Words: ALLAN DICK
Allan Dick tells the story of a legendary New Zealand racing saloon – and the replica that was built many years after its heyday.
Friday, November 15, 1963 and somewhere along the coast, north of Kaikoura, a blue Austin A35 and a lighter blue Fiat 600 stop and the four occupants – two to each car – pile out for what was colloquially called a “slash”. Modesty demanded it be done behind a bush and away from the passing eye. It was a gorgeous day and as the travellers got back into their cars to continue their journey the calmness was shattered by what sounded like a chain being rattled inside a 44-gallon drum.
“What on earth is that?” someone exclaimed as the noise grew closer and louder. Then the source of the racket appeared – a dark green MkIII Zephyr, hunkered low to the ground, fat tyres protruding from each side, The front wheels with a ton of camber, a hole cut in the chromed radiator carrying an oil cooler.
The clattering was obviously the ‘racing clearances’ built into the engine and as it passed by, fat tyres roaring on the chip seal and the exhaust droning, the travellers could see the car was filled with men. Five … maybe six.
They turned to each other, eyes bulging, and all said at the same time, “the Sprague Zephyr!”
I was one of the four travellers and we were on our way to the 1963 Renwick 500 meeting – the opening meeting of the 1963-64 championship season. In those days my mates and I lived motor racing 24/7 and we were looking forward to the season with religious fervour. We loved all the categories – single-seaters, specials, sports cars – and saloons. Especially the saloons.
We had, collectively, been Ernie Sprague fans since our interests were awakened six or seven years earlier. We had cheered the taciturn, secretive, sometimes difficult Timaruvian over the previous seasons for his skilful and daring driving of a variety of cars that included an Alfa P3 and a Maserati 4CLT, but it was his mastery of the humble hero car, the Ford Zephyr, that earned our following.
A MkI, then two MkIIs, each getting faster and more developed than the previous.
But then he had a season off, returning
with a brand, spanking new MkIII for the 1962-63 season.
(In that season off, he had loaned one of his special racing engines to Ran Macdonald, who scored a victory at Waimate in his MkII.)
But there had always been someone just a bit faster than Sprague. At first it was his close mate, Harold Heasley, with his remarkable Humber 80, then it was Christchurch Jaguar dealer and ex-
fighter pilot Ray Archibald in a couple of ‘works’ Jaguars.
In many ways, it was the opposites that made the battles of 1962-63 so dramatic – Jaguar against MkIII Zephyr.
The tall and handsome Christchurch business owner, financially comfortable, in a factory-prepared thoroughbred racing saloon, against a battling Timaru mechanic, struggling to find the money to compete at this level, oil under his fingernails, in a common family car he developed and prepared himself.
Archibald prevailed over that season, the Jaguar just too fast for the Zephyr that was often driven on the edge of desperation.
But for 1963-64 there were question marks over whether the Jaguar would be still competitive against cars that were being increasingly modified and younger drivers hungry for victory.
On the way to Renwick for that opening meeting what we knew was that Archibald would be there to get a feel for the season ahead and we knew that Sprague had spent the winter developing his MkIII in total secrecy. But there was also the move into the big time by the incredibly quick young Palmerston North driver, Kerry Grant. Grant had shown world-class talent in an Austin A40 Farina powered by a 998cc engine that had come out of a Formula Junior Cooper imported into New Zealand by Denis Hulme. In this car Grant had shocked fans the season before by, on occasion, beating Bruce McLaren’s works Mini Cooper.
Grant had the backing of Wellington industrialist Sir Len Southward, who had bought one of a handful of the new Lotus Cortinas imported into New Zealand by Ford, specifically for sale to be raced. While others, including Paul Fahey, did race the car as built, Grant’s team decided the Lotus-developed twin-cam motor could be a bit fragile if stressed, so opted instead for a highly modified version of the more common Cortina pushrod motor. With modifications that were common enough, it gave more power than a standard twin-cam and it did so reliably.
We motor racing fans knew about the Archibald Jaguar and we knew about the Kerry Grant Cortina because local magazines had been full of it.
But of the Sprague Zephyr, we knew nothing. Which is why our eyes bulged when it chuntered and clattered into our view along the Kaikoura Coast that day. We knew that this was a deadly serious piece of motor racing equipment. This was not just a makeover of the car from the previous season. This car had been turned from a modified family saloon into something closer to a 250F Maserati Grand Prix car with four doors.
