Words: Allan Dick
Allan Dick meets Cliff Knight who, as a young man, spent much of the summer of 1960 competing around New Zealand in a Standard Ten.
Some things just stick in your mind. And a fellow who raced a black Standard Ten in the saloon car races through the 1960 season is one of those things that has stuck in mine – and not only in my mind, but it’s also something that the few remaining mates who are still vertical from that era also remember.
Well, because it seemed such an ordinary car and the bloke driving it seemed to be having an incredible amount of fun, weekend after weekend, even though it was totally unglamorous and he was hardly a front runner. He was doing what we dreamed of doing, but somehow lacked the commitment.
Over the years, Cliff Knight and his black Standard Ten have become a distant symbol of what motor racing was like back then when compared to today. The car was modified for racing, but it was driven on the road not only between race meetings, but also used as daily transport.
To the Races
By 1960, motor racing had a firm grip on my senses, a flame that had been ignited two years before when my mates had to talk me into a trip from Dunedin to Invercargill for “the car racing”. I had been to the opening meeting at Teretonga in late 1957 with the same crew of would-be bodgies and cardboard cut-out Milk Bar Cowboys, but I had been bored almost to tears.
And I had been present, in body if not so much in mind, at the 1958 Dunedin Road Race the week before this second meeting at Teretonga, but again, I was less than impressed. So, I was a bit of a reluctant team member when myself and five others crammed into Walter Powell’s rotten old 1938 Ford V8. To be honest, I was the team driver and it was the thought of driving this particularly vicious, brakeless, bald-tyred youth-killer that appealed to me far more than watching car racing.
It was meant to be a there-and-back one-day trip, but I had just had the diff out of the rotten old Ford and while I was under there, I added the rortiness of a ‘twin pipe’ exhaust system. Twin pipe? Well, it was all smoke and mirrors. In reality it had a standard Ford V8 system back to where the main muffler used be, and from there it branched out into two pipes of ridiculously small diameter as I had pilfered the system off a mate who had them fitted to his Morris Eight sport tourer. At least the small diameter pipes acted as a sort of restrictor, or muffler, and kept the sound levels legal while still magnifying that seductive exhaust note.
Car owner Walter didn’t know a screwdriver from a pair of vice-grips, but I did – so I was also the team mechanic.
On the outskirts of Invercargill I went around a corner a bit too fast and the body slipped over – and stayed there! We got out and looked underneath and I immediately realised I had not located the transverse spring retainer when I put the diff back in, so the body was free to slip and slide from side to side.
I was all for fixing it on the spot as I had brought along my old ex-US Army ammunition box full of plough spanners, vice-grips, a selection of hammers and a coil of farm lacing wire, which was my ‘fall back’ repair kit. But my travel mates were busting a gut to get to the car racing, so we decided to stay somewhere in Invercargill that night where I could get the body level and then firmly locate the rear spring while the rest looked on.
Well, the ‘somewhere to stay the night’ turned out to be a quiet corner of the botanic gardens, where we were completely undisturbed all night.
But between the emergency stop to see what was wrong with the car and our night in the gardens, something happened. I don’t know why, but we drove out of Teretonga that afternoon with the other five in the car all a bit unfussed about the day’s racing and me a raving fanatic. I became totally hooked on motor racing that day and I still don’t know why.
And because of that day, I remember that black Standard Ten as clearly as yesterday.
So, now we fast forward to the 1960 season, which is what this story is really all about.
Motor racing in 1960 was a totally different animal to what it is today. The sport, which had been a minor pastime before the war, exploded with the return of peace as the car became an essential part of New Zealanders’ lives rather than a luxury. We became a car-mad nation, and where does a young man’s (and a few young women’s) fancy turn under those circumstances? To seeing who had the fastest car and who had the most skill and daring.
And the car became the WW2 Spitfire, albeit confined to the ground, for many of the servicemen who found civilian life dull after six years of war.
Circuit racing arrived in the late forties – first of all a mix of closed public roads and temporary airfield circuits, later permanent circuits – and the crowds were enormous. The focus of these race meetings was on the feature races – the Grand Prix, Lady Wigram Trophy, etc. – which were for purpose-built racing cars, home-made bitsas and sports cars.
There were also support races for just sports cars as they were deemed to be cars built for racing, but also, introduced at first as a programme filler and a novelty, occasional races for what we now call saloon cars.
Back then though they were often called ‘stock’ cars and were frequently run in the same race as production sports cars.
