24 March 2022
Wild rides with iconic Kiwi muscle car drivers
When the V8 bellows and drivers are straining every nerve to keep them on the road, muscle cars come alive. Gerard Richards tells the survivors’ tales
By Gerard Richards
Two fire-breathing macho machines facing off on a back road or main drag in any remote town or metropolis is a rite of passage for any young car-obsessed Kiwi. Fronting up to, and going up against, the trash-talking, bragging opposition of your mates is a time-honoured trial in the hot rod jungle.
“Put ya money where your mouth is.”
Boy racers aren’t any kind of new threat to decent society. This kind of ritual has played out in this country and around the world since the 1950s.
THE GISBORNE TORNADO
I was reminded of this bastion of Kiwi — usually male — auto culture when talking with an old friend the other day. The year was 1978 and the town was Gisborne on the North Island’s East Coast. Mike, as I’ll call him, had just about recovered from breaking a leg in an auto accident. He was on the hunt for a new grunt machine to get him back into the fast lane.
Hobbling along Gladstone Road opposite the legendary Rod Coppins Motors — the dealership of said famed racing driver — he saw a 1971 metallic blue VG Valiant Regal V8 pull up outside. It was destiny! Making a frantic effort, he propelled himself across the road on crutches and bailed up the driver before he could enter Coppins’ yard. A deal was struck on the spot, the ensuing dialogue going something like this:
“Is this car for sale?” On the affirmative response, Mike cut to the chase: “I want to buy it.” A price was agreed and a test drive lined up for Sunday.
The blue Valiant was a powerhouse. Under the hood lurked a 318-cubic-inch (ci) Fireball Hemi V8, hooked to an auto trans — the same machines that hammered the opposition in successive years at Pukekohe’s Benson & Hedges 500-mile race in 1970–’71. Mike’s mana with his mates mushroomed overnight.
Mile’s close cobber ‘Aka’ (Arnold) was punting a 1600cc Capri, but he couldn’t bear being outgunned by the mighty Hemi! He mortgaged his soul to put his bum in a 308ci HT Monaro and the rivalry between the pair began to escalate. There was plenty of posturing banter over who had the quickest rocket ship. They both knew the time would eventually come, in American Graffiti fashion, when they’d have to front up on the edge of town, for the big showdown.
That day came, late one night post party, heading back in from the country, when Mike found himself running in tandem with Aka’s Monaro. Both drivers were oiled to the eyeballs on the hops so, tuned into the moment, they instinctively knew this was it. On that two-lane blacktop drag strip, the Back Ormond straight, they went pedal to the metal, 115 miles per hour (mph; 190-odd kilometres per hour) of madness hurtling through the dark. Mike and the blue Vallie edged away. The point had been proved. There was nothing else left to do except make a beeline for the Sandown (hotel) to settle those jangling nerves with a strong one.
Mike recalled the insane craziness the other day: “Anything coming out of a side road and it would have been curtains for us. Game over, big time.”
MUSCLE CAR CULT
I’m sure you’ve got your own version of this deeply spiritual, male, automotive gladiator contest, marinated in the cult B-grade and worse movies we soaked up as young adolescents. The muscle car was king in those hair-raising celluloid hoon car battles on the highways of the good ole US of A. Offerings such as Vanishing Point; Two-Lane Blacktop; American Graffiti; Aloha, Bobby and Rose; Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry; Bullitt; even our local contribution, Shaker Run; the list is long. These almost surreal, renegade folk tales influenced us deeply and engendered a passion for brash Yankee lurid-coloured muscle cars and their Australian counterparts, which were then more readily available.
I had my own bout in the fast lane with a 1970 LC Torana GTR XU-1. Suffice to say, I had my own moment of glory in this classic machine at 107mph (172kph) on the Te Kohanga straight near Point Waikato, with two nephews aboard yelling encouragement and a crate of DB in the boot. Highly responsible stuff!
