New Zealand's pioneers

When fruitful Kiwis blazed a trail

McLaren, Amon and Hulme were perceived as the ringleaders, yet were but the tip of a star-studded New Zealand racing community that swamped Europe in the '60s

by Paul Fearnley

irst there was Bruce. Then Denny. Then Chris. McLaren, Hulme and Amon: world class, from the furthest reaches of the earth. But they didn’t come alone. Far from it. They inspired and persuaded, coaxed, convinced, conned their mates to come, too: driver/engineers, engine men who could race and mechanics who could turn their hands to anything. Young men with the knack and a burning ambition to discover how it was done in the real world. Kiwis – collective noun: tribe – taking flight. It’s an unlikely story but, in the words of one British driver: “We Brits have a lot to thank the Kiwis for.” 

With the death of Amon, the last of the original three in August, it is perhaps time to take a trip back to the Motordrome Racing Team, founded in 1962 and based behind a bustling filling station in Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island. Here was a motley crew consisting of Zephyr MkII and Humber 80, plus a Lotus brace: a Formula Junior 18 and an 11 sports-racer. Yet three of its number would reach Formula 1. It was united by the national racing colours – dark green with a central silver stripe (and Team Lotus-like yellow-orange wheels) – and the enthusiasm and confidence, born of raw talent and naïveté, of its members. 

Among them, Howden Ganley, just turned 20, owned the 11; John Muller fettled the Ford; and Pete Kerr, raised 60 miles away in Tauranga, tended to the Humber – and Ganley’s father’s Singer Gazelle. Just four years later Howden and John were building McLaren’s first F1 car, while Pete prepped ‘King of Formula 2’ Jochen Rindt’s Brabham. All three were sharing a house on, aptly, Brunel Road in Maidenhead. 

“This is how it worked,” says Ganley. “I went to England at the end of 1962 because I needed to swim in the Big Pond. And one of my conditions for going racing in 1963 with Falcon [in its neat, glass-fibre 515 GT] was to bring John over. Later that year we worked together at George Henrotte’s Formula Junior team in Bexleyheath, running Geminis. But then John got a job at Roy Winkelmann Racing [an F2 team based beneath a Slough bowling alley] and brought Pete over when it expanded to two cars in 1965.”

Half a world away from home, Kiwis looked after one another. It was Wellington-born Bill Gavin, editor of Autocourse and European correspondent for Car & Driver, who introduced a grateful Ganley – with £25 in his pocket after wrapping his Lotus around a Dunedin telegraph pole – to Falcon Shells of Waltham Abbey. And it was Motordrome team-mate Ross Grenville, gravely injured at Aintree in May 1963, who put Ganley and Muller in touch with Henrotte. Such courtesies, however, only took one so far. The journey – Ganley sailed “slowly” to Lisbon, then bussed it to London – was the first test. The second was: ‘Are you any bloody good?’

The answer in the main was a resounding ‘yes’. The adaptability and resourcefulness engendered and fostered by New Zealand’s isolation was an ideal fit for the burgeoning, relatively simplistic yet labour-intensive motor racing scene of the 1960s.

“If you’ve got something to fix in New Zealand, the standard joke is, ‘Get some Number 8 wire!’” says Ganley. “It’s used for farm fences – but it’ll hold the engine in, the body on, your house up… It was difficult to get new cars because of the import duties, so people had to keep their old ones running. Racing cars from England and Italy were an even greater challenge. But a Chevy con-rod would substitute for a Maserati 250F’s. And we discovered with my Lotus that a Humber 80 valve, turned down slightly, matched a Coventry Climax’s. That’s our mentality.”

Though it explains a lot, it doesn’t do the Kiwis justice. Roy Billington, a perfectionist grinder of crankshafts from Whangarei, who “came over for a look” in 1962 and became mechanic to Jack Brabham, was “two men in one, with an abnormal capacity for work”; and Muller and Kerr, ‘The Professor of Mechanics’, created and maintained Winkelmann’s reputation for immaculate presentation and superb reliability. Kiwis imbued this role with a new resolve and stringency.

“We didn’t have strong unions in New Zealand and so everybody did everything,” says Muller. “Plus, people who shift continents to have a go at something often end up being successful because of their much higher level of commitment. To fly to England was the equivalent of six months pay for the average mechanic. I was paid £20 per week and it cost me £90 on the boat. One way.” 

And so it began: ‘Another bloody colonial! Lock up your tools!’

Leo Wybrott, also from Hastings, joined Team Lotus in F1 in 1964 and was assigned to Jim Clark in 1966, a role undertaken the following season by Auckland’s Allan McCall. Both played an important role in the development of the Lotus 49 of 1967, as did Graham Hill’s mechanic Dale Porteous, yet another Hastings man. 