Through the fifties, these supporting, programme-filling, stock cars became more and more important as the feature races were invariably long, drawn out and boring, while stock car races were short, snappy affairs and people could identify with the cars that were being raced.
Through the fifties, the age and variety of cars that were raced would astound many people today. Many were pre-war family cars, some were sports saloons such as Rileys and the occasional Jaguar, while modified cars were few and far between. No cars were trailered; they were all driven to the circuit and, providing there was no drama like a blown motor or a crash, they were driven home again.
Some cars barely had their tyres inflated to racing pressures, some of the more enthusiastic would lighten their cars at the circuit by removing mufflers, seats and maybe headlights, but for most, on arrival at the circuit, it was off with the hubcaps, tape across the headlights and huge, identifying numbers painted on the front doors.
There was always what the British would have called ‘keen competition’ and there were some who selected a specific car to race with an eye on winning, but the thing that everyone had in common was a love of just going racing.
I said at the start, some things stay with you forever – I think the love of racing was captured perfectly in the 1960 season by Vic Blackburn, who turned up at every South Island meeting driving one of those very pretty, Australian-bodied, Goggomobil coupés.
With a breathtaking 392cc, two-stroke engine, it was not a demanding car to drive, and even though he buzzed energetically around at the end of the fields, Blackburn always had a huge grin on his face.
Competing was far more important than winning. But the ‘Goggo’ wasn’t the only tiddler racing in that 1960 season. There was a fellow called Miller from Ashburton with a 1953 Fiat 600, an unremembered chap in a 1951 Renault 750, and a bloke named Hyde with a pre-war Singer 9.
At the sharp end of the field were people like Ernie Sprague in his Zephyr MkII and Harold Heasley’s incredibly fast Humber 80. These guys were desperate to win, but the vast majority of the fields were made up of blokes who just wanted to wear a crash helmet and do some skids in car with big numbers on the sides.
Two competitors in that 1960 season epitomised that spirit of just racing perfectly. They travelled the entire country – from Ardmore to Waimate – and they both called some remote town in the Far North home, a place where nobody ever went called Kaitaia. Cliff Knight drove his black Standard Ten and Gary Crene a green Morris Minor. They toured the country together, the two owner/drivers with Les Lindsay, the ‘team manager’ who shared his time equally between the two cars.
These cars were road legal and carried their accommodation with them – a four-man, poles and canvas tent plus three canvas stretchers. The team stayed in camping grounds all the way.
Cliff Knight had raced a little before that 1960 season but seldom after. That was his big effort and he still remembers it with real clarity.
Today, Cliff Knight and his wife Jennifer (“I’m the reason he gave up racing,” she calls from the kitchen) live in comfortable retirement at Coopers Beach in the Far North.
He’s still interested in cars and owned a succession of very good Jaguars until a business venture to try and build a marina near Mangonui failed, and his hobby car now is an immaculate Rover 75 – the car that was Rover’s last gasp.
But let’s talk about that 1960 season and how it came about.
“I grew up in Kaitaia and had an elder brother, John, who rode motorbikes very well – he was very fast – and after Dad [who had been a watchmaker] died when I was young, John taught me to drive in Mum’s Morris Minor.”
Cliff left school and became an apprentice engineer with Pitchford Engineering in Kaitaia, earning £2/9s/2d (about $5) a week, and he developed an interest in cars as more than just transport.
“Northland was an area of some pretty competitive motorsport – we had some good local hillclimbs and there were a heap of fellows all going great guns: Roy Billington who went to work for Jack Brabham, Johnny Windleburn, George (Joe) Lawton and Doug Marsh, all good fellows.
“So I joined the Whangarei Car Club and built two cars before I bought and started racing the Standard.”
Using the skills he was picking up as an apprentice engineer, his first car was a pretty straightforward sports car based on an Austin 7 running gear, but his second was a more sophisticated effort.
“I had studied drawings of the complicated chassis in the Birdcage Maserati and decided to build a space-frame car with four-wheel independent suspension that I designed and built myself.
“I used some parts of a crashed MG J2 but powered it with a Ford 10 motor and clad it in a Jarvie fibreglass body. It looked pretty smart. I competed in it at a Puhi Puhi hillclimb in 1958 and had come back down the hill and let the car coast to a halt on a grassy area at the bottom. I didn’t pull on the handbrake or put it in gear and I went away to look at the time sheets.
“When I came back I was astounded to see a pair of legs in overalls poking out from under the car! My first thought was it had run away by itself and run over someone, but then a fellow wriggled out from underneath! It was Bruce McLaren, who wanted to have a look at my suspension!”
