Allan Dick tells the remarkable story of ‘RB’ – Ross Burns Cameron, a man who has raced virtually everything, with some rallying thrown in – and who continues his ‘career’ by making a ‘comeback’.
The 100th issue of NZ Classic Driver is a personal milestone for me, but there’s something else happening this year that is equally as important – the 75th anniversary of the Otago Sports Car Club. I wasn’t there at the start (my involvement came later), but the club has a proud history.
The Otago Sports Car Club (OSCC) was one of a small number of clubs founded in the ‘new era’ after WW2, when motor racing was reorganised. And the OSCC was one of the founding members of the ANZCC – the parent body of New Zealand motorsport (now Motorsport NZ). In 1953 it became the first club in New Zealand to organise a full ‘round the houses’ type of motor race meeting and today it hosts the most successful rally in New Zealand. In between, there’s been an awful lot happening.
The ‘godfather’ of the Otago Sports Car Club is Ross Burns Cameron – club president for decades, today he remains the man who represents everything the club has stood for over the past half century. But he’s more than an administrator – he’s been a very long-time competitor in a bewildering variety of cars from pre-war V8s to a Formula Pacific. He’s returning to the tracks this year in a typical Ross Cameron car – a Pre-’65 Vauxhall Velox.
It all began a long time ago.
The night I invited Ross to a party that I was holding for car club friends at my home in Dunedin, I had no idea of the power I was unleashing within the club.
Ross arrived that night, alone, not long out of John McGlashan College, dressed in a tweed sports coat, tie, probably brogues, 18 or 19 years of age and carrying his admission ticket – half a dozen long-necked bottles of beer in a brown paper bag.
The party took place after a Mount Cargill hillclimb and there were visiting drivers in town. I didn’t know Ross very well at all but I had seen him at a couple of events and he was by himself. I just felt he needed to get to know some of the others, so I invited him to the party.
It was 1969. He was quiet; standing in the billiard room of my old home, watching the chaos develop around him. The ice was broken but there was a personal reason why I’d singled Ross out – he came from a Cameron family steeped in the motor industry.
After WW2, his uncle, Bill Cameron, had founded General Accessories that went on to become one of the largest automotive parts suppliers in the country. Bill was later joined by a younger brother, Dick. Dick’s son Kelvin was to later develop into a highly talented and skilled driver before he suffered fatal injuries in a test crash at Ruapuna in 1979 or 1980.
There was another Cameron brother, Ian, who had served with the RNZAF in the Pacific during the war and, on returning home, became one of the earliest and most successful used car dealers in Dunedin.
There had been second-hand dealers in New Zealand before WW2, but they were few and far between. In fact, used cars were often regarded as ‘junk’ and difficult to sell. But after WW2, as servicemen returned home, things changed and demand for used cars soared as these men wanted their own transport. Those who got in early did very well and made names for themselves.
Dunedin had people like Rodney Farry, Tommy Cummings – and Ian Cameron – who established his yard in the front of the house where he and his family lived on the corner of St David and Great King Street. Here he dealt in ‘interesting’ cars. Yes there were mainstream cars, but he also dealt with makes and models the rest of the industry regarded as orphans. He was also where you went for your Ford V8!
In the mid-fifties, when I started to save for my first car, there were only a handful of yards where I looked, and the modest and almost unmarked car yard on the corner of St David and Great King was where I haunted. It had cheap V8s! I must have driven Ian Cameron mad with my almost-monthly calls about his cheaper offerings, and inane questions like, “Does it burn oil?” But he was always smiling and never chased me away.
In the midwinter of 1957 I bought a car from him. It was a silver 1935 Ford V8 I’d spotted from over a fence, sitting in an overflow yard. It looked like what I wanted – more importantly, it was £100, which meant a £50 deposit and the rest over a year.
I phoned; he answered, “Car sales.”
I asked about the 1935 Ford V8 he was advertising as a ‘Special’ for £100.
“It’s not going, got a flat battery, but we can get it going for you.”
“Does it burn oil…?”
“If I come in on Friday night with my father, can I put it on hire purchase?”
“Yes, you can.”
“Okay, see you then.”
“I close at eight.”
On Friday night, I nervously paid £50 while my father signed the HP form and then we walked around the corner to the overflow yard, Ian – or Mister Cameron – pushing a 12v battery on a trolley with jumper leads.
He unlocked the gates, hooked up the leads, stood on the floor-mounted starter button and the old girl burst into life. The first time I had heard it run!
It was a cold, frosty Dunedin night with a heavy dew and everything was dripping wet. For the first time, I actually sat in the car and revved the engine.
“Okay?” asked Ian.
“Fine,” said I, grinning and feeling like a dog with two tails.
“Off you go then – you’ll need petrol, Regent Service Station across the road is open.”
“Dad, can you lend me ten shillings please?”
Off I went, blowing into my clenched hands to keep them warm and squinting through the narrow arc on the wet windscreen cleared by the single wiper. The inside of the car smelt like wet socks.
I had bought my first car – unheard and undriven until that moment.
Now, I tell you this because for me, buying my first car was like losing my virginity. From that point on Mister Cameron became a part of my life, even if he didn’t know it.
Read the rest of this article in the March-April issue of NZ Classic Driver.