New Zealand Classic Car - - CONTENTS - Words: Michael Clark Pho­tos: Adam Croy and Bill Gavin Col­lec­tion


When my wife refers to Bill Gavin, she in­vari­ably adds, for con­text: “The man with the in­ter­est­ing life”. In his 82 years so far, he has trained to be a doc­tor (this was first), then planned to be a car stylist, spent the ’60s fol­low­ing mo­tor rac­ing across the planet, lived in the Play­boy man­sion, mar­ried a fash­ion model, and man­aged a works Fer­rari cam­paign. The ’60s was a fun-filled decade. Then we get to the ’70s, and Bill’s in­volve­ment in the world of pop mu­sic, as man­ager of groups at op­po­site ends of the spec­trum. Af­ter that came his mo­tion-pic­ture ca­reer. I think my wife sums Bill Gavin up per­fectly — and that’s be­fore we even men­tion Bill writ­ing a best-sell­ing book on one of the world’s most pop­u­lar drivers of all time, who hap­pened to be one of his clos­est friends. Of course, it was a time when be­com­ing friendly with rac­ing drivers meant the prospect of pain and sad­ness, as fa­tal­i­ties were not un­com­mon, and Bill had more than his fair share of that pain too.

Feel­ing good

We meet for lunch straight af­ter Bill has been to see his doc­tor. He re­ports: “I’m feel­ing bet­ter than I have for two to three years.”

To be­gin, I ask how his life in mo­tor sport started.

“I was build­ing boats with my friend John Draf­fin; his brother Roy held the wa­ter­speed record at the time and was con­tacted by the Grand Prix [GP] peo­ple when they dis­cov­ered that Stir­ling Moss had taken up wa­ter­ski­ing,” Bill ex­plains. “Some tick­ets to the 1956 race were part of the ar­range­ment, so I went along. It was a life-chang­ing mo­ment. I was 19 and do­ing med­i­cal in­ter­me­di­ate pa­pers at [the Univer­sity of] Otago, but, af­ter go­ing to Ard­more, I spent all my time buy­ing mag­a­zines and books to learn ev­ery­thing I could about mo­tor rac­ing; I quickly be­came ob­sessed. Pre­vi­ously, my in­ter­ests were pre­dom­i­nantly beer and girls — but I found that mo­tor rac­ing was easy to com­bine with those other hob­bies.”

In Novem­ber 1958, shortly af­ter his 22nd birthday, Bill had an­other life-chang­ing mo­ment: “So of­ten in my life, in­ter­est­ing things have hap­pened to me while drink­ing in bars; I was hav­ing a beer in the City Ho­tel in Dunedin and got chat­ting to the sports edi­tor of

The Even­ing Star, who wanted to know if I was go­ing Tere­tonga the next week­end. ‘Yes,’ I lied, only to be asked, ‘Could you cover it for us?’.”

Even bet­ter now

Bill was sub­se­quently en­gaged to cover all the races in the up­com­ing sum­mer series, start­ing with the 1959 GP back at Ard­more.

“It was fan­tas­tic,” he en­thuses, “70,000 peo­ple; amaz­ing times.”

By this time, Bill had pretty much made the de­ci­sion that medicine was not for him: “I left Otago; I had about half a sci­ence de­gree, so de­cided to cross-credit what I had into an engi­neer­ing de­gree and be­come a car stylist in ei­ther the UK or Amer­ica — and then I met an­other bloke in a bar …”

Just be­fore Easter in 1959, Bill met

Des Mahoney in Ho­tel De­brett in Auck­land. Des wrote about mo­tor rac­ing, among many other top­ics, and achieved everlastin­g star­dom in the mo­tor rac­ing fra­ter­nity of New Zealand, for not only writ­ing Trio at the Top but also, with that ti­tle, giv­ing us a col­lec­tive term with which to re­fer to Bruce Mclaren, Denny Hulme, and Chris Amon. “Des asked if I was still writ­ing about mo­tor rac­ing. Af­ter I con­firmed that I was, he asked if I was go­ing to the next meet­ing at Levin. ‘Yes,’ I lied — and, once again, ‘Could you cover it for us?’ About that time, I started to think that this wasn’t a bad way of mak­ing a liv­ing, but, to op­ti­mize my earn­ing abil­ity, [I thought that] I’d bet­ter do it prop­erly.”

