As a kid growing up in Levin in the 1950s and 1960s, and eagerly beating a path to all three race meetings at the town’s track each year, I remember always being bemused by the strange-sounding name given to the Spring/November event – the Fred Zambucka Memorial meeting.
Only recently, when the name resurfaced during research on another subject, did curiosity finally trigger me to find out who Fred was and why there was a handsome cup that became annually awarded to much bigger names in the sport than Fred ever was – from Syd Jensen through to Graeme McRae, via Denny Hulme and Tony Shelly.
It turns out Fred Zambucka raced cars for just six years, from 1950 until 1956, and never with any degree of success. His best results were a fourth place in his debut outing, the New Zealand Championship Road Race at Wigram in February 1950, a third in the North Island Championship Beach Race at Muriwai in 1953, and a seventh in the New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore in 1955. He raced just once at Levin – the inaugural meeting in January 1956 – again inauspiciously, scoring no placings before his sudden death four months later.
Within five months of his passing, the Zambucka Memorial Trophy had been donated to the Levin Motor Racing Club by KBH Ltd, publishers of the local newspaper The Chronicle for the main Formula Libré race at the October 1956 spring meeting. In a scrap between the fastest 500cc Coopers, Syd Jensen took the flag to claim the trophy ahead of the circuit’s creator Ron Frost, and Arnold Stafford.
By all accounts Fred was a colourful, magnetic character, larger than life in both manner and build. Almost as broad as he was tall, and therefore ideally designed for his earlier sporting activities as a wrestler, he would comfortably accommodate three or four kids swinging off his “arms as thick as legs” at family gatherings in Auckland, according to his nephew, Christopher.
Fred was of Lebanese descent. His parents, ‘Joe’ and Marheba Zambucka emigrated to New Zealand from Lebanon in 1910 with their first-born child, Toufik, as a baby. Fred was then born in Auckland, in 1911 or 1912, his actual date of birth is unregistered. There followed five further brothers. A Catholic family, they were all christened with Lebanese names, Fred’s given name being Brahim (Abraham). But all adopted English names by which they were known throughout their lives, except Toufik who was always ‘Toofey’. Sorry to say, four of the brothers died young – Toofey at the age of 47, Fred was just 44 or 45, fourth-born George in his 20s and fifth-born Norman at 38.
Father Joe initially supported his family working as a hawker, trading goods from a horse and cart, and later established Zambuckas’ clothing factory in Ayrdale Street, Auckland. Toofey branched out as a firewood merchant and managed a camping ground in New Lynn in the 1950s.
Fred’s schooling was at Marist Brothers in Vermont Street, Ponsonby. He followed his father into trading, something in the family blood, and sold timber from a yard beside the family home in Hepburn Street, Ponsonby. A big shed on the site was used to store a wide range of American army equipment. Later his business grew successfully into Auckland Timber Company Cranes. Fred built these machines, including a heavy-lifting model that was used in the construction of the Harbour Bridge, although Fred never lived beyond that landmark’s beginnings and his brother Philip took over this work.
There was always machinery and vehicles about the place – bulldozers, motorbikes and cars. David Oxton has distant memories of the Zambucka home and yard, because it was right next door to his father Steve’s Daimler repair workshop (Nortox) during the 1950s...
It was probably inevitable that Fred’s competitive side-line of wrestling would give way to building and racing cars. For the first three years from 1950, he manhandled a 4099cc De Soto Six Special whose racing history is thought to have stretched back as far as the 1930 Grand Prix of Picardy in France and the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps in Belgium (racingyears.com). It would have taken all his brute strength to keep that car in check, but it gave him a couple of encouraging early results at Wigram and Muriwai although he was more usually off the pace and suffering his share of mechanical failures.
By 1953, Fred was looking for something faster and showed interest in the 1934 Alfa Romeo Tipo B imported and briefly raced by two-time Wigram winner Les Moore but, while Fred prevaricated the car was purchased and subsequently raced with great success by Ron Roycroft.
So it wasn’t until the following year that Fred parted company with the De Soto, upgrading to a mid-1930s Maserati 8CM he imported from Britain where it had previously been raced by Tony Gaze.
In this car he would play a supporting role in the controversy that plagued the outcome of the first New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore in January 1954. Lap-scorers inexperienced in charting 100-lap races in which many cars looked alike, spun out and then resumed racing as well as requiring lengthy pit stops, became confused and the results were disputed for months afterwards. Stan Jones in the Maybach Special was finally confirmed the winner from Ken Wharton.
One element of this confusion, offered by Scott Thomson in his book Up to Speed, was the similarity in appearance between the Maserati 8CM and Roycroft’s Alfa Romeo, both racing in black livery. Fred had stopped on the circuit at one point and was mistaken for Roycroft, a more dangerous rival, by some top-placed drivers who objected to the Alfa temporarily being classified third. Eventually Roycroft was confirmed in fifth and Zambucka 11th.
Towards the end of 1954, Fred shipped the 8CM across the Tasman to compete as the sole New Zealander in the Australian Grand Prix at Southport in Queensland, a road circuit not previously used for racing. A race report described the stiffly-sprung pre-war Maserati as being “almost uncontrollable on the bumpy Queensland country back roads” (primotipo.com). No match for the locals, Zambucka was classified 12th. But he fared better in a speed record attempt during the trip, setting a new Australian record of 158mph (254kph) in the Maserati.
