Allan tells the story of Graham Baker and PDL 1, the Mustang that became famous as Electric Blue and 185 mph! But it’s more than that. This is a story of a 66-year career you’re not going to believe.
Words: Allan Dick
Graham Baker — ‘Bucky’ — is probably the most “born to race” person in the world. His career and that’s what it is, a career, is remarkable. It started in August 1957 and in mid-2023 it is still going. It’s never stopped. That is 66 years of continuous and competitive racing. Thousands of events, thousands of podiums and at least hundreds, if not also thousands of cars of huge variety.
Why has it taken so long for this story to be told?
On Monday, February 20 this year I looked at the Facebook page of Graham Baker – he had posted that over the past weekend, he’d won all three of his races in the classic meeting at Teretonga driving a GT40 replica owned by Christchurch man Raymond Hart. Those three wins over two days at Teretonga took Graham’s tally since the beginning of last year to 73 consecutive races; over 50 percent of them podium finishes and with just a single retirement.
Work that out — 73 races in just over a year is an average of one and a half races every weekend! Who else does that?
It’s a pretty impressive record, but when you consider Graham was 83 years of age in October last year and he’s been racing, virtually without a stop since he was a teenager, it’s remarkable. It puts him right up there with Ken Smith — even ahead in terms of longevity.
Graham has spent the past 40 plus years living mainly in the USA but in New Zealand he remains a legendary figure — the man who tamed PDL 1, the Mustang that was to become famous as “Electric Blue and 185MPH!” The posters carrying that message at both ends of the old single-lane bridge over the Awatere River on SH1 just north of Seddon were landmarks.
Oddly though, while that image remains embedded in New Zealand motor racing lore, the Mustang had a variety of colour schemes. It was white when first imported and raced by Paul Fahey, then it became orange when it was bought by PDL but still driven by Fahey. With Graham Baker driving, it was purple with ‘lace’ trim at first, then green with ‘lace’ trim. It was only “Electric Blue” after Baker when it was driven by Leo Leonard and only for a comparatively short period.
As impressive as that record of 73 consecutive races is, there are another two records of which Graham is very, very proud. At the big Bay Park New Year’s Even meeting of late December 1972 when driving PDL 1, he won all three big saloon car races defeating the likes of Canadian/Australian Allan Moffat, and the cream of New Zealand talent; Paul Fahey, Red Dawson and Rod Coppins.
That was satisfying enough, but then at the next big Bay Park meeting Easter 1973 he again won the three big saloon car races from fields that again included Moffat, Fahey etc., but then also won all three Formula Ford races in his own Titan — those results, six out of six in two totally different cars, is probably a record in New Zealand motor racing history.
The fact that he was able to be successful in two such totally different cars at one meeting, is a story in itself to be told later.
Christchurch in the sixties was a remarkable place. It was still traditional Christchurch - posh, snobby, correct, very English and what school you went to could make or break your career. But by the late sixties it was overlaid with a certain sense of “slickness” — it was a car sales era that spawned many characters and hard cases. Cars, the selling of them, the repairing of them and wheeling and dealing in them became a major and very trendy business but an industry no less. Christchurch was very much the home of white shoes, white belts and fast living.
Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola were invented for Christchurch at that time. The Christchurch car dealer was a national legend. An institution.
Social life was lived at a thousand miles an hour. Coker’s Hotel was where deals were done, hook-ups made and cars were commodities to be wheeled, dealed and money made from. Deals done in the wee small hours in a Jack and Coke haze were sometimes forgotten by noon the next day.
But cars were also to be raced.
The Canterbury Car Club opened Ruapuna Park in November 1963 and it was probably the Bic Flick lighter that ignited an incredibly active scene that inspired so many stories, stories today that would raise eyebrows. Motor racing became a socially accepted activity and a form of entertainment. Dealers whipped cars off their yards on Friday night to race them and put them back on Monday morning.
Sometimes they even gave them a quick coat of water-based paint to disguise them — murdered tyres were the giveaway.
And among the big names that flourished, and motor racing fans looked up to were the Baker Brothers — Graham, Murray and Dave.
They had all caught the racing bug — Graham was affected the most. It was to become his life. And still is.
“As kids, in the weekends, our father was the organist at our church, one of the youngest in the country,” says Graham. “During the working week he was employed as an electrical overseer for the Ministry of Works, and we moved around the country a lot — there were Mum and Dad and us four kids, three boys and our sister Annette.
“I remember the war years and the freedoms that came after and it wasn’t long after that that we moved to Leeston which was good as we had moved a lot with Dad’s job and had sometimes lived in caravans.
“One weekend at Leeston Dad got a call-out to look at a transformer or something and I went along. While Dad was up the ladder, I became aware of an activity in the paddock next door. I was only five or six, but I knew what was going on was car racing, so I stood and watched. From that moment on, all I wanted to do was race a car. That love of racing is something I still have today.”
It must have been contagious.
But this wasn’t a wealthy family. If Graham wanted to go motor racing, he had to earn the money to do it.