Big ad­ven­ture

Dur­ing the 1960 sum­mer series, Bill started think­ing se­ri­ously about head­ing to Europe.

“I’d be­come friendly with a num­ber of the lo­cal drivers — Bruce, of course, was al­ready an in­ter­na­tional driver by then, and I’d got to know him rea­son­ably well, but also Ge­orge Law­ton and Denny.”

In 1958, Mclaren had been the first re­cip­i­ent of the Driver to Europe scheme; af­ter no driver was se­lected for 1959, two were cho­sen for 1960, be­cause their per­for­mances were con­sid­ered equally mer­i­to­ri­ous.

“When Ge­orge and Denny were an­nounced as the joint win­ners, I de­cided I was go­ing with them. I had ac­cu­mu­lated a huge col­lec­tion of mo­tor rac­ing books and sold them to Johnny Mansel — that gave me about half my fare. Be­lieve it or not, those books ended up with a col­lec­tor in Karaka; he in­sisted on giv­ing them back to me — so they’ve gone full cir­cle.

They [Ge­orge and Denny] left ear­lier than me, along with their man­ager Feo Stan­ton. I ar­rived in late May — straight off the boat at Southamp­ton and then onto a train to Water­loo, where the three of them were wait­ing to col­lect me in a MKVII Jag. I slept on a fold-out sofa in their house in Sur­rey and went with them to Snet­ter­ton, my first car race meet­ing out­side of New Zealand.”

Shortly af­ter­wards, Bill was on his way to his first For­mula 1 race (F1).

“I’d met an Aus­tralian guy on the boat whose plan was to buy an Anglia and drive it to Monaco for the Grand Prix; that was too good an op­por­tu­nity to turn down,” he re­calls. “Stir­ling [Moss] won and Bruce was se­cond; and I was friends with both of them, so it was a good start.”

Start­ing to lose friends

The Dutch GP was next.

“I caught a ride with Bruce from Monaco, and shortly af­ter­wards re­turned with

Jack Brab­ham from the Bel­gian [GP],” Bill says. “It never re­ally oc­curred to me that

I was be­ing chauf­feured by the cur­rent world cham­pion; I’d got to know him in New Zealand — it sort of just hap­pened, as a re­sult of re­la­tion­ships I’d built up. Most of the other jour­nal­ists were much older, and most didn’t have the same sort of ac­cess. It was about that time that Stir­ling in­tro­duced me to Chris Bristow, a young driver from the East End who was about my age and who was very fast. The three of us went out at Zand­voort, and Chris and I be­came in­stant best friends; I thought, I’ve got a friend for life here — and then, of course, that ter­ri­ble week­end.”

There is not an­other race in F1 his­tory as tragic as the 1960 Bel­gian GP. Moss was ter­ri­bly in­jured, but, even worse, Alan Stacey (driv­ing a Lo­tus, like Moss) and Bristow were both killed in sep­a­rate ac­ci­dents.

“My friend­ship with Bristow lasted all of two weeks,” Bill says.

I won­der aloud how drivers like

Bruce Mclaren dealt with a week­end like that.

He tells me, “Jack had won and Bruce was se­cond — so, a Cooper 1-2. I was at

the Cooper ta­ble at din­ner but there was noth­ing to cel­e­brate. The Lo­tus team were at an ad­ja­cent ta­ble. Be­cause Stacey was one of their drivers, the mood was ab­so­lutely som­bre. Poor Innes (Ire­land, the Lo­tus num­ber one) was so de­spon­dent that Jack took a bot­tle of cham­pagne from the Cooper ta­ble over to the Lo­tus lads and poured them all a glass. Think­ing back, that could [have been] … seen as be­ing in­sen­si­tive, but it was the best thing — it was a ges­ture to say, ‘We’re all a part of this’.”

… and again

Law­ton and Hulme had taken their For­mula 2 Coop­ers with them and were also to share a new For­mula Ju­nior Cooper T52.

