Some things stay in your mind forever. Sometime in early 1958 two mates and I were crammed into the front seat of a rotten old 1938 Ford V8 inching our way back to Dunedin. I was driving, if driving can be used to describe our snail’s pace as the old V8 popped, banged, and spat back through the Stromberg 97 carbie with some ailment that was too dark and mysterious for our 18-year-old minds.
We were returning after a day’s ‘big game’ hunting — bunnies – we had dispatched two with an ancient Stevens lever-action, single shot .22 in rough country just south of Oamaru. We were barely making 20 miles-an-hour and I was tickling the accelerator pedal, urging the old car along, when along the Kataki Straight, north of Palmerston, there was a roar, and we were passed at great speed by a car the likes of which I had never seen before. It was a two-seater sports car, low, wide and long. The body was rudimentary as though framework had been built but was still waiting the finishing panels.
Apart from the noise and the speed — I reckoned it was doing 80 or 90 miles-anhour — the thing that stayed with me forever was its wheels. They were enormous wire wheels that towered over both the car and the driver. Today it would have looked like a skateboard on one-metre diameter wheels. It came and went so quickly I wondered if it had really happened.
Although my car knowledge was largely confined to pre-war American cars there was something about this car that reminded me of a pre-war Grand Prix car — perhaps a Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow. It was just a flash — but the brief vision of that car has remained with me ever since and when I moved to Oamaru permanently 11 years ago I was talking to a “car person” and spoke of my experience from many years before. “Oh, that would be Rusty Thorp and his AV Special,” I was told. And you do spell it Thorp — add an ‘e’ and you risk the wrath of his remaining family. So, who was Rusty Thorp and what was this ‘special’ that looked so European?
Rusty was a character, born and bred in Oamaru. He became a marine engineer by profession and, for a while, worked in the Clyde shipbuilding yards in Scotland. He was also Chief Engineer for the Chatham Islands’ local council for two or three years, where he reckoned he had so much power and authority he virtually ran the islands and, if asked, could probably have carried out wedding ceremonies. Rusty died about 20 years ago — on a Christmas Eve, alone in his much-loved camper van.
Christmas dinner for the following day remained untouched, but he left behind a legacy of tales and experiences – tall and mostly true. “Rusty loved steam trains, boats and cars — and then later motorbikes,” says his close mate Ronny Landaus, “and in no particular order, they were his life.” The exact running order of both the story of the AV Special and Rusty’s life is vague. But perhaps sometime after he worked in Scotland he came home to Oamaru, opened a repair workshop operating out of a small, standalone garage/shed at his home in Till Street, started collecting “stuff” and built the AV Special.
There was no room in his workshop for building the car, so he rented space in the last remaining block of shops from the original Oamaru CBD, at the foot of Wansbeck Street. Here, the AV Special was created. The car on which the special was built is worth a story in itself. Even in 1956 or 1957, a French Voisin car would have been rare and valuable you would have thought. But it wasn’t. It was simply an old car that nobody was really interested in.
Gabriel Voisin started producing cars in 1919 after first building aircraft, and ceased operations after going broke in 1939 — his company, Avions Voisin, being named due to that early aircraft production. Surprisingly the company still exists today having initially been integrated with engine builder Gnome & Rhone for money owed.
Gnome & Rhone was nationalised in 1945 and today is the state-owned SNECMA business — an aerospace company. How Oamaru car dealer Noel Cleverly from CC Car Sales ended up with a Voisin in the mid-fifties isn’t known. It would have been a rare and very expensive car when new, but after 25 years it had obviously become misunderstood, mistreated and unloved.
Neither is the exact model of the car known, nor its history. But Noel had one — what’s thought to have been a 1929 model that had been repowered by a Ford Model A engine. Oddly, for a French car, post-1930 models were powered by American Knight sleevevalve engines and later Graham engines. Voisin collaborated with designer/engineer Andre Noel whose work included underslung chassis, lightweight and “rational” (said with a French accent) styling, with large luggage boxes and distinctive angular bodies.
It’s thought much of the creative input into some of the more radical looking Voisins was the work of a young draughtsman, André Lefèbvre. When Voisins could not pay him, Lefèbvre went to Citroën where, over the years, he was responsible for the Traction Avant, 2CV and the DS19! Not surprisingly then, Voisins were very distinctive cars admired by the wealthy and dilettantes and the story of Avions Voisin is worth a story alone.
I met Noel Cleverly in the mid-‘60s and he ran a very successful and long running car sales. He was known well outside the Oamaru area as a sharp and clever dealer. Was this Voisin a cheap trade-in that sat in a corner of the yard unloved and unwanted — what were called “crouchers” in those days? Rusty saw potential where most others would have just thought “weird”. He bought the car and immediately set to work, using minimal components to create a masterpiece with more than a hint of Lycoming Special.
