The Kiwi-built, DIY supercar

Jock Freemantle must be mad. The 68-year-old believes he can design, build and produce a sportscar in New Zealand that will take on the likes of Ferrari and McLaren.

A 300km/h "supercar" with a price-tag of 300,000 pounds (about $700,000) at a time when even the filthy rich are pinching pennies.

One motoring writer gives him a 20% chance of success.

"I've been called stupid and a bloody idiot and I haven't got a hope in hell of doing it," Freemantle says. "I don't answer people like that. You just have to ignore people who are negative."

Freemantle has spent more than six years and about $5 million of his and other people's money getting the project to the stage where, on Friday, he and his team of designers and engineers unveiled their pride and joy publicly for the first time at the A1GP in Taupo.

The Hulme CanAm supercar, named for motor racing legend Denny Hulme, our only Formula One champion, is designed for the road and to give the feeling of driving a Formula One car. It's orange. It's muscular. It has the hard curves and sleek aerodynamics of a racing yacht. It's what cynics might call testosterone on wheels.

You probably won't see one on a motorway near you any time soon this baby is destined for the roads of Europe, such as Germany's speed limit-less autobahn.

According to the specs sheet it's powered by a seven litre Chevrolet V8 engine, developing 600bhp and 600Nm torque. Translation: It's bloody quick. Designer Tony Parker, a professor of industrial design at Massey University, describes test-driving the car at Pukekohe this month as a "religious experience".

Test driver Kenny Smith was told to take it easy but couldn't resist letting it rip and got it up to 290km/h. The Hulme can potentially top 320km/h.

The car unveiled on Friday is not production-ready. The team plans to "thrash it" over the next few months "to see what will break" and hope to have shop-ready models coming off the production line in about a year.

More than 100 people have worked on the project, including America's Cup designers. They've worked on a shoestring compared to competitors in Europe, but have got this far on a mix of passion, commitment and good old-fashioned Kiwi know-how.

Freemantle admits building the thing has been the easy part. The hard bit is the final step in the process selling it.

Jock Freemantle with the Hulme CanAm supercar.
Jock Freemantle with the Hulme CanAm supercar.

Freemantle has put everything on the line, selling his house to help finance the project. Others have contributed their life savings.

A hint of the pressure he's under comes part-way through our interview last week when I ask him what drives him and keeps him going. He talks about belief and the power of prayer and then suddenly snaps "Shut up" and grapples for my tape recorder.

Then he breaks down, his face red and puffy, his eyes wet. It takes him a few minutes to compose himself. "We've got no choice, we've got to finish it... God, I've got to get up and talk at Taupo, how am I going to do that?"

FREEMANTLE IS not mad, but he is eccentric. He keeps his trousers up with suspenders, eye glasses hang from a cord around his neck, and every now and again he fires off the most maniacal, Woody Woodpeckerish laugh. He's thoroughly likeable and it's hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm for the venture.

He was born and raised in Fort Augustus in the north of Scotland and trained as an engineer with Rolls-Royce in Derby, England. He went around the world on a motor scooter as a young man, meeting his Kiwi wife Wendy in Australia and marrying her in 1966. His interests were skiing and scouting and, of course, motorsport.

The couple moved to Queenstown in 1969 and built a hotel, which they managed until 1986. They moved to Auckland and set up a boat building company, Freemantle Yachts, designing and building a 10m racing yacht called the Beale 33. They sold 12 boats but then lost everything in the 1987 sharemarket crash.

He and Wendy set up a lifestyle consultancy business and in 2002 Freemantle was talking to Bruce Woods, who had been an aesthetics designer for Freemantle Yachts and was running a transport design degree course at Massey University.

"He happened to say that most of the students were interested in specialising in cars," Freemantle recalls. "I said `that's a waste of money teaching them to build cars, there's no work in New Zealand'. He said `you're a bit of an entrepreneur, a motorsport man, why don't you see if you can build cars in New Zealand and give them a job'. That's how it started. It didn't start as my dream, it started as a challenge to find out, could we do this?"

He spent a year doing a feasibility study, talking to experts around the world. "It didn't take long to realise if you're going to build cars, you couldn't compete with Toyota and Holden and all those guys. It had to be at the top end of the market, had to be an exotic car, like the America's Cup yachts are.

"Once we realised if we stuck to that very, very small segment of the market, New Zealand can do it. We've got the expertise, we've got the racing history, we've got the best experts in the world in motorsport. There's more petrolheads in New Zealand than anywhere in the world."

Some of those came to the party early on, investing money. Veteran motorsport figure Inky Tulloch was one. Former Air New Zealand chief Ralph Norris, an avid petrolhead, another.

Key moments included Hulme's widow, Greeta, agreeing to allow the name to be used for the car and Californian car design legend Chuck Pelly coming on board as a consultant.

A concept car was developed, a coupe that looked like a lot of other high-end cars on the road, but feedback was that an open-top vehicle based on the old CanAm design used in the Canadian-American Challenge Cup racing series in the 60s and 70s would be better. (Hulme won the series in 1968 and 1970.)

