SOMETIMES, TAKING THINGS SLOWLY CAN BE THE BEST OPTION. THE IRISHMAN RALLY IS ONE SUCH TIME!
LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE
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