by a New Zealand Correspondent
Our chartered “Dominie” took off from Christchurch, in the South Island (the finishing place of the England-New Zealand air race) at 5.30 a.m. on a beautiful clear day and we were soon winging over Cook Straight on the first, leg of our journey. We landed at Palmerston North to refuel both the ‘plane and ourselves and before long were over the rugged King country in the heart of the North Island. Our English pilot took us some miles off course in order to bank low over the scene of the tragic railway disaster, about which you have no doubt heard, in which nearly 150 people lost their lives. Our position gave us an unusually terrifying idea of the magnitude of the smash. Telescoped and splintered carriages were spread over a wide area of the stream bed. Some were half submerged in the thousands of tons of silt which the burst crater-lake from the nearby volcano washed suddenly down the river smashing the bridge just as the express approached.
However, as your journal deals with things automotive rather than locomotive, I will not dwell on this subject.
At 11 a.m. we landed at Mangere, the airfield of the Auckland Aero Club, and took a taxi to the venue of the race — Ardmore, formerly an advanced fighter training station, about 20 miles South of Auckland.
We were amazed at the volume of traffic heading out to the airfield. Later we learned that over 70,000 people saw the race, making it one of the biggest sporting events in the history of the country.
We found we had missed some “curtain raisers” in the form of motor-cycle events (A.J.S. swept the pool), and a formule libre event for cars not in the big race. However, we were in time for an excellent sports-car race. As it was a handicap there is not much point in giving the placings. Suffice it to say that the Austin Healey 100s were most impressive, the team of three making a very pretty sight as they circulated in line ahead. One shouldn’t he fooled by their polite exhaust note. They were very fast indeed, and later were to frighten many more expensive cars.
A luncheon break followed, but any interest in food was quickly lost as a shattering scream came suddenly from the pits. No, it wasn’t a harassed marshal ejecting the unauthorised persons who always manage to get into the pit area! It was, of course, the B.R.M. To those of us who have so often read about this really fantastic exhaust note in our Motor Sports, it was a particularly thrilling experience to hear it for the first time and for it to be just as we had imagined.
The grid start was a really tremendous spectacle, few of us having seen before the type of acceleration which goes with smoking tyres in the higher ratios. (Personally, I have up to now been quite proud when I could raise even a faint squeak in low cog from the rear wheels of my unfortunate 2 1/2 Riley at a sprint event!)
Wharton led into the first bend, which was rather a surprise as we had been led to believe that the B.R.M. was a slow starter. However, Whitehead’s Ferrari was first out, only to be repassed by Wharton a second or two later. The B.R.M. held this lead for ten laps.
The positions at this stage were: —
1st: B.R.M. (Wharton);
2nd: Ferrari (Whitehead);
3rd: Maybach (Jones, Australia);
5th: Alfa P3 (Roycroft, New Zealand).
I should have mentioned before that the distance was 200 miles — 100 laps.
Wharton entered the corner before the pit straight too enthusiastically and spun out, taking a marker drum with him. But no damage was done and he was going again in a few seconds. However, he lost five or six places. By lap 23 he had managed to repass all but the Maybach and “Gonzalez ” (!) Gould’s Cooper Bristol.
With 90 miles gone Wharton came in for rear tyres and fuel. The off-side hub nut refused to budge for some seconds but finally yielded to some really heavy blows and then the B.R.M. was away again in the fairly good time of 44 sec. This gave the Maybach the lead again, but not for long as Wharton repassed in five laps. Meanwhile, Whitehead had a lucky escape from more serious injury when his front universal broke at 130 m.p.h. and the clutch housing disintegrated, cutting Whitehead about the legs and arm with flying fragments. But be was not badly hurt and managed to retain full control of the car. It was particularly unfortunate that this should happen because many looked upon him as favourite for first place, having regard for the B.R.M.’s had reputation over a long-distance race. Apart from that (and perhaps I am stepping on thin ice here) Whitehead struck me as being easily the most polished driver in the field. He really made the job look easy. No fireworks, but he was pushing the B.R.M. hard all the time, and the Ferrari motor was beautiful to listen to. However, let us hope the car can be repaired in time for us to see this fine combination in action again.
