Where it all started – How Ford got one-make racing off the ground in NZ

| Photographer Credit: Ross Cammick

In my column last week, I extolled the virtues of New Zealand’s latest and now longest running ‘one-make’ series, the Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota 86 Championship.

New Zealand actually has a long and storied history of ‘one-make’ racing, but you’d never know it if, 1) you are a relatively recent arrival here or convert to our wonderful and ‘many-layered,’ sport, or 2) you rely on the traditional mainstream or even specialist motorsport media to keep you ‘up-to-date’ as to what’s going on.

So – in time-honoured fashion – I decided to do some digging myself and came up with the following (and if you don’t mind me saying so myself) absolutely fascinating look into the origins of one-make racing here in Aotearoa/NZ.

Initially I was just going to write it up as an all-in, one-size-fits all column. However, such was the immediate and enthusiastic response from the first three people I emailed in search of information, I’ve decided to make something of a ‘degustation’ meal of the subject, offering bite sized chunks of information over the next month or so, rather than a full-on slab of rump steak, chips, and coleslaw from which some of you, no doubt, would end up with a bad case of heartburn.

And so, ladies & gentlemen, be seated and prepare yourself for your first course – the Ford Escort Sport Cup series which ran for three seasons from 1979 to 1981.

From small acorns….

Apart, of course, from my natural nosiness and interest in all forms of motorised sport, the thing which set me off on my Don Quixote-like search for more information on the history and background of one-make racing in this country was a single photograph – not just any photograph either, oh no!

This was one of the few I had personally ever seen of a MK 2 Ford Escort Sport, apparently competing in a round of the Ford Escort Sport Cup, a series which ran for three summers through the late 1970s and ranked as New Zealand’s first official, manufacturer-backed, MotorSport NZ-run ‘’one-make’ series.

When the particular pic initially turned up in my Facebook feed it was simply one of a number of classic Black & White photographs taken originally (or so I thought at the time) by colleague Kevin Lancaster but only recently scanned, digitised, and shared to his many friends on Facebook to enjoy.

So, it was to Kevin to whom I shot off my first email (on the subject of ‘the Escort Sport Series back in the day’ and whether or not he had any other shots which I might use ‘if’ I were to put together a column on ‘early one-make series here in NZ.’

Jim Donald reverting to type, however, in a Ford Escort Sport Cup series race at Bay Park in 1979

As it turned out, however the photo I had seen had been taken, not by Kevin, but by Ross Cammick, who coincidentally was also scanning and digitising his archive of racing images from Pukekohe through the late 1970s and early 1980s, and  – long story short, less than a day after I pushed the button on my first email to Kevin, he flicked me a second one complete with a ‘veritable plethora’ of pretty much perfect shots of wildly leaning…Ford Escort Sports, and (in a subject for a later column) Ford Laser Sports

“Sooooo,” I said to no one in particular. “That was obviously the easy bit.

“The hard part is now going to be finding someone who was there when the idea of a one-make series was first discussed right through to when the last chequered flag fell.

“It’d also be good,” I mused,” to be able to talk to someone who competed in the series.”

At which point I probably should have gone straight out and bought a Lotto ticket because I literally hit (yet another) ‘Journalistic Jackpot’ as far as writing up an authoritative guide to New Zealand’s first genuine one-make series, the Ford Escort Sport Cup.

There I was (again!) absent-mindedly scrolling down my Facebook feed when up popped a post from former Ford New Zealand marketing guru Garry Jackson on the recent death of British actor Dennis Waterman (aka Detective Sargent George Carter in The Sweeney, and Terry McCann in Minder) and the role he played in a Ford NZ dealer promotion ‘back in the day.’

And the penny dropped………….

“Of course,” I thought, “Garry would have been working at Ford NZ HQ at the time, so he’d have been knee-deep himself in any one-make malarkey or he’ll know someone who was. I’ll fire him off an email and see what he’s got to say.”

And guess what? Just like Kevin Lancaster, it was as if Garry had been sitting patiently at his desk waiting for my email.

“Would love to help you with your story Ross,” came the same-day reply. “Am traveling right now but due on the ferry tonight or tomorrow morning, Will try and put some words together for you then.”

And – I kid you not – absolutely true to his word, the following arrived in my computer’s inbox the next morning.

John Armstrong (leading this group of cars at Bay Park in 1978) would go on to win the second Ford Escort Sport Cup series outright in 1979

The official view – by Garry Jackson

“Ford NZ launched the Escort MkII model in 1975, and the model became a top seller for a number of reasons,   including the production capacity of the brand new Wiri assembly plant, the inclusion of the well-priced Escort Sport model (1600cc from 1977), and the success of the high profile Masport Escort Rally Team (and numerous other competitors in their RS1800 BDAs and other Escort models).

“All of this led Ford NZ to propose a single-make Escort Sport racing series to the Motorsport Association of NZ (MANZ).

“The idea itself came out of an informal “Performance Strategy Group” set up in 1978 (sparked by Peter Ashcroft, then motorsport boss at Boreham), comprising Ford NZ management (Marketing Manager and enthusiast Reyn Penny in particular), Ray Stone, leading dealers, and Ford’s advertising agency.

