Vin­tage car ral­lies? No thanks. I pre­fer life in the fast lane. I also pre­fer be­ing around blokes and girls with a sense of fun. I’m as happy with a life de­void of Austin 7s and other leaky an­tiques with less horse­power than a ride-on lawn­mower as I am with­out ther­mos flasks of Bell tea and cu­cum­ber sand­wiches wrapped in grease­proof pa­per.

Since shift­ing to the mid­dle of the South Is­land six years ago, how­ever, I’ve dis­cov­ered a vin­tage car rally for peo­ple like me, and — in one of life’s won­der­ful lit­tle co­in­ci­dences — it’s right on my doorstep. It’s called the ‘Ir­ish­man Rally’.

“I’ve been go­ing on rod runs all my life, and this is more fun than any of them,” Harry Or­p­wood said of the rally.

Harry’s a hot rod­der’s hot rod­der, and there’s a bunch of cool car stuff ticked off among his long and var­ied week­end-life ré­sumé. Steve Keys, long-time hot rod­der and drag racer, also at­tests to the appeal of this par­tic­u­lar vin­tage car so­journ, and talked me into go­ing on it with him some years ago. Harry and Steve are right; if you have a love of cars, en­joy the chal­lenge of push­ing an old car hard and keep­ing it go­ing with me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy and fi­nesse, and have a sense of adventure, then the Ir­ish­man Rally re­ally is some­thing quite spe­cial.

There’s a huge sense of adventure about the Ir­ish­man that you don’t get with any other mo­tor­ing-re­lated ac­tiv­ity that I’ve ever par­tic­i­pated in, and I say that for many rea­sons. This sense of adventure won’t be found at ‘nor­mal’ vin­tage car ral­lies; nei­ther will it be found at hot rod runs. For starters, the Ir­ish­man Rally is lim­ited to ve­hi­cles no newer than 1930. A good start then; you won’t find your­self parked next to a Mor­ris Ox­ford or a Rover 90. The real kick, how­ever, is that the Ir­ish­man is about the chal­lenge pre­sented by do­ing sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­tres, over two days, across high-coun­try sta­tions, travers­ing windy and rut­ted farm tracks and stony riverbeds, through swollen streams and muddy fords — all, of course, made much more spe­cial by do­ing it in a mo­tor ve­hi­cle that is, or is rapidly ap­proach­ing, 100 years of age.

An­other rea­son this event should be viewed as an adventure is the time of year in which it is held. It takes place over Queen’s Birthday week­end ev­ery year, so we’re talk­ing June — early win­ter — in an area renowned for cold win­ters, where –10°C morn­ings aren’t un­com­mon. Also, it kicks off at around 6am each day. So, you’re up at 5am, and, by 6, be­fore the sun comes up, you’re go­ing to be trav­el­ling, at best, in a draughty, leaky, 90-year-old sedan with no heater, but, more likely, a road­ster, tourer, or on the back of a pickup, hop­ing to get away with only –5°C as you hit the road. Dress­ing for warmth takes on a new mean­ing. Man panties, merino sin­glet, two pairs of woolly socks, long johns, T-shirt, woollen jer­sey, warm trousers, scarf, fleecy jacket, trench coat, thick woolly hat, an­other scarf in your pocket to wrap around your face if needed, and you’re just about ready to go. “There’s a pile of blan­kets on the floor back there,” of­fered Alan Sharpe from Hamil­ton, the owner of the 1924 Chevro­let Tourer — which had a con­vert­ible fab­ric roof, but no side cur­tains — as Paul Knight and I clam­bered into the back seat, pre­par­ing to set off on Sun­day’s route this year, “and, if it gets too cold, don’t worry, there’s a tar­pau­lin down there some­where, so just pull that up over your­selves.” While some with a lesser sense of adventure might see this ex­pe­ri­ence as some­thing akin to self­mu­ti­la­tion, Alan’s done this an­nual event about 25 times now. His 1930 Chrysler four-door sedan, which Jo Knight and I had trav­elled in the back of for the Satur­day, sud­denly looked like lux­ury be­yond imag­i­na­tion.

