New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

Dur­ing the 1970s, Rhubarbs were a well­known sports rac­ing car on New Zealand race tracks. In to­tal, five cars were con­structed be­tween 1970 and 1977, made by four good friends: Adrian and Roger Rim­mer, Colin Smith, and Bruce Hancett. These guys loved cars. Each Rhubarb was an im­prove­ment on the one be­fore. At the end of 1977, the four headed off on their big OES, trips that would in­clude a strong bias to­wards mo­tor sport. Adrian was the first to re­turn af­ter about three years, with Colin and Bruce fol­low­ing a few years later. Roger took 30 years to re­turn, but, by the late 2000s, all of them were back in Tau­ranga hang­ing out to­gether. Not much had changed apart from the ad­di­tion of some bald spots and grey hair.

Last of the Sum­mer Wine

Bruce Hancett’s wife refers to their group as the ‘Last of the Sum­mer Wine’, and it was my priv­i­lege to spend a morn­ing with them. Nat­u­rally, the guys shared sto­ries about their good

old days, be­fore we got on to the mod­ern Rhubarbs, and how they came to be.

These Rhubarbs started with a trip to the Hamp­ton Downs race track. While sit­ting watch­ing the rac­ing ac­tion, an­other good friend, the late Kevin Clark, sug­gested that they should get back into build­ing cars. Noth­ing was done at the time, but the seed was planted. At the time, Adrian also owned a cou­ple of MX-5S — a car that he be­lieved was one of the best-made sports cars of mod­ern times. It was not too big a jump from there to de­cide to build a car us­ing the best of the MX-5 bits and some cre­ative Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity. There are thou­sands of MX-5S in New Zealand, which en­sures a read­ily avail­able sup­ply of donor parts. On top of that, there is a huge af­ter­mar­ket of go-faster bits that can be added to the car.

In 2012, a writ­ten-off MX-5 was pur­chased from a lo­cal panel beater and stripped of its body, leav­ing just the ba­sic sub­frame that is con­nected front to rear by what Mazda calls a ‘power plant frame’. Right from the start, their in­ten­tion was not to build just an­other Lo­tus Seven replica but some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent. It was de­cided to build a strong, rigid space-frame chas­sis with the em­pha­sis on safety, and which would com­ply with the Low Vol­ume Ve­hi­cle Tech­ni­cal As­so­ci­a­tion (LVVTA) re­quire­ments.

Us­ing this as the start­ing point, Adrian and Bruce de­signed and built what can be best de­scribed as an ‘ex­oskele­ton’ chas­sis, sim­i­lar to what is used for the well-known Ariel Atom. Although, apart from an ex­ter­nal chas­sis, the Rhubarb is in no way a copy of the Atom; the Atom is mid-en­gined while the Rhubarb is a front-en­gined, rear­wheel-drive car. Even if you cross your eyes and squint real hard, there is no way this car can be con­fused with the Atom.

Sim­ple as pos­si­ble

Us­ing the LVVTA’S New Zealand Car Con­struc­tion Man­ual as the builder’s bi­ble, they set about de­sign­ing a kit car that would not only be not too chal­leng­ing for its fu­ture builder but also use only one donor car, a car that could be bought for as lit­tle as $2K. The only parts that can­not be used from the MX-5 are the ra­di­a­tor, the fuel tank, the top wish­bones, and the coilover shocks, all of which are sup­plied in the kit.

Right from the start, this car was only ever in­tended to be sold in kit­set form. This was at the fore­front of their minds as they cre­ated brack­ets and set up the chas­sis so that MX-5 parts could be eas­ily taken off the donor car and at­tached to the Rhubarb. All the builder would need would be a bit of me­chan­i­cal know-how and a few span­ners.

Once the chas­sis was com­plete, the next task was to de­sign the ‘ func­tional’ fi­bre­glass pan­els to keep the worst of the weather out. This was achieved over many Satur­day work­ing bees when the bucks for the var­i­ous parts were made and the moulds taken from them. For­tu­nately, the shed in which these cars are built is lo­cated on a very quiet back-coun­try road, so many hours of wind-tun­nel test­ing could be car­ried out in a prac­ti­cal way — us­ing wind but no tun­nel!

To main­tain the il­lu­sion of a road­go­ing race car, a wind­screen was never con­sid­ered, as it was deemed to be an un­nec­es­sary re­quire­ment that would add cost and com­plex­ity to the build, which they wanted to keep as sim­ple as pos­si­ble. There is, how­ever, a wind de­flec­tor de­signed to keep the wind in your hair and the in­sects off your face.

