were ripped about in the wind. Yet I’ve been timed in the old Bu­gatti at the same speed, and you didn’t get any wind thrash­ing like the Fer­rari, de­spite sit­ting up high.”

He was in­vited on sev­eral oc­ca­sions to race in Aus­tralia, but said that the Fer­rari was never com­pet­i­tive ready to race. Ron rec­ol­lected, “The year I was third in the New Zealand Grand Prix, I had third and top gears for the whole race, be­cause, in the se­lec­tors, there was a lit­tle whisker of alu­minium which jammed the bore, and I couldn’t se­lect sec­ond — th­ese were the sort of trou­bles I had.”

Brave and tal­ented man

In re­tire­ment, Ron spent more time work­ing on old cars, spend­ing 18 months col­lect­ing ev­ery Bu­gatti part he could lo­cate. By 1973, he es­ti­mated that there was a to­tal of nine Bu­gat­tis in New Zealand, and he had a habit of buy­ing back cars that he had once owned. He owned and raced the Austin Ul­ster later cam­paigned by Bruce Mclaren and Kenny Smith; spent con­sid­er­able time un­der­stand­ing the rare Marl­bor­ough-thomas Spe­cial that was in his care; owned a 1922 3.0-litre Bent­ley chas­sis no. 61 that he claimed was the old­est in the coun­try; and also had an early Hud­son sedan that once raced on the Muri­wai sands, a three-wheeler Mor­gan, and a two-cylin­der Hum­berette.

How­ever, Ron was not averse to mod­ern metal; he’d owned a Dat­sun 120Y, Dat­sun 260Z, and a Toy­ota Star­let, and cov­ered lengthy dis­tances in a Toy­ota MR2, which he liked. Close to 200 col­lectable cars passed through his hands.

Favourite tracks? “Yes, I al­ways liked Ard­more, par­tic­u­larly the sec­ond year, when cars went an­ti­clock­wise. The other way wasn’t too good, be­cause there was a ter­ri­ble drag on brakes for the hair­pin, but an­ti­clock­wise there was a fast left-han­der af­ter the straight,” he said. “I loved Dunedin, on the cir­cuit around the docks. The first year, it went right down by the pub, with the boys lean­ing out of th­ese with their jugs of beer in their hands. That was won­der­ful.” He also ad­mired the Maire­hau road cir­cuit, and, in later years, when it be­came built up, Roy of­ten drove around it when vis­it­ing Christchurch.

He en­thused over the Oreti beach races near In­ver­cargill, with cor­ners that did not cut up as badly as Muri­wai: “On the beach, you do not need a ter­ri­bly good chas­sis, but, at Oreti, Frank Shuter, in a Cadil­lac-pow­ered car, and Ge­orge Smith, in a hot flat-head Ford, each had the legs of the Bu­gatti Jaguar. We lapped at high speeds on those mile-long straights, some­times av­er­ag­ing 100mph [160.9kph].”

In May 2000, at the age of 83, Ron Roy­croft passed away, car­ry­ing his quiet pas­sion to the end. He was a brave and tal­ented man, happy to com­pete in any arena of mo­tor sport, big or small; drive a school bus in his lo­cal ru­ral lo­ca­tion; and col­lect vin­tage cars. “I re­mem­ber a Hamil­ton Car Club sprint on a long road lead­ing to Mata­mata. Peo­ple were stand­ing on the edge of the tar-seal, only inches away from the cars, and I was timed at 135mph [217kph] in the Bu­gatti Jaguar that day.” Dif­fer­ent times, dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties.

“I loved Dunedin, on the cir­cuit around the docks. The first year, it went right down by the pub, with the boys lean­ing out of th­ese with their jugs of beer in their hands”

Ron (left) with the fa­mous P3 Alfa at Maire­hau in Can­ter­bury in 1953

Above: Ron Roy­croft lead­ing the 1957 New Zealand Grand Prix at Ard­more be­fore his re­tire­ment from heat ex­haus­tion (Robert Sten­berg photo)

Eoin Young tries the re­stored Roy­croft Fer­rari on a quiet Can­ter­bury road in 1991 Be­low left:

Just part of Roy­croft’s di­ver­si­fied car col­lec­tion at Glen Mur­ray in the early ’90s

Above: (Top) With lit­tle or no pro­tec­tion for spec­ta­tors, Roy­croft races the rapid Bu­gatti Jaguar at Dunedin in the ’50s. Note the New Zealand num­ber plate — com­pul­sory at the time! (Bot­tom) Roy­croft shows his mas­tery in the P3 Alfa on the Dunedin...

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