The early sixties was a watershed era for motor racing in New Zealand — largely speaking, our switch from front-engined single-seater cars to rear, or mid-engined, was a year or two behind the international scene — and I was there to experience it. The thought of those last front-engined cars often fills me with nostalgia for my own introduction to the sport and my desire to record it.
I was there in 1960 when British privateer David Piper came to New Zealand armed with two of the 1959 Lotus Grand Prix cars — the very small and pretty Lotus 16. He raced a 2.5-litre Climax-engined one, and the second with 2.0-litre Climax power was for lease or sale to any local driver who was interested. I loved the Lotus 16 even though it had a notorious reliability record.
Other front-engined cars of that era that made an impression on me included the second Pat Hoare Ferrari of course, one of the very last of the front-engined war horses. But a car I really remember with a load of affection was the Formula Junior Lola T2 imported by J C N (John) Histed and later owned and raced by such notables as Ken Smith and Spinner Black before it disappeared and went to Australia. It was gorgeous — small and perfectly shaped.
There was much in common between the Lotus 16 and the Lola T2. Both were cars from designers who did know better but were clinging to history by designing and building cars with engines in the place that the driver looked out over, when they should have been over the driver’s shoulder. But, in both cases, the designers — Colin Chapman in the case of Lotus and Eric Broadley in the case of Lola — made the cars as minimalist as possible. I guess you could call these cross-over cars. They were both small cars and very pretty, even though designed for Formulae at both ends of the scale.
Earlier this year I went to a classic motor racing meeting at Levels organised by the Classic Motor Racing Club and did my usual trawl around the pits looking for anything new, or unusual, or that I hadn’t seen for a long time.
Then I saw a Lola T2. Or I thought I did. Or maybe it was a Lotus 16? I got closer and saw it was actually neither — but it was small, pretty and front-engined. It was obviously new — brand new — and the build quality was fantastic. The British Racing Green body was as smooth as dark glass, the cockpit shone with polished alloy; machine work and welds were exemplary. This was a jewel. A work of art. I was in awe.
A tall, slim man, early seventies I guessed, in racing overalls saw me looking, recognised me and introduced himself — “Hello Allan, I’m Stephen Beattie.” “Not the Stephen Beattie, from Auckland who designed and built those pretty little front-engined sports cars in the early nineties that later became Red Line?”
“Yes, that’s me,” he replied. “What are you doing here and what is this car. . .” “I live here now, moved to Geraldine and I built this car as a sort of tribute to the Lotus 16,” he said. “This is my first outing in it.” “Oh, Lotus 16, my first guess was Lola T2.” “Yes, it could be either couldn’t it,” said Stephen.
What can I tell you from that first sighting? It was small, very pretty with a stunning level of workmanship, drive train was to one side to allow the driver to sit alongside rather than on top of the driveshaft, it was powered by a 1600cc pre-crossflow Ford Kent engine, an early four-speed Cortina gearbox and a Ford Escort diff.
Although it was first time out, Stephen completed three races that day, seemingly without any difficulties and getting a fourth place. I wanted to know more. We exchanged emails and back home I contacted him, made a date and here we are.
There’s nobody at home as I walk down the gravel drive alongside a charming brick bungalow from the twenties or thirties. Straight ahead is a small garage — and I mean small — with both doors open. I can tell by the look of the place that this does not house a family car — is this where he keeps and works on the car I saw at Levels?
It’s very cosy. As I pass the corner of the house heading for the garage, I see a stunning, cream coloured, sports racing car sitting on the immaculate lawn. It’s got Beattie and Alfa badges. It’s beautiful. The proportions are dead right.
Behind the car I see two tiny outbuildings, doors open. In one (perhaps a wood shed in a previous life) there are some car parts, the other is a tiny workshop with drill press, wood-faced vice and just enough room to stand in. It, like the garage, is tiny.
There is a quiet English country village feel about Geraldine and this place fits in perfectly. I hear crunching footsteps on the gravel, it’s Stephen – he has been over the road to the Café Farm Shop to buy cheese and crackers. After the preliminaries we go inside to talk. “You probably expected to see the new car here, sorry, it’s with Brian in Christchurch.” Who is Brian? It’s in the story.
