Fish out of Water

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If you threw a stone in the average motor racing paddock, the chances are fairly high that the resulting cry of “ouch!” would be in a New Zealand accent. The Kiwi contribution to our sport has been extraordinary when you consider that the total population of the islands is not much above three million.

When Bruce McLaren came to England in 1958, he not only carved out a great career for himself, but beat a path for every other New Zealander to follow — and they did. What is often forgotten is that a few months later, McLaren was followed by another Kiwi, Ross Jensen. And Ross was the first New Zealander whose name was familiar in Britain, for his exploits in the Tasman series had been well covered in the British motor racing press.

Unlike McLaren, Jensen was no teenager on the brink of a career. He was already in his early thirties with family and business commitments, so his trip was more a case of coming to Europe to see what it was all about. While McLaren had the enthusiastic support first of his father, of local importers and finally of the Driver to Europe scheme, Jensen had to create his own opportunities. During what should have been his prime years, racing in New Zealand was very much in its infancy.

Born in Auckland in 1925, Ross had two elder brothers who were keen on cars and motor bikes, and became a dab hand at tinkering with machinery. “I could drive by the time I was ten and got my first traffic ticket when I was eleven,” he recalls.

When he left school in 1940 his parents encouraged him to work for the government, as a Post Office messenger boy. His heart was hardly in stamps and telegrams, so he studied engineering at night school.

In 1943, he volunteered for the RNZAF and spent two years overhauling aircraft engines. But it was back to the Post Office when the war ended.

He had seen racing before the war at Hemming’s Speedway, a 1 1/4-mile near-oval sited in a natural amphitheatre near his home, where cars and bikes raced on the American pattern. There was no new machinery, but well-used Millers, Bugattis and Alfa Romeos raced alongside a selection of formidable local specials which, Ross says, contributed much to the growth of the sport in New Zealand.

In 1950, Ross appeared on the scene with a special based on a 16-year-old Ford V8 two-seater, which doubled as his road car. Both car and driver attracted attention, for Ross was clearly quick and his machine was unusually well turned out. It was all very low-key but it was the best there was, and the press took notice.

He agrees his name was an advantage. “Ross Jensen” sounds like a racing driver; it is the sort of name you might choose if writing a novel. In much the same way, John Tojeiro reckons his name made his cars go faster, and Stirling Moss is eternally grateful that his mother did not stick with her first intention of naming him Hamish.

Supported by his wife, Hazel, he left the Post Office in 1951 to set up a motor repair business in a tin shack. “Everything we owned we sold, and we didn’t own much,”

It was a brave decision, for the Jensens had two young daughters to support. Though the premises were nothing much to shout about, Ross’ growing reputation brought in the customers, and within two years the one-man operation had expanded into a five-win business specialising in up-market cars.

The Ford V8 Special remained the mainstay of the Jensen stable, averageing a bout ten wins a year, until in 1953 the newly-appointed Austin-Healey importer offered him what was then the country’s nearest thing to a works drive, an Austin-Healey 100 fitted with a mild-tuning kit.

As the sport grew, a movement started to stage a New Zealand Grand Prix. The main force behind the idea, Karl Benjamin Ansley fixed up a demonstration which excited the local politicians, and set up a Grand Prix organisation which roped in the support of civic authorities, car clubs, business houses and many others.

“The evening before the race my entrant, the Austin-Healey importer, threw a dinner during which he stood up and told everybody that his car and driver were going to win the Grand Prix.” But Ross’ mildly-tuned Healey was up against Ken Wharton’s V16 BRM, Peter Whitehead’s F2 supercharged Ferrari, Horace Gould’s Cooper-Bristol, Jack Brabham’s Redex Special (another Cooper-Bristol), Tony Gaze’s F2 HWM and Alan Jones’ father, Stan, with his Maybach Special. “Needless to say, I did not win the Grand Prix.

I came home seventh behind Jack Brabham, but I did win the sports car event.”

In 1954, however, Ross and the Healey carried everything before them, winning race after race. So successful was he that, for the following year, he was poached by the Triumph importer to drive a TR2. Again, it was a highly successful season, but this time Ross had to contend with his old Healey in the capable young hands of Bruce McLaren, then aged seventeen. More often than not, experience proved the winner.

Ross was one of those behind the Driver to Europe scheme, even though he realised he was not likely to benefit from it, and Bruce McLaren was the first of several Kiwis to receive the scholarship.

The Austin-Healey importer decided that it was not a good thing for New Zealand’s star driver to be selling TR2s on the back of his racing successes, so he offered Ross a Healey 100S, on the condition that he raced no more Triumphs.

When Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games in 1956, a series of race meetings was arranged at the Albert Park circuit on Sundays, when the athletes had a rest day and the crowds were at a loose end. A number of star drivers were attracted from overseas, including Moss, Wharton, Bira, Parnell and Peter Whitehead, so it was a series in which a name could be made.

Ross duly arrived with his Healey and finished sixth in the Australian TT. In a full field which included Ferraris and Maseratis, it was the sort of performance which attracts attention, and Peter Whitehead suggested that Ross lease his Ferrari Monza for the New Zealand Grand Prix, which was again run as a Formula Libre race.

Whitehead and Reg Parnell both had Ferrari Super Squalo F1 cars with 3 1/2-litre engines, and started favourites. In a three-hour event, however, the Englishmen needed two fuel-stops. Ross fixed an extra fuel tank to the Monza, hoping to sit on the tail of the two single-seaters and drive through without a break. Unfortunately, he was unable to practice with a full fuel load, and at the third corner on the first lap Ross lost the car, and a full lap. He eventually came home fourth and, but for that spin, would have won.

He went on to take the 1957 National Gold Star Championship in the Monza. Having done all he could against his fellow countrymen, he now looked to tackle overseas visitors on equal terms.

A week before the 1958 season began he took delivery of Stirling Moss’ Maserati 250F. It arrived without spares, so he had to race with his eyes glued on the tachometer. Still, at Ardmore, he sliced 1 1/2 seconds from the lap record, which had stood to Moss in the same car. He would have won had he not tangled with a back-marker, but still finished second to Brabham.

That season, the overseas visitors included Archie Scott-Brown’s works Lister-Jaguar. Archie and Ross became firm friends, and the great little Scot stayed with the Jensens. In the Lady Wigram Trophy, Ross finished second to Archie, who was sufficiently impressed to take home an enthusiastic report to Brian Lister about the Kiwi driver.

Although the Maserati was showing its age, and Ross had to be mindful of its lack of spares, he won at Dunedin (ahead of McLaren’s Cooper) and at Teretonga (beating McLaren, Brabham and Scott-Brown).

With two wins and two seconds from the four International races in the NZ series, Ross emerged the easy winner of the National Gold Star Championship. He also took his Maserati to the Australian Grand Prix, but on the first lap a half-shaft broke.

Following Scott-Brown’s death at Spa in 1958, Brian Lister invited Ross to to drive a works Lister-Jaguar. It was a great opportunity, but it came at the wrong time. Ross was 32, with a family and a business to consider. Compared with New Zealand, England was ultra-professional and there was so much to learn — a new team, new circuits, and a different approach to the sport. Above all, he doubted the wisdom of jeopardising everything he’d worked so hard for, by committing himself to a full programme in Europe. Racing had given, but racing could also take away. The Ross Jensen we saw in England in 1958 was not the same driver who had dominated in his own country.

He raced for Lister just five times, and all but one of these events were minor ones. He took a win and two second places, but Ivor Bueb, a good but not a great driver, was significantly, faster in the same car. Ironically, Ross’ win came in the first Archie Scott-Brown Memorial Trophy at Snetterton.

In the one international event for which he was entered, the Tourist Trophy, he was lying a handy fourth when he had to hand his Lister over to Bueb. An invitation to test for BRM was refused, for he had decided to return home and continue as before, racing for fun.

It is our loss that we never saw the fire and grit which had so impressed winter visitors to New Zealand. He sold the Maserati, and bought another from Bruce Halford, which had a Fantuzi body similar to the Temple Buell cars. He showed he had lost none of his old touch by putting his car third on the grid for the New Zealand Grand Prix— behind the Coopers of Moss and Brabham, but ahead of Flockhart (BRM), McLaren (Cooper) and the Maseratis of Schell, Shelby, and Bonnier. Unfortunately, his engine went off towards the end of the race.

In the Lady Wigram Trophy he was fourth behind Flockhart, Brabham and McLaren when he retired. In the wet Waimate 50, he finished second to McLaren, and then came fourth at Teretonga behind McLaren, Brabham and Flockhart. Ross is the first to acknowledge that he was demoted fairly by Bruce McLaren in the home series, but one wonders what the result might have been if Bruce had driven the second-hand Maserati and Ross the Cooper.

In Europe, Ross had been a fish out of water. Back in his own pool, he shone again. To underline his claim to being the best of the Antipodes-based drivers, he comfortably won the Bathurst Easter Meeting.

Ross was now looking fora quieter life, and was not getting any younger. He did start a few races in a Lotus 16 and won the National Sedan Car Championship in a 3.8 Jaguar. But from 1961 onwards, Ross’ role was largely that of a “serious spectator”.

The first of the Kiwis was good, but just how good we will never know. It was a case of a career blossoming too late in life. ML

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