We couldn’t wait and by Saturday evening we knew the lay of the land.
Sprague won the championship race at Renwick on that tight and bumpy, rectangular road circuit, with Ray Archibald second and Kerry Grant third. It had been close stuff and Archibald had to use all of his racing wiles to keep Grant behind, shortly afterwards deciding his Jaguar was no longer the car for the tighter circuits. He would compete only at his beloved Wigram and not attempt to defend his title.
While there were any number of other competitors – including Fahey in his Lotus Cortina, Dennis Marwood in his Humber 80 and many others – it was obvious the championship season would be a straight fight between Ernie Sprague and Kerry Grant.
We knew Sprague would be a tough, no-quarters competitor and Grant’s A40 had finished the season before looking like it had been in a demolition derby, so he wasn’t averse to a bit of nerf and nudge.
It was a short season. After Renwick came the barbaric road circuit at Mount Maunganui, then down to Levin. Pukekohe was a non-championship meeting, then on to Wigram, Teretonga and, finally, Waimate.
Mount Maunganui was like Renwick, a roughly rectangular road circuit, and here Sprague won while Grant recorded a DNF, with Ivan Segedin taking second in his Anglia from Paul Fahey. At Levin, his home track, Grant was unbeatable and in a car that was more suited to the tight circuit than the Zephyr, which looked almost barge-like by comparison. Fahey was third.
At Wigram Grant won from the returning Ray Archibald, with Sprague third. It was a cracker of a race. Onward to Teretonga. This was Grant’s day while Sprague struggled for third behind the much underrated Dennis Simmons’ Anglia.
So it came to the final at Waimate, Sprague’s home track. By this point he was leading the championship – 37 points to Grant’s 35.
We know what happened that day – Sprague knew his way around the circuit well enough that all he had to do was to make the Zephyr extra wide and the championship was his.
Preliminary heats were to decide grid positions for the final and because there were really only two potential winners – Sprague and Grant – the Cortina driver was put into the first heat and the Zephyr driver the second. Grid positions would be determined by the elapsed time of each heat.
Grant cruised to victory in his heat and then trotted off around the circuit to a good viewing position to watch his rival.
Sprague made a great start and was drawing away from the field with consummate ease, pounding the Zephyr up the straights and throwing it into the corners, driving like a man possessed.
He wanted pole position.
It was a sensational display of on-the-limit power driving, the Zephyr bucking and booming.
But then, in half a second, it all went wrong.
It started to rain, lightly, ‘spitting’ is a more apt description. But Sprague didn’t slow down. As he accelerated out of Queen Street, the main straight, into Victoria Terrace heading for St Augustine’s Church, the Zephyr understeered straight ahead and in an explosion of hay from bales around a lamp post, his race was over and his championship chances ended.
I was there, right opposite the pole, and saw the drama as it happened.
As a fan, I was bitterly disappointed that Ernie had blown the title he had worked so hard to win for so long. I didn’t know him then, that came later, but although he was an extraordinarily private person, it was common knowledge that he had well and truly been bitten by the motor racing bug and he had pushed his financial limits in order to compete at the highest of levels.
There was, of course, a huge difference between the Sprague effort that season and the Grant one. The difference in the cars – the Cortina was a car that had been race developed by Lotus and was being prepared and maintained by professional mechanics. On the other hand, the Zephyr was an unlikely race winner and it had been modified, prepared and maintained, largely by its driver.
There was another detail that showed the different eras merging. Kerry Grant wore blue racing overalls. Ernie Sprague raced in a white tee shirt, sports trousers and polished brown shoes.
That evening Francis Ernest Sprague said that that day, February 1, 1964, was his last motor race.
It wasn’t, of course. He returned after his financial and spiritual wounds healed, but although there were major victories (such as B&H 500 wins) top-line championship level racing was over for him.
After Waimate, the Zephyr was towed away, repaired, returned to road car specifications, sold and finally written off in a road crash by its new owner.
What was it that made the Sprague Zephyr so fast and competitive that season? At the time, it was no good asking the man himself. He would walk away rather than answer that sort of question, not prepared to give away those sorts of secrets.
