Words: Allan Dick | Photos: Allan Dick, Craig Hickson and Brian High
The new owner was so confident in the quality of his new, hand-built car that after a handful of laps at Levels motor racing circuit, he and a companion squeezed their luggage into the available spaces and drove to Hawke’s Bay – at the start of winter!
It’s a quiet day at Levels Raceway near Timaru. It’s early winter, calm and cool with high, scattered and misty cloud. It’s a test day where racers can enjoy track time, and a few cars are scattered around the pit area. But most of the activity is around a sleek, low sports car that obviously has its roots in the fifties.
Apart from its perfect proportions, there are some strong design features to this car – the long nose that thrusts forward between the faired-in headlights and elegant front guards, the oval opening that forces cooling air into the radiator and engine compartment, the minimal ‘grille’ that consists of a horizontal bar and four vertical ones – almost an ‘egg-crate’ grille.
The car is so low that the two-seater cockpit is almost dwarfed by the arching rear mudguards, while behind the driver’s head is a streamlined fairing.
The car sits magnificently on Borrani chrome wire wheels with centre knock-ons.
But the car’s trademark features are undoubtedly the large cut-outs behind each front wheel arch. These are filled with two large louvres and there’s a cross bar.
The car is immaculately finished in Sage Green with a broad yellow band around the oval opening at the front.
The nose, the tail and both doors feature large white roundels carrying the number 7.
Taken as a whole, this car is beautiful. Clean. Uncluttered. Purposeful.
The number 7 and the fifties-style of the car all suggest that the late Stirling Moss might have driven something like this. However, that would make it almost 70 years old and this car looks brand new. In fact, it is brand new – the latest commissioned and completed car to emerge from the rural workshop of Rod Tempero, just a kilometre or two south of Oamaru.
There’s a small group of people around the car and there’s a sense of calm and order. There’s nothing to suggest that anyone is concerned about anything, despite the fact that the car was built by artisans over many months and has only completed just a handful of miles.
There is probably more activity and work at the first service check of a new mass-produced family saloon.
It is handover day for this car. Rod Tempero and four of his team have travelled up from Oamaru with the car to hand it over to its owner, Craig Hickson, who has come from Hawke’s Bay with a friend and colleague – and they intend driving it home. A three-day trip with two overnight stops and a ferry crossing in an unheated, open-top sports-racing car in the wintertime! But what a car in which to put up with such minor discomforts!
It’s a derivation of a model of car that won at Le Mans and there were only two built. They were made obsolete for world championship sports car racing when a 3.0-litre capacity limit was introduced and the cars were sent to the USA where they could race and were very successful.
As you might imagine, the genuine articles are rare and horrendously expensive.
Craig Hickson is a successful Hawke’s Bay businessman with a string of successes to his credit in the meat industry as head of Progressive Meats – a company that employs over 400 people – and is directly involved with a string of other companies. Off the Progressive Meats website we learn that “in 2012 he was awarded the Agribusiness Person of the Year for his outstanding contribution to the industry and in 2015 was awarded NZ Entrepreneur of the Year.”
He is also a car enthusiast and has a particular leaning towards MG, owning five of them.
He still has his first MG, which was also his first ever car – a 1954 MG TF that he bought over Christmas in 1970 when he was a student at Massey University.
Craig says he had been interested in cars for some time but it took him a couple of years as a teenager before he had the financial wherewithal to buy his first car.
Today, that TF shares garage space with an MG L-Type. This is a rare model built in 1933 and 1934 and has the traditional long bonnet, short cockpit look of all MGs up to the MGA. What is unusual about the L-Type is that it is powered by an in-line six-cylinder, overhead cam, cross-flow engine of just 1078cc!
Craig also has an SA Saloon (1936–1939) – a big sporting sedan that was originally conceived as a luxury, performance saloon to rival Bentley and SS/Jaguar. However the merger of MG with Morris saw the production car shorn of some of its more advanced features. It is powered by a 2.3-litre in-line, pushrod, six-cylinder engine of Wolseley origin.
Rounding out Craig’s MG collection is a brace of MGAs – the first of the ‘modern’ MGs that forsook the company’s traditional styling. The first is a Mark II roadster, but the second is a Twin Cam coupé, a very rare car indeed.