Mad­ness? Per­haps. But bloody good fun. Pussies, nan­cies, wusses, girl’s blouses, and prima don­nas need not ap­ply — this gig ain’t for you.

No short­age of chal­lenge, then. How­ever, the chal­lenge is re­warded with breath­tak­ing views of land­scapes that you’ll see nowhere else in New Zealand.

The event is based in Fair­lie, the spir­i­tual home of Bill Hamil­ton. Bill Hamil­ton is fa­mous for, ob­vi­ously, the Hamil­ton Jet, but he was the inventor and de­signer of so much more than just jet propul­sion, as well as be­ing a pro­lific mo­tor rac­ing driver. His engi­neer­ing ge­nius was honed and de­vel­oped at 10,000-acre Ir­ish­man Creek Sta­tion — which he pur­chased in 1921 — in the heart of the Mackenzie Basin; hence the name of the event. For the most part, the coun­try tra­versed dur­ing the rally is within the sur­round­ing Mackenzie District — an environment of dra­matic high-coun­try land­scape made up of rock and tus­sock, sur­rounded by a back­drop of snow-clad moun­tain ranges and stun­ning turquoise lakes.

A num­ber of hot rod­ders have cot­toned-on to the event, and they come from all cor­ners of the coun­try. In fact, there are so many hot rod­ders from Auck­land do­ing the Ir­ish­man ev­ery year now that cafe-go­ers on the South Is­land’s in­land scenic route might well be treated, on the pre­ced­ing Fri­day, to the sight of a con­voy of late-model Amer­i­can pickup trucks head­ing south, pulling state-of-theart trail­ers, each car­ry­ing a beau­ti­fully pati­naed Model A Ford. The mem­bers of this con­voy, who in­clude well-known hot rod­der and drag racer Chris Horn­blow, have all sourced and pre­pared (largely) orig­i­nal Model A Fords specif­i­cally for this one event — a cou­ple of left-hand-drive beau­ties have been scored out of the US — and they de­scribe the Ir­ish­man as the most fun with cars that they have all year. They call them­selves the ‘A Team’ — with the ‘A’ pre­sum­ably de­not­ing Auck­land — their cars are well pre­pared and sorted; and they gen­er­ally get through the event with few, if any, prob­lems. Just as is the case with the rest of the en­trants, when there is a break­age or a rough-run­ning side-valve en­gine, clever engi­neer­ing quickly comes to the fore, borne from a pi­o­neer­ing spirit oth­er­wise lost in to­day’s high-tech world, and nu­mer­ous me­chan­i­cally savvy rod­ders and re­stor­ers are on the scene to find a way of keep­ing the old girl tick­ing along.

‘Barn find’ is a term that comes to mind more fre­quently on the Ir­ish­man than prob­a­bly any other mo­tor­ing event in New Zealand. The of­froad chal­lenges un­der­taken over the course of the week­end re­quire the ve­hi­cles to be even more rugged than the en­thu­si­as­tic peo­ple seated in­side them. Lit­tle point in hav­ing fancy paint and a de­tailed un­der­car­riage — riverbed rocks will gouge the bot­tom of the chas­sis rails, and the matagouri bushes lin­ing the nar­row farm tracks have no sym­pa­thy for highly pol­ished lac­quer. This cre­ates a ten­dency among Ir­ish­man Rally en­thu­si­asts to­wards im­per­fect ve­hi­cles — and, in a sense, the rougher the bet­ter.