But it would be Cary Taylor from Rangiora who looked after the world champion’s car of 1967: compatriot Denny Hulme’s Brabham-Repco: “Because most teams back then didn’t have big budgets they had to manage with a minimal number of very dedicated people, all working together for as long as it took. We would arrive with four mechanics for two cars, whereas BRM would turn up with an army.” 

Max Rutherford from New Plymouth and his Taranaki mate Roger Hill extended this champion’s theme as Ken Tyrrell’s joint chief mechanics to Jackie Stewart – “I felt that they were much better at their jobs than I was at mine” – in his title-winning 1969 campaign.

And that same season ‘Bill’ Stone of Ngaruawahia became ambitious March’s first employee; Pete Kerr would soon join him.

Not all took the ‘obvious’ route. After a spell in the UK, Napier’s ‘Stainless’ Steele Therkleson joined Carroll Shelby in SoCal and worked on the Ford engines that took his fellow countrymen McLaren and Amon to victory at Le Mans in 1966. And Kerry Adams of Palmerstown North had got as far Modena when he met Frank Williams and joined De Tomaso’s new F1 project of 1970.

Most, however, were linked with McLaren. If they didn’t wash up there initially, they tended to pass through: recently qualified auto-electrician Wally Willmott of Timaru, its first employee; secretary/PR and later influential Autocar columnist Eoin Young, also of Timaru; Bruce Harre of Hunterville, who joined Firestone and spent many days testing with Ferrari and Amon, his long-time friend and fellow Ditton Road Flyer; accountancy and business graduate Phil Kerr from Auckland, via Brabham, whom Bruce had beaten on his competition debut as long ago as 1952; engine builder and future two-time Formula Atlantic champion John Nicholson, another Aucklander; Sheffield-born schoolmate and former mechanic to Ganley, and future team manager to McLaren world champions Emerson Fittipaldi (1974) and James Hunt (1976), Alastair Caldwell; 1970 Tasman Series champion Graeme Lawrence from Wanganui, via Hamilton; rural Southland’s George Begg, a subsequent constructor of eponymous single-seaters; Phil Sharp, Indycar mechanic to Johnny Rutherford; ace fabricator Peter Bruin; Adams, via Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham; long-termer Wybrott, later MD of Nicholson McLaren Engines; and Jimmy Stone, Chris Charles and Colin Beanland, plus McCall and Taylor, of the lucrative ‘Bruce and Denny Show’ in Can-Am.

“Bruce was our beacon,” says Ganley. “And luckily he wasn’t the sort to say, ‘I’m on board, Jack. Pull up the ladder!’ He was fantastic. If you proved that you were prepared to make a 110 per cent effort, he would support you. I wouldn’t have reached F1 without him. And I don’t think Chris would have got that drive with Ferrari either.

“But Bruce didn’t yet have a team when I arrived and so I reckoned on paddling my own canoe. Denny Hulme was already over, going around Europe with a Cooper on a trailer, and I saw that as being the route. Though I knew him pretty well – and was in touch a lot with Eoin Young – I hadn’t banked on help from Bruce; he offered me a job out of the blue. I would have skipped the mechanicking if I’d had more money. Its lack was a bit of a deterrent – but I saw that as the only problem in my scheme.”

Ganley became McLaren’s third employee, in 1964: “Call it the Kiwi Mafia!”

Bruce himself, however, had arrived in the UK in 1958, as his country’s first Driver to Europe – a scheme intended to promote promising Kiwi drivers by giving them experience away from their homeland (he beat Phil Kerr who was also shortlisted to the honour). With only school his friend and Ford Anglia racer Beanland for mechanical and moral support, McLaren was amazed at the myriad sports cars buzzing about and underwhelmed by the weather, their digs above the Royal Oak pub, sited behind Cooper Car Co’s Surbiton base, and the grub at the local greasy spoons. He was also surprised by the attitudes of his competitors. “If you wanted to find anyone, the best bet was the bar. This shook me. Surely there was a race on and work to be done?” he wrote after April’s Aintree 200.

Dogged and versatile, astute and hard working, his rise was rapid alongside mentor Jack Brabham and in December 1959 he became the youngest winner of a world championship GP. 

His age shouldn’t have come as a surprise. “Bruce started racing at 15 and was pretty famous in NZ when very young,” says Ganley. “His just seemed to be the way to do it. I was pissed with my father because he wouldn’t buy me a racing car when I turned 15. I thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to miss the boat here’.”