Of the three Cooper-Bristols Gould’s was undoubtedly the fastest and from half-distance Gould really began to live up to his distinguished nick-name. He began a really vigorous drive hurling his car into the corners. It was then that the outstanding handling qualities of these remarkable cars really began to show. Time and again Gould went into his corners at seemingly impossible speed, with a remarkable camber on his front wheels, but the car appeared steady as a rock. The same cannot be said for the B.R.M., somehow she seems too “flat,” anyhow she appeared to spin far too easily and even some of the local “specials” were coming out of corners ahead of her. Of course, this is no reflection on Ken Wharton’s driving. It is obvious that he obtains the utmost from a very tricky car, although her handling seems to leave a lot to be desired (a lot of road was taken even during cog swapping), nevertheless the acceleration can only be described as staggering, in the earlier stages Whitehead’s Ferrari being the only car able to hold the B.R.M.
In this respect the Cooper-Bristols were just a little disappointing. One remembers reading of their phenomenal acceleration in, say, the first two-thirds of their speed range and, in particular, the time when at Charterhall(?) last year, Mike Hawthorn in a Cooper-Bristol easily held a B.R.M. to the unbounded delight both of the crowd, and of Motor Sport! The Cooper-Bristols at Ardmore certainly proved to be quite remarkable all-round performers, Gould’s in particular, but none of them held a candle to the B.R.M. in sheer meteoric urge in all gears. But perhaps she was in particularly excellent tune this day! What really fascinated me was the way in which the revs went straight up in any gear. In fact the first two or three changes I heard I could have sworn that Wharton had actually missed the cog!
But to return to the race, Wharton came in at 57 laps with smoke and boiling fluid spewing from the front disc brakes and, as the damage seemed to be irreparable, these were disconnected and poor Wharton had to use his gearbox for braking and put up a remarkable show, but had slowed down considerably. The very fast and steady Maybach was now in the lead again with Jones driving an unruffled and masterly race.
This car is powered with an ex-Nazi scout-car engine, a six-cylinder of 4 litres, and its fine performance against world-famous cars entitles its driver and its designer, Mr. Charles Dean, to the highest praise.
Tony Gaze was now driving fiercely as the B.R.M.’s failure had put a different complexion on the possible outcome of the race. He fought his way into second place passing Gould and Roycroft, the latter driving his P3 Alfa with great regularity. His technique was unobtrusive yet he was never below fifth place. His cornering lines were perhaps the most accurate of all. This is saying much for his cool skill and for the grand qualities of a 20-year-old car.
More pit drama was to come as Tuck limped home with a broken fuel feed in his Cooper-Bristol. He had driven a fine race and was hard on the heels of the leaders all the way. Then Gaze Came coasting in with an empty tank and a dead engine. He had already reached round and undone the fuel cap as he reached the pits and, although he lost only a few seconds; the B.R.M. was past him again and into second place. However, in the closing laps Gould by dint of desperate driving managed to head off both Wharton and Gaze, but the Maybach proved too tough a nut to crack. All the while the team of Austin Healeys held their impressive formation, although in the later stages the car driven by Jensen seemed faster and began to pull away eventually to gain a very creditable seventh.
So after 200 gruelling miles Stan Jones, in his wonderful special, received the flag, with Gould second, Wharton third, Gaze fourth, Roycroft fifth, Brabham (Cooper-Bristol) sixth and Jensen seventh. Of the 24 starters, 16 finished.
The Maybach’s win was interesting largely because of the fact that it threw a con.-rod in practice, and it is reported that mechanics worked in shifts all night to fit a truck rod, a proper replacement not being available. The car was only started “with a prayer,” but never missed a beat; a marvellous advertisement for the makers of the truck in question.
There appeared to be some argument over the preliminary placings, Gould being placed fourth. He protested, claiming first place. After some days of examining all the lap scoring documents the above placings were confirmed, and photostat copies were sent to the R.A.C.