The best description I’ve ever read on the deep attraction of the muscle car was by southern states US writer Rick Bragg, reminiscing about his ’69 Camaro in his autobiography, Redbirds: “When you turn the key on a car built for speed; when you hear that rumble like an approaching storm and feel the steering wheel tremble in your hands from all that power barely under control, you feel like you can run away from anything; like you can turn your whole life into an insignificant speck in the rear view mirror”.
In the automotive male culture, plus female cohorts, the set of wheels you ran benchmarked the standing you had with the rest of the tribe. The car crowd in towns and cities across the country formed tight subcultures, where they all lived and breathed the passion for driving, hotting up cars, and racing. Once ensnared in the drug of fast cars, whatever type, it seems that you remain addicted in some way or other all your life. Old racers never die, it appears. If they don’t seek out and buy or restore the cars of their glory days, they will revel in the nostalgia of memories, telling the old tales, or immerse themselves in special interest pages, and so on.
It is now timely to reflect on some of New Zealand’s best muscle car drivers and some of the legendary cars that framed that folklore.
KIWI MUSCLE CAR BEGINNINGS
We need to step back to the 1950s to see the emerging youth rebellion. By the late ’50s, the early baby boomers, children of World War II parents, were coming of age to a new rock ’n’ roll soundtrack. Elvis Presley unleashed a monster in 1956, his wild gyrations and open expression of sexuality divided the world into young and old. Freedom beckoned, and other mediums quickly got on the bandwagon. Movies like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause shocked one and all with their open revolt against the Victorian hangover of their parents’ social expectations.
These rebellious youths were so foreign they were classed as an entirely new social animal — the ‘teenager’. For the first time in history, young working people had money in their pockets and a desire to do something different.
New bastions of youth culture emerged that reflected their new identity and freedom. In the ’50s, hanging out at milk bars fuelled by jukeboxes, teen movies, dance halls, and rock ’n’ roll concerts, coupled with all the freedoms offered by cars, the new cult of cruising the main street and being seen was the epitome of cool. It spawned a new breed of youth tribes: milk bar cowboys, bodgies and widgies, Teddy boys, mods and rockers, and more — each a fascinating subculture on its own. Central to it all, of course, was the rise of youth self-expression and the sheer power to act in the world with motorbikes and cars! For the first time in our history, teenagers — mostly but not exclusively young men — could buy their own transport and strike out on their own, and naturally they wanted to stamp their wheels with their own creative mark.
The 1950s National government’s vice-like grip on purchasing new vehicles meant that the second-hand market was wildly inflated during this era and beyond. Adolescents found themselves limited largely to buying 1930s and early ’40s pre-war / war vehicles. Motorbikes were popular too, and cheaper, so teenagers could afford more recent and much faster models. The bikes also appealed to the more rebellious members of society — read gangs.
American cars were popular and plentiful during this era. The powerful-for-its-time Ford V8 was an iconic car for youth with attitude. Owning one of these gave you real mana and entry into the nascent hot rod culture taking off in the US. That attracted the young men here, for all the same reasons, like a neon sign in a red-light district.
Hotting or souping up your car was the next big thing, and home-grown ingenuity was pressed into service, just as it had been, by necessity, in the preceding austere decades. There were virtually no new off-the-shelf performance parts to buy here; everything had to be fabricated in the workshop.
The early stock car racing scene at Epsom Showgrounds in Auckland from around 1957 had a strong emphasis on early Ford V8 sedans and coupés. This became a hugely popular attraction on Saturday nights and further built the cult of the ’30s V8s with the young petrolheads.
Everything that followed in the ’60s evolved from this hotbed of highly skilled backyard engineering. A high-water mark of this later era was the all-comer saloon racing of the mid ’60s, which produced some of the most lethal hybrids known to man. These concoctions would embrace the term ‘muscle cars’ more radically than most! The peak of this racing category included such iconic cars as the Robbie Francevic’s 427 V8–powered ’56 Customline, known as ‘The Custaxie’; John Miller’s 327 V8 rear-engined Renault Dauphine; Neil Doyle’s 327 V8 Anglia; Ron Silvester’s 327 V8 Chev coupé; Garth Souness’s 283 V8 ’32 Ford coupé; Harry Orpwood’s Lincoln V8 Fiat Topolino; Red Dawson’s 283 V8 Willys coupé; and John Riley’s Chrysler Firepower V8 Ford coupé.
