The first-ever classic race meeting was held at the newly opened Hampton Downs circuit on November 28, 2009, the first race at this meeting being a Classic Trial. But that was by no means the start of trialling in New Zealand. For that you need to go back to the glory days of the Thoroughbred and Classic Car Owners Club (TACCOC) Wings & Wheels meetings at which, once a year, fields of up to 40 substantially standard road-going classic cars ran in Regularity Trials around a runway circuit at RNZAF Whenuapai.
Of course Regularity Trials had their origins in the UK, where they were popular during the ’50s. Local TACCOC members, having seen these types of event being run in Australia, brought Regularity Trials to New Zealand. TACCOC wrote the rules for the event and convinced MotorSport New Zealand to add trialling into its race regulations. At the time, the late Geoff Manning was president of TACCOC, and today the Classic Trial Championship celebrates Geoff, with entrants competing for a trophy named in his memory and presented by his wife, Barbara Manning.
Sadly, with Whenuapai no longer available for motor sport, the Wings & Wheels meeting disappeared from the calendar and, although Regularity Trials continued, support for the event dropped off.
However a couple of habitual trial competitors, Arthur Hopkins and Rex Oddy, determined that it was time to rev up the class. They formed a register of competitors, and worked with the promoters of the major classic meetings in the top half of the North Island to run trials under the new name of Classic Trials. This all took place in in late 2002, with the first Classic Trial held at a Historic Racing Club meeting at Manfeild in 2003. It was the start of the current Classic Trial Championship, and it has continued in the same format since.
What is a Classic Trial?
The first thing to be aware of is that a Classic Trial event is not a race. Instead, drivers select a lap time and then attempt to achieve that time throughout the trial. This means outright speed is irrelevant, with the winner of each event being the one that has been most consistent — in effect this equalizes any power differences between the cars themselves, as a driver in a low-powered Mini has just as much chance of winning a trial as the pilot of a fire-breathing Cobra!
That doesn’t mean trials aren’t extremely competitive. Variances between the drivers’ selected and actual lap times are well under a second, and very often below 0.2 of a second per lap, so the competition can get very hot indeed. To make the events even more challenging, timing assistance is not permitted, and drivers must make their own assessment of their speed.
Classic Trials is open to all types of classic cars — as long as sports cars and GTs are over 15 years old, while saloons must be over 25 years old.
With rules that effectively level the playing ground, Classic Trials events appeal to the thinking motor-sport enthusiast as consistency and expert timing are the key to success, rather than massive power or the latest, most powerful supercar. As such, Classic Trials attract all types of drivers and cars — as illustrated by those profiled within this feature.
John McGregor’s Lotus Eleven Replica
John will probably be best known to New Zealand Classic Car readers as the man who founded McGregor Motorsport, an Aranui-based manufacturer of Lotus 7–style clubman cars. During the six years that John ran his company, more than 40 kitset and complete cars were produced. In 2005 he built a version powered with a Rover V8 — this car being featured in the April 2005 edition of NZ Classic Car. In 2007 John sold McGregor Motorsport to Robert Snow, who has continued the tradition and developed the business in other directions.
Backtracking, John’s introduction to motor sport came at an early age through his father and uncle, both members of the Northern Sports Car Club, who competed in events at the now defunct Seagrove circuit, Muriwai Beach, Ridge Road hill climb and at other fixtures during the late ’40s and ’50s. Together, they attended NZ Grand Prix races at Ardmore and Pukekohe.
Although John dabbled in motor sport with a Mini during the ’60s, the usual responsibilities of marriage, mortgages and family intervened, and he didn’t get back onto the track until the late ’80s — taking part in Wings & Wheels at Whenuapai in a Triumph TR4A.
Although John enjoyed the Triumph, what he really wanted was a Lotus Eleven — a car he had first seen competing at Ardmore in the hands of Howden Ganley (the same Lotus recently featured in NZ Classic Car), but it would take another 50 years before he started looking seriously for a Lotus, and by then prices had skyrocketed. However, as McGregor Motorsport was now established and building Lotus 7 replicas, why not an Eleven too?
Working from a book containing original Lotus Eleven chassis drawings, Chapman’s original concept was brought up to date by modifying the front suspension to utilize double wishbones, instead of a split Ford Popular beam axle. And instead of the live axle or de Dion rear suspension, they fabricated wishbones, so that coupled to a Ford Sierra differential, the replica boasted fully independent suspension. Rather than use a fragile and rare Coventry-Climax motor, John specified a more dependable Escort 1600 cross-flow engine.
