Fresh from the colonies

Fifty years ago, a young Kiwi arrived in Britain with dreams of a career in motor racing. And before long he had his first job – as Denny Hulme’s ‘mechanic’

The second-hand car prices transfixed us young Kiwis when we stepped off the Ruahine at Southampton in 1961. A 1750 Alfa Romeo James Young drophead coupe for £165. A Bentley 3-litre Red Label two-seater for £195. A 1936 Riley Sprite for £265. A Frazer Nash-BMW 327/80 drophead coupe for £250. And that was all in a dealer’s ad on the first page of that month’s Motor Sport. We could have bought a garage full of classics for the price of a new Fiat 500 today. Our problem was that we didn’t have any funds for old cars. I saw a 1929 low-chassis 2-litre Lagonda tourer offered for sale by a dealer in Surbiton, not far from the Cooper Car Company. It was £275 and looked tantalisingly like a smaller version of a vintage Bentley. I was entranced but explained to the dealer my total lack of mechanical aptitude. Could he guarantee that the car was in perfect condition? He couldn’t. Second gear was a bit dicky, he said, so I regretfully made my excuses and left. I was recounting the experience to Denis Jenkinson over lunch years later and he laughed. “You couldn’t buy a Lagonda second gear for £275 today!”

Then there were the Rolls-Royces. I remember leaving Green Park tube station and standing on the footpath agog, counting the Rolls and Bentleys as they smoothed along Piccadilly. Back home in Timaru it was a topic of excited conversation if a Rolls-Royce so much as drove through town. Nobody we knew actually owned one.

The E-type Jaguar was the style statement launched the summer we arrived, and the first one I actually saw in the metal was parked across from Harrods. Where else? I braved the Knightsbridge traffic and ran across the wide street to gawp at its sleek lines.

I was 21 and the typical colonial motor racing enthusiast abroad for the first time. I had grown up in Cave, a tiny township (pop 150 or so) on the tourist road to Mount Cook, and moved to the coastal town of Timaru where I worked as a bank clerk. I also wrote the race reports for Motoring News [then Motor Sport’s sister paper] in the UK, riding in the passenger seat of David Young’s ex-Peter Whitehead Jaguar C-type the length of New Zealand to races at Ardmore in the north and Teretonga in the far south. I was deaf for hours afterwards but the thrill was worth it.

I had met a young Bruce McLaren at Teretonga in 1960, and a few weeks later at a dance in Timaru I introduced him to Patty, the girl he would eventually marry. I should mention here that Bruce was running his Cooper in a local gravel hillclimb and I was racing against him. Well, in the same event. I was competing in my mother’s Austin A30. I had talked Mum into twin carbs to improve the economy. That’s by way of background.

From Southampton, our first stop in 1961 was the Cooper Car Company where David Young was going to collect his Formula Junior Cooper. We were heading to the European races for the first time. That was the first time we heard John Cooper say that the new car was still in the tube rack. The quip was already legend. David’s car hadn’t been built yet and he would have to wait his turn. I was lucky. Denny Hulme had just taken delivery of his new FJ Cooper and it was sitting on his trailer behind his Mk1 Ford Zodiac. He asked if I wanted to go with him and I leapt at the chance. That would have its amusing followup in Italy a few weeks later.

But that’s to jump ahead. Diary for Thursday, April 20: ‘Went to Coopers where I met Kiwi Bob Wallace who is head mechanic for the Camoradi team. He said he would see me right if I got to Modena. We went to Bruce McLaren’s flat and later helped to load the Coopers in the transporter for Aintree. The Indy Cooper should be ready. The motor leans completely to the left and a 20-gallon fuel tank is mounted on the left. Special large knock-on wheels have been tested at Goodwood on a hack.’

Diary for Saturday, April 22: ‘We set off at 4am and got to Liverpool about 9am. The town was dirty and it was bitterly cold. We took Brabham’s exhaust pipe out to a garage near Aintree. We bluffed our way into the pits and I saw John Gordon who fixed me up with a programme and a pitpass.’ This all sounds pedestrian, but compare it with getting into a Formula 1 race today. ‘I watched the saloon race from the press stand and was most impressed with Whitmore’s Mini. Doc Shepherd’s Mini flipped at Mellings on the last lap. We were so tired from the long trip that we all finished up asleep in the car during the last part of the main race. Brabham won easily from McLaren.’

Mae West said, “Keep a diary, because one day it will keep you.” And it’s true. The only problem was that I didn’t. Not after that first diary of the boat trip, and the first year in Britain and around the races in Europe — but then every colonial keeps a record of their first year overseas. After that, any form of personal record becomes passe. You are assumed to be an old hand at foreign travel and well beyond writing it down each night before bed.