“When I left school I worked hard, saved hard. By day I was Graham Baker, a cost accountant in the office of a wool scouring company, by night I was under another name, working as a labourer in the wool scour itself, saving to buy a car so I could go motor racing.”
Eventually he had enough money to buy a low light, side valve Morris Minor. It wasn’t fast, but at least he was racing.
“In those days, to get your competition license, you had to do three ‘learner’ meetings where you were observed. My first event was a hillclimb in August 1957.”
Next, he bought a 105E Anglia – faster and more competitive.
“Both the Minor and the Anglia put me in touch with the motor racing crowd and I got to know people, including Eric Johnson who had a company called AML — Automotive Maintenance Ltd. Eric had built the PDL Minis raced by Robert Stewart and Clyde Collins and one day he said to me ‘your car is standard, we should put Webers on it and make it go faster’ and so I became involved with AML and we ended up developing that Anglia until it was a quick and competitive car.”
The Anglia and many of his subsequent cars carried the number 67 — he lived at 67 Bickerton Street in Christchurch. In much later years he came to favour 13 as his racing number.
By now Graham had moved on from working at the wool scouring plant and had become a highly successful company representative — selling stationary products and later paper to newspaper publishers for New Zealand Forest Products.
“I learned how to establish a rapport with my customers, no matter how big or small they were,” he says.
“I kept notes — something I still do. After I met someone, I would write down what I knew about them in a notebook and when I called again, I would take a quick look at my notes and be able to ask how their wife was, that sort of thing.
“And I have continued with that. I keep a record of every race meeting, tyre pressures, lap times, results, and changes to the car. I do that for every race.”
Graham has a gift for meeting people and being in the right place. It’s fair to say he is a natural salesman, selling himself first before the product. Which is partly how he ended up tyre-testing for Firestone using the Anglia.
“At that time, we were actually racing on retreaded tyres — retreads were big business, and it was lawful to race on them. Firestone contacted me and we did extensive testing at Ruapuna making sure the treads stayed on, that there was good grip, that sort of thing.”
He was earning good money with NZ Forest Products, and was so good at the job that he eventually only needed to work Tuesday to Thursday, and now well and truly involved in motor racing and the Christchurch motor racing scene, he looked for a single-seater.
“Formula racing had always been my aim. I love single-seaters and after the Morris Minor and the Anglia I couldn’t wait to get one.
‘Tony Shaw, a Christchurch dealer, had a Lotus 20B and he was going to buy Roly Levis’ Brabham, so the Lotus was for sale. I bought that in 1965 and had Eric Johnson look after it for me.
“You know in those days we ran ‘mixed grids’ at Ruapuna and I can remember lining up in one race in the Lotus and alongside was Ron Silvester in his 1938 Chev coupe – that was anything but safe, and that practice was eventually banned.”
The Lotus was a good car but an old car and it wasn’t twin-cam powered, just a 1.5-litre Ford pushrod engine and while he was competitive in club racing, he was a bit overwhelmed against the tidal wave of Brabham Twin-Cams that were racing.
“Bert Hawthorn was home from the UK with a brand-new Brabham BT21 and we were at Ruapuna Park one day in 1967 doing some testing — Bert in the Brabham and me in the Lotus. We stopped for adjustments and Bert said, ‘I’ve been watching you in my rear vision mirrors, you’re driving too hard, keep that up and you’ll kill yourself — you need a better car. Buy a Brabham,’ so I did.”
The Lotus ended up as part of a small team run by Westland Excavators.
With Bill McCabe driving it at a very wet Teretonga in about 1969 it went off the track and was submerged completely in a water-filled ditch. Bill emerged from the waters like a frogman and the car was not seen again until a year or two back when it was purchased, still in its damaged ‘submarine’ state. New owner Roger Greaney has now totally restored the car.
Meanwhile, Graham had acquired a Brabham BT21 Twin-Cam that had been imported by Graeme Harvey who had had a couple of crashes, and was then bought by Christchurch school teacher Les Jones. Les was a bit out of his depth in the car and crashed it heavily at Ruapuna.
Graham had Eric Johnson rebuild it and he was immediately competitive, winning a number of races, mostly in the South Island.
It was in this car that Colin Wilson, probably the most gifted motor race photographer in New Zealand, gained some sort of fame. Colin was working for the writer who had autoNEWS magazine in those days, and Colin, wanting to get to the North Island but with little money, hitched a ride with Team Baker.
Arriving in Picton for the ferry crossing, Colin slipped into the cockpit of the Brabham that was in an enclosed trailer and spent the voyage there. He said it was “fumey, noisy and dark.”
Graham was desperate to become a professional ‘formula’ driver and organised a season in the US Formula Pacific Series.
“I was going to take the Brabham BT21, but Jack Brabham, hearing of my plans, told me I needed a better car, so I sold the BT21 and bought a BT29,” he says. “With financial assistance from Ron Silvester, I headed to the USA with wife Penny, and Hank and Adrienne Rossiter — Hank looking after the car. We got 10th overall in the series which was won by Mike Eyerly. Eyerly was to later come to New Zealand for a season in the F5000 era.”