Establishing a further link to the ex Jim Palmer / Howden Ganley Eleven John had originally seen at Ardmore, he was introduced to Peter Bruin by Andrew Denton. Bruin had taken moulds off the Palmer/Ganley Lotus, so a fibreglass body was soon in the works for John’s replica.
John says his Eleven is an absolute joy to drive, and that he learns more about driving technique each time he gets out onto the track. He reckons that Classic Trials are the perfect fit for him as he continues to travel up his on-track learning curve.
John Miller’s 1974 Ford Escort RS2000
John has liked Ford Escorts since he was young, and during the ’70s and ’80s he owned about five different MkI and MkII examples. After the children started leaving school and school fee costs reduced, he began looking for a Twin Cam Escort and was very fortunate to be able to purchase a MkI Escort RS1600, a car that he has improved while keeping it in original condition.
Looking for a car suitable for motor sport, John — along with his son, Steve — naturally opted for another Escort, the car he eventually acquired in 2008 having been originally assembled by Ford Australia before coming to New Zealand in October 1983.
Following the purchase, John and Steve had a roll cage fabricated, and fitted five-point racing harnesses. Sensibly, after the car’s interior was stripped and the cage fitted, John retained the original rear seating and interior trim.
The next change they made was to replace the original 2.0-litre engine with a Bruce Manon–built Ford Pinto — a motor originally intended for Mike Sexton’s red and gold Alan Mann Escort replica. This engine, a 2.1-litre, SOHC Ford unit, boasted modifications carried out by Lynn Rogers — including a specially ported cylinder head with large valves and roller rockers — the engine breathes through a brace of Weber side-draught carburettors.
With a Hi-Tech Motorsport special electronic ignition system and balanced four-into-one stainless-steel headers that run into a three-inch-bore exhaust and main muffler, the Escort’s engine currently develops 131kW at 7450rpm with a maximum torque of 183Nm at 6300rpm.
That power goes to the tarmac via a standard Ford Sierra five-speed gearbox and a rear axle donated by a British-built Escort Sport MkII — although the latter unit has been fitted with a Tranx limited-slip differential. The car’s suspension is relatively standard, with leaf spring suspension at the rear, the front end retaining the standard Escort cross-member and suspension, but with height-adjustable coil-over spring struts and Bilstein shocks. Stopping is provide by Wilwood callipers and Ford ventilated rotors up front, while at the rear the standard Ford drum brakes have proved adequate.
With the intent of keeping the Escort as period as possible, they retained the wheel diameter standard at 13-inch, and the car normally runs on 13- by six-inch Performance Minilite alloy wheels. Although the Ford’s shell is relatively sound, with minimal rust, it is currently in need of a repaint, and a new colour scheme has yet to be decided upon.
Non-period items fitted when the car was purchased are front and rear carbon-fibre bumpers. To date these have been left in place.
John got involved with Classic Trials through his son, Steve, who competed in trials events in a Mini before moving on to the RS2000. However, with Steve’s time taken up with his studies for a Business Diploma during the last few years, John has been able to drive the Escort, taking over from his son on Classic Trials events, and he reckons they have provided him with lots of fun.
Robyn Riding’s 1981 Porsche 924 Turbo
Robyn’s car — a Series 2 Porsche 924 Turbo — was one of around 15 examples that were imported new into New Zealand. Used as a road car until 1999, the 924 was then converted into a race car for use in the Porsche Club Bridgestone Race Series. It was used for two seasons, and parked up at the end of 2002.
Robyn purchased the car at the end of 2006 and prepared it for the 2007 Targa NZ Rotorua — that meant the Porsche had to be transformed back into a road-legal car. Not an easy task — and one that was only completed just two weeks prior to the event. Alas, Robyn’s Targa started poorly with the Porsche’s engine misfiring on the Friday prologue stage, however, with the misfire remedied, the following day got off to a good start until the last stage, when the engine suffered terminal failure. A strip-down following the event revealed that nothing was salvageable from the motor, and with spare 924 Turbo engines non-existent in New Zealand, a decision was made to fit a normally aspirated but blueprinted and fully balanced 924 engine. That engine is still in the car today, and has now completed around 40 events without requiring anything more than regular maintenance.
With a number of finisher’s medals and trophies in the cabinet, a decision was made to retire from Targa competition after the 2011 Rotorua event, but what to do with the car? It was at that stage that Robyn decided to fulfil a desire to compete in Classic Trials, and she completed her first trials season with the car still in Targa spec — which meant that it rode higher than a normal Porsche 924 Turbo and, as result, suffered from excessive body roll in the corners as well as being down in power.