In 1961 my world was all new and novel and demanded record. You were allowed to be impressed in your first year, but after that you were supposed to have graduated from being a tourist. Which may account for the fact that, like most of the motor racing circus I imagine, I have travelled the world for most of my life and seen almost none of it. An airport, a plane, a hire car, a hotel and a race track. Every second weekend was the same during the summer. There wasn’t time to look at anything!

The Zodiac Denny was towing the black and silver Cooper-Ford with, on an open trailer, was an 80,000-miler that he had bought for £300. For some reason it was fitted with a police-style siren which was useful for clearing race traffic on occasion, but also nearly set the car on fire. Smoke poured out from under the bonnet and Denny leapt out, shouting that it was a problem with the ‘fuses’. Problem was the siren had overloaded the Ford electrics and the ‘fuses’ were a drill bit and a screwdriver shaft!

The old Zodiac was very much a two-seater. The back seat had been removed and the space filled with tools, spares and fuel cans. The fuel contract for the racing car stipulated that the free supply was as much as was required at the track. This was obviously written to cover the amount of fuel used in the race, but all the drivers in the series would fill the race car, the tow car and as many cans as could be carried in the tow car and on the trailer to get us to the next race… which could be at the other end of Europe the following weekend.

Diary for Wednesday, April 24: ‘Up at 7.30am and out to Surbiton with all my bags. Had a cup of tea at the pub and then Denny and I set out for Dover. We were a bit late and about 10 miles short of Dover when top gear lost itself and we missed our boat to have the gearbox fixed at a Ford garage. We just managed to get a boat at 4.30pm and crossed to Calais. We were first off and headed straight for Denmark.’

Denny had decided to make up for lost time and drive non-stop, but it was my first time in France and it seemed important that we had a French roadside picnic for lunch. This was not at all part of the Hulme travel plan. That called for ‘getting there’ and stops would only be made for fuel, perhaps grabbing a sandwich or an apple to eat on the move. It was my first experience of travelling with Denny and I persuaded him to stop in a village to buy a stick of French bread, some cheese and tomatoes — and a bottle of wine — to construct a French picnic at a roadside stop. We finally stopped, Denny grudgingly allowing valuable time for what he undoubtedly regarded as a poncey picnic. We didn’t have a corkscrew. Bugger. It appeared that lunch would now require at least two more stops and the Hulme patience was fading fast. We screeched to a halt outside a hardware shop and I mimed a corkscrew, thus learning my first and probably most important expression in French. “Ah, m’sieu… un tirebouchon!” So we stopped yet again, I threw the picnic together, slugged back some of the rough red and we were back on the road. I think that may have been the first — and last — picnic stop we made all summer. We decided to drive right through the night, stopping only at the Belgian/ German border for a huge meal of ham and bread and coffee in a pub at 2.30am. Diary note: ‘The woman was half tanked.’

A few miles from the ferry port of GroEenbrode there was a loud bang and the car lurched down with a broken main leaf on the rear spring. We crawled to the dock and onto the ferry for the four-hour crossing; on the Danish side, Denny bound the spring with wire.

The Roskilde Ring held sad memories for Denny as it was the track where his Kiwi teammate George Lawton had been killed the year before, and the marks were still on the track where the Cooper had skidded for 80 yards and then flipped. Kiwi champion Angus Hyslop would travel in convoy with us, and he won both FJ heats in his Lotus while Denny struggled with engine problems and couldn’t better seventh.

Our next race was at Rouen, so we headed south. David Piper was staying at our hotel and he took us round Les Essarts circuit, which was made up of French public roads, a short distance from Rouen town. He showed us one bend where he had stopped during a race the year before and Innes Ireland had crashed, going right over Piper’s car and over the bank, finishing high in some trees. There was always some ‘old hand’ anxious to show a new driver the circuit and point out where others had crashed in the past.

Angus was third-fastest in first practice at Rouen and Denny was sixth. The following day, Denny moved up to third on the grid with Angus fourth. Both Kiwis retired from the race with engine problems.

Next for Hulme and Hyslop was the 24-hour race at Le Mans. BP had arranged for them to share a works Abarth, but it was made apparent from the moment the two New Zealanders arrived that it was very much an arrangement that had been wished upon the reluctant team by its sponsoring oil company. Carlo Abarth barely favoured his two new drivers with a grunt of greeting. They were given an 850cc GT when the works effort was totally behind several 750cc cars, which had the best chance of wrestling the coveted Index of Performance from the French. The complicated Index had been carefully worked out to favour the smaller French cars, which were never in with a chance of outright victory in ‘their’ international event. The 750cc Italian Abarths looked likely to be a strong challenge. The 850cc Abarth was essentially an unloved orphan.

