Kevin Lancaster’s writing and motor racing photos have featured in NZ Classic Driver numerous times over the years. He spent much of his motor racing career in the co-driver’s seat of rally cars and gave a great deal to the sport, a contribution recognised in May 2021 with a MotorSport New Zealand Historic Heritage Award. We uncover the story behind that richly deserved award.
Words: Gordon Campbell
Kevin’s love of motorsport started early. He was less than five years old when his father took him to a Grand Prix at Ardmore. “My mother was concerned I’d get bored. We sat on College Corner and I pushed my way through the crowd to the fence and stayed there all day. Absolutely loved the saloon cars, the Grand Prix, the smell of the fuel, everything; I was hooked.
“I joined the Auckland Car Club when I was 13 and met other like-minded kids at the slot car track downstairs. Dad took me to every race meeting at Pukekohe – club meetings, national meetings, Grands Prix, Wills Six Hours, Benson & Hedges – until I got an E93A Prefect in 1970 and I could take myself. That’s when I got into photography. Dad said if I wanted a camera I’d have to work for it and he got me a job at the engineering company he worked for, as a lathe operator during school holidays. Then (rally driver) Mike Marshall got me a holiday job in the factory where he worked. I saved enough to buy a Russian single-lens reflex camera; the next year a 135mm telephoto lens and the next a 350mm zoom lens.”
Kevin started navigating in car trials with Terry Baker who, like Kevin’s brother Greg, raced a Humber 80. He was another amateur photographer and the pair took photos at race meetings for the Auckland Car Club Bulletin. One day Terry introduced Kevin to Jim Donald. “That’s where it all started. There was a Castrol 24-hour trial starting in Rotorua and finishing in Auckland. Jim’s navigator, Alan Draper, worked at Panmure Motors where Jim was the workshop foreman. Alan couldn’t go and Jim had the use of Blair Robson’s Escort Twin-Cam that he did all the work on, outside work hours. He asked me to navigate for him. We did the trial in Blair’s car and that’s how Jim and I got to know each other.” It was the start of a highly successful partnership and a long career for Kevin in rallying.
Blair Robson rolled the car comprehensively in a Golden Shell Rally and it was to be scrapped. Doug Benefield, the Managing Director of Masport and Blair’s sponsor, obtained one of the new Escort RS1600s Ford New Zealand imported from England and told Jim he could have the old body shell. It became known as the Phoenix because it was later wrecked and repaired three times.
The national championship and Heatway Rally were cancelled because of the 1974 fuel crisis, so Jim and Kevin just did the Rally Pilots Championship using a borrowed standard BDA engine. Chris Porter, one of the Porter family that was part of Mason & Porter (Masport), brought sponsorship from a company importing Dinky Toys and Meccano and a limited slip differential. He shared co-driving duties and Kevin contributed a pair of seats from Mike Marshall’s rally seat manufacturing company. Jim won the novices championship and Blair won the Rally Pilots Championship in the new Escort RS1600.
Along with Graham Hill, Kevin plotted and ran the Auckland Car Club’s first proper special stage rally, the 1973 Maramarua Forest Rally. “Then I bought my own car, an Escort Mexico, so for 1975 and half of ’76 I drove in club and invitation rallies. Jim still had the Phoenix, by then in Masport colours, with Chris as his co-driver. I tipped my car over two rallies in a row in 1976, which wasn’t the smartest thing to do. The panelbeater told me to go away (not his actual words) and get someone else to fix it.”
In 1976, Blair’s co-driver, John Rolfe, stepped aside because of work commitments and Chris Porter took his place, leaving the seat beside Jim Donald for Kevin. In a big step up from club and invitation rallies, they did the rest of the 1976 season and the full 1977 season. Jim was now in Blair’s MkI Escort and Blair was driving a Mark II. Jim and Kevin finished third in the Heatway Rally and Blair was second.
“We had mechanical problems in the first two events. They put a two-litre motor and five-speed ZF gearbox from Ari Vatanen’s car into Jim’s for the last two championship rounds and he went really well. We were leading round three at the start of the last special stage and thought we could win our first national rally. Four kilometres in we chewed a back axle on a cattle stop and didn’t finish, but Jim had proved a point. I think we finished fourth overall in the championship after coming second to Rod Millen in the final round.”
Despite this good showing, Kevin wasn’t sure he would be with the team for the following season. “Ray Stone organised a rally performance night at John W Andrew Ford, so I went along. The two Masport MkII Escorts were on display. Jim had taken over Ari Vatanen’s car, which had been converted to right-hand drive, and there was my name on the side of the car. That was the first I knew I was in and I stayed in the team from that point on.
“I took over as Chairman of the Auckland Car Club Rally Committee in 1976 and in the Cibié Lights Rally; anything that could go wrong went wrong, but we got there. In ’77 and ’78 I was Assistant Clerk of Course and Auckland Area Co-ordinator for the Rally of New Zealand. Jim and I didn’t do that event; that was Ari and Blair. Jim was in charge of the service crew and I went along as sort of a loose goose, wherever they needed help; a good way to still be involved.”