The end re­sult is a min­i­mal­ist ve­hi­cle that a builder could eas­ily adapt to suit his or her needs. Money saved by the body’s sim­plic­ity can be added to the im­por­tant job of mak­ing the car go fast. With the huge range of af­ter­mar­ket bits avail­able for the MX-5, power can vary from 86kw to some­where over 298kw — at which point, trac­tion is purely op­tional. Not sur­pris­ingly, the boys at Rhubarb Cars be­lieve that 298kw in such a light car is a bit over the top. With such a high power-to-weight ra­tio, it would take an ex­cep­tional driver to keep the rear wheels from con­stantly try­ing to over­take the front ones.

If a po­ten­tial builder wants to see what is in­volved in build­ing the car, then the Rhubarb Build Guide can be viewed at any time on the Rhubarb Cars web­site, rhubar­b­ If this guide is fol­lowed in con­junc­tion with the New Zealand Car Con­struc­tion Man­ual, then there will be no prob­lems with cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Each of the four cars shown here sailed through cer­ti­fi­ca­tion with no hic­cups. It is es­ti­mated that the cost to build these cars ranges from $25K to $35K, which in­cludes the es­ti­mated cost of a dereg­is­tered NA or NB MX-5 donor car pur­chased for around the $2K mark.

Dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion

At the end of the in­ter­view, I was asked which of the four cars I wanted to drive. What a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion. The first I de­cided against was the red car (186kw, in­ter­cooled-turbo Mazda 1.6-litre) of Roger Rim­mer, be­cause, with its fully en­closed body, it seemed a lit­tle over­dressed com­pared with the oth­ers. Which left the three ex­posed ex­oskele­ton cars.

The next to go was Adrian Rim­mer’s black car (198kw, 3.0-litre Honda VTEC), mainly be­cause the thought of keep­ing a 3.0-litre V6 on the road made me ner­vous. Also, not be­ing a Mazda, it was not a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of what most builders would con­struct. I asked Adrian why he’d cho­sen the Honda engine. He said that he did it just to prove to him­self that it was pos­si­ble.

Which left the blue car of Colin Smith (164kw, su­per­charged Mazda 1.6-litre) and Bruce Hancett’s grey car (239kw, in­ter­cooled-turbo, Mazda 1.8-litre). In the end, I chose the grey car. The the­ory was that, if I was go­ing to be scared wit­less, I might as well do it prop­erly.

With Bruce in the co-pi­lot’s seat, I headed off down what can best be de­scribed as a typ­i­cal New Zealand coun­try road. It was nar­row; windy; and, thanks to its reg­u­lar use by milk tankers, a bit bumpy in places, es­pe­cially on cor­ners. Bruce told me that any buyer who has any doubts about build­ing a Rhubarb will have them blown away, lit­er­ally, once they drive the car.

Hav­ing driven the car, I can fully un­der­stand that sen­ti­ment. The wings on the front and back are there for a rea­son. Al­most im­me­di­ately, the rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of the ve­hi­cle’s de­sign­ers is ev­i­dent. These cars are very well set up. I hopped into the car ex­pect­ing to have a few col­lapsed ver­te­brae and the fill­ings in my teeth fall out, due to the car’s stiff­ness and rough ride;

In the end, I chose the grey car. The the­ory was that, if I was go­ing to be scared wit­less, I might as well do it prop­erly

in­stead, the sus­pen­sion ab­sorbed all the nasty bumps, and it was quite a com­fort­able car to drive. Hav­ing driven a su­per­charged Jaguar XKR a cou­ple of days ear­lier, I found the dif­fer­ence be­tween these two cars ex­treme. In the Jaguar, you are clos­eted away from all the harsh­ness of what is hap­pen­ing around you, but, in the Rhubarb, it is like be­ing in a four-wheeled mo­tor­bike, with­out the need for a crash hel­met.

It is a to­tally raw and vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence. The sen­sa­tion of speed is pure and in your face. As I moved the steer­ing wheel, I could see the wheels turn in front of me. I had no idea how fast I was go­ing, as I never took my eyes off the road in front of me, not even for a split sec­ond. Bruce was chat­ting away in the seat be­side me, but I had no idea what he said, as I was en­joy­ing my­self too much to lis­ten. The car sim­ply obeyed my ev­ery in­put with­out hes­i­ta­tion or drama. I have driven many MX-5S — this was so much bet­ter. Some­how, they have not only im­proved its han­dling, but they have also given it su­per­car per­for­mance as well. Any­thing it lacks in the crea­ture- com­fort de­part­ment is made up for by adren­a­line-pumped ex­hil­a­ra­tion.

Pulling back into the drive­way, sport­ing a very dif­fer­ent hair­style, I felt I could hon­estly say that the guys at Rhubarb have done what they set out to do — build a car that would be as much fun on the road as on the track. This is a car built by en­thu­si­asts for en­thu­si­asts. It is an ideal car for those who are start­ing to feel a bit frag­ile on their mo­tor­bikes but do not want to lose out on that week­end drive ex­pe­ri­ence.

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