By George, new-look Speedfest a classic before it even started

I was, if you don’t mind me starting with a suitably rural metaphor, will ‘a pig in the proverbial.’ And it was only Friday, and the inaugural George Begg Classic Speedfest was not due to start at Invercargill’s Teretonga Park for another 24 hours.

I missed the official opening of the new museum-style display devoted to the racing cars that he built, the prosaically named George Begg ‘Bunker,’ the night before.

But mine host for the weekend, Scott O’Donnell, put on a ‘media briefing’ first thing on Friday morning; to which I – oddly enough – was invited.

And so, began my day of selfish porcine indulgence, first at the Bunker, then – as part of an allied ‘press’ tour conducted by one of the guys who runs the place -= upstairs at Motorcycle Mecca.

Of course, I have checked out Motorcycle Mecca before. However, I never tire of looking at old motorbikes, and each time I have been there has been something new or different to look at.

Which, I would imagine, is how the George Begg ‘Bunker’ is going to evolve.

Right now, for instance, it is chock-full of the racing cars George created in (what little) downtime he had between developing and building iconic New Zealand farm products like his ‘one-man’ sheep handling device and hydraulic front-end loaders.

In years to come though I can see increasing interest from social historians in the work of rural entrepreneurs like George.

Though I’m sure he didn’t realise it at the time, all those hours toiling away building racing cars in what employees of the time referred to as ‘George’s Toy Shop’ not only helped reinforce the Begg name in the marketplace, it also gave it some valuable cachet – or ‘spin.’

There are museums and museums of course and a mark of the George Begg ‘Bunker’ is that most of the cars on display for the official opening were actually ‘on-loan’ from owners who still race them – which if you think about it is actually a good rather than bad thing.

Good because no one exhibition is ever going to go stale. Good too, because if you are going to race an exposed single-seater (or open top sports car) it is in your interest to keep that car in tip-top, race-ready, condition.

David Oxton’s Begg FM5

I’ve always felt quite sad, for instance, when – on the admittedly rare occasions – I’ve visited the Southward Car Museum on the Kapiti Coast and seen the black ‘David Oxton’ Begg FM5 sitting forlornly on tyres soft from underuse.

At least someone at the George Begg Bunker had the presence of mind to add some air to the tyres before the car went on display along with the 018, the Allan McCully FM5, Rush family-owned FM4 (my favourite) and Kerry McIntosh-owned FM2 plus the many and varied other Begg cars.

But I digress. There I was taking in all the many and varied exhibits and information boards mounted around the large basement area, and thinking to myself, that the idea of placing the George Begg display in the Motorcycle Mecca building on the south side of Invercargill’s Tay St – rather than ‘up the road with the trucks etc at Bill Richardson Transport World – was inspired.

For a couple of reasons. George’s first mechanical love – not to mention competition foray – was motorcycles. Like most young blokes at the time racing the things was a temporary sort of fad, though in George’s case the link resonated through his whole life.

First because he met his wife-to-be, Freda, while on a racing trip to the Isle of Man TT, and second because he ‘got back into’ the bikes of his youth when he retired, buying, restoring and riding them.

So, there’s a direct, causal, link between the two ‘displays,’ despite one on the surface being about four wheels, and the other strictly two.

Secondly, and not a lot of people know this, is the fact that George turned his hand to writing when he and Freda eventually ‘properly’ retired and went to live in Hervey Bay in Queensland.

His, in fact was the first, authoritative (and very much warts-and-all) book to appear – in 2002 – on the life and times of that other celebrated ‘son of the south,’ Burt Munro.

And two years later, in 2004, came Bruce McLaren: Racing Car Constructor, a very much first person account of what I suppose you could call ‘The McLaren Years’ through the eyes primarily of a fan but also a fellow engineer and car constructor who upped stakes and did a kind of mid-life OE, or ‘busman’s holiday,’ working with his fellow Kiwis at McLaren.

Both books are arguably typical of George; solid, packed full of fascinating detail and lacking only in the sort of editorial or artistic flair which the man himself probably considered frivolous and non-essential to the task at hand!

So, there was more – way more, in fact – to the bloke than an ability to weld, something again which I think will be teased out by time, and the placement of his ‘Bunker’ in the heart of downtown Invercargill.

Speaking of which, the museum side of the ‘family firm’ is just one string to the bow that Scott and Jocelyn O’Donnell are weaving for their once beleaguered hometown.

For the past two-and-bit-decades the prevailing mood of the place could best be summed up by the saying that ‘would the last person to leave please turn out the lights!’

The silly thing is it was mostly sentiment-based, as Jocelyn’s Dad Bill Richardson was wont to prove. Before his sudden death in 2005 Bill had built his transport and infrastructure business onto a nationwide powerhouse, turning over millions of dollars a year – all from a base in a city many up north thought was on its last legs.

Ironically it was his hobby – collecting and restoring old and/or otherwise obsolete work trucks, which has been the main catalyst for a wholesale change of heart from many of the nay-sayers – both close to home and ‘up north.’

In a classic case of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the (wo)man,’ Bill’s daughter Jocelyn took it upon herself to open up her late father’s private, invitation-only collection ‘to the world,’ both as a way to honour him and her brother Harold (who was killed in a road accident near Waiouru in 1995), and to provide Invercargill with a unique tourist ‘attraction’ to give visitors a reason to visit her home town.

To do so she commissioned the building of the beautiful Art Deco-esque street frontage and added extra attractions – an amazing World of Wearable Art mezzanine plus Goodbye Pork Pie and VW Kombi collections to name a few – to broaden the appeal of the trucks that are still very much the core of the collection.

Which brings me neatly back to the start of this week’s column.

After a good hour-and-a-bit checking out the George Begg Bunker and another two literally just scraping the surface of the updated displays at Motorcycle Mecca, I repaired to the Meccaspresso Café on the ground floor for a restorative Flat White and one of the largest and best tasting cheese roll I’ve had in years, then – headed east on Tay Street for the half-hour walk to the Bill Richardson Transport Museum.

Once there I made a point of stopping and sitting down in front of the many TV screens to watch videos of this and that. And would have made a point of taking in more than 10 or so minutes of that classic ode to the freedom of thought, expression and action that seems to inspire Southlanders to achieve great things despite the odds, The World’s Fastest Indian, (aka the Burt Munro biopic) had my cousin Hadley not texted to remind me about our MTB ‘date’ out at Sandy Point Domain.

“If you can collect me from ‘The Bill’ we could go direct,” I replied….and in another 20 minutes or so we were in the car park out at ‘the Point and getting ready to ‘shred!’

The MTB park is situated just down the sideroad which takes you to Teretonga Park. But because I knew I would be working there for the next two days we didn’t bother stopping.

Instead we enjoyed a good hour-and-a-bit’s ride on some nicely-groomed trails – until Hadley and I crested a sand dune and there in front to us unfurled the panoramic sweep of Oreti Beach.

To say it was a magic moment was an understatement. Yet it was still only Friday, and the official start of the event itself was still (at this particular point) 14 hours away.

Oink, oink, splish, splosh indeed!

Ross MacKay

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 a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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