From 1979 to 1981, Jim and Kevin won the Cibié Lights Rally, and the national championship in 1980. Their 1979 Rally of New Zealand was over when the engine threw a rod and the 1980 event ended over a bank. In 1981, they won the championship again and the Rally of New Zealand. “On the 1982 Cibié Lights Rally I got distracted and was late clocking in. It was very dusty, and next thing we’re running number three on the road behind Tony Teesdale and Neil Allport, in the dust. Jim was fuming, but afterwards he said, ‘That’s only the second mistake you’ve made in about eight years.’
“In the 1976 Rally of New Zealand in the South Island, when we got third in the ice and snow, we went 11 kilometres up a wrong road on a special stage. We came to a T-junction with no instructions and a car shot past. We couldn’t go back so we joined in near the start of the same stage. I found the mistake and we didn’t even drop a place. We were only doing three rallies in 1982 because of the tyre shortage, and in the International we rolled. In the forest you weren’t allowed to check your pace notes and I had a mistake in them. We came over a crest expecting another one but there was a tight left-hander and we slid into a bank and rolled. We got going again and on a one-way bridge the car got sideways and a rear wheel hit the concrete kerb, and then the axle wound out. That was it, we were finished. We were leading the final championship round that year but a blown head gasket put us out.”
“I organised the Rally of New Zealand when Murray O’Donnell stepped aside. After two years I saw new regulations coming and I’d had enough. Organising a big event like that, you did everything. There was little money coming in, I wrote the programmes, everything, and had everybody on my back. There were fantastic people on the committee and the marshals and others were great, but the odd niggler made life difficult and asked why should you be paid to do what you enjoy?”
The Rally of New Zealand in 1984 brought a major change. “I sat down with several international drivers and co-drivers after the ’83 event and they said, ‘You’re pretty well there, your road book’s great, just make it double-sided.’ It was single-sided in three thick volumes. ‘You don’t need special stages 95 kilometres long, 50 kilometres should be your maximum. There’s a lot of money involved with manufacturers and sponsors, and you need more daylight stages for filming because we’re doing everything at night and spectators can’t see. We think you’re doing a great job, the general organisation’s superb.’
“I put a proposal to split the ’84 event into four legs, mostly daylight and a few night stages. Morrie Chandler asked about the milk tankers and school buses. I rang the councils and explained it. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort it. The kids will have a day off school, the tanker drivers will go earlier. Send us your schedule and we’ll make sure they all know.’ They couldn’t do enough for us. In a council office north of Gisborne you could still hear an old typewriter and the county manager’s wearing an old-style suit and smoking a pipe. I explained the roads we wanted to use and how we visited every resident. ‘You don’t have to do that, I drink with those guys in the pub every Saturday afternoon, I’ll make sure they all know.’ Nothing was a problem.”
Several farmers on a road around Mount Pirongia lodged an objection to the road closure, so Kevin met with the council and the farmers. “There were road works and it was a quagmire. The farmers said, ‘They won’t get through and if they try they’ll make it worse; why don’t you use this other road?’ We’d missed our 42 days’ notice and the county engineer said, ‘Leave that to me.’ So that was good, but that’s the sort of thing you had to deal with. Morrie Chandler said, ‘Mate, if this doesn’t work, it’s on your head.’ It worked perfectly and they’ve been doing it ever since.”
Most of the duo’s success was in Escorts, but Kevin and Jim also contested the 1985 Rally of New Zealand for Nissan in a 240RS, finishing ninth after fighting back from 48th when they ran out of fuel on the first day. Kevin has always been indebted to Jim for giving him the opportunity to co-drive and helping him with his Escort Mexico when he first started out in his own car.
“In 1986, Possum Bourne roped me in as team manager for Subaru because Japan wanted a local person running it. I did the service plan and on the event I went up in the plane and co-ordinated everyone. On the first day there was a bad road accident and the Japanese tyre engineer was killed. Subaru withdrew so it ended pretty sadly.
“In 1987, I decided to go to the UK to get more experience in the construction industry. A couple of weeks before I was due to leave, Possum said, ‘I hear you’re going to the UK. I’m going to the Safari and my local co-driver has fallen through. I need a co-driver; do you want to come through Kenya?’
“Subaru offered to pay my expenses and airfares to Kenya and then to the UK. Ten days later I was on a plane with Possum to the Safari. What an event! It was a good event and really social too, because it was so rough that winning was almost a lottery.
“Possum was great to work with. I found the event format difficult to come to grips with at first, especially the way Possum preferred his notes done. He wanted to know the exact degree of the corner, accurate distances between corners and the location of every rut or pothole, so it was really complicated. It was very difficult to use notes in the heavy dust – I could do them but the roads change after rain and ruts soon appear. Early on we had a few mistakes, but you’re only driving six-tenths anyway so it wasn’t too bad and it came right. At the end Possum said, ‘A few rallies under your belt with this system and you’d be fine.’ He and I clicked socially and went to a lot of parties.”