“In Au­gust, Denny was tak­ing the Ju­nior to Italy for four races and I went along — I think he knew I wasn’t a me­chanic, but that didn’t mat­ter, be­cause there wasn’t any­thing he couldn’t fix; I was the su­per­vi­sor!” Bill says. “The big race was at Pescara, which was a road cir­cuit over 16 miles [26km] around — even longer than the Nür­bur­gring. Denny won — he was bril­liant — and the tro­phy was pre­sented to him by none other than Juan-manuel Fan­gio. Denny handed him his au­to­graph book, in which Fan­gio wrote some nice words that roughly trans­late to ‘To the very clever win­ner of the Grand Prix of Pescara’. We left straight af­ter prize-giv­ing, head­ing back to Eng­land; I was driv­ing when we both woke up do­ing about 70 miles an hour in a ditch.”

Shortly af­ter re­turn­ing from the ditch, Denny, Ge­orge, and man­ager Feo Stan­ton headed for Scan­di­navia. Bill didn’t go, as he was con­tin­u­ing his quest to break into the world of mo­tor rac­ing jour­nal­ism. Even six decades on, he re­calls the emo­tion of learn­ing of Ge­orge’s death in Den­mark: “It was dev­as­tat­ing. Feo asked me to phone Ge­orge’s father in Whangarei — gosh, that was hard.”

Edi­tor in chief

It was in late 1960 that Bill formed two of his clos­est friend­ships among the F1 fra­ter­nity: “Bruce in­tro­duced me to Jo Bon­nier, and we be­came very tight, and then there was Jimmy [Clark], who came and stayed with me when he got back from the trip to New Zealand in early ’61 — he was re­ally quite cross that I hadn’t gone there with him.”

In fact, Bill didn’t re­turn to New Zealand un­til the ’70s.

“I’d al­ways in­tended com­ing home for the Tas­man Series, but, for one rea­son or an­other, it never hap­pened.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, it was meet­ing a bloke in a bar that gave Bill his next big break.

“I was in the Steer­ing Wheel Club and got chat­ting to Ted Eves, who was then the edi­tor of Au­to­course, which was a quar­terly at that time. He told me he was leav­ing and that I should see about re­plac­ing him,” Bill says.

An in­ter­view was ar­ranged in Lon­don, but first Bill had to get Feo Stan­ton’s MKVII Jag to Liver­pool, where it was to be shipped back to New Zealand.

“The car burnt so much fuel that I’d drained all my money,” Bill re­mem­bers. “I ar­rived at Liver­pool Sta­tion, and, re­al­iz­ing I was short, I ex­plained my predica­ment to the ticket col­lec­tor, who told me I couldn’t pay

by cheque. He took pity on me. He couldn’t just give me a ticket, so he opened his wal­let and gave me enough money for the fare. I got his ad­dress and posted him the money the fol­low­ing day. I ran to the train and then turned up for the in­ter­view with­out hav­ing had time to shave — I was in the clothes I’d slept in.”

Bill had taken along clip­pings of race re­ports that he’d done in New Zealand and, de­spite his scruffy ap­pear­ance, im­pressed suf­fi­ciently to be given the job — but on one con­di­tion: “They didn’t like ‘Bill Gavin’, for some rea­son, and in­sisted I go with my ini­tials”, and so the in­ter­na­tional writ­ing ca­reer of ‘WD Gavin’ was launched.

“I of­ten think back on that ticket guy in Liver­pool,” he says. “Who knows where I might have ended up if I’d missed that in­ter­view?”

Bill’s new job meant that he would at­tend all the F1 and World Sportscar Cham­pi­onship races in 1961.

“I told them where I was go­ing, and it never seemed to be a prob­lem,” he says. “There was a non-cham­pi­onship race at Pau in south-western France, and I thought that sounded like some fun — which it was, be­cause Jimmy [Clark] won and Jo [Bon­nier] was se­cond.

“I look back, you know, and think how ex­tra­or­di­nary it all was. I’d ab­so­lutely fallen on my feet with these won­der­fully gen­er­ous own­ers of the mag­a­zine. Peo­ple like Eoin [Young] and I had a ma­jor ad­van­tage in not be­ing British; we hadn’t grown up in their class sys­tem with in­built lim­i­ta­tions be­cause of what school we went to or what we sounded like. I doubt a 24-year-old English mo­tor rac­ing en­thu­si­ast would have turned up to an in­ter­view un­shaven and not in a suit. Be­ing colo­nials was a ma­jor ben­e­fit, be­cause they had no idea how to judge you.”

