The Variety Bash was an Australian import when it first kicked off in New Zealand 26 years ago. Dick Smith had organized a bush-bashing rally with his mates to raise funds for charity. By year two, they were raising funds for Variety — the Children’s Charity, and it didn’t take long before Kiwis realized that the format suited us, too.

Teams pay a generous donation to the charity, which aims to deliver targeted support to underprivileged kids with a specific need, be it medical or educational equipment, school uniforms or laptops, books or bikes. In return they get to take part — as long as they turn up in a classic car, or with a team themed to appeal to kids (as a nod to the charity’s show-biz American roots), and are prepared for a week of sometimes slightly anarchic fun.

Each year the rally takes a different route, linking underprivileged urban areas and tiny small-town schools via scenic back-block routes. Along the way they deliver grants to any families who’ve applied for them, as well as entertain at schools and hospitals, raise the profile of the charity, and shake a bucket or two to raise more funds.

They’ll also take part in working bees like this one at a Greymouth School garden — helping clean, dig, paint, or plant at community schools without the funds, or the numbers, to keep the maintenance up themselves.

Each year a few celebrities take part too, with TV One frontman Simon Dallow a regular, seen here at Huapai School, as are Mark Wright, Suzy Cato, and Shane Cortese.

This year the event launches in Levin on March 12 and ends in Timaru on March 18, but before we give you the route, let’s take a look at some of the teams, in alphabetical order:

Argus Fire Systems bought its 1988 Mitsubishi fire tender from the Wellington Fire Service to take part in the Variety Trillian Bash, and kitted it out with water pistols in the bumpers, lights, and sirens — and yes, the 1800-litre water tanks and hoses are fully operational. It’s also kitted out with a BBQ, a drink dispenser, and a coffee machine. 
This is the fifth year in which a rotating team from the company’s nearly 200 staff will board the unit for the event, after spending the year alongside several of their clients raising funds for the charity.

Bash Bakers’ David Drake has taken part in 18 New Zealand Bashes and 12 in Australia, with up to five cars funded and staffed by corporate suppliers to the baking industry. The Christchurch-based Basher is now down to one: a 1965 Ford Fairlane sponsored by Couplands Bakeries. He’s had his share of breakdowns — on one memorable event it took 15 hours to get from Christchurch to Westport thanks to a dodgy clutch and a fuel blockage.

BestStart is a young Tauranga crew aboard a 1981 Acco fire appliance, and boy do they love their water battles. It took a full engine rebuild courtesy of DM Automotive to get to the start line this year, and they started their journey early. BestStart runs 260 centres across New Zealand aimed at creating a positive outcome for Kiwi kids, and the team drops in on any centres that the Bash passes. This time they’re collecting and distributing books that the kids have made for one another to put communities in touch, and introduce pen pals, starting in Tauranga, and then Auckland, Palmerston North, Blenheim, and further on south.

The Blues Brothers began Bashing thanks to Glenn Wilson’s son. Once a Variety Gold Heart recipient, with a grant to help him get to the Paralympics, Mark Wilson now raises funds for the charity and sucked his dad in. Glenn bought a 1989 Ford Fairmont Ghia stretch limo and painted it up with an NYPD theme and the catchphrase ‘To serve, to collect, to swindle’. He and a group of mates — most of them in the aluminium gates,  powder coat, and artistry business — join up each year to raise funds for disadvantaged children, and have a ball doing it. Also known as ‘The Three Musketeers’ they are now famous for dropping into a Temuka supermarket for a snack, and paying for an older-lady’s groceries as a random act of kindness.

The Blues Sisters are a new team, driving a Ford Galaxie, and we have no photos yet. But there are plenty of the Cupcakes, who are two friends from Australia who fly over each year to help this New Zealand charity in their 1973 Mini Clubman with roof-mounted sugary snack. And yes, that cherry does light up.

Every Little Boys Dream is made up of corporate larrikins and petrolheads — team captain Mark Hellyer is a Targa regular — sponsored by BDO and aboard a 1965 Commer fire engine complete with high-pressure hoses and 800-litre water tanks. Hellyer’s team runs golf and horse-racing events to raise money for the charity, and of course loves clowning around to entertain back-blocks kids — watch out for the shaving foam. “But often it’s a lot more than that. Like partnering with Tauranga Round Table to buy and install Tauranga’s Liberty Swing for kids in wheelchairs, and recalling the look on Tegan’s face, the first kid to try it — there wasn’t a dry eye among the boys,” Hellyer said.

Ford True Blue is a team with plenty of history. Ford has supported Variety — the Children’s Charity for 26 years, and runs a team too. It’s now retired the much-loved but tiring Zephyr and each year enters a new model — in 2016 a pair of Mustangs with a yet-to-be released theme. Last year they got permission to use Toy Story, this year they promise the team will be even more eye-catching.

Fishpot has become a Bash institution. Team Captain Peter Drummond has done every Bash and owns the ex-LA 1960 Seagrave ladder truck. There’s an 18-litre petrol engine up front, and a separately steered rear end, needed because at over 17-metres long, with a ladder that stretches 10 stories, it couldn’t otherwise make it around your average Kiwi back road. Regular rear pilot Euan now knows Pete’s hand signals — clearly visible as the crew sit up top, exposed to the elements. Regular passenger, veteran rocker Tom Sharplin, is prone to starting random arm-wrestling matches while the rig is under way.

Hydrant Hoppers opted for a camo theme last year, and this group of mates must do all the fundraising themselves, as well as keep their 1972 Bedford TK fire engine going as they haven’t yet signed up a sponsor. Team Captain Todd Forsyth is a parent with two healthy kids, and says every Bash underlines how lucky he is and how little it takes to make a big difference in an underprivileged or sick kid’s life.