More has been written on the cars designed and built by Stephen Beattie than I had imagined, but nothing has really been written about Stephen himself. Let’s change that. Stephen was born in Napier 73 year ago and his best mate was Brian Pearce, who joined the police force. Both were members of the Hawkes Bay Car Club and raced in hillclimbs, sprints and race meetings at Levin in cars like Morris Minors, Minis and Austin A35s.
Stephen started work as an engine reconditioning apprentice at a local company, Engine Rebuilders, owned by the Duncan family.
“It was a firm known for its quality work — on a standard with Mace Engineering,” says Stephen. “They thought ahead and imported the first Repco cam grinder to come to New Zealand. “I loved it, and it was a joy to go to work. At first it was standing and stripping dirty old engines and cleaning the parts, but I progressed onto the machine work, which I just loved. I probably had a natural feel for it that I inherited off my father — he raced motorbikes.
“As I progressed, one of the customers trusted me to do the machining for him and that made me feel very good as he was a great presence in the area.” That person was the legendary Bill Hanna who had been Angus Hyslop’s mechanic in the days of his Cooper-Climax singleseaters as well as the D-Type Jaguar.
By this time Bill was at Havelock North Motors and was preparing the Mini Cooper S that was raced by both Angus Hyslop and Doc Langley. “I was doing a lot of stuff for local fellows who wanted their cars — cars powered by the BMC A-Series motor mostly — to go faster. I did a lot of 648 and the later 649 cams,” he said.
Typical of hundreds of others of his age, Stephen owned, modified and raced many cars. “I rebuilt a motor for a Mini I had — I used A40 pistons which took the capacity out to 920cc from 850. I had a Mini Cooper S which had been owned by Greeta Hulme — widow of F1 Champion Denis Hulme, a pretty quick 1340cc-engined Anglia and some sports cars — a TR6, a Sunbeam Alpine and a 3.8 Mk2 Jaguar on steel wheels — not wires.”
At work, his company had been acquired by Motor Specialties who were on a buying binge, ending up owning 17 engine reconditioning companies and rebranding them as MSI. Such was his standing that Stephen ended up being made Technical Manager of all 17 branches, but having to move to Auckland to do so. He then progressed another step up the ladder, becoming Operations Manager.
But big fish are eaten by bigger fish. Along came Australian giant Repco who purchased MSI along with just about every other carparts wholesaler in New Zealand. With Repco came redundancies — Stephen included.
“I bought into a company — Advanced Parts and Spares with Les Wrennall as my partner — and we changed from reconditioning engines to remanufacturing and selling short blocks for stock. We specialised in 186 Holden, Falcon, and the like, selling these recon’ short blocks around the country.”
But then the whole engine reconditioning business began to shrink — cars were lasting longer and didn’t need reconditioning as much — and the end was hastened by the importation of used engines out of Japan.
“I sold out of Advanced and bought Form Tool Engineering in Howick, specialising in tooling and machining,” Stephen said. By 1986, he had designed, built and raced his first car called the Beattie Wrennall Special — BWS — powered by a 2.0-litre Ford motor.
It was a classic front-engined two-seater, built along traditional “Morgan-like” lines, and Stephen competed in the Ardmore Revival meeting in 1989. In fact, a second car was built, and both still exist today, owned by Les Wrennall.
Other cars followed — and he rebuilt a Lotus 61 Formula Ford. In 1990 he designed and built the first Beattie Clubman. This was a very pretty and successful car inspired by the Lotus XI, but I also fancied I saw much more of the Lola T1 in it — the Lolas raced by Barry Cottle and Doug Lawrence back in the sixties.
It was front-engined, built on a spaceframe with all-enveloping body. “My desire with each car I design and build, is not to replicate any particular car, but rather to be inspired by one or two cars of the same ilk and then create my own version of those,” he says. “The final design owes nothing really to any particular car.”
The Beattie Clubman was, and still is, very successful. One stand-out owner being Colin Grant. So far 34 have been built including one that went to the UK and another to Japan. “I built and sold eight before I was approached by Kevin Hunt who wanted to buy the Clubman design. I sold it to him, and he set up in business selling them as Red Line.”
Eventually Kevin Hunt on sold the business to Liloa Willard in the UK and two of the UK cars are now on their way back to New Zealand to be road registered and delivered to Australia. Next came the Beattie SR2000 — a very neat mid/rear-engined car powered by a modified 3SG Toyota engine.