“MANZ liked the idea, there were synergies with the National Formula Ford series, and it slotted perfectly into the summer race meetings with close door to door racing and many notable drivers.

“The way it worked was that Ford managed the technical specifications, providing the required info and expertise (and parts back up) to MANZ who provided the scrutineering support. Ford also funded all the prizemoney, race by race.

“The Escort Sport Championship ran for three years, the 1979 winner being Ray Williams, 1980 John Armstrong, and Alan Milligan in 1981.

“In an interesting aside. Alan’s championship winning Escort Sport is still raced in South Island classic events by son Grant Milligan, in exactly the same spec.”

“Bugger me, “were the next two words to pop into my  mind, as Garry’s second to last paragraph reminded me of a conversation I had had several years ago now (and which, of course, had started off on a completely different subject), with the redouble ‘Racing Ray,’ in which, he had mentioned, in passing, that he has indeed won the very first ‘Ford Escort one-make series.’

“Perfect,” I thought. “I’ll flick him an email as well and see what he has to say about the series now.”

And – again – within the blink of an eye, I got my third virtually perfect response….

Inaugural Ford Escort Sport Cup series winner ‘Racing Ray’ Williams leads the way in a race at Pukekohe in 1978

‘Racing Ray’ remembers…

“Back in 1975 and 1976 Elvie (my wife then) and I had won the 2-litre class of the Benson and Hedges endurance races at Pukekohe driving a Ford Cortina Mk3.

“The Ford Motor Company was impressed and offered us a new Ford Fairmont XC, to try for outright victory in 1977.

“Elvie and I got off to a good start too – from pole position no less. However, with its 302-cu. in. V8 engine the Fairmont was very thirsty, so we were into the pits twice as often as the then all-conquering 6-cylinder Chrysler Valiant Chargers, plus we had some brake issues. We still finished 11th though, helping the three-car Ford team win the Team’s Prize. a lovely tray of silver wine goblets.

“Ford must have been fairly happy because we were then offered a special price deal on two brand new Ford Escort 1600 Sport models to race in ‘New Zealand’s first ever ‘One-Make’ Championship series.”

“Of course, we both said, ‘Yes please’ and so began an adventure which eventually saw me winning the first series outright in JB 1600 and Elvie finishing a very good 4th overall in JC1600.

“Back in those days, of course, the cars all started as showroom stock, standard production models, so there was none of the lowered and upgraded suspension componentry and/or upgraded tyre/wheel/brake rotor/pad packages let alone roll cages, fixed back bucket seats that you see in most one-make series around the world today.

Rally ace Jim Donald keeping the wheels of his Masport-backed Escort Sport in-line in a race a Pukekohe in 1978

“What you saw was – pretty much – what you got, though that didn’t stop the racing from being typically fast and furious from the very first race, and, as you can see from most of the photos taken at the time, with only lap and diagonal seat belts, you really had to hang on through the corners.

“Over the season we raced on most of the tracks right throughout New Zealand; Pukekohe, Bay Park (before the housing development destroyed that wonderful racetrack), Taupo, Manfeild, Teretonga, Timaru, Ruapuna.

That first – as well as subsequent Ford-backed Escort & Laser Sport, and Laser TX3i one-make series – attracted a mix of top existing drivers, like Kevin McNamara, Kent Baigent, John Armstrong, Steve Emson, Graeme Bowkett, Phillip Myhre, Kirk Stoneman, rally champ Jim Donald (Masport Escort), Mark Rutherford, and the late David Slater.

“Ford also provided a ‘Celebrity’ car that various

‘Local luminaries’ from around the country were invited to compete in. and it was my job to give them some basic training before each one was ‘let loose’ in front of their home crowd.

“Three of those who I remember (for different reasons) were All Black Grant Fox, Country & Western crooner Brendan Dougan and high-profile TV personality Dougal Stevenson..the latter making the news himself with a spectacular roll at the Manfeild round!

“As an aside, my car, JB1600, was bought by MANZ Official David Glenn who went on to use it to win the Production Class NZ Rally Championship. David has told me subsequently that he doesn’t know of any other car that has won both a circuit and rally championship.

“Elvie’s car, JC1600, meanwhile, was sold to fellow Auckland racer Ted Jarvis.

But wait. There’s more!

Next week we will look at Ford’s next one-make series, the Ford Laser Sport Cup which after a break of a year (1982) since the third and final Escort Sport series, ran from 1983 until 1986 and – believe it or not – attracted an entry from New Zealand’s standing Prime Minister at the time, the Hon. David Lange.

A reminder for readers too, these columns live – and die – on your feedback. So, if you think that you have something worthwhile to say on the subject of one-make racing here in New Zealand, or Ford’s ground-breaking Escort Sport Cup series in particular, you can either register with the Talk Motorsport website and simply post what you want to say here.

Or you can simply share the complete column via your various Social Media channels (Facebook, Twitter & Pinterest buttons are below) to really give this very much under-reported and therefore uncelebrated period of our more recent motorsport history a second chance to shine!

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines contract media work with weekend Mountain Bike missions and trips to grassroots drift days.

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