Wheels, Warbirds and Wanaka
Jan of the Petrolheads Welcome team reports on some of her and husband Paul’s findings during a recent tour of New Zealand
Having been away from his beloved cars for about 2 weeks, Paul was definitely getting withdrawal symptoms from automotive interest which weren’t being satisfied by the occasional classic seen on the roads, and were made worse by the time spent in the appalling Mitsubishi hire car. We spotted an opportunity to divert from the beautiful scenery for a day and look at something more mechanical, and so decided to go to the Warbirds and Wheels Museum at Wanaka Airport.
Through the large shop (no pause there as luggage space & weight was limited) and on to the display.
It’s not a traditional museum layout, more of a slightly random collection of mostly American cars and some planes which claim to ”trace the evolution of fighter aircraft”. To me, the more interesting parts of the museum were a very interesting display about New Zealand Fighter Aces and a display about Sir Tim Wallis. Who? Yes, I’d never heard of him either, but in the true spirit of New Zealand adventurers, he started out culling wild deer from a helicopter. Having been introduced as a meat source, the deer were hugely successful and very damaging to the ecosystem, so why not hang out of a helicopter half way up a mountain and deal with the problem?
Having reduced the wild numbers, he then introduced deer farming with some of the remaining animals.
His true love however appears to be flying, and having collected a range he founded the “Warbirds over Wanaka International Airshow”, and other aviation businesses.
Unfortunately we missed the airshow (which takes place in early April) and the Cars over Coffee (first Sunday of the month), but did get to learn about Ralph Watson who built the Lycoming Special which was drive by both Bruce McLaren and Jim Clark. (More on this below)
A final fact from the museum, in 1929 there was a fire at the Los Angeles Motor Show. In 1½ hours it destroyed 300 cars and caused $1.25 million of damage. I wonder what they’d be worth today?
As promised, here’s some more information about Ralph Watson and the Lycoming special.
I later read that Ralph Watson is regarded by some in New Zealand as Auckland’s Burt Monro. For those who haven’t seen “The world’s fastest Indian” film yet, where have you been? Go and watch it now!
Although the car was only in the museum for a short period, they still have Ralph’s workshop laid out as it was when he was alive (including slippers). He wanted a car he could race on track and also drive between race meetings, and so he designed and built his own in the mid 1950s. This seems to be a typical can-do Kiwi attitude we learnt. He used a 473cc Lycoming aeroplane engine with overdrive. For those who want technicalities, follow this link. He then raced it until it was sold in the early 1960s.
The car won 4 New Zealand Sports Car Championships, and was driven by both Bruce McLaren and Jim Clark. The really remarkable thing to me was that in 1965, Bruce McLaren wrote to Ralph saying he was designing a “secret” F1 car and asking for his thoughts on the design. Not bad for a man in a shed…..
We didn’t have far to go as next door to Warbirds and Wheels is the National Transport and Toy Museum, so we decided to pop in and have a look. With over 600 vehicles, 20 civilian and military air craft and 60,000 plus toys we didn’t know where to start. However as it was all crammed together, all you could do was wander and pause when something caught your eye. This was not a showroom, it was a hoard – indeed it is advertised as one of the world’s largest private collections, and I believe it. Very little was gleaming and pristine, but all had patina, and some had quite a lot of dust as well.
Much more time is needed here, and you won’t see everything, but when exhaustion sets in, go back to the excellent Retro Café at Warbirds and Wheels.