ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Mark Sainsbury on really fast cars

Broadcaster and petrolhead Mark Sainsbury celebrates a new book on racing cars in New Zealand.

Why is it that we give up on special vehicles in our lives? Just as Steve Holmes’ excellent new book on historic racing cars in New Zealand landed with a thump on my front door, I was in the emotional process of letting go of my beloved Norton 650SS.

I had owned one when I was 17 but disposed of it after being clocked going 90mph on the motorway in the first weeks of the petrol crisis and new strictly enforced lower speeds.  Seventeen years later I repeated the exercise, buying a 1968 model which I was determined never to sell.  

It had that 50s-60s vibe like something you would see Tintin riding.  I loved it but only for short bursts - the vibration from the bike would leave your arms numb. For all it faults, it was magnificent.

If you don’t get the bike thing, a Norton SS had the legendary featherbed frame which meant you could lean it right over into corners and impress girls. You looked so cool. Well, that was the theory. I tried it out in Wellington one Friday night in my youth and there were sparks as the exhaust pipe scraped the ground, but my sudden coolness evaporated when the rear foot pegs flopped out and bit into the road, pivoting the machine around in an arc that nearly sent me on my arse.  

No matter. A beautiful car or bike is something we cherish forever. Growing up in New Zealand with overseas funds restricting what anyone could buy, my passion was more towards road than racing cars. We all had our favourites including the “pagoda roof”  Mercedes, the E-type etc, but strangely for me it was the 1963 Lincoln Continental four door convertible. It’s also known as The Kennedy car - the presidential limousine that JFK was shot in was a stretched version of Ford’s most opulent offering. We had the 1963 Observer Book of Cars in our house, so my five brothers and I all had a favourite. The ultimate object of my desire - and which after 30 years I finally realised - was on page 47, the mighty Lincoln.

As I drooled over the new Capri GTXLR or the GTHOs and Monaros on the showroom floors, the racing scene in this country was on a parallel path. Imports from America and Europe were raced, rebuilt and  rethought, and local contraptions were modified to incredible success.  And I say contraptions, but regardless of how weird they sometimes looked, these early machines were a tribute to the genius of their creators.

Many of them are beautifully  presented in the 200 pages of Historic Racing Cars, from the Custaxie to the McLaren M8A. The detail is extensive, and the generous number of photos takes us back to an extraordinary period when Kiwi ingenuity created or modified these racing machines. 

Holmes’ book gives us an insight into some of the most significant or just plain out-there concepts. Who would buy a brand new Alfa body shell from the factory in 1980, only to drop a V8 into it? Ian and Barry Algie of course. They then proceeded to add various extravagant spoilers and air intakes to make this another unique Kiwi special.   

But others had do what Kiwi racer after Kiwi racer has done: improvise. Peter Bennett took a humble A40, just abut the most boring and pedestrian Nana car in existence, and chopped and strengthened it into a racer. A bizarre racer, but a racer nonetheless.

One thing that struck me reading Historic Racing Cars was how a lot of these cars were simply flicked on to new owners or wrecked.  The owners and drivers of these amazing machines didn’t seem to be trapped in sentiment or nostalgia. It was all about performance and winning. The book traces the history of the vehicles and, later, the sheer persistence of some to save that heritage.

In my view there are two types of people. I don't wish to comment on the second kind but the first are those who love – yes, love - cars and bikes, and everything that goes around that.  This book is for you. And it's those people that in the end did it for me with the SS Norton. 

I had not used it. I had not loved it. And I had ignored it for so long that the registration expired. A warning here: never let it happen unless you want your bike retro fitted with indicators and a brake light that works off the front brake and other ridiculous requirements to bring a 1960s bike up to 1990s standards. The only solution is to keep it up to date. 

My final decision to part with the SS was discovering someone who loved it even more than me. Bob the bus driver in Wellington still races Nortons and his favourite bike of all time is the Norton SS with the featherbed frame. Just like me with the Lincoln Continental, he now has his favourite back in his garage again.

I might even throw in a copy of Historic Racing Cars. Bob is the sort of person you’d do that for.

Historic New Zealand Racing Cars by Steve Holmes (David Bateman, $39.99)

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