For the 2013/2014 Classic Trials season, the Porsche was properly prepared for the track — the suspension was lowered by 60mm and it was fitted with a 924 Carrera GT bodykit that allowed the wheel track to be widened by 50mm. The addition of coil-over adjustable suspension and heavier competition anti-roll bars front and rear mean the car now handles as it should.
Since then a replacement Turbo engine has been sourced, and this year the 924 will be returned to original, with an engine developing 127kW as opposed to the current 93kW (170/125bhp).
Since starting out in Classic Trials at the end of the 2011, Robyn has now competed in 24 rounds, and has won one round plus been in the top three numerous times for individual trials. She won the Fordy Farland trophy in 2012, The Spirit of the Round for the Legends of Speed last year, and was awarded the inaugural Apparelmaster Cup for the 2013/2014 season.
Allan Horner’s 1963 Austin-Healey Sprite MkII
Dating from 1963, and the first of the breed to be fitted with front-wheel disc brakes, Allan’s Sprite attracts a lot of attention due to its handsome, aftermarket Ashley Laminates–style fibreglass bonnet — a front-hinged panel that is held down by Triumph Herald bonnet clips.
A few years ago Allan replaced the car’s original BMC 1098cc A Series engine and gearbox with a Toyota 1600cc twin-cam motor — the now virtually classic 16-valve 4AGE — and matching Toyota T50 five-speed gearbox.
The motor has been left in stock tune but, instead of running with the original Toyota computer-controlled EFI system, Allan elected to use carburettors and a simpler, more standard ignition system. This also makes it easier to maintain and tune while the twin Weber 40DCOM carburettors fit neatly under the bonnet, and look rather more in keeping with the Sprite than an EFI set-up with injectors, a big curving inlet manifold and throttle body.
The 4AGE fits nicely into the Austin-Healey’s engine bay and is tilted to the left slightly to allow clearance for the Webers. The original radiator is used, although the coolant flows through these engines in the opposite direction to the original. The car runs an oil cooler in front of the radiator and an external oil filter (for ease of access) mounted on the left wheel arch. An electric fan mounted behind the radiator is manually controlled from a switch on the dash, and is only needed on hot days or after a few hot laps on the track.
It is amazing how many people are fooled by the ‘AUSTIN-HEALEY’ signwriting on the Toyota engine’s cam cover, but after spinning them a line about special experimental engines etc, Allan usually owns up and tells them the truth!
To make use of the not inconsiderable extra power and torque the car is also fitted with boosted front disc brakes running competition pads, and the brake fluid is competition grade. Allan also rebuilt the car’s suspension, fitting new bushes, a large-diameter front sway bar, negative camber kit and a rear Panhard rod.
Having done a couple of Targa Tours and a Jaguar Club Sprint at Meremere (best time 16.4 seconds/88mph (142kph) for the quarter mile), Allan decided that the car was now ready for the race track, but didn’t want to go to the extent of fitting the roll protection, race seats and full harness belts that are mandatory for racing.
Classic Trials provided the answer — and, of course, other than a helmet and race overalls triallists don’t need all the race gear, so their cars can remain in full road trim. As well Allan says the 20 to 30 entries on a Classic Trials grid are a great bunch of people and deliver a relaxed social atmosphere.
His Sprite is one of the oldest cars running at most events, and has proved to be quite reliable, with only one DNF in three years due to a broken half shaft. Allan just reckons that he just needs to learn how to reel off consistent laps with a lap time variation of less than half a second — typically, that’s what the winners are doing!
Arthur Hopkins’ 1957 Triumph TR3
No stranger to the world of motorsport, Arthur — now 72 years young — has been competing for many years. He started racing motorbikes on grass tracks in the Waikato in the late ’50s on an old B31 BSA. From there he graduated to a 105E Anglia remembering that, in 1961, you could take the muffler and the hub caps off a road car, fit an extra sway bar and it was ready to race. Arthur then competed in speed events with the Hamilton Car Club before finally selling the Anglia for a 1956 TR3, a car that he raced during the last club days at Ardmore and then the first races at Pukekohe. He also ran the Triumph in hill climbs and sprints around Hamilton, as well as grass track meetings at Waharoa and Raglan airfield. Soon, however, as more specialized sports cars from Lotus and Lola appeared on local tracks, competitors were unable to compete.