Freemantle took the concept to China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and England and says he got fantastic feedback, especially from people who respected Hulme.

"In New Zealand we're just thickheads, we don't appreciate our heroes. In America you mention Denny Hulme, the Hall of Fame... guys helped me because of Denny."

People "fell in love with the project", Freemantle says, and he came up with an unusual way of paying them. "Most people have worked for shares [in Hulme Supercars Ltd], the only way we could do it. We've said `you just do it and we'll give you shares if we go ahead'. I don't know if that's legal or not, I don't care."

In the age of climate change and a greener US president, I ask what impact the car will have on the environment. Isn't it a gas guzzler? "That's a stupid question," Freemantle says. "It's a supercar, it's designed for people who can afford it and want it. Those customers demand performance and noise and sound. There's only 500 or so of these supercars made in the world every year, and we'll be 25 of these. We'd be a less effect [on the environment] than some of the MPs' rabbits they have in their backyard."

SO WILL it sell? Freemantle reckons he has met at least 100 collectors of supercars who have said they will buy one. He's not worried about the economic crisis, believing once the Hulme goes to market next year the crisis will be over.

New Zealand has had plenty of vehicle inventors (see sidebar), but no tradition of making its own cars. The only car to be designed and mass produced here was the Land Rover lookalike Trekka, made from Skoda parts. Between 1966 and 1973, 2500 were built.

Alan Gibbs attempted to launch the first New Zealand-produced passenger car, the Anziel Nova, in 1967, but it never reached mass production.

Paul Owen, editor of Autocar magazine, says the Hulme's main competition will come from the British team behind the CaparoT1, a similar concept but with better backing.

Owen says the problem is not so much selling the Hulme despite the downturn Ferrari sales are up 20% but getting finance together to get it ready for the market.

"I didn't like his chances when we did a cover story back in 2005, but I think they've got even worse since then. Hats off to Jock for having such a huge vision he's similar to John Britten in many ways but in the cold, hard light I reckon it's got about a 20% chance of making it."

Parker, the car's designer, says he and Freemantle have always understood the "significant ask" of what they were attempting. He says if certain figures in the motorsport industry "I won't name them, I don't think that's fair" would come on board with finance it would help hugely with getting the project to the next stage.

"Jock's put pretty much everything on the line to get this project to where it is today intellectually, emotionally, financially, the whole damn thing. It's a bit like having a child; it's a hell of a long pregnancy."

Freemantle says there have been times when he's felt like giving up, but his wife has been great at keeping him on track. Besides, he doesn't want to let anyone down.

"I've got guys that when we first talked about it, came up and gave me their life savings. We got 300 grand in a month. Those guys need to be looked after. You can quit on yourself, but you can't quit on other people."

I quiz Freemantle on the challenges of doing such a project in New Zealand. He wants me to go to the Vero centre in downtown Auckland, which features a quote from Hulme among musings from many great Kiwis on a huge wall.

"You'll understand the challenge we've had in New Zealand of doing something that's so far different from what we normally do. Read the quote. It hasn't changed."

There's the quote in the lobby of the Vero centre. Expecting something inspirational, I'm disappointed to find it's a twist on the tall poppy syndrome with which the famous and failed alike believe they are afflicted.

"New Zealand is like a lawn," Hulme said. "If one blade of grass is higher than the rest, New Zealanders get 50,000 lawnmowers and chop the whole lot level again."

Yet if passion and self-belief count for anything, Freemantle might just avoid being caught up with history's grass clippings.

IN THE COCKPIT

On January 14 the Hulme CanAm hit the road for the first time.

On a hot, bright, windless day at Pukekohe racetrack a knot of people surrounds the car in an airy shed by the pits. It's matt black (an undercoat), utilitarian, muscular. In the cockpit is a steering wheel, an alloy gear stick, an LCD display and a toggle switch marked "on/off".

Project head Jock Freemantle grins from ear to ear, shaking everyone by the hand. Designer Tony Parker stalks around eyeing his creation. Engineers wrestle with the passenger seat, making final adjustments. Petrol is poured into the fuel tanks from large red containers with "supercar" written on them in black felt pen.

Finally test driver Kenny Smith climbs into the driver's seat and pulls his crash helmet on. Freemantle joins him. "We're ready, Mr Smith."

The hand-built 7-litre Chevrolet V8 kicks into a deep, muted roar and the Hulme moves off its chocks into the pit lane. Smith touches the throttle and the car disappears, smoothly, effortlessly.

Back down the home straight the black shape cruised past, the photographers' Ford Explorer struggling to keep up behind, bucking and rocking over the bumpy Pukekohe track.

Freemantle later reveals the top speed on the day 195km/h.

Ultimately the car is expected to be capable of 330-350km/h, a speed that puts it in the league of supercars like the Ferrari Enzo (348km/h), the Pagani Zonda (343km/h) and the Lamborghini Reventon (337km/h).

-additional reporting by Tim Hunter