The winner’s time is the only one confirmed at the time of writing: 2 hr. 45 min. 20 sec.
So there it is. Now we can begin to look forward to the race at Wigram, Christchurch, on February 6th. the Ferrari, B.R.M. and H.W.M. being definite starters. Peter Whitehead did some phenomenal long-distance telephoning to Italy and England to arrange for spares to be sent!
The flight home was uneventful, except for a rather dicey landing in gusty conditions at Palmerston North.
Lady Wigram International Trophy
This event was run at Wigram air station on February 6th. The aerodrome is only a few miles from the centre of Christchurch, and in view of this it was a little disappointing that only about 15,000 turned out. Perhaps the reason was that there was also a Canterbury Jockey Club meeting on the same day. Also, there were no temporary stands erected at Wigram, which may have deterred many people. However, I heard that the contract quote for the erection of such stands was in the vicinity of 17s. a seat, so the Motor Racing Club could not be blamed for baulking at the idea. It is possible that had stands been erected the extra admission might have caused a smaller crowd still, and perhaps an actual decrease in total gate takings. It must be understood that Wigram is an active airfield and has a full flying programme all the year round. Only the generosity of the Air Department coupled with the interest of certain sporting M.P.s make this annual event possible. Virtually all temporary buildings, sound equipment, straw bales, etc., must be erected and dismantled on the day of the race, which, you will agree, is a monumental task, and any armchair critics of race organisation would do well to first digest the above fact.
I always think that the last-minute tinkering, and the scrutineering and briefing on the day before a major race are almost as much fun as the race itself! The unexpected meeting of friends from other clubs, the first sight of exciting new cars, the feeling of satisfaction even when the scrutineer’s “O.K.” is pasted on one’s humble saloon-car entry, and the pleasantly unsettling feeling of anticipation all combine to make the day before the race a most enjoyable one for all but the poor officials. The B.R.M. was flown down from the North Island in a National Airway’s Bristol Freighter, and prior to the race was on display in the window of a large Christchurch department store. Other overseas entries were Peter Whitehead (2-litre Ferrari) and Tony Gaze (H.W.M.).
The three Cooper-Bristols which raced at Ardmore were very much missed, but, as you shall see, although the race lacked their entries it certainly did not lack drama!
I could not help thinking how lucky we were to have these cars way down here. Despite the fact that the B.R.M. has in some ways gained a certain notoriety, it is nevertheless a most interesting heap of metal, and I venture to suggest that many in England would give their right arm to casually stroll round the car as the public have had many opportunities to do in New Zealand. Ken Wharton no doubt has endeared himself to many local enthusiasts by taking a genuine interest in their “specials,” be they the usual run of 747 Austins, Ford Tens, or the more advanced type, of which we have quite a selection. He was to be seen outside the scrutineering garage with the nose cowling of the B.R.M. on the footpath, with a race programme attached thereto, busily photographing. I’d like a peep at his album!
Saturday the 6th dawned sunny, but with a strong northerly wind. Rubber dust was blown into people’s lunches, tricky gusts caught the cars in the earlier races as they rounded the Hangar and Control Tower turns, and at one time during the sports-car practice period straw bales actually were rolling on to the track! However, the wind dropped considerably before the main race, to the relief of the drivers of lighter cars.
The two-mile course is run in an anti-clockwise direction and is composed of five mild left-hand turns, one sharp one, and a mild right-hander. The surface is very abrasive. I say this with some feeling, as I “did” three tyres on my 2 1/2 Riley in the preliminary races in only 40 miles. The racing cars can all do 100 miles on one set, and Wharton told the press that he thinks the course is a really excellent one, and reminds him of Goodwood.