With that in mind, Arthur then bought a MkIV Cooper-Triumph, running it mainly in hill climbs, grass tracks and at club circuits. From there he graduated to a MkVIII Cooper-Norton, a mainly original car that had run at Ardmore with Arnold Stafford driving it in the Grand Prix. Arthur competed in this car for around six years in Gold Star Hillclimbs, his best year being 1969 when he won both the Auckland and Hamilton Hillclimb Championships, and came second in the New Zealand Gold Star Series. Arthur finally sold the car when he started his own earthmoving business but, looking around for a project to take up his time during the slow winter months, around 1986 he began searching for the previously mentioned 1956 Triumph TR3 that he’d originally purchased way back in 1964. Alas, the search proved unsuccessful and, instead, he bought a fairly rusty 1957 TR3. The Triumph was subsequently pulled apart, rebuilt and pressed into service for TR Register events. Recognized TR driver, Chris Watson, reckoned Arthur’s TR3 would look good running in the regulatory trials which TACCOC had started organizing at Whenuapai. Arthur followed that advice, and has been running in the trials ever since.
Over the years he’s fitted the TR3 with a roll bar and five-point harness, a smaller steering wheel (the old wood-rimmed wheel would not pass scrutineering), a new alloy cylinder head with bigger inlets, a half-race cam, a lightened flywheel, an electric fan, a TR4A inlet manifold, and a free-flow exhaust. As well, Arthur has added TR6 parts to his car’s front suspension, and it now runs with a touch of negative camber.
Arthur says the Triumph is a lot of fun to drive when compared to late-model cars but isn’t very powerful, does not stop particularly well and handles much as it did 57 years ago, though it’s a great car to be in to try to keep the MX-5s in sight.
Paul Couper’s 1989 Mazda MX-5
Having competed in motocross for many years, an injury forced Paul to rethink his involvement with motor sport. He then took the opportunity to drive Ross Vaughan’s Mazda MX-5 at a Classic Trials event some four years ago, and was hooked. Since then, he has won the 2012 Apparelmaster Classic Trial championship, came third overall in 2013 and again won the 2014 championship.
Paul’s MX-5 is a New Zealand-new car, one of a few imported in 1989, and he originally purchased it for his wife as her daily driver. When she subsequently upgraded, he couldn’t bring himself to sell the Mazda and it languished in a barn for several years under hay bales, all its hoses and wiring slowly being eaten by rats. When Paul started to get interested in car racing, he was given the blessing to resurrect the MX-5, weld in a roll cage and have a go. The team at Dale Auto Electrical and Ray at Chubb Racing got the MX-5 back into reliable safe condition, and apart from a free-flow exhaust, seats, harnesses, springs and a half roll cage the car remains essentially stock. In Paul’s hands, the MX-5 immediately showed it potential in Classic Trials, allowing him to rack up some good results. He also reckons that his ability to learn tracks rapidly and feel for the car’s traction limits (probably a legacy from his motocross days) helped greatly in getting consistent quickly.
He says that the big challenge with the MX-5 in classic trials is trying to keep a consistent line and speed through the corners and exit speed. This is because, unlike most other cars in the class, if you make a small error you don’t have any power to make up the time elsewhere. With so little power, straight-line speed is quite poor, and it can really hurt lap times if you’re a couple of kph slow exiting a corner.
Actually, for Paul this in itself presents another major challenge in Classic Trials, in which several cars might be all circulating at the same pace, with his sector times through the tight stuff being very different to the more powerful cars. Cornering speeds are pretty fast due to the Mazda’s great handling and light weight, and he finds that’s where consistency can be best felt. However, as Paul says, that can be a double-edged sword, as one little mistake, or being held up by slower cars or wrong lines, can cause a severe loss of time.
Paul’s strategy is getting to grips with the track condition and limits quickly in practice, ignoring the other cars and what they’re doing, concentrating on shift and braking points and, most importantly, not trying to make up time if he makes a mistake. It’s an approach that has worked well for Paul, as witnessed by his past championship wins, and for him consistency is king, with his lap times usually within the 0.3 to 0.4 range over a race of seven to nine laps, making him a hard man to beat.
The Classic Trial Register
Classic Trials are managed by the Classic Trial Register in conjunction with Club Lotus NZ, Historic Racing Club, MG Car Club (Auckland) and the Thoroughbred and Classic Car Club. Formed in 2001, the register currently has a membership of over 130.
Membership of the Classic Trial Register is by invitation, and it caters to the drivers of recognized classic cars. For further information or to enquire about membership, go to the Classic Trial Register’s website — clublotus.org.nz.
Thanks to all the Classic Trials entrants who joined us at Pukekohe Park Raceway for our photo shoot, with special thanks to Ross Vaughan and Rex Oddy for their invaluable assistance.