The Mooloo Croo’s line-up of Waikato likely lads are all crusty exteriors and soft-hearted centres. You can guarantee they’ll be the life and soul of any party, but they’re equally quick to come forward when there’s a spade to wield at a rural school, or a good deed to be done.

Naki Boys’ bright-yellow TK Bedford fire truck on a Nissan chassis carries what you might call an experienced crew — they’ve got over 110 years of Bashing between them, but there’s a moment on every Bash that keeps them pitching to sponsors, fundraising, and returning every year. Bazza will never forget presenting a trampoline to a four-year-old boy in need of motivation to get active. He asked the lad what was wrong: “My eyes are broke.” He was blind. 

Pink Truck’n is run by Tutukaka Coast man Andrew Sworn, whose daughter talked him into his 1981 Acco International with its 5.6-litre V8 engine, painted pink to run the all-female H20 Gurlz team. When she moved on he kept it going — after all, little girls like fire trucks too. He and some mates run the annual Variety Splash on the Whangarei Harbour to raise funds for Variety, and his small team is another that is always in the thick of any work needing doing.

Sworn’s near neighbour Marc Sands and his Resene Team 1967 Bedford never lose an opportunity to get kids up top to see what it’s like to handle a fire hose. He’ll be on the road early in convoy with his pink mate — both the rigs have the furthest to travel to the Levin start.

Seuss Subbus can cause chaos on the highway if inattentive drivers get a shock when they spot this 1958 Bedford bus coming towards them — it has two cabs, and a propeller. The colourful team run four-wheel drive tag-along events from their Ohakune base, and sometimes raise enough to run two teams. It’ll be just the one this year: let’s hope the bus isn’t too full, it’s always popular with the entertainers and magicians along on the Bash.

Stu Chapman has yet to reveal the new paint for what has been the Elders car. His 1964 Ford Fairlane includes an in-car water pistol filled via a tank in the boot that fires jets of water from the rear spoiler, as well as the roof-bar lights. The Bash stalwart says, “It’s neat getting into back-country communities, forgotten places, and forgotten schools that miss out on lots of stuff. We visited an East Cape School and even the principal had no shoes. These two kids with amazing voices got up and sang to us, then dropped to their knees and the guys pulled a haka, it was a powerful moment. These kids had nothing, but they had raw talent.”

The Christchurch Airport Top Gun crew won’t reveal their kit and vehicle until the North Island contingent lands at Picton on March 12. But we do know that it’s a 1982 Acco fire truck that usually works at the airport, pulled from service and dressed up as an F14A Tomcat naval fighter jet, complete with wings and tail, and crewed by airport staff dressed in Top Gun strip. We’re betting they’ll be a favourite among the 4000 kids at the 21 schools the Bash will visit this year.

Also popular are the Tiki Girls crew, aboard a TK Holden run out of West Auckland and dressed in Hogwarts theme, complete with owls, broomstick, and school trunks. Team Captain, and car owner, Dana Coote got into Variety fundraising after finding out first-hand how hard families of disabled children can have it, and she and the crew do all the fundraising themselves. They’d welcome a sponsor aboard to help run the team — and appear on the side of their car.

Thunderbird Wallies — sounds confusing? It can be. Some days the ‘Where’s Wally’ team may don the red-and-white stripes and round glasses of a traditional Wally and photo bomb anything moving, but they’re as likely these days to dress in Thunderbirds strip. They’re proof that you don’t need a flash car to enter this event, with their 2000 Ford Falcon bought for a song, repainted for a couple of grand, with a Thunderbirds ‘4’ made by a mate and fixed to the roof rack, and costumes sourced from eBay and op shops. The Stihl Shop Silverdale and PowerParts Christchurch team recondition used lawnmowers in their spare time as just one means of raising funds for Kiwi kids in need.

True Blue Two is the Ford-dealer team, run by a committed team from Nelson’s MS Ford, Stevens Motors from Lower Hutt, and South Auckland Motors. Their AU Fairlane is decked out with lights and sirens, and a team packed in so tight with balloons and goody bags it has been known to take a block and tackle to extract them — or a crowd of kids after (temporary) Ford tattoos.

What a Load of Bull from Bulls will not be aboard their leather-clad Land Rover this year, but two team members will come along for the ride. Perhaps they’ll hitch with the GT Radial team? Started up by the late, great Westie comedian Ewen Gilmour and now run by his mates in his honour, the stretch Falcon Limo usually carries a rotating cast of comedians and entertainers, with Tarun Mohanbhai splitting sides in 2015.

And last but not least, the AA sends a service crew along, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force adds several vans of trainee mechanics, who need to learn what it’s like to keep a convoy of vehicles going when you don’t know what technology you’ll be facing, what tools you’ll need, or what you’ll be able to scrounge from the scenery around you. Talk about training exercise with a difference!

This year’s event kicks off in Levin on March 12, travelling to Wellington to entertain kids battling cancer on the wharf before boarding the Bluebridge ferry south. They’ll then follow a winding route to Blenheim, Portage, Nelson, Westport, Greymouth, Ashburton, and Timaru, visiting 4000 kids in 21 schools, conducting working bees, and entertaining children along the way. 

In between the good deeds there’s gorgeous scenery and plenty of fun, literally, as teams take it in turns to run ‘fun stops’, which usually involve contests with a difference, be it blindfold driving, horizontal bungee, or luge races. After all, the rally is as much a fun event to reward the year’s hard work of fundraising, as it is an entertainment cavalcade. 

  • Photos and words: Jacqui Madelin