The following description has been garnered by talking to people who were around at or near the time, including car creator extraordinaire, Rod Tempero. About 1980 Rod was editor of the North Otago Car Club’s magazine and he knew of the AV Special and how special it was — particularly as his grandfather, “Pop”, had been given the job of building the car’s elegant body.
Rod spent some time talking to Rusty about the car. Rod wrote — “The AV Special came into being in the mid-fifties, built by Rusty Thorp of Oamaru. The basis of the car was a 1929 Avions Voisin, a French-built sports tourer. From this donor vehicle, the chassis, the front beam axle and leaf springs were retained, though lightened through drilling. The steering was a rack and pinion system from a Citroën while the rear axle was a Studebaker. The steel brake drums were retained but converted from mechanical to hydraulic operation.”
The wheelbase was standard Voisin but the front axle was cut and widened by a whopping eleven inches. Anti-torque arms were fitted at the rear to stop spring wind-up under acceleration. But, after testing, similar arms were fitted to the front axle to stop spring wind-up under heavy braking. Rod continues — “The motor began life as a 3880cc six-cylinder short-block out of Brian Fodie’s father’s Fargo truck. [Essentially this was a side-valve Chrysler six, AD] A side note here; Brian Fodie’s daughter-in-law was a skipper on one of the old Auckland harbour ferries! “Bolted onto this essentially Chrysler block were the cylinder head and ancillaries off a Chrysler Royal.
The head was converted into a twin spark plug arrangement by filling in the original spark plug holes and drilling and re-tapping new ones and fitting the twin-spark unit off a Dodge. [Although some reports say it was a Nash unit which seems more probable, AD] “Compression ratio was 10.5:1. Carburetion was by three side-draught, single choke Zeniths. Drive was via a lightened flywheel to a Chrysler Royal three-speed gearbox with overdrive working on all three forward gears, giving six in total”. (Another source said rather than an overdrive unit, Rusty installed a second gearbox, the second mounted back to front, which would also have provided six forward speeds).
Rod continues — “Instrumentation was provided by a variety of cars — oil pressure and water temperature came from a MkVII Jaguar, the rev-counter out of a Triumph, water pressure from a Singer and an Austin- Healey speedometer and vacuum gauge.” “Originally the car was mounted on the huge 20-inch Voisin wire wheels but once the car was running, Rusty sourced some 19 and 16-inch wheels.
Changing the diameter of the wheels allowed different final drive ratios.” The 19-inch wheels are thought to have come from the famous Alfa Romeo Bimotore (which Rusty also owned for a short time before it was sold to his brother-in-law Murray Ditford) while the 16-inchers came from the Maserati 4CLT which would, perhaps, have been in Ernie Sprague’s ownership at that time. But, let’s continue with Rod’s story.
“The fuel system was out of a WW2 F4U Corsair fighter aircraft. Lights were supplied by a variety of cars — driving lights were ex-GMC (of which there were plenty in Oamaru with G T Gillies having bought the entire stock of Army surplus vehicles) while the taillights came from a Jaguar MkVII. The car ran a six volt electrical system with a generator also off a GMC truck.” With the car essentially complete, less body, Rusty approached Pop at A J Tempero Motor Body Builders to design and build the bodywork of the car.
After using it on both the road and in competition “for a few years”, Rusty took the motor out and powered his 1936 DeSoto coupe with it.
Pop Tempero started off doing specialised coachwork and body repairs, but later switched to building ambulances, starting a tradition of craftsmanship that continues today. Who had the vision of what the finished car should look like isn’t known, but the end result was a large, low, wide car of imposing proportions and great elegance and beauty. Although, like so many sports cars, it looked like an ugly duckling when the hood was raised!
Rod Tempero writes — “The chassis was given a wooden frame using New Zealand native timbers – white pine and beech – and then bodied in aluminium. The shape and style was not unlike some pre-war German Mercedes Grand Prix cars. “The car, at its highest point was 38 inches with just four and a half inches of ground clearance. Cost to Rusty was £90.” Average wage back in the mid-‘50s was about £8 a week, so this would have represented 10 or 11 weeks wages to the average person.
Rod wraps up his story by writing — “The AV Special was raced, hill climbed and sprinted all over the lower half of the South Island from Teretonga to Timaru, and it was particularly successful in local club events, like the Coal Pit Road hillclimb with its best time being 46.5 seconds. Added to this a standing quarter in 15 seconds and a top speed of 130mph made it a very fast car in its day.” Another source says that Rusty had a ticket from the Ministry of Transport that he kept on his mantelpiece recording the car at 147mph!
Well, it was a special and unique car that emerged from the ashes of a special and unique car, but what happened to it and does anything remain? Speak to people about the car and dates are vague. I am sure it was February or March 1958 when I saw the car as it flashed by us in our ailing Ford V8. Apart from the giant wheels, I also have a lasting impression of some body framework — it definitely was not fully-clothed.
