AFTERNOON TEA WITH “WE U S E D I T A S A R OA D A ND R ACE C A R , A ND D A D W OULD TA K E I T S HOP P I NG, ” R EC A L L E D R ON R OYCROF T, T A L K I NG T O DONN ANDE R SON I N 1 97 3 A BOUT A G R AND P R I X B UGAT T I T HAT 4 4 Y E A R S L AT E R S
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 Forty-five years on, and the long-lost unpublished notes from that time have turned up; although, sadly, the negatives and photos I took are nowhere to be found.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.
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...