Words: Steve Holmes
Although this iconic Kiwi-built racing car came about due to a series of coincidences, it would become the catalyst that sparked Jim Richards’ subsequent, very successful motorsport career.
At Brands Hatch on October 24, 1971, John Fitzpatrick and Frank Gardner were battling for the lead in the final round of the British Saloon Car Championship. Just before the bridge at Clearways on lap 11, Gardner’s SCA Freight Camaro suffered a tyre failure that sent it careening into Fitzpatrick’s Broadspeed Escort, and the two cars spent the next few hundreds metres bouncing off each other and the earth banks that lined the circuit. When they finally came to rest, the damage to each was significant. And while both cars were ultimately repairable, the shunt had far-reaching implications.
A few months earlier, having seen his young protégé, Jim Richards, soar to a comfortable class championship victory in the 1971 New Zealand Saloon Car Championship, Jim Carney stumped up the deposit to purchase the Fitzpatrick Escort off Ralph Broad at the conclusion of the 1971 BSCC. Richards had been driving Carney’s Willment Racing Escort Twin Cam the past two seasons, and the pair were excited by the prospect of moving up to the 5.5-litre class with the racy Broadspeed RS1600 and its epic fuel-injected 1800cc BDA. But it wasn’t to be. The Brands Hatch wreck forced Carney to cancel his order, as the lengthy repairs required would ensure the car arrived far too late for Richards to have any real impact on the upcoming 1972 racing season. But while Richards headed into a previously unplanned third season with the Willment Twin Cam, he began hatching a plan to take greater control of his future racing ambitions.
The Sidchrome Connection
By 1971, Jim Richards was a proven talent in New Zealand motor racing circles. He’d excelled in everything he’d driven, and he’d driven a lot of cars. His results, combined with his laid-back and marketable demeanour, ensured he was both in demand and well connected. And now it was time to start putting some of those connections to good use, to build his own car and contest the New Zealand Saloon Car Championship outright.
Richards had been guest-driving a Hillman Imp, owned by Brian Patrick, with which he battled the hoards of Minis in the 0–1000cc class. To support the project, Sidchrome Tools had come on board, and the partnership proved beneficial to both parties. To that end, and with the Broadspeed Escort programme having been cancelled, Richards approached Stuart Innes at Sidchrome with a proposal to fully support him in building a big-banger V8 to contest the outright class, with a view to winning the New Zealand Saloon Car Championship. Richards and close friend, Murray Bunn, did their homework and concluded that $20,000 should just about be enough to build and race the car. After some deliberation, Innes agreed to give them $12,000.
With their new programme approved, Richards and Bunn quickly got to work, plucking a 1969 Boss 302 Mustang off Jerry Clayton’s car yard for $5500. In a small non-descript shed away from prying eyes, they stripped the Mustang down to a bare shell and began rebuilding it as a racing car.
Even in 1972, $12,000 was a modest budget for constructing a top-flight racing car from scratch. And, as such, budget dictated the parts sourced for the project, with the pair retaining what they could from the stock Mustang. Power came from a 351ci motor, topped with quad-Webers, and backed by a four-speed Toploader gearbox and Ford nine-inch differential. Lincoln disc brakes were fitted all-round, being the best production Ford brakes available at the time. The Mustang sat low, very low, with its nose tucked right down into the weeds, while the wide magnesium American Racing wheels (soon replaced by ‘kidney-bean’ ROH wheels) were housed within handsome bubble flares. The whole package was then wrapped in a coat of red paint, with Sidchrome signage. It wasn’t a sophisticated car, having been constructed on a modest budget, and even that blew out slightly to $19,000 – although Sidchrome picked up the tab.
New Zealand Saloon Car Champion
The new Sidchrome Mustang made its competition debut at the Baypark Easter meeting in 1973. That was the plan, at least. Oiling issues with the dry-sump lubrication system meant it was scratched from the weekend’s competitions, appearing for display purposes only.
Over the winter months, Richards and Bunn prepared the Mustang for its 1974 season campaign, where it’d face tough competition in the form of Red Dawson’s powerful Chevrolet Camaro, the PDL Mustang (driven by Graham Baker), Rod Coppins’ former factory Trans-Am racing Pontiac Firebird and Paul Fahey’s newly acquired Group 2 European Touring Car Championship Capri RS2600. Also present, if slightly less competitive, would be the 1969 Camaro of John Riley, and Kevin Haig’s 1968 Mustang. In addition, Allan Moffat would contest a couple of events with his sensational 1969 Kar Kraft Trans-Am Mustang.
