Kiwis' spirits rally as British cavalcade rolls through town

SOUTHERN STOP: The scene as the Great British Car Rally stops in Kaikoura.
SOUTHERN STOP: The scene as the Great British Car Rally stops in Kaikoura.

It all began at the Press Gallery party last Christmas.

I was talking to a lovely woman from the British High Commission who asked me what sort of car I drove and if I had time for a road trip with a collection of cougars in the new year.

My answer was "a 2004 Range Rover and yes".

I'd probably raised a bit much festive spirit because she'd actually said "collectible Jaguars" (the cars that is) and I'd unwittingly signed up for the 2013 Great British Car Rally, which began in Auckland last Sunday and wraps up in Christchurch today.

Now I like cars but I'm no mechanic and until this week had never participated in any sort of fun run, drag race, time trial or a charity rally.

The Great British Car Rally was a simple concept, a drive from Auckland with stopovers in Tauranga, Gisborne, Napier, Wellington and Blenheim along the way. Entry fees go to several charities, including Starship and the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, and the British High Commission gets to fly the flag for British industry.

I'd been expecting maps and stopwatches and vehicle inspections but it seemed that, apart from putting some nice stickers on the Range Rover and turning up at various places at certain times, all that was required was to enjoy oneself.

In case I was stuck with a bunch of pedantic amateur mechanics I encouraged a media mate who has a 1970s Bentley Corniche (that's a two door with a foldaway roof) and a handlebar moustache to sign up and convinced a glamorous French friend to assist as navigator for the North Island leg.

It didn't take long for me to get lost, in fact I had trouble finding the starting point but with my stickers and rally number proudly displayed I turned up the air conditioning and the stereo and set off for Tauranga.

Now the first thing I noticed was the effect a large number of older cars travelling in convoy have on other motorists and passersby. They seem to make people laugh and wave and toot.

We Great British Car Ralliers did some smiling and waving of our own as we passed through Paeroa where hundreds of Harley Davidsons were parked up as part of their annual convention.

The sun shone, the wheels spun and before you knew it we were parked up on the Tauranga waterfront with literally hundreds of locals fawning over the cars. Some were even nice enough to say something about the Range Rover but most were there to see long bonnets in racing green and wooden steering wheels.

I loved the fact that everywhere we went councils shut down streets and waived parking rules so we could strut our stuff for the locals. Speed limits weren't altered, though, and even British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell in her Jaguar with DC1 as a number plate declined to invoke diplomatic immunity when an over-zealous cop pinged her and several other Jags near Napier.

What did I learn? Car enthusiasts are great people, New Zealand is still a friendly and beautiful place, Triumph Stags are unreliable, Jaguars and Lotuses can go fast and BMW bubble cars were made in Britain in the fifties.

We had some great meals including a hilarious night in Gisborne where a friend asked what the pinot noir on the fixed menu was only to be told, "it's the red wine sir".

The weather was great for the whole trip including a scorcher of a day in Masterton where we hung round outside Pagani in the hope of catching a glimpse of Kate Winslet, but she must have done a bunk to Glassons.

Would I do it again? The answer has to be yes.

For all our globally warmed, eco-conscious, online modernity there is something great about hitting the real road with a bunch of fellow travellers, talking about pistons and cylinders rather than Twitter and Facebook. Some of the machines might have been temperamental and it was true many had engines bigger than a bus but we didn't do anyone any harm and, indeed, for the charities concerned quite the opposite.

My French navigator even warmed to the Brits. By the time we got to Mangatinoka she was wearing a Union Jack bikini and riding in a convertible red Jaguar.

The Dominion Post