Two “curtain-raisers” were held; a handicap for sports and racing cars of 25 miles sponsored by “Redex,” and a I5-mile saloon-car handicap. Both these proved relatively uneventful, except that in the first race T. A. Shadbolt’s Shadbolt Special (Kieft-like) got into a bad slide while entering the pits straight and lost a rear wheel. The car overturned amongst the straw bales on the outside of the circuit, but the driver did not appear to be injured. R. J. N. Archibald’s very fast XKI20 came through the field from the back mark to take second place. I can safely say that this is the best prepared XK we have seen to date, and it is probable that the suspension has been modified in some way, as there was no indication of the inside front-wheel lift we have seen on other XKs. The brakes appeared to be doing their job admirably, too. J. L. Holden’s Jupiter was surprisingly fast, but couldn’t make up his handicap, and Ted Reid’s smart little Morgan Plus Four (such likeable cars, these) handled beautifully, but developed that annoying habit most of us have experienced of cutting-out just as he pulled out to pass a slower car, thus robbing him of a higher place than fifth. Keith Roper spun his Austin Healey 100, which went very impressively otherwise, but managed fourth place. Third place was taken by G. A. Road, who had a good ride in his handsome little A40 Special. The winner was J. K. Kerr, driving a Singer S.M. roadster. This car was deceptively fast, and handled much like the Morgan, but the handicappers did an excellent job, for when the Singer crossed the line Archibald’s XK was only six seconds behind him. Not an exciting race, but an interesting one. The public like to see more everyday vehicles showing their paces, and on listening to some of the comments from behind the ropes, this applies even more to saloon-car races. A good cross-section comprising 19 cars faced the starter in the 15-mile handicap. Three Morris Minors and an Austin A30 were first away. In a few hundred yards the twin-carburetter conversions began to pay dividends! Citroëns, Zephyrs, etc., moved off, and then the back-markers, in the form of three pre-war Yanks, three 2 1/2 Rileys and a Mark V Jaguar. There was a race within the race between the two Zephyrs of Womersley and Mauger. These two had a great dice together and heeled alarmingly, but always seemed under control. The former just managed to pip Mauger for fourth place. Third was W. Crosbie in an A40. Although this car was absolutely standard, the driver himself was astonished by its performance, as he was hard on the heels of the Rileys! Of these last-mentioned cars, Moffatt’s proved itself the fastest by taking second place (at the expense of much rubber!) but could not catch Ian Archibald’s Citroën, which had been considerably underestimated by the handicappers. Ian, like his brother, is an excellent driver, and really hounded that Citroën round.
Now it was practice time for the Trophy Race cars, and there was the usual excited gasp from the crowd as the banshee scream of the B.R.M. rattled the car drums. Grid positions were arranged according to lap times and, as was expected, the three English drivers filled the front positions. I was lucky in having a pit job between the B.R.M. and Ferrari crews, and would not have missed the fun that followed for anything!
At flag-fall Whitehead was first away, the beautiful Ferrari engine sounding really happy, but the B.R.M.’s tremendous middle-range acceleration pushed it into the lead after a few hundred yards. Wharton was to easily retain this lead for most of the race. Whitehead did not appear to be particularly worried about catching the B.R.M., but was content to remain about 150 yards behind, with a similar distance to Gaze, whose throaty H.W.M. sounded very healthy.
One got the impression that Wharton was taking things very seriously, that Whitehead was playing a waiting game, with more speed available if it proved necessary, and that Gaze was doing his utmost to catch Whitehead.
In the meantime some of the local cars were putting up an extremely good show. On lap two fourth man was Frank Shuter, driving his Ford V8-based Edelbrock Special, in company with Hec Green in his R.A. with locally-built rear-mounted 2,088-c.c. engine. Sixth and seventh were, surprisingly. the Austin Healey 100 of R. Jensen and the previously mentioned very fast XK120 of R. J. Archibald. Following these were the P3 Alfas of J. McMillan and Ron Roycroft. The latter popular and successful car was unfortunately run without oil when warming up and Roycroft, not being sure if any damage had been done, wisely pulled out after a couple of tentative laps rather than cause unnecessary damage.
There were still three more major races this season and Alfa Spares are hard to get at short notice!