Back in New Zealand in January 1955, and now much better acquainted with the car, Fred qualified on the second row for the Ardmore Grand Prix. A spin into the College Corner haybales early on compromised his race performance, but he came home a creditable seventh, second New Zealander behind Syd Jensen who was sixth in a Cooper Norton MkVII. The winning Maserati 250F of Prince Bira was a gaping 11 laps ahead!
By now, the revolutionary rear-engined single-cylinder Cooper 500s of Jensen and Co, were showing their potential to compete in these classic events against the much more powerful, though older, pre-war machines still favoured by most New Zealand drivers. Yet, as Ron Frost was importing three more for the 1956 season – Cooper Norton Mk IXs bored out to 530cc – Fred Zambucka went shopping abroad for a more competitive model of the older breed to further improve his chances of success in the years ahead.
Accompanied by his brother Karl, Fred discovered two never-raced Indianapolisspec cars, built in 1949, parked deserted in a corner of the Maserati factory in Modena, Italy. He purchased both cars. Dubbed the 8CLT, they had been commissioned by Francesco Rol, a wealthy industrialist friend of Giuseppe Farina for an attempt at winning the Indy 500 in 1950 but, when Farina decided to focus his attention on the Formula One season instead, the cars never went beyond a test session in March that year and hadn’t turned a wheel in the five years since.
They were equipped with 3-litre in-line eight-cylinder engines, giving 430bhp (320kW), mated to four-speed gearboxes. Two dead straight exhaust pipes ran the length of the cars. The chassis were far more advanced than the pre-war ladder type, they had huge 19-inch wire wheels and massive finned alloy brakes. Also, giant 270-litre fuel tanks in the tail. Top speed was estimated at 193mph (310kph). Being virtually untried, Fred was taking a wild gamble that sadly didn’t pay off.
Their first outing was at Ardmore for the 1956 Grand Prix – the second car entered for Harley Beckett, who failed to qualify. Fred made it to the third row of the grid, lay eighth at the halfway mark of the race then suffered overheating problems that required pit attention. He eventually trailed home 12th and was probably unimpressed that Tom Clark at the wheel of his old 8CM finished eighth.
The next weekend was the inaugural meeting at Levin’s new track, January 14, 1956, where again Tom Clark scored well in Fred’s old car, winning three races and setting a lap record, while Fred left no mark on the results in the much newer, more powerful 8CLT.
He then failed to appear at Wigram the week after, although entered, and that was the end of his racing career. On May 9th, while visiting friends in Eastern Beach, Auckland, Fred suffered a brain haemorrhage and died. He was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Waikumete cemetery, West Auckland, where his headstone bears the name Abraham Frederick Zambucka.
Despite his early demise, there remains a Zambucka connection to local motor sport as Pauline, Toofey’s daughter, is married to well-known racing driver Garry Pedersen who supplied many of the images accompanying this story.
And so on to the spring race meeting at Levin on Labour Day, October 22, 1956, for the first running of the Fred Zambucka Memorial Race, the day’s main event run over 20 laps.
With nobody living today who would have been involved in the decision to honour Fred in this way at Levin, one can only speculate. His sudden death in his prime would undoubtedly have shocked the motor racing fraternity. He was probably the first of that pioneering band of post-war drivers to be lost in tragic circumstances. A much-liked, flamboyant character, willing to take chances to invest in exotic, more modern machinery to further boost his fast-developing sport, a racing rival and acquaintance of Levin’s promoter Ron Frost – all these things might have contributed to his memorial.
No clue was offered by the The Chronicle whose publishers funded the Zambucka trophy. His name was not even mentioned in their preview of the event, just a subtle photograph of a local retailer arranging a display in his shop window of all the trophies to be competed for that day. Oh, how ‘sponsors’ back then hid their lights under a bushel!
Although a hard-to-reconcile aside is that The Chronicle ran an article promoting the first-ever ladies’ race in New Zealand, to be known as the Lane’s Hosiery Ladies’ Feature with the prize money being donated by that Levin-based factory.
Anyway, the Zambucka Memorial Trophy became a fixture on the Levin calendar from then through to 1968, the spring meeting bearing his full name, the Fred Zambucka Memorial meeting, from 1959 until 1964. Thereafter, corporate sponsors’ names commanded the banner headings – Gold Leaf in 1965 and 1966, Rothmans in 1967 and 1968. The Zambucka Memorial slipped to being a support race each November until, after Graeme McRae won it in 1968, it was never contested again. Happily, the cup was returned and remains with the Levin Car Club.
Fred’s Maserati 8CLTs were stored away for 18 months after his death and then sold to Christchurch’s Frank Shuter, who also owned the old Zambucka 8CM. Shuter had no more success in the 8CLT than Fred, finishing 13th in the 1958 NZIGP. One model was sold abroad and has at times been seen running at the Goodwood Revival in England. The other, Fred’s race car, has been on display in the Southward Car Museum in Paraparaumu since 1963.
David Oxton believes that, while still young, he saw Bruce McLaren run some demonstration laps on the Western Springs concrete velodrome in one of Fred’s Maseratis as a curtain-raiser to a speedway meeting there one night. And he is quite certain it was in the environment of Hepburn Street in Ponsonby that his own passion for motor racing was awakened. Unfortunately, the circle couldn’t be closed by him winning the Zambucka Memorial trophy when he was beaten to the chequered flag by Graeme McRae in that last-ever running of the race at Levin in 1968.
Fred might not have been a winner, but he was an influencer in more ways than he would ever know and is still warmly remembered by many.