… and Jack of all trades

This gig opened up new av­enues for Bill. “One of my first events was the RAC Rally; I’d never seen a rally be­fore, let alone cov­ered one,” he says.

Bill also found him­self do­ing road tests, and his rep­u­ta­tion had de­vel­oped to the ex­tent that, by the end of 1963, he left Au­to­course and free­lanced.

“I fig­ured out there was money to be made by sell­ing my sto­ries to mag­a­zines in dif­fer­ent coun­tries: Italy, Ger­many, France, Ar­gentina.”

In fact, it was Bill’s new­est Gp-driv­ing friend who had been push­ing the idea of freelancin­g: “Carel Godin de Beau­fort was a huge Dutch­man and a lovely man. He was a mem­ber of the aris­toc­racy and typ­i­cally ec­cen­tric; we just seemed to hit it off.”

Bill wasn’t just tak­ing notes dur­ing the races; “I was also do­ing my own pho­tog­ra­phy. At the end of a race, I’d stay in the ‘Press Box’ — such as they were in those days — write the race re­port, process the film back in the ho­tel, ‘wash­ing’ them in the bidet, and then get it in the post.”

Mul­ti­ple mag­a­zines meant mul­ti­ple copies, and my head starts hurt­ing as Bill

ex­plains the process prior to car­bon pa­per be­ing avail­able.

Life as a free­lancer

Bill then ca­su­ally men­tions that he lived in Modena for a bit in ’63.

“It was a good cen­tral lo­ca­tion for go­ing to Euro­pean races, and it meant peo­ple thought I was well con­nected at Fer­rari,” he ex­plains.

As is seem­ingly his way, Bill soon made friends with well-con­nected peo­ple. In Modena, that meant mov­ing into the palace, where he “lived like a prince”. He was still of­ten get­ting rides to races with drivers: “Jimmy and I trav­elled so much to­gether — es­pe­cially in Amer­ica. There had been a num­ber of pro­pos­als for an au­tho­rized Jim Clark bi­og­ra­phy. Jimmy was get­ting of­fers, and even­tu­ally a pub­lisher ap­proached me. I’d never writ­ten a book be­fore — come to think of it, I’ve never writ­ten one since — but Jimmy was happy that it was me do­ing it, and that’s how The Jim Clark Story came about.”

I men­tion to Bill that, of all the books on one of mo­tor rac­ing’s most uni­ver­sally loved drivers, his is of­ten cited as the best, but his mod­esty is such that his only re­sponse is: “I sup­pose I was for­tu­nate enough to know him the best; he read the man­u­script, you know, but it didn’t stop him telling me, ‘I wish you’d been be­side me when I was read­ing it’. He told me that at Hock­en­heim; it was the first time I’d seen him since it had been pub­lished.”

That sad day

We’re slightly out of se­quence, but I ask about Clark’s last fate­ful race.

“I knew some­thing was weird when he didn’t come around, so I went to the con­trol tower and barged my way in. I must have blanked out my re­ac­tion, be­cause, years later, Chris [Amon] told me that he’d found me at the bot­tom of the tower cry­ing my eyes out.”

That was April 1968, and, in the eight years since Bill had ar­rived in Europe, he’d lost close friends, in­clud­ing Chris Bristow, Ge­orge Law­ton, and Carel de Beau­fort, who was killed in 1964, but noth­ing hit him like the loss of Clark.

“He re­ally was spe­cial,” Bill says.

Next month, we learn more about

“the in­ter­est­ing life” of New Zealan­der Bill Gavin, in­clud­ing his close in­volve­ment in the movie Grand Prix.

Be­low left: Bill was close friends with each mem­ber of the ‘Trio at the Top’

Left: The 1956 New Zealand Grand Prix at Ard­more would change Bill’s life

Above: Bill’s spe­cial friend Jim Clark (photo: Bill Pottinger)

Top: Jo Bon­nier, the Swiss-based Swede who Bill was very friendly with

Be­low: Bill’s highly rated au­tho­rized bi­og­ra­phy of Jim Clark

Above: Jack Brab­ham drove Bill to the 1960 Bel­gian GP — and then won the race!

Above: Michael Clark and Bill catch up over lunch in Auck­land

Left: The dis­tinc­tive orange Porsche of Carel Godin de Beau­fort

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