Classic car still going after 30 years of competing

Rongotea farmer Keith Stewart has a grand chance of finishing next week's Silver Fern Rally because his Ford Escort has completed more than 320 motorsport events.

The orange Escort is of 1971 vintage, a Mark 1 RS1600 which Stewart bought in 1982 and has campaigned for 30 years.

He is praying it will still be going and that the original body shell, first rallied in 1976, is intact when the 3100km rally stops at Feilding next Wednesday evening.

The Silver Fern, little known in these parts, is not a tarmac rally like the Targa which passed through Manawatu two weeks ago. The last three Silver Ferns have been in the South Island and this will be Stewart's third.

It is quite a mission, 1050km of gravel roads through 46 closed special stages. It starts in Auckland tomorrow, has night stops in Rotorua, Gisborne, Napier, Feilding, Ohakune and Taupo and finishes after seven days in Hamilton.

"It is a great challenge to get to the finish, trying to balance speed and looking after the car," Stewart said. "Reliability is the key; having a good fun week is the other aim."

He is chasing a top-10 finish and a win in the 1301-1600cc class.

Of the 50 entries, 26 are Mark 1 or 2 Escorts and 17 drivers are from overseas.

Stewart began in motorsport in 1979 with a Mark 1 1300cc Escort and has competed in rallies every year, also with a Mk2 BDA Escort, a Ford Sierra XR4x4, a Nissan Pulsar GtiR and a Subaru Legacy RS.

"I tried to sell the [1971] Escort 20 years ago, but couldn't. Now it's definitely not for sale."

He had mechanical breakdowns in his two previous Silver Ferns, preventing him completing every stage.

This time he will be leaning heavily on his service crew of Andrew Lowe (Bunnythorpe) and Thomas Good (Feilding), with only one hour of service permitted at the end of each day.

Stewart said New Zealand is lucky to have such great rally roads.

"We have to drive blind, as it was in the early days of rallying; this means no pace notes and you have to read the road to figure out how fast you can go around each corner.

"Going too slow and cautious costs time, while going too fast can result in brushes with the scenery."

Stewart knows his way around, after contesting Rally New Zealand nine times and every Daybreaker Rally since 1982. He was the Central Region champion in 1988. His navigator is Wayne Reed (from Pahiatua, now in Queensland) in his third Silver Fern. He has driven in two round-Australia Rallys.

Other Manawatu entries: Rob Ryan navigating for Neil Allport (MK1 Escort RS1600), Euan Fuge (Mazda RX3), Kevin Blackley (Mk 2 Escort RS1800) and Brian Green (Mk1 Escort RS1600).

Manawatu Standard