THE MUSTANG AND THE MONARO
However, everything was to change in mid 1964 with the arrival of the Ford Mustang — the original muscle car. Ford America stumbled on the magic formula for the youth culture when it realised its family ‘second car’, or young secretary’s choice, was suddenly hot property in the hands of racers when they had uprated the engine. The Blue Oval stole a march on the rest and released an onslaught of factory-built performance.
The high-performance sedan playing field changed overnight as the major manufacturers, American and Australian, took their cues from the Mustang. It’s not the purpose of this story to lay out a history of various models here — I want to reflect more on some of the legendary characters who drove or raced them — but it would be unforgivable not to mention the stunning impact of my first sighting of a 289 V8 Mustang and 327 V8 GTS Monaro, with those electrifying colours and racing stripes. To a 12-year-old Gerard, they were a vision of sublime Day-Glo beauty, dealing sledgehammer blows through my heart. While other things have paled over time, my love of the shape of these two cars has never waned.
I still think their proportions are perfect. They both went on to play a profound role in saloon car racing in this country, on both asphalt and the speedway dirt.
Yes, the world had turned and the muscle car in both road and racer incarnations was no longer a backyard special; it was a factory-built car.
Over the years, I’ve talked to various local motor racing heroes and hotshots when writing up their stories and I have accumulated tales of ‘fanging it’ in all manner of marginal circumstances.
Everard is New Zealand’s only documented moonshine driver. Could he be New Zealand’s original young larrikin hot rod driver? At the wheel of his souped-up ’34 Chevrolet roadster, 13-year-old Everard — yes, you read that correctly — would head out of the hills above Gore, Otago, nightly in 1940, with his machine loaded to the gunwales with ‘white lightning’, known locally as ‘hokonui’.
Working for ‘The Colonel’, under the cover of darkness, he would head to the main centres of Dunedin, Invercargill, and Balclutha. It was a game of cat and mouse in those prohibition days in Southland, avoiding the remittance men who staged road blocks along country roads for the moonshine runners. Inevitably, one night, Everard rounded a corner to find the road blocked by the constabulary. It seemed the game was up, but quick-thinking Everard gunned his hot roadster for all it was worth, like the true desperado he was. He mounted the bank; the machine lurched precariously, threatening to flip. He avoided disaster by a hair’s breadth, bounced back onto the road without breaking one jar of precious whisky, and disappeared into the night.
He laughed, “They jumped into their sedans and gave chase, but they couldn’t catch my light roadster with their heavy sedans.”
Everard enjoyed a healthy pay rate from The Colonel for his risky endeavours. The ’34 Chev roadster was just six years old in 1940, making it almost a new car in New Zealand at the time. Everard paid for it with just six weeks’ work, although he did acknowledge that the work was quite stressful.
Racing driver from the 1960s to 1971, stock car promoter, automotive parts importer, and offshore powerboat racer 1972–’75, Spinner has lived and breathed the Detroit iron V8 culture more than most. While Spinner’s racing was limited due to his far-reaching business empire, he is rightly celebrated for carving out a number of muscle car milestones. From his Morrinsville-based performance parts business, Paton & Black Motorworld, he imported, built up, and raced the legendary Chev Camaro that went on to fame in Rod Coppins’ hands and the wild Monaro that Grady Thompson raced. He was also responsible for creating the Coca-Cola Mustang and the Radio Hauraki Pontiac Firebird that Ron Kendall raced for him on the dirt-track speedways. Another major slice of Spinner’s pie at the time was as a pioneer in setting up several of the North Island stock car tracks under the Cowan & Black mantle that are still running today, including Waikaraka Park in Auckland.
Spinner also raced a Falcon GTHO, in which he had a serious white-knuckle run in the early hours one morning. This typifies the Black lunacy unleashed, once behind the wheel of a muscle car. In his words, “Racing was legalised hooning”.
