New Zealand International Grand Prix

Think you know your motorsport history?

Fancy yourself as a bit of a historian on NZ Motor Racing? Even if you don’t, surely you know the basic stuff – like who won the first New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore. Read on…

Imagine a darkened TV studio, the distinctive Mastermind tune and the famous chair. Your name is – enter your name, your specialist subject tonight on Mastermind is New Zealand Motor Racing history from the fifties – 2 minutes on that racy subject starting…now. Who won the third New Zealand Grand Prix? Stirling Moss? Wrong – but he might have. From what country was the winner of the second NZ International Grand Prix? Siam? Wrong. Who won the first NZIGP at Ardmore? Stan Jones in the Maybach Special? Wrong again – want to give up? I was always intending that this month’s topic would be about that day at Ardmore 50 years ago this month but never realised what twists the tale would take. And I had to travel 12000 miles to discover what I, and it seems 99% of NZ amateur motorsport historians, thought was the key point – half a century since the first NZIGP – is in fact wrong. I’m lunching with a couple of heavy-duty historians in the form of David McKinney and Mike Lawrence at Goodwood in September. The subject of distorted motor racing facts is raised and David uses the NZGP to illustrate his example.

I think I know the answer here – the first NZGP was at Ohakea in 1950 but the first New Zealand International Grand Prix was at Ardmore in 1954 – right? Wrong. So what did Stan Jones win in January 1954 if it wasn’t the NZ Grand Prix like all the books say? Confused? I was too. Autosport January 22, 1954: ‘Averaging 72.5 miles an hour, Stan Jones of Melbourne won New Zealand’s first international car race – the 210-mile Auckland Grand Prix – on a 2.1-mile airstrip circuit on 9th January’. Auckland Grand Prix! Until lunching with Mr McKinney I would have screamed ‘misprint’, particularly when I dusted off my earliest programme that clearly calls the 1956 race ‘The Third New Zealand Grand Prix’. Some more intensive sleuth work was required and there’s only one man I know to turn to in such circumstances – Milan Fistonic to whom I am again indebted. Milan, off course, had a copy of the 1954 programme that clearly shows the organising group as being ‘The Auckland International Grand Prix (Incorporated)’. The prize they were competing for was the ‘New Zealand Motor Cup’ that had originally been donated by the Auckland Automobile Association in 1921 for competitions at Muriwai Beach.

So lets re-trace our steps for a minute – the race most of us remember as the first NZIGP was organised by the AIGP Inc. and the big race was billed as the ‘NZ Motor Cup’ with no mention of ‘Grand Prix’ except in the organisers name. Yet the term ‘Grand Prix’ is liberally scrambled throughout the programme. Moving right along to 1955 and the programme is now headed ‘New Zealand International Grand Prix’ however the organisers remain the AIGP and, just to confuse things further, the title page promotes the ‘Auckland International Grand Prix’. That was the race won by Prince Bira of Siam (now Thailand) in a Maserati 250F, the same model of car used by Stirling Moss to win in 1956 that is curiously and cunningly headed the ‘Third New Zealand Grand Prix’. By the way, the ’56 programme lists, under ‘Last Years Winners’, B.Bira as winner of the 1955 New Zealand Grand Prix…

The 1957 programme is headed ‘The Fourth New Zealand International Grand Prix’ with the organisers now being the NZIGP (Auckland) Inc. So, on the strength of this lot, when was the first NZIGP at Ardmore? The common theory of 1954 is a little short on ultimate accuracy yet ‘S.Jones, Maybach’ is listed as a former winner, seemingly retrospectively. If you think this all sounds confusing then it’s nothing compared with the result sheets at the end of the race 50 years ago this month. Here’s how it all happened- an organising committee that reads like a who’s who of the Auckland motoring fraternity had secured the right to organise a meeting on the airfield at Ardmore near Papakura. A wonderful entry was more about cars than stars but Ken Wharton, Tony Gaze and Peter Whitehead had at least started world championship events. Respectively they would be aboard the absurd 1.5 litre supercharged V16-BRM, the HWM-Alta (the car that Tom Clark would later describe as ‘the most expensive way to boil water I ever found’) and significantly, a Ferrari, a purpose built car with a supercharged 2-litre V12. Other overseas entries were in the form of 2-litre Cooper-Bristol mounted Englishmen Horace Gould and Fred Tuck, and the cream of Australia with Lex Davidson (3.4 HWM-Jaguar), Stan Jones in a curious 3.8 Maybach, and one Jack Brabham in yet another Cooper Bristol that raced as the ‘Redex Special’..