Early season races had Richards scratching away for minor placings, while Dawson, Fahey, Baker and Coppins scrapped over victories. At the Levin International in early January 1974, however, Richards scored his breakthrough NZSCC race victory, following an epic multi-car battle that was eventually whittled down to the Sidchrome Mustang and Fahey Capri. Indeed, Richards’ plight was helped by Dawson having punted Fahey off the track early in the race, forcing him to slice his way back through the field where he eventually caught the leading Richards on the final lap. But he couldn’t displace him.
Richards got faster with each round as he and the Mustang gelled. In the Lady Wigram Trophy event on January 19, he finished second to Baker in the championship encounter and was then part of a mesmerising display that involved both Baker and Moffat for the victory in the Flying Farewell. When the PDL driver fell away, Richards and Moffat were inseparable and spent much of the final lap side-by-side, with the Canadian-born Australian finally taking the win by a matter of inches.
With Richards getting faster, while his rivals were often beset by mechanical troubles, he kept notching up the victories and podium finishes, and by the end of the season he emerged as the New Zealand Saloon Car Champion. He’d come almost from nowhere, from a class driver of great potential, to now stand tall as an outright national champion.
Over the off-season the Mustang was subjected to a full rebuild and upgrade. Fahey’s new Capri RS2600 had caused a stir when it first appeared in New Zealand in late 1973, as its broad wheel-arch flares – a distinctive box-style design – were quite different to the more subtle bubble flares fitted to most local sedans. This resulted in a flurry of aesthetic upgrading to racing cars up and down the country, including the PDL and Sidchrome Mustangs, both of which now incorporated their own take on the Capri’s RS2600-style flares. The idea was to clean the air as it travelled around the sides of the car.
In addition, Richards and Bunn took advantage of engine placement freedoms and shifted the Ford bent-eight several inches back within the chassis, requiring a hole to be cut into the firewall. The radiator moved back with it. The newly refurbished Sidchrome Mustang was then treated to a two-tone yellow and red paint scheme.
Richards returned to defend his title against even tougher opposition. Fahey had now repowered his Capri with the latest quad-cam Cosworth GAA V6, while the Halliday brothers Don and Rob had built their own Cosworth GAA-powered Capri. And taking advantage of the new Schedule E regulations, Jimmy Stone built a Vauxhall Victor with a small block Chevrolet V8 engine for Jack Nazer. In addition, the Baypark and Wigram races were boosted with the inclusion of Allan Moffat’s Mustang and John McCormack’s radical new Valiant Charger, the latter powered by a Repco-Holden Formula 5000 engine mounted within the cabin alongside its pilot!
Richards again scored several race victories and, although invariably in the hunt, the 1975 New Zealand Saloon Car Championship was won by Fahey. Dawson was second, while a new PDL Mustang driver, Leo Leonard, was third. However, the appearance of Moffat and McCormack, and the competitiveness of the Sidchrome Mustang against these top Australian machines, had Richards thinking of a bigger picture beyond New Zealand shores.
Racing Across the Ditch
In the early through mid-1970s, the most popular form of motorsport in Australia was Sports Sedan racing. These wild and whacky machines, with their liberal regulations, spawned a throng of fascinating and completely unique cars, which were fast, noisy and full of character. And the crowds flocked to see them. Their popularity prompted a Sports Sedan series held at Oran Park in New South Wales, with sponsorship from Grace Brothers department stores and their line of Toby Lee shirts, to the tune of A$30,000. Such rich pickings got the attention of many big teams, and the Holden Dealer Team, as well as Bob Jane, Laurie O’Neill (who built a Monaro for five-time ATCC winner Ian Geoghegan), 1973 Australian Drivers Champion McCormack, 1974 Bathurst winner John Goss, plus Moffat, Bryan Thomson and countless others, all invested heavily in Sports Sedan racing.
The success of the Toby Lee series inspired Bob Jane to arrange backing from Marlboro cigarettes, at a staggering A$100,000, for a new Sports Sedan series at his Calder Park racing circuit in Victoria.