In 2020 there is only one person who can perhaps answer questions about the Sprague Zephyr. Ernie himself died in 2004, at 78 years of age. He lived a year or two longer than the person who was perhaps closer to him than any other human being – Peter ‘Pumpkin’ Wilson. They were a team, the cornerstone of the Timaru motor racing mafia. You could ask either of them questions, and if they bothered to answer you, you were probably wiser not to believe that answer. Once you understood that, and didn’t pry or keep asking questions, you might be accepted. This was a club of sorts – and an exclusive one.
Someone who was accepted was Des Ward – a local bloke who got to know Francis Ernest Sprague well.
“I had watched Ernie race from the days of his 1932 V8 roadster, but the first time I met him was at Ruapuna when I was 15 and racing a 1939 Chev coupe. He noticed me and came and said the Chev seemed quick in a fast line but was having trouble in the corners. I said I was running out of brakes and he asked what sort of brake fluid I was using. I told him and he said it was the wrong stuff and I should call and see him in Timaru and he’d give me the right stuff. We became friends, more so when I started to wheel and deal in cars.”
And wheel and deal Des did – in a big way. He’s owned and raced a vast number of cars, including a Gordon Keeble, but that’s a story for another time.
That MkIII Zephyr that almost took Sprague to a New Zealand championship obviously meant a lot to Ernie and so, in his retirement from day-to-day working, he decided to build a replica of the car. Why not, after all? He had a shed full of the parts he stripped off the racing car when he turned it back to a road car.
“It took him 18 years to build that replica,” Des says. “And once it was completed it was registered and warranted and Ernie drove it on the road. He went to a great deal of trouble tracking down, or modifying parts. He bought back the original Raymond Mays head that he had made for him all those years ago. Frank Radisich had it. He had Trevor Parmenter in Timaru cut special gears for the gearbox so that it was close-ratio, just as in the original, and he had various diff ratios made to suit different circuits. The suspension and brakes were modified to exactly the standard as the original racing car.
“One day, Ernie came to me and said ‘here, have a drive of this and see what you think’ – it was very, very fast. It was as demanding to drive as an early Ferrari, but it was quick. After that he let me drive the car often.
“On a later day, Ernie came to see me when I had a business in Timaru and asked if I wanted to buy the car. At first I thought he was joking. After all, he had spent 18 years building this car as a carbon copy of something that had obviously played such an important part of his life.
“He had put in all of the alloy body panels that he had built for the original car – this was the original car replicated. When I understood he was serious I said ‘Yes, I would like to own it’ and he asked how much I would be willing to pay. I thought about it and quoted a figure that I knew I had in my bank. Ernie said ‘that’ll do. Go down and draw it out, come back here and we’ll do the change of ownership, the car will be yours and we can go classic racing. You drive it and I will maintain it’. And that’s what happened. I owned the car, just like that.
“Because it was such a modified car, some of the classic motor racing clubs asked that Ernie should be the driver. Anyway, we raced it for five years, me doing most of the driving, and Ernie looking after it and continuing to develop the car. It got faster and faster.
“Ernie drilled holes in everything to make it lighter. He just kept on developing it.”
Even though Des was now the owner, there were still some things about the car Ernie was secretive about. Des knows the Zephyr’s engine’s capacity was 3.0 litres but isn’t sure what Ernie used to get it that big.
“Ernie was Ernie, he thought about things, and what he said went – we did what he said.”
Ernie very obviously called the tune. “Man, the cylinder head was a work of art. It had enormous valves, the biggest I had seen, and it had huge ports to match. And bolted on the side were three 58mm Webers that drank a huge amount of petrol.”
And it was seriously quick. “At a Dunedin race meeting I managed to beat Malcolm Eunson and Denis Hulme driving Malcolm’s quick Torana XU-1 and afterwards Hulme said ‘that’s a bloody fast Zephyr’ – and it was too. But really tricky to drive. We had five years of really good fun in that car but eventually it got too hard to maintain. We were running a very high compression ratio and were replacing the big-end shells after each race meeting and the mains after every second meeting. However, the mains shells were getting very hard to find and that was one of the reasons we decided to sell the car.
“The last meeting was at Waimate in 1993 and Ernie insisted I drive. But I insisted he should drive. So we tossed a coin and I won, but we both had a drive.”
The car had, in fact, been sold before the meeting but the new owner allowed them to race it, providing there was no panel damage. There was none!
And that was that.
The car was delivered to Frank Pierce from Taranaki, then sold again. The Zephyr now resides in a collection in Fielding.