Allan Wills of the Oamaru Classic Car Collection has all that remains of the car today — the original chassis ID tag which proclaims “AVIONS VOISIN” and an official pass for the opening meeting at Treating dated November 15, 1958. I was at that opening meeting and have only a vague memory of a large, low, flat, wide silver sports car, so I did see it more than once. After using it on both the road and in competition “for a few years”, Rusty took the motor out and powered his 1936 DeSoto coupe with it.
One source says Rusty later sold the DeSoto to a couple of ladies who ran a pub in Port Chalmers, while other sources say that Rusty sold the ‘racing’ motor which ended up in a 1934 Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge sedan in Dunedin. Back in the mid-seventies I remember talking to a Dunedin man — a flour miller — who with his daughter was restoring such a 1934 Chrysler model and they had acquired a very special engine from a ‘racing car’.
The coincidences seem to good to be ignored. Rod Tempero remembers seeing Rusty’s 1936 DeSoto either before the engine was fitted, or after it was taken out, and there was a great hole in the side of the bonnet to accommodate three carburettors. After Rusty took the engine out of the AV Special it went downhill very quickly. The car was sold about 1962 or 1963 as a complete rolling chassis, but still with its body intact. A year or so later it was sold to Bing Lawrence who ran a wrecking business at Tutu Hill near Oamaru.
The last owner was Danny McNamara who wrecked it, in situ, on the Tutu Hill property with some of the wire wheels and hubs going to, it’s believed, Christchurch collector Gavin Bain, who, by then, owned the Bimotore. Or were they the Maserati wheels that went to Ian McKellar who was restoring the 4CLT at that time? The remains of the car, including the magnificent body were squashed and totally wrecked. The surviving photographs quite clearly show that this was a very special and clever car that deserves its place in New Zealand motorsport history.
Apart from the AV Special and the Bimotore, Rusty also owned one of the two, maybe three, Cord 810/812s that came to New Zealand new, or almost new, in the ‘30s. His car is now in the collection of Brian Rankine in Palmerston North. This car spent many years in Dunedin — first as the rather flamboyant daily driver of Mr Walls, co-owner of a radio shop in the ‘30s and ‘40s, McCracken & Walls, and father of Dunedin mayor Richard Walls.
By the ‘50s the Cord was a bit like the Voisin and had become a troublesome, but fascinating curiosity with its stunning art deco styling, V8-power (some supercharged), front-wheel drive and pop-up headlights. In the ‘50s, it was seen infrequently around Dunedin, going from owner to owner, each one trying valiantly to keep the car running because, mainly, of difficulties with the front wheel drive transmission and the electrics that controlled it.
Years back, I had communication from a man who had been an apprentice auto electrician who remembered having to squat on the front bumper bar of the car, bonnet removed, while the car was driven and to report back on what was happening with the gearchanges! He said that rain getting into the system was part of the problem and a temporary solution was slipping a ‘French letter’ (condom) over one of the solenoids to keep it dry. Rusty bought the car possibly around 1960 and, as with everything he touched, he made it work and Rusty and the Cord became quite the figures around Oamaru.
It even became a wedding car. One summer, in the early ‘60s, he hooked up his caravan and headed to Wanaka for a holiday, but the after the rigours of the Lindis Pass in those days, the Cord’s transmission gave up going up the Luggate Hill and stripped some of the teeth off a gear. Rusty managed to make to it the Glendhu Bay motorcamp where he spent his holiday, removing, stripping and, somehow, repairing the Cord’s gearbox while answering endless questions about “what is it?” from the curious campers. Brian Rankine has owned the car — and at least one other similar car — for many years and the last time I spoke to him, he had sourced a brand new transmission from somewhere.
But who was Rusty Thorp, the bloke? A character by all accounts, much loved and remembered well by everyone. Twice married, but he left no children of his own. In later years, motorcycles became his great love and he and Ronny Landau became great riding and touring mates. “Rusty was a hoarder,” Ronny says. “He would gather up everything he could — everything had a use. Each afternoon he would do the rounds of his “warehouses” as he called them. These were the various rubbish dumps around town and Rusty would wait until everybody had dumped their stuff for the day and he would go and salvage it.
His garage in Till Street was jammed from underfloor to the rafters with his gatherings. “When he died, it was all left to me and I had to administer his estate. There was just a mountain of stuff — all sorts of stuff and I still have some of it.” One thing Rusty did leave was a box of 35mm strip negatives. He had developed a taste for photography and there were dozens of these negative strips containing images of the things in life that interested Rusty — cars, planes, army tanks … and girls.
The negatives were spotted by another Oamaru man, Quentin Barrow, who recognised the value of the history that Rusty had recorded. He had many of the images digitised and preserved for the future. Last word to Rod Tempero who is a master at sourcing rare stuff for his car builds: “I had a project on many years ago and I thought I needed a certain type of pump. I went to Rusty and he rummaged through his mountains of stuff and came up with a glycol pump from a Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine. I bought it, discovered I didn’t really need it, but I still have it!”
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