The Abarth GT had no safety harness and Denny asked for one to be fitted. Angus said the car handled like his Formula Junior and had nearly as much performance. But it was much noisier because they were sitting in a closed sound-shell, and this would be a consideration in the long race. When Denny took over after the first twohour stint they were running 35th in a field of 53 cars and eighth on Index. At midnight the drivers were complaining of a clutch problem. At one stage there was a minor panic in the pit when officials warned of signs of flame in the cockpit while Hyslop was at the wheel. It turned out to be Angus lighting a cigarette!

By dawn on Sunday morning the clutch had failed and starting after a refuelling pitstop was a major problem. Denny had been cautioned after grinding away on the starter, so he and Angus worked out a way of starting the engine, then crashing in a gear to get under away. The final hours were a fingers-crossed drone to the finish with most drivers cruising, and Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien way out in front and winning for Ferrari. Phil Hill would also win the World Championship for Ferrari that summer.

The Hulme/Hyslop Abarth finished 14th, covered 3531 kilometres, and was the only one of the army of Abarths that started to finish the race. In fact it was the first time an Abarth had ever finished in the 24-hour classic. In the closing laps, the atmosphere in the pit became warmer, and by the finish Carlo Abarth was a close friend of the two New Zealanders…

Denny’s next race was at Caserta, near Sorrento in Italy. We headed over the Mont Cenis Pass and down to Turin to visit the Abarth factory and collect the Le Mans prize money, and then down through Milan and Florence. Approaching Turin we were wondering how we would find the Abarth factory when a Fiat 600 dived inside, carving up our trailertowing entourage going into a roundabout. Denny was busy delivering Hulme-style invective at the top of his voice and shaking his fist out the window when he realised that the little Fiat had an Abarth scorpion badge on its door, and the driver was his old buddy Carlo!

We shouted and I banged on the Zodiac door and Abarth swung round looking suitably indignant until he realised it was his favourite Kiwi racing driver. Then he was all smiles and we followed him to the factory headquarters, Denny was paid the Le Mans monies, and we were soon on the road again. We were struggling to find the autostrada on the way out of Milan when we met up with David Piper, who told us that the Caserta race was the next weekend and practice was starting at 4.30pm the following day. We were under the impression that it was a fortnight away. I was to find that Denny’s diary was not his most reliable piece of equipment.

We left Milan at noon, went through Florence at 5.30pm, Rome at just past midnight and arrived at Caserta at 3.30am, parking up in what we thought was a park in the darkness. We slept like logs until dawn, then discovered that we had inadvertently parked in the grounds of the old royal palace…

There was a delay during scrutineering when the doctors would not clear Denny because his heart was beating too fast. I noted this in my diary then and realised much later that this was an early indication of the Hulme heart condition; there were suggestions before his death during the Bathurst race in Australia all those years later that he had still been having heart-related problems. With his certificate finally ticked Denny qualified fastest in his heat, but in the final he bent a gear selector and finished third behind John Love and Jo Siffert.

The next race, according to the Hulme schedule, was Monza so he decided to check the engine bearings and change the gear ratios before we left Sorrento. He told me how to take the gearbox off, showed me which ratios he wanted changed, and let me get on with it. I thought I had done quite well to get it all back together and bolted up, and so did Denny when I told him I was finished. But when I told him I had a few bits left over that he might like to put in his spares box, I thought our friendship had suddenly been terminated. He was furious! I couldn’t understand. I had done exactly what he had told me and saved a few parts along the way, and he didn’t seem best pleased about it. He called into question my abilities as a mechanic and I pointed out that I had never done any mechanical work in my life. So why had I told him I was a mechanic when he asked me to come on the trip with him? I said I’d told him nothing of the sort — if he cared to think back he had asked me if I wanted to come with him, and I had said yes. No mention of being a mechanic. It then all went quiet for about half an hour as he set about taking off the gearbox again and making good my best efforts.

It was an event that became part of my personal folklore and has stood me in excellent stead as I have never been asked to offer mechanical aid to anyone ever since. It still holds good today, half a century later. When we go to the classic Formula Ford races these days in New Zealand I’m in charge of food and beverage for Peter Grant’s Yub Racing team. Fitting team title, really. It stands for You Useless Bastard…