Oversleeping one morning, Spinner was desperately late to catch a flight to the US, necessitating an adrenaline-fuelled ballistic run from Morrinsville to Auckland. He had woken up exactly two hours before take-off time. He was 129km from the airport. Throwing his clothes on, he bid a brief goodbye to his wife, Anne. He dumped the gear from the road car into the race-prepped GTHO, which he had left with a full tank. It was the wildest ride of his life — “Very scary and very crazy!”
Averaging 145kph the whole way, and peaking at 210–225kph on the straights, Spinner hung on grimly, desperately trying to keep the beast tracking straight on uneven roads, driven by some inner urge to achieve the impossible. The sound of the V8 thundering at full throttle through the night is still an evocative memory for Spinner. He reached Auckland Airport one hour and five minutes after leaving Morrinsville. Still shaking from his wired state, he staggered into the terminal and made his West Coast flight. Long may that record remain unchallenged.
In recalling Grady Thompson, the muscle car circuit racer from 1967 to 1970, Spinner shook his head and laughed. “I could be a bit hairy at times, but Grady was a wild man. He definitely took it to the extreme. He really was a bit of a party animal and raced the same way.”
Grady attacked the 1969–’70 season with raw aggression, in the not-quite-fully-sorted Spinner Black–built Monaro GTS. He was a master of Levin and put on a few mesmerising, opposite-lock, ragged-edge-of-disaster style performances at the track.
The Monaro certainly looked the part, and was equipped with all the state-of-the-art hardware of the time, but it remained an unrefined beast. Grady’s huge lurid loss over the infamous Wigram bump remains one of the wildest muscle car rides to come to rest without harm to driver or machine.
Hammering along, Grady with pedal to the metal in true Thompson fashion, the car got slightly out of shape after hitting the bump. It unloaded spectacularly. Several high-speed 360-degree revolutions later, the Monaro disappeared in a thick cloud of Dunlop’s best rubber smoke. The car then slid neatly to a stop in the narrow space between two hangars. Certainly Grady’s lucky day. Others who have tripped over the bump have been much less fortunate.
The newspaper headline should certainly have screamed, ‘Auckland outlaw hot rod V8 coupe larrikins on the loose in a no-holds-barred illegal road race, terrorising the locals, to beat 6pm pub closing at Taihape’. What’s not to like?!
This is a true story, which I heard from Garry Pedersen, New Zealand Sports Car champion 1971–’72, Formula 5000 racer 1972–’74, and Gold Star Championship 1972–’73 runner-up. I’d heard a very similar version previously from the legendary Johnny Riley himself. Both took part in this infamous encounter.
Garry’s account is as follows: “A convoy of 12 pre-war coupés had set off together from a South Auckland rendezvous. The drivers, who were all competing in the Levin races in early 1964, included legends Garth Souness, Glen Jones, Johnny Riley, Red Dawson, Frank Stephens, Trevor Cliff Hauncey, and me, of course. It was a crew of red-blooded young men, and some not quite so young, in hotted-up V8 hardware. There were always going to be some fireworks!
“The plan was to get to Taihape in time for the six o’clock swill. This was pre 10pm pub closing. The first to arrive was entrusted with the task of huge gravity — buying the pub dry! When the rest of the entourage arrived, they slugged back copious refreshments in 30 minutes before the doors were bolted shut.
“Back to the cars and then it was all on in the race to Levin. Not exactly responsible, but a hell of a lot of fun,” was Garry’s observation 46 years later.
On that twisting Old School Road from Taihape to Mangaweka, a wild, reckless duel was fought to get there first.
Garry reckons, “The racing was probably better than on the track.”
They were certainly a bunch of petrolhead outlaw racers to the pink gin and cucumber sandwich set at Levin, and in the eyes of the self-regarding elite single-seater, sports car, and Jaguar saloon car racing crowd.
Story and images supplied by New Zealand Classic Car magazine. Read more New Zealand Classic Car content here on themotorhood.com.
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