To my mind, at least — and I’m sure the many hot rod­ders tak­ing part in the event would agree — there’s a cer­tain ku­dos in hav­ing a ve­hi­cle on the rally that looks so dilapidated that it shouldn’t even run, let alone be ‘Ir­ish­man fit’. With­out doubt, the hot rod­ders at­tend­ing the Ir­ish­man take the lead in this at­ti­tude, but the vin­tage guys get it, too — even if just from a sense of func­tion rather than form. While doubt­less many ther­mos flasks of Bell tea are car­ried on the Ir­ish­man — and I con­fess to tak­ing a ther­mos flask of hot soup for the day in the back seat of the Chevy tourer this year — it’s a com­mon sight to round a bend on a gravel track in the back of nowhere and come on a clus­ter of old jalop­ies parked on the road­side in an im­promptu man­ner, with, cen­tral to that, a group of older men and women stand­ing to­gether in their warm coats and hats, chat­ting en­thu­si­as­ti­cally and hav­ing a laugh, and en­joy­ing a Heineken or a Speights, or per­haps sip­ping from a hip flask of bour­bon or rum. These peo­ple are like the ‘fi­nal­ists’ of the vin­tage car fra­ter­nity, se­lected for their sense of adventure, sense of hu­mour, and sense of fun.

I hope the Ir­ish­man Rally goes for many decades yet. It’s a nod to days long be­hind us, which were, in so many re­spects, bet­ter than to­day

— not least be­cause they were de­void of the bur­den of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, health and safety re­quire­ments, and the many frus­tra­tions of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. When you’re out there, it re­ally could be 80 years ago.


The Ir­ish­man Rally is a breeze for the Wash­ing­tons; their 1929 Chrysler 75 road­ster has com­peted — with suc­cess — in the fa­mous Pek­ing to Paris rally A point of in­ter­est dur­ing the 2018 Ir­ish­man was Blue Cliffs Sta­tion near Saint An­drews, which has its own airstrip. The sta­tion is so high that par­tic­i­pants were lit­er­ally in the clouds

Close to Ir­ish­man Creek Sta­tion, the canal roads — used for ser­vic­ing the canals feed­ing from Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki — pro­vided some of the smoothest roads trav­elled over the week­end

River cross­ings — or fords — are a com­mon ob­sta­cle on the Ir­ish­man. Well-equipped cars have sacks across the grille to pre­vent the sud­den drench­ing of the fan, and fan belts are usu­ally re­moved prior to cross­ings Sun­glasses, beards, beers, side ex­haust, and a bit of road­kill — the Ir­ish­man Rally at­tracts all sorts! A keen sense of hu­mour can be found among the guys and girls who par­tic­i­pate, also man­i­fested in their cars. This Model A tourer car­ried vin­tage skis, a camp­fire billy, and a dead wal­laby

It’s hard to be­lieve where these old jalop­ies can go. Ev­ery year, the old wooden-wheeled vin­tage cars travel across ground that mod­ern pas­sen­ger sedans wouldn’t stand a chance of travers­ing

Rugged up for driv­ing an open car in win­ter, Steve Keys and the author stop to give both car and oc­cu­pants a break. That warm sun feels soooo good!

Alan Sharpe from Hamil­ton is a vin­tage guy with a fleet of neat old cars, mostly Chrysler prod­ucts. He brought this 1924 Chevro­let Tourer down for the event. You know you’re alive when you’re trav­el­ling in the back of this thing with no side cur­tains on a –5°C morn­ing

‘Kir­mit’, aka Ian Arm­strong from Christchurch, is bet­ter known for his Hemi-pow­ered ’34 Chrysler coupe hot rod, but he also owns this ‘farm find’ — a 1930 A tourer, which he brings out for the Ir­ish­man each year

In 2018, out of a to­tal of 160 cars in the event, over half were Model As. Be­cause of the tricky ter­rain cov­ered, al­most ev­ery ve­hi­cle has a tow rope al­ready hooked upSome of the in­clines are so steep that early cars with only two-wheel brakes have to give them a miss

The climb to the Blue Cliffs Sta­tion airstrip pro­vided a chal­lenge for some, but that was bal­anced out by the spec­tac­u­lar views over South Can­ter­bury when they got there

Steve Keys, who didn’t quite get this one right, waits for a tow out of the deep gravel in a river cross­ing in Tom An­drews’ 1930 Chrysler 88 road­ster

Typ­i­cal off-road Mackenzie Coun­try ter­rain: a dry riverbed, which pro­vides a harsh ride and a good chal­lenge for the old machines

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