“I built four SR2000s. The first was sold to Lyall Zohs, the second to Graeme Cameron, the third to Japan and the fourth to the UK in chassis form. It was completed there but is now back in New Zealand,” he said.
“The second car was very successful for Graeme Cameron who had been racing a Porsche and was looking for something cheaper to run. He competed in the Sports Car Championship and was very successful. We believe the output of this engine was close to 225kW. Graeme modified the appearance of the car to give it a more Can-Am look.”
That car was sold to Doctor Kerry Spackman, the noted cognitive neuroscientist who worked for McLaren, but is now back in New Zealand.
“Kerry’s a member of the GT Club at Highlands, and regularly showed a clean pair of heels to the various Ferraris whose drivers couldn’t believe they were being beaten by a four-cylinder locally built car.” That car is now in the ownership of David Swain who also owns a front-engined Beattie Clubman.
Then Stephen’s life crashed. It was a perfect storm – with his marriage ending and then losing his business called Beattie Engineering. As if that wasn’t enough, he suffered the grief of losing his only son, Paul, at just 38 years of age.
“I lost my way, hit a wall, bought a 38-foot Catalina boat, moored it at Westhaven and lived on board, but then I had a call from my old partner Les Wrennall who said ‘your office is still here you know’ — so I went back to Advanced Parts, now specialising in Ford and Holden parts.
“There was a lovely, welcoming letter on my desk telling me there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Then he met his current partner, Rose, taught her to sail and suddenly his mojo returned.
“I decided to build another car to honour my son Paul and help me through my grief — I called it Paolo. Rose was surprised because I had not told her anything of my car building history.”
Space was found at Advanced Parts and the result was the Beattie Paolo, the gorgeous looking sports car I saw on his back lawn when I arrived at his Geraldine home.
“It’s powered by a quad-cam, 16-valve Boxer motor and a gearbox out of an Alfa 33 and it’s roadworthy — registered and warranted.”
The Paolo was completed in 2019. But life was about to change again for Stephen. “Rose and I didn’t want to live on the boat forever, so we looked around at what we might buy,” he said. “We saw this house in Geraldine on the internet while we were sitting in a secluded bay at Waiheke, thought that it was in our price range and bought it almost sight unseen. We didn’t know anything about Geraldine when we arrived — but it’s lovely and the place is full of car enthusiasts.”
However, he needed another project. All through the years he had kept in touch with his old mate Brian Pearce whose police career had taken him to Christchurch. He too had developed into a builder and racer of cars, with a Lotus Seven and a U2 to his account.
They decided to go “halfers” in a car and tipped $5,000 each into an account and Stephen got designing. The final result was the car I saw at Levels.
“Brian and I had attended a classic race meeting at Levels where there were all of these British Formula Juniors and we thought ‘right, that’s what we will build’ — and we did.”
The resulting car is called a Beattie LT16 — LT standing for Lotus Tribute with 16, of course, referring to the Lotus 16. The LT16 was virtually built on Stephen’s back lawn.
“Well, you need a hacksaw and a drill — and they’re portable — so that’s where the car was pretty much built,” he said. “The small garage is where the Paolo is housed, the family car lives outside, and the LT16 is with Brian Pearce in Christchurch.”
How does Stephen go about designing a car. “I draw up all the technical stuff as well as the body style. My initial drawings are to scale, but I will also draw to full size either on the floor or on sheets of plywood. Suspension geometry (something that is important to Stephen) is always full size.
“Once I have the drawings, I start on the build.” The LT16 took about 18 months to complete. Stephen has all sorts of other things to show me in and around Geraldine, other people to meet, cars to see — but this has been a longer interview than I expected, so I have to cut it short and head back home.
I mull over the day in my head as I drive. Stephen Beattie is a lovely man, genuine, warm, friendly and liked by everyone I’ve ever spoken to. I knew of the Beattie Clubman — the Lotus 11/Lola T1 inspired car – but I really had no idea about anything else.
I’ve seen a lot of New Zealand-built cars in the past 60 years — some extraordinary, some awful — but I’ve never seen anything with the build quality, nor the beauty of Stephen Beattie’s creations. Not only does Stephen understand the science of racing car design and construction, but he also has a true artist’s touch when it comes to automotive design. His Clubman and SR2000 both look as if they came from a racing car factory. The Paolo and LT16 simply took my breath away.
Stephen would like to thank the team at Geraldine Auto Restorations for their invaluable support of his LT16 project.
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