Jim Richards concluded that if his car was competitive against the McCormack Charger, which dominated Australian Sports Sedan racing in 1974, he’d realistically be near the front in the competitive Sports Sedan contests, and as such could genuinely carve out a career as a professional racing driver. The Sidchrome Mustang fitted the Australian Sports Sedan regulations in all respects, apart from its wheel widths. While the Kiwi big-bangers were all fitted with 14-inch-wide wheels, the Aussie Sports Sedans were limited to 10-inches.
The Sidchrome Mustang was shipped across the ditch in early 1975, and won straight out of the box. Granted, it was still fitted with 14-inch wheels, while replacements were on order. When the 10-inch wheels arrived,
he went even faster, as Richards was now rolling on the latest sticky race rubber, the type of tyres he’d been unable afford in New Zealand. Sidchrome was only too happy to continue its support and expand its brand across the ditch.
Despite having finished third in the 1974 Bathurst 1000, sharing the drive with buddy Rod Coppins in his Torana L34, Richards arrived in Australia in early 1975 as a virtual unknown. But by the end of the year, he’d become a household name. The Australian adventure was a toe-in-the-water exercise, which, thanks to its success, prompted a more permanent move for the Richards clan. But first, the Sidchrome Mustang was shipped back home to contest selected rounds of the 1976 New Zealand Saloon Car Championship.
Then it was back to Australia, where Richards continued to impress, winning the 1976 Marlboro $100,000 Series despite not winning a race. The massive growth in Sports Sedan racing was finally rewarded with CAMS (Confederation for Australian Motor Sport) announcing full national championship status for 1976. The inaugural Australian Sports Sedan Championship was contested over seven rounds and won by Allan Moffat, who drove both a Capri RS3100 and a tube-frame DeKon IMSA Monza. Frank Gardner finished second in his wicked new Chevrolet Corvair (essentially a Formula 5000 cloaked in a Corvair body), while Tony Edmonson was third in the ex-McCormack Charger. Jim Richards finished fourth.
Even by 1976, Richards was already aware the Sidchrome Mustang was reaching the end of its competitive career and, together with Murray Bunn, began planning a replacement: a sensational new Falcon hardtop. But the Falcon, which would utilise a full tube-frame chassis, took longer to construct than anticipated, and while the goal was to have it ready for the 1977 season, it eventually arrived a full 12 months late. So Richards battled on with the Mustang, including another trip back to New Zealand to contest the international rounds in early 1977, before embarking on another campaign in the Australian Sports Sedan Championship, which was dominated by Gardner. Partway through 1977, the long-running Sidchrome partnership came to a natural conclusion, and the Mustang made its final Australian appearances painted in the white of Melbourne Ford dealership Melford, for whom Richards was now racing a Group C XB Falcon hardtop.
The new Falcon Sports Sedan was finally ready for the 1978 Australian Sports Sedan Championship and, as such, the Mustang was sent back to New Zealand to be sold. It was snapped up by 21-year old George Sheweiry for $9500. Already a fan of the car, he wasted no time painting it back to the red and yellow colours it had worn since late 1974, albeit with Beach Rd Motor Centre along the flanks.
Sheweiry raced the Mustang for several seasons with the newly established North Island-based Sports Sedan Association, eventually painting it in black, red, orange and yellow Zakspeed colours, and mounting a tall rear wing and large rearward opening bonnet scoop. When construction began on a radical new De Tomaso Pantera Sports Sedan, Sheweiry finally retired the Mustang.
The Sidchrome Mustang has remained in George Sheweiry’s ownership and he has resisted offers to sell. While he raced various other cars from his impressive collection, the legendary racer quietly waited for its turn until, finally, it was restored and returned to the track, where it appears on occasion at selected historic events. Thankfully, many of the big guns the Sidchrome Mustang battled with in period have also survived, including Red Dawson’s Camaro, the PDL Mustang, Rod Coppins’ Firebird and Fahey’s Capri RS2600.
Remarkably, had John Fitzpatrick not been involved in that Brands Hatch shunt in 1971, the Sidchrome Mustang might never have been created. And, without it, perhaps Jim Richards’ racing career might also have taken a different path. Thankfully, history unfolded in the best way possible.