By now Cliff wanted to go real motor racing and in 1958 he bought a Standard Eight, which he reasoned could be modified for racing and still be used as a practical daily driver. And it was affordable!
“The Standard Eight was virtually the same car as the Standard Ten, but with the smaller motor, and that was compensated for by being slightly lighter, having no boot lid – access to the boot was via the rear seat. It was an earlier model, so it also had sliding windows! I hotted it up with twin SU carbs and I pulled the head off and ported and polished it myself. The local Standard dealer was Chappie Herring, and he was a good bloke who gave me a lot of help and support.
“I thought it handled quite well, but it lifted the inside rear wheel on tight corners a lot more quickly than the fellows who were running Austin A30/35s or Morris Minors.
“After a season doing hillclimbs and that sort of thing I decided to bring it up to Standard Ten specification. Chappie Herring supplied me with a set of sleeves and pistons, which increased the capacity from 803cc to 948cc, and there was a noticeable improvement in performance. It would do a genuine hundred miles an hour and I was very excited about that. I had to pull the motor out and rebuild it though after one of the sleeves moved.”
In late 1959, Cliff and Gary Crene hatched the plan to do the full round of National and International race meetings, beginning
with the Grand Prix at Ardmore and ending at Waimate.
“It was a bit of a dream, but we really wanted to do it and the prospects were exciting – joining this circus of motor racing. We just wanted to go racing and we roped in Les Lindsay as the ‘team manager’.
“Gary’s Morris Minor was originally a side-valve model but it had been fitted with an overhead camshaft conversion and it was a reasonably quick car.
“To be as ready as I could be for the season ahead I had Collett & Fleming, in Auckland, import a special performance camshaft for me from the UK and it arrived just in time for the Ardmore meeting.”
But the season had barely started before disaster struck: “The engine dropped a valve in practice at Ardmore.”
It was too far to get back to home base at Kaitaia, so the engine came out and repairs were made in the basement of an aunty’s house in Mount Eden.
The car behaved itself perfectly for the rest of the season.
“We made a lot of friends that season, travelling from one end of the country to the other. At Wigram, someone who was really helpful in all sorts of ways was Dennis Stanton.”
Later, Dennis Stanton was not allowed by his parents to race but such was his enthusiasm he decided to risk parental wrath and competed under the name Ned Wilco.
Christchurch man Frank Cantwell, who had made an attempt to master the brutal Tojeiro Jaguar the season before, had switched to saloons and was now racing a Triumph Herald coupé.
“I got on well with Frank and managed
to beat him a couple of times, which impressed him. At one stage he talked about me driving for him the next season, but that didn’t happen.”
The social life between racing was good. “We got to see a lot of the country, although we didn’t see a lot of other competitors between race meetings. Some stayed in the same camping grounds as us, but not many.”
Cliff’s most successful meeting was at Dunedin around what was called the “oval circuit”.
“It was a handicap race, and on the last lap I found myself in the lead but in my rear vision mirror I could see the cream and red MkII Zephyr of Ernie Sprague – he was catching me fast and I knew he was going to pass me. But on the last corner he tried to go around the outside of me, ran out of road and went into the haybales. I saw hay flying everywhere as I headed for the chequered flag.” Ernie recovered and finished second.
“As part of the entry fees we got tickets to the prizegivings, but we never used them. To be honest we found it more exciting to drive around town that night in our ‘racing cars’ with the big numbers on the side acting like we were real racing drivers! That was a lot of fun.
“But I heard later that there was a trophy for the winner of the handicap saloon car race in Dunedin and I wasn’t at that prizegiving to accept it!”
Back home in Kaitaia after that whirlwind season, Cliff gave up motor racing, purchased the engineering company he worked for and shifted it to Awanui.
He began building boats and, needing somewhere to launch them, he dredged the silted-up Awanui River so that today it is a pleasant and valuable waterway.
However, his interest in cars has remained.
“I have owned several very nice Jaguars and that put me in touch with RJR Spares, and over the years we supplied them with a lot of aftermarket parts, like head studs, that we could manufacture easily enough.”
Several years ago, totally out of the blue, Cliff wrote me a letter telling me the bare bones of his experiences during that 1960 season.
I have waited a long time to sit down and talk with him about it. The story, as always, is slightly different to what I remembered – the car was more modified than I recalled – but the sheer enthusiasm for the need to just “go racing” on a budget, driving your racing car meeting to meeting and sleeping in a tent, remains clear, pure and unfiltered.