Rodger Freeth became Possum’s co-driver and Subaru wanted Kevin to run their servicing operation for the 1988 Safari Rally, but they expected him to pay his own way so he declined. He headed back to Auckland, having made the most of three years in England. “I went to the Monaco Grand Prix, British Grand Prix, San Marino Grand Prix, Imola. Every weekend there was Formula Three or British Touring Cars, some championship, all close to where I lived in West London. I’d often meet up with Dick Bennetts. I knew him from when he was here, so he looked after me and got me tickets now and again.”
It looked like Kevin could become involved with Nissan Motorsport Europe, run by Howard Marsden and competing in the European Touring Car Championship and the British Touring Car Championship. “They were going to the Spa 24-hour. I met Howard and said I was heading over there too. He said, ‘Give me a ring.’ We went to the Spa 24-Hour and I actually got paid, so I spent a week at the Spa 24-Hour on the old pit wall and all that.
“The FIA canned the European Touring Car Championship, so Nissan changed to Group C to do Le Mans and all the rest of it. They ran three cars for the Le Mans 24-hour, with American, British and Japanese drivers, and needed extra hands. It was actually Geoff Brabham driving the American car with Chip Robertson and Arie Luyendyk. Julian Bailey, Mark Blundell and Martin Donnelly were in the British car and three Japanese guys in the third. By half past eight next morning all three cars had retired.” Kevin stayed in touch for a further six months before Nissan’s racing programme suddenly wound up overnight.
Back in New Zealand, the motor racing seemed pretty dull compared to what Kevin had experienced in Britain and Europe and he took up social yachting. However, he was soon involved in motorsport again.
“The Hallidays lived near me and we always got on well. Their son Matt and his brother Jono were going really well in karting and they bought a Formula Ford for Matt. Jono didn’t want to drive so he was going to work on the car. I get a knock on my door and there’s Don’s ute with a Formula Ford on the end of a tow rope. ‘Excuse me Kevo, can we put our Formula Ford in your garage? We’ve got no room.’ It was there for a month. I followed Matt’s career with interest. When he went to Aussie and did Formula Holden, I offered to help with some media stuff.
“Then Matt goes to America to do the Formula Atlantic Series with a new team but he switched to Indy Lights. He missed the first round or two and on his way to the airport he rang and asked me to do a press release.
“I was only going to do one press release and ended up doing Matt’s media work in New Zealand and Australia – press releases, appearances, television, interviews – free of charge for 10 years because, along with Jim Donald, Matt would be one of the best guys I’ve ever worked with in motorsport. He’s an absolute gentleman and after every press release, no matter where he was, he’d ring and say thank you. When he was in Europe in the Carrera Cup and Renault V6, A1 and all that, we’d talk after every race and he’d give me the full story. I also did the Toyota Racing Series media for two years until Toyota New Zealand changed direction on the media side.”
Kevin took on the Formula Ford Championship media on a voluntary basis because MotorSport New Zealand couldn’t allow him to use the media office unless he represented a publication or MSNZ series. “They weren’t being nasty, that’s how it worked; V8 Supercars is the same. Formula Ford had no one and MotorSport said if I did one press release after each meeting I’d get a full pass. I did that for the three years and really enjoyed it.” He also handled the New Zealand V8 Series media for MotorSport New Zealand for two years.
“All I’ve done since then is to produce the Auckland Car Club 75th Anniversary book and a few speaking engagements. I was MC for the club’s Roll of Honour inductions for the first five years. I’m still writing for the club and a bit for NZ Classic Driver.
“People have commented that I never got involved in my brother Greg’s racing, but I was when he had the Victor Chev. I’d be at Baypark, Pukekohe and Manfeild, pushing the car around and pit signalling. When he built his Datsun 1600 for the Shellsport Championship, I went to events and did pit signalling and just general helping out.”
Now in well-earned retirement in beautiful Pauanui after 47 years in the building construction industry, Kevin enjoys a relaxed lifestyle, although that’s a relative term. After coffee every morning from a café where he’s on first name terms, he spends time on his mountain bike and takes frequent walks to the top of the high hill behind the town, which explains why he looks remarkably lean and fit. Kevin’s motorsport knowledge and memory are prodigious and his seemingly endless collection of motorsport photos provides plenty of interest on Facebook. As a writer, he has the decided advantage of having been around and involved during the era he covers.
“I still watch Formula One. I absolutely love the Formula Two and Formula Three racing, especially when there’s Kiwis in it. It’s good, close, hard racing. I watch the WRC daily highlights and watch the V8 Supercars very closely, keeping my hand in on that. I still know a few people there and volunteer in the media office, doing everything from lugging equipment around and distributing photographers’ vests to signing people’s indemnities to photocopying.”
And, apart from that, looking back on a life well lived, a life of dedication to motorsport.