Quiet roads – New Zealand’s population numbered 2.5 million in 1962 – plentiful private land and driving licences by 15 gave the local boy racers a head start. Ganley’s Hamilton High School class-mate Jim Palmer, a four-time national champion in the 1960s, first competed on his 15th birthday. Amon, from Bulls, was still a teenage sensation when ace talent-spotter Reg Parnell brought him to the UK in 1963. And as late as 1980 Mike Thackwell, like McLaren, from Auckland, became the youngest to start a world championship GP. His and Bruce’s records would last until 2009 and 2003 respectively.

“The younger you start, the better,” says Ganley. “You could have a lot of experience – I’d raced against some pretty famous names – by the time you were 17 or 18. That was a big help when we came to Europe. 

“And because we were so young none of us was married. If you’re single and living in a bedsit it doesn’t matter if you are pulling all-nighters and working from dawn to dark and at weekends.”

It would take 10 years for Ganley, by then a GP driver, to raise the cash, find the time and generate the will to return to New Zealand.

“Not everybody stuck it out,” he says. “Roger Hill stayed at Tyrrell [almost to its bitter end] whereas Max Rutherford went home [after 1969]. John [Muller] met future wife Alison in the UK and decided to change his lifestyle [in 1969]. England was pretty sparse, its climate not nearly as benign as home, particularly the North Island. So I was fortunate in that I’d been to boarding school – unheated dorms, cold showers in winter – and was hardened to it. And look how long Denny Hulme struggled before he cracked it.”

His country’s second Driver to Europe – awarded jointly with Whangarei’s George Lawton, reckoned by many to be the better of two – Hulme finished runner-up to Lawton in only his second Formula 2 outing in 1960, won a Formula Junior race at the daunting Pescara road circuit and nursed the dying Lawton at Denmark’s Roskilde Ring. Yet Jack Brabham, himself notoriously monosyllabic, reckoned this son of a WWII VC-winner from Te Puke too reserved, and was not yet persuaded by his stickability. 

Phil Kerr, boss of Jack Brabham Conversions in Chessington, employed Hulme nevertheless in 1962, and when this racing driver who was a mechanic at heart won a vital Formula Junior victory for nascent Motor Racing Developments at Boxing Day Brands Hatch, Jack was convinced. So, too, was Kerr, and he would follow Hulme from Brabham to McLaren in 1968. 

Taylor went, too: “My loyalties [at Brabham] had become divided between what Jack, the guv’nor, said and what Denny wanted. Sometimes there was a discreet manipulation of parts to ensure that Denny had the best possible chance of winning on race day.    

“With Denny, what you saw is what you got: a tough-as-nails competitor who never suffered fools gladly, who didn’t overly welcome the media’s attention and who was most comfortable around the people to whom he was closest. Absolute trust between driver and mechanic is essential for success and I feel privileged to have had a very close working relationship with him. 

“[Plus] the atmosphere at McLaren was like a breath of fresh air.”

Muller passed the other way – joining Brabham’s team late in 1966 and becoming Jack’s mechanic the following season – and preferred it.

“It was a smaller, tighter-knit group. I had found McLaren’s a more competitive atmosphere. I loved working for Bruce, but there was an American influence. Everybody was climbing the ladder and they would stand on your fingers if they could.”

Hulme would score six GP wins and two non-championship F1 victories, plus two Can-Am titles – to add to Bruce’s brace – for McLaren before his retirement in 1974. His courage and stoicism – he drove with hands badly burnt at Indy – helped steer a team in shock through the aftermath of Bruce’s fatal accident of June 1970.

Ganley’s F1 career, with BRM, Frank Williams and briefly March, also ended in 1974, his feet and ankles smashed when the hapless Japanese Maki – confidence or naïveté? – suffered suspension failure at the Nürburgring Nordschleife. 

Meanwhile, Amon, also still seeking his first world championship GP victory, had from Ferrari passed through March and Matra before scoring a point on the debut of the McCall-designed Tecno, at Zolder in 1973. He then built an eponymous F1 car for 1974 that proved to be New Zealand’s ‘Maki’. 

Ganley’s own F1 car was to have featured side skirts, sidepods ending in diffusers and pullrod front suspension – note well, Colin Chapman and Gordon Murray – but though it was 50 per cent finished by the end of 1973, the project lost impetus when Williams declined it and Marlboro took its money elsewhere. To McLaren, actually.

Times were a-changing and the Kiwis – despite a glorious late burst by Amon with Ensign in 1976 – were beginning to falter.