On returning from the USA, Bucky resigned from NZ Forest Products and set about establishing himself in the Christchurch motor industry.
Eric Johnson had developed the PDL Minis and was also involved when Clyde Collins, with some backing from PDL, created the PDL Falcon.
This was also about the time that Lyall Williamson became involved with PDL and he was instrumental in the decision to go ‘big time’ motor racing, forget the Falcon and buy and rebrand the Ford Mustang that Paul Fahey had imported to replace his FVA/C Escort.
PDL boss Bob (later Sir Robertson) Stewart, a keen car owner and motor racing enthusiast agreed to the move — a move that was to prove contentious.
It’s easy, in retrospect, to say it was a move that was never going to work — you had three people with different ideas and at least two with similar ‘do-it-my-way’ personalities.
While the teaming of Paul Fahey with PDL ended in disaster it did see the establishment of PDL as a genuine motor racing team and also saw Fahey fight back by importing the Cologne Capri, leading to an expansion of the Big Saloon category and some of the most spectacular racing in New Zealand motorsport history.
Although single-seaters were Graham Baker’s big love, he wasn’t going to turn down a role as ‘test driver’ for the Mustang with Fahey doing the racing.
As we have already heard, Christchurch was just one big happy motor racing family in those days so when there was a need to go testing and Fahey was at home in Auckland, Bucky was right there.
“I got to do a lot of laps in the car at Ruapuna and probably every other circuit in New Zealand.”
The inevitable happened at Levels late in the season. Team politics had been awful as was the reliability of the car. Finally, Bob Stewart and Paul Fahey had a serious disagreement and subsequent parting of ways.
By now though PDL Motor Racing was well established even though legend status had still to be reached.
Money was no object although engine blow-ups were common, and there was beginning to be a sense of mystery among fans about the Mustang and what powered it. That mystery was to deepen over the life of the car.
PDL had a real presence at motor racing meetings. The rig was impressive. The tow truck was a unique Bedford, powered by a big American V8 motor with a body big enough to be a workshop and it even had a viewing platform on the roof with steps up. Being invited to watch from ‘up here’ was a sign you had made it.
With Paul Fahey gone, there was always going to be some speculation that ‘the old man’ as Bob Stewart was known, would pack up shop and leave the sport.
But he had pride and wanted his team to be successful. While he could be difficult, if he liked you, you were in — and he liked both Lyall Williamson and Graham Baker.
The New Zealand motor racing scene was evolving and part of that was the introduction of Formula Ford. Powered by 1600cc Ford engines and with strict, limiting regulations, this was a modest learner class, but it was attractive to those who wanted to race single-seaters, particularly as Formula F5000 was on its way, killing off the old twin-cam ‘National Formula’ and putting top line single-seater racing out of reach for many.
Graham Baker decided Formula Ford was for him. Initially he raced a borrowed late model Titan imported by Greymouth car dealer Doug Heney but found he was having so much fun he bought the car.
One of the Christchurch motor racing family, Warner Collins stepped up and became Graham’s right-hand man and dedicated team boss.
“Warner really wanted us to have a good go at the Formula Ford championship,” Graham says. “I had some backing from PDL for the car and while it wasn’t full sponsorship it was a help.
“After Levels and the parting of ways with Paul Fahey, Bob offered me the drive of the Mustang, but he also said ‘you won’t be driving that’ as he nodded towards the Titan.
‘That really put me in a spot. I wanted to run the Titan as much as for Warner as for myself, but here was a top drive in a top sedan. I told Bob I could do both cars without any issue. Bob was tough and you did things his way — unless you could convince him otherwise — and that was difficult.
“I asked if I could think it over, but he was adamant there was nothing to ‘think over’, and added ‘if you decide to drive the Titan, you won’t get sponsorship from us’. And we left it there.
“But he called the next morning and wanted to see me. I saw him later in the day and he looked at me and said ‘Well?’ I said to him, let’s take the two cars to Ruapuna and I do a few laps in each of them and, time the laps, and see what you have to say then. He agreed to that. I told Warner and he said I should accept the PDL 1 drive and forget Formula Ford as the cars were just so different.
“We arrived at Ruapuna with both cars — and bear in mind I was familiar with the Mustang having done all that testing— and I did better times in both cars than I had ever done before.
“Bob said ‘OK we’ll do it’, but Warner asked me to be absolutely certain. He said it was impressive doing those quick lap times but that was being alone on the track, and it would be a different story in the heat of the battle, surrounded by other cars — he said I could miss braking points and that sort of thing. But I said I was confident I could manage.”
It was confidence that wasn’t misplaced.
Over the next two seasons Graham Baker and PDL1 forged a reputation as the combination to beat.
[In Part Two, we look at Graham’s continuing exploits at the wheel of PDL1, his V8-powered Ford Capri, his time racing the Begg FM5 and his racing adventures in the USA]