Kiwi tracks the fortunes of Maserati racing trio
It's a tale of Thai royalty, thoroughbred Italian racing cars, and the all-time great drivers of motor racing, of famous names like Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham.
The history of the three Maserati 250F grand prix cars which raced in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s is detailed in a new book by Wellington writer and motorsport enthusiast Terry Collier.
It's a story in which, unlikely as it seems, Levin played a key role. When the country's first permanent racing circuit was established there in 1956, it opened the way for the small town, as well as larger centres like Auckland and Christchurch, to host international motor racing teams in the northern hemisphere off-season.
Among the drivers who came to race in New Zealand in Maserati 250Fs were flamboyant characters like Prince Bira of Thailand, who won the New Zealand International Grand Prix in 1955 and Stirling Moss, who won the event the next year.
Collier, who grew up in Levin, was entranced by the spectacle.
"This was a boring little New Zealand country town of no note whatsoever and all of a sudden it had an international racing circuit plonked in the middle of it. So in January when they had their big event you would have foreign languages being spoken in the shops.
"When the teams would come they would all be farmed out in little garages around town and so word went around where the Maseratis were or the Coopers were or the Lolas and we would get on our bicycles and head down there and just stand there for hours. So this was a very romantic era and a very exciting one."
The 10-year-old Collier and his friends gathered around drivers like Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, some of whom were already Formula 1 champions. Others, such as Bruce McLaren were just starting their racing careers.
"You had great access to them in New Zealand, whereas if you were in Europe it would have been more difficult. A small boy would never be able to inveigle themselves into the pits to find someone even in practice or on testing days but in a small town, who cared. Everyone knew everyone."
For Collier, the Maserati 250F was the most significant racing car of its era and illustrates the romance of a bygone era of motorsport.
The front-engined 250F was in its heyday in the mid 1950s. By 1959 the shine had come off and New Zealanders who turned out in the tens of thousands to watch the grand prix at Ardmore were witnessing Maserati's last attempt to embrace Formula 1 racing.
"They built these newer models, which they called Piccolos, and brought them out to New Zealand to test them before the Formula 1 season. They got absolutely beaten by the little Cooper-Climaxes (which had smaller engines) very easily, and so they were sent back to the