Wellington’s Graham McRae, ‘King of Formula 5000’ at the turn of the 1970s and boasting a temperament that bucked the national stereotype to earn him the nickname ‘Cassius’, had his 1973 Indianapolis Rookie of the Year performance marred by the deaths of STP Eagle team-mate Swede Savage and pit signalman Armando Teran. In July that year he contested his only GP, as Ganley’s Williams team-mate, at Silverstone’s 1973 British GP – and his Iso-Marlboro lasted less than a lap. And in October McRae Cars at Poole in Dorset was sold to Roger Penske. In truth, McRae had been on the back foot since 1969 when he was deemed too old, at 29, as New Zealand’s Driver to Europe.

More fundamentally, over at new-look McLaren – Bruce’s beloved papaya orange replaced by sponsors’ liveries – tyro British junior designer John Barnard was having “fearful rows” with the workshop ‘stewards’.

“Kiwis come to Britain with a very different approach,” he says. “But just because you make something yourself it doesn’t mean that it’s made to a very high standard or a very high technical input. That skill stood them in good stead in the 1960s, but F1 was starting to move much faster now. 

“I wanted everything drawn and controlled by the design office. That way you know where you are. If something fails you can go back to the design, analyse it and make a change on the drawing that goes out as Issue Two.”

Unfortunately for Barnard, and according to Ganley: “We don’t jump. There’s nothing more stubborn than a Kiwi who thinks he’s being picked on.” And Caldwell, another in the ‘Cassius’ mould, won this battle of wills – “When details weren’t drawn by designers but by the workers: the mechanics.”

Barnard left for America in 1975 but returned in 1980 and, with the full support of Marlboro and Ron Dennis, and in the absence of Caldwell, now at Brabham, broke McLaren’s ‘unions’.

“I was at a recent McLaren anniversary celebration where lots of people were making little speeches,” he says. “Leo Wybrott was there and quite surprised me when he stood up and said, ‘It was John Barnard who changed the way we operated and forced the other teams to do the same.’ Leo had seen it all. He was from that mechanics’ culture. He’d been at McLaren before Ron and I and was there long after I’d left. So it was good of him to say that.”

Ganley: “When I joined McLaren we were based on a dirt-floor corner of a slum-like building and surrounded by earth-moving equipment. There was a bench, a vice, some welding bottles and a small drill press. By the time of John’s second spell teams were so much better equipped and had all the best materials. So, yes, you didn’t need to be so practical.”

But still it didn’t hurt if you were. Dave Ryan, a former speedway rider from Auckland, spent 35 years from 1974 working through McLaren’s ranks and was its sporting director when he fell on his sword because of 2009’s ‘Liegate’ scandal. Ray ‘Kojak’ Grant, another Hamilton High School alumnus and 1970s mechanic-done-good, is there still, as a production engineer. Sharp returned from Indycar duty to be chief mechanic during Barnard’s groundbreaking switch from aluminium to carbon-fibre monocoques. And Stephen Giles, who “popped over to the UK for six months” and stayed for 14 years, was mechanic to Mika Häkkinen when the Finn won his world titles of 1998 and 1999.

Beyond McLaren’s increasingly flashy walls, Dunedin’s Dick Bennetts coached more than a dozen future GP drivers – Ayrton Senna and Häkkinen among them – as the boss of F3 team West Surrey Racing, and Auckland racer Rob Wilson has became the sport’s most influential driver coach, with clients including Kimi Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya. Allan Scott, also from Dunedin, for 15 years oversaw TWR’s engine programmes, including the Jaguar V12s that won Le Mans in 1988 and 1990, and Bill Stone guided young Adrian Reynard through the early 1970s as a partner in Sabre Automotive, and would go on to become his first employee at British American Racing in 1998, helping to create the drawing office and R&D department that would spawn Brawn GP and the current all-conquering Mercedes-Benz.

As for Ganley, he and fellow Australasian GP driver Tim Schenken formed Tiga Cars in 1976 and over the next 10 years built more than 400 racing cars for a wide variety of formulae. 

“Like Bruce, I favoured Kiwis because I knew that they would work hard and be diligent,” Ganley says. “I was always happy if a good
one turned up.

“For a long time New Zealand had three drivers in F1 – but it all stopped after Thackwell’s brief spell. A long drought. There’s been little since – until the recent WEC successes of Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber with Porsche.” 

Oddly that isolation has swung from a positive to a negative as the world has got smaller.

Auckland’s Brett Riley, more than a match for Unipart March F3 team-mate Nigel Mansell in 1979, didn’t make it to F1, and nor did, cough, Brisbane-born Scott Dixon, a four-time Indycar champion with 40 victories to his name. 

The days when the likes Ganley were able “to dodge into the F1 paddock” to chat with an influencial and helpful countryman are a world away. Particularly since Pete Kerr, retired from racing after long stints with Shadow and Arrows, developed Bernie Ecclestone’s access-by-card paddock security system.

Make anything, them Kiwis.