Meanwhile. Shuter pulled out with smoke pouring from the engine and Kennard called in to check the relief valve on the radiator cap of his Fiat 1,100-engined car. Fred Zambucka’s pre-war Maserati was forced in with no oil pressure, and a little later Jensen’s Austin Healey had to retire. I have not been able to ascertain the reason for this as yet.
At about three-quarter distance the order of the first three was unchanged, and they had lapped nearly the whole field. Archibald, by sheer good driving, had gained fourth place by lap 31, when he suffered a blow-out. Before regaining the pits for a new wheel the XK120 collected a straw bale, which was shunted along the course for some hundreds of yards to the surprised pit crew. This stop Cost him four places, two of which were regained before the end.
Before the race both Gaze and Whitehead had decided that a tyre change would be necessary, so in due course Gaze came in and his mechanics really showed us how it should be done when they changed both off-side wheels and topped up the fuel in under 30 seconds. The stop would have been even briefer had an official not insisted on Gaze getting out. Gaze appeared to be under the impression that it was not necessary for a driver to be out of the car during refuelling provided the motor was stopped. However, the rules state definitely that it must be so. And then the drama began. Whitehead was called in for his tyre change but, to the chagrin of Gaze’s crew and the surprise of his own, Whitehead made a negative sign and settled down to drive even faster! One wonders if Whitehead had an idea of what was to happen a lap later, for the B.R.M. pulled up in a hurry at its pit, leaving a trail of oil along the track. A gallon was hastily poured in but came out of the bottom just as fast. It looked as though the oil filler pipe was fractured where it met the tank. In the meantime the Ferrari and the H.W.M. had moved into first and second places, and McMillan was now in fourth place, with Stafford, whose little 1-litre Cooper-Norton was circulating with amazing rapidity, fifth.
After a hurried consultation, Wharton decided to risk the consequences in a desperate attempt to regain his first place. But it was not to be. Two more laps and Whitehead acknowledged the chequered flag, with Gaze crossing the line 40 seconds later. Wharton still held a comfortable lead over his nearest New Zealand opponents, which was just as well for him, for 400 yards from the line the gremlin which caused the brake trouble at Ardmore, and all the thousand and one other troubles in the unfortunate car’s chequered career, dropped its usual spanner in the complicated works, and poor Ken’s ride was over. So he get sadly out and began to push … and he pushed, and he pushed, and his mechanics walked beside him making encouraging noises, being powerless to help in a more practical way. It was all very dramatic, and not a little sad. Slowly the heap of dead alloys rolled into the short pit straight, where waited the flag.
About twenty yards short a the line the car stopped rolling, and it was clear that Wharton was nearly fainting from sheer exhaustion. It may have been kind words of officials; it may have been the sympathetic applause from the crowd; but somehow, slowly, painfully, he managed to get the car rolling again. A great shout of pleasure went up as the car trickled over the line into third place, with 40 seconds still between it and the McMillan Alfa. Then Wharton literally collapsed on the ground near his pit, and we lent a bucket of water which was unceremoniously tipped over his head. A little later a tired and rather forlorn man was to be seen sitting alone in the back of a saloon car. And he said: “This is not the first time. It’s just that trick of fate that has been with us all along.” We are sincerely sorry about it, too, Ken. We think you are a great sport and a great driver, and hope that soon we will see you driving something more reliable.
But all the excitement was not yet over. Hee Green, trying hard for sixth place, was passing the control tower when his car burst into flames. (Something to be said for rear engines on such occasions!) Anyway, he managed to slow down enough to bale out, with safety. Halsey Logan, in a single-seat. blown 1,500.c.c. H.R.G. slowed down and threw his fire extinguisher to Green, and a moment later the fire engine arrived and the blaze was put out before the car was badly damaged. Yes, a lot, excitement was piled into the last few minutes
At a cabaret and prizegiving that evening, all three visiting drivers made pleasant little speeches, Tony Gaze pretending to be very annoyed with Whitehead for not stopping for a tyre change. We’re glad you did though, Tony, for now we see how it should be done. The trio also said they hoped to Come to New Zealand again next year. We certainly hope so too. — A. M.