The ‘internationals’ dominated the front of the grid with Wharton on pole in the wheel-spinning BRM from the Ferrari of Whitehead. Gould and Jones completed the front row of the 4-4-4 grid. Brabham and Davidson were joined on the second row by the top locals – Ron Roycroft (2.9-litre s/c Alfa Romeo Tipo B) and the astonishing Cooper JAP of Allen Freeman. Kiwi legend George Smith was out before race day dawned and it seemed the fastest Aussie might be heading the same way. The Maybach emerged from the union of a WW2 scout car engine to a locally built chassis. A conrod pierced the crankcase during practice and with a shortage of German half-truck engine parts in Auckland it seemed unlikely that the big blue car could face the starter. An all-nighter adapting GMC and Bedford bits saw the engine turned over just three hours prior to the start. Legend has it that 70,000 spectators were brought to their toes as Philip Seabrook, the AIGP President, dropped the flag to make NZ motor racing history. Legend also has it that no one expected a crowd of this magnitude and that the ’70,000’ is, at best, a guess. In any event, there were a ton of people present to watch history being made on an overcast and showery January day in Auckland.

Wharton disappeared in the screeching BRM producing an alleged 485 bhp at 12,000 rpm. By lap 12 he led Whitehead by 27 seconds and had lapped much of the field. The Ferrari’s clutch disintegrated shortly afterwards, burning the English gentleman, and bringing Jones up to second ahead of Gould, Gaze and Roycroft. After 25 laps, or quarter distance, the BRM stretched its lead until it rained. On lap 44 Wharton pitted for 44 seconds and returned, refuelled and tyred, in second place to Jones who was overhauled by the BRM seven laps later. On lap 60, while speeding down the front straight, vaporised fluid spewed from the front brake cylinders. Wharton pitted and the front brake leads were disconnected – he drove the rest of the way on the rear brakes, and gearbox. Stan Jones now had the race in the bag, so long as the Maybach lasted. Gaze had been in the picture but the HWM had its inevitable reliability malfunction, although kept going to the finish, while Horace Gould had had a tidy and determined race only to find he’d been classified fourth behind Jones, Wharton and Gaze. The Bristolian protested claiming he’d travelled an extra lap and should have awarded the victory! So they gave him second place but that only activated counter protests. Then it was determined that Gould could not have been second, he could only be fourth or first. The Autosport of January 15 reports: ‘It is a pity that, as yet, AUTOSPORT cannot congratulate the winner of the New Zealand Grand Prix’ – they called it New Zealand Grand Prix! The editorial continued: ‘Unfortunately, a mix-up regarding the number of laps completed led to a protest entered after Stan Jones, Australian driver of his Maybach Special, had been declared the winner, with Ken Wharton (BRM) in second…’

The original positions were upheld and so Gould was fourth ahead of Roycroft (first New Zealander home and therefore the recipient of the Leonard Lord Trophy), Brabham, Ross Jensen (Austin-Healey), Arnold Stafford (Cooper-Norton), and the Cooper-JAP’s of Billy Lee and Peter Harrison rounding out the top 10. The crowd probably cared little as to whether they’d just witnessed a ‘Grand Prix’ or who’d won. They’d seen a Ferrari and heard the BRM that would be talked about by anyone that had heard it for years later. New Zealand was hooked and international single-seater racing would go from strength to strength over the next decade and a half creating home-grown Formula 1 stars along the way. Despite the best of Britain and Italy, the winning car had been from the remnants of a vehicle that had been captured in Western Desert and taken to Australia for examination by the Federal Government. It had been sold for ten quid and then on sold for four times that to Charles Dean who saw it through to its ultimate form of an offset single-seater at a total cost of 1000 pounds. By winning the New Zealand Motor Cup, perhaps the Auckland International Grand Prix and retrospectively the New Zealand International Grand Prix, Jones collected 1800 pounds.

‘You’ve scored one for getting your name right and then passed out after being told Stan Jones didn’t win the first New Zealand International Grand Prix at Ardmore…Go and learn your topic properly’. Or even better, take note of what genuine historians tell you over lunch…