However, let’s talk about his latest acquisition – the long, low, wide, delicious-looking green car you see on these pages – it’s the recreation of a car that won races in the fifties and is often described as the most beautiful sports racing car of all time, even challenging, perhaps, the D-Type Jaguar in that regard.
A Trip to Oamaru
Craig had nothing really in mind when he went to the UK in 2016 and attended the Goodwood Nostalgia meeting in September of that year.
“I was walking around, taking everything in, when I saw this car and recognised it as the sort of sports car driven in the fifties by the likes of Stirling Moss.
“I was interested in it and opened one of the doors and saw a plaque that said it had been built in Oamaru, New Zealand, by Tempero Motor Body Works. I was aware that there were people in New Zealand who had a reputation for building exact replicas of famous and exotic cars to a very high standard, but I wasn’t really aware of the details. So I did a little digging and came up with Rod Tempero’s name.”
Back home and during the following year, 2017, Craig was on a round-the-South Island MG Rally and the route took them not just to Oamaru, but also right past Rod Tempero’s workshop just south of the town on SH1.
“I stopped off, went in, introduced myself to Rod and asked if he could build me a car. Of course he said he could. I knew that his father had built a number of the same car several years back, and wondered if he still had the body bucks (the wooden frame over which the aluminium body is handmade in small sections, welded in place and then filed so the seam is invisible). He said they had long gone with the people his father had sold the original company to. I asked if that was a problem – he simply said ‘no problem’ and that was that. I ordered the car.”
Now we fast forward to mid-June 2021, just over three years later, and Craig is taking delivery of his new car – a car that has been hand-built from the ground up in a converted poultry shed over more than three years.
It is a cool early winter’s day, overcast with a chill breeze, and Craig and the car are together at Levels Raceway near Timaru. Craig is a tall, slim, pleasant-looking man, in his mid-years wearing racing overalls emblazoned with MG badges.
It’s a small group – Craig and his travelling companion and business colleague Willem Sandberg, Rod Tempero and four of his team, photographer Brian High and a couple of car blokes from Oamaru who follow progress on Rod’s cars – and me.
What was Craig’s reaction when he saw the completed car, sitting ready for him to drive?
“It was magnificent. Glorious. Everything and more that I had wanted and waited for.”
It had taken three and a bit years from the time he had placed the order and had supplied a couple of the major components – such as the engine. Was there any sense of frustration? Of impatience?
“No. Not at all. I knew how long it was going to take and I just accepted that. Working with Rod was very easy. He’s a really fine person and as honest as the day is long. He would send me photographs regularly – sometimes a few each day, sometimes none for a week. It depends on how much work he was doing on the car. His sense of connection is excellent. There is never any doubt about what is happening. Rod keeps you totally informed.”
This is a test day at Levels so there are others there in their cars, and Craig is only allowed out to do a handful of laps when the track is clear.
The lack of drama around the new car is impressive – I see not a single spanner or screwdriver, and everyone has clean hands. Rod and his team take pretty much a back seat as Craig and Willem get to learn the car.
Craig gets the all clear and I go off to the double corners just after the start/finish line at Levels where I first took photographs in late 1967 when the circuit opened. I cannot imagine how many times I have clicked the camera shutter from this spot in the intervening years.
Obviously Craig’s not pushing the car at all, so there are no dramatics, no lurid tail slides, no lifting wheels. The car looks good on the track: minimal body roll, the double overhead cam, in-line six sounds crisp and clean, it pulls well out of the tight corners, and the gearchanges sound slick.
Then there’s a bit of silence. Over the back Craig has found the limit and spun. No real damage, just a little gravel rash on a rear guard.
“I haven’t really done much racing and I am not sure I will with this car,” he says. “I just want to enjoy it.”
And enjoy it he has already.
After three or four of the brief sessions at Levels, Craig indicates he’s set to go and head off to Hawke’s Bay. This car is brand new, it’s been painstakingly built up from hundreds of parts over three years and it’s done only something like 50 kilometres of running.
Wouldn’t he be better putting it on a trailer? I look at both Craig and Rod.
“It will be fine,” says Craig.
“I like to think we know what we are doing,” smiles Rod.
Craig and Willem squeeze into the cockpit; Craig pulls on a heavy jacket and then a leather helmet similar to that used by pilots, and then goggles. No gloves though. Willem’s not quite so well protected and both will face the blast of the chill winter breeze that will become a bitter gale at 80 or 90 or 100km/h.
Getting driver and passenger in is easy compared to finding room for their small and soft leather bags.
One is fitted between the shapely tail and the spare wheel where there is maybe 10mm of space. After a lot of squeezing and trying, the second bag rests on Willem’s lap and then with a wave, they are off, the crisp exhaust of the green car trailing its way out of Levels.
They are off on what many would call a ‘Boy’s Own’ trip. I am envious and have visions of the car on the Kaikoura Coast and the exhaust booming off the sides of the two tunnels.
A week or so later I phone Craig and ask him about the trip back.
“No. None at all. The only thing that held us up was talking to people. Everywhere we went and stopped people would gather and ask me about the car. Driving it on the open road was a real pleasure – it was cold – but the ride was softer than I thought, it steered nicely and the brakes were good. No, it was a great experience.
“At Levels, I found it was a little light in the tail and that caught me out, but there are no idiosyncrasies. It’s just a lovely car to drive. I am really looking forward to taking it on long road trips – in the summer. . .”
Rod and the Tempero Team
Rod Tempero makes it all seem so easy. He starts with nothing and ends up with a piece of automotive art. But then, he’s been doing it all his life.
His grandfather ‘Pop’ (Allan) was the original Tempero coachbuilder. Old school and a long time ago – it was 1947 that Allan started building wood-framed bodies on Fordsons and Bradfords, vehicles that arrived in New Zealand as just cab and chassis. He eventually specialised in ambulances.
It was his son, Rod’s father, Erroll, who moved from conventional coachwork and panelbeating into building replicas. But it came time to retire and he sold the business to “some Americans”. Initially Rod worked for them, but shortly before the business failed, Rod moved out on his own, buying a large laying shed that had been used to hold hens, and the project that got him going was a replica of the A6 Pinin Farina Maserati coupé for an Auckland collector. That was followed by a Ferrari P4, which resides in the USA.
At first he was a solo operator building one car at a time. Today there is a small team of workers – Carl, Caleb, Jeff, Jonas, Matthew and Carolyn, plus Rod. They ‘progress’ cars and at this writing there were nine projects underway and in various stages of build.
In the ten years I have lived in Oamaru and regularly visited Rod, I have seen changes in the operation. The building size has doubled and can no longer be called a “former poultry shed”, although the famous ducks and chooks are still there – “we started feeding them over the back, so that’s where they are now,” says Rod.
Rod and his team work 10-hour days Monday to Thursday, so every weekend is three days. The team appear to appreciate that.
Visiting the workshops is an exercise in the calm I had seen around the car at Levels. Each of the team simply gets on with the job with minimal talk, just quietly working away. The place exudes confidence and skill.
“They all take a huge amount of pride
in what they do,” says Rod. “It’s a solid team effort”.
But how do you actually make a start on something as daunting as building a car?
“You start with research – a lot of research. You get to know everything about the car, its history, who designed it – you get to know everything about it. And most of the research comes from books – not the internet. For example, you know that Jaguar MkI front suspensions were used on a large number of sports cars around the world.”
After the research, it comes down to drawing a full-sized profile drawing in white chalk on a blackboard – this serves as the plan for the car.
And to get the shape and the proportions right, Rod studies and scales up or down as many photographs as he can find and then measures spaces and distances.
He’s been doing this all his working life.
He spends hours at night on his computer or phone, tracking down parts from all over the world.
“It’s surprising how many parts are still numbers in parts books and readily available – you just have to know where to look.”
But Rod is more that a coachbuilder with incredible skill levels – he’s an all-rounder. He is also a highly skilled and adaptable engineer.
As he says – you’ve got to get to know your subject – body, suspension, brakes, cooling, engine, transmission.
Need a transaxle for a fifties Formula
One car and there are none available? You create one.
“Dad did build these cars, like Craig’s, right back at the start, but all the information he had went with the business, so this was like starting from a clean sheet of paper. Craig supplied the engine and gearbox but we found the rest. It’s got a Salisbury diff and the chrome wires are Borrani parts numbers, so that was all easy.
“The upholstery and trim is all done here in Oamaru by Blackhawk – young fellow there, Steven Coster, does it all, he’s excellent. We do the painting here in the workshop – I installed a new paint booth a couple of years ago.”
Is there anything he couldn’t build? Is there anything that would be impossible?
Rod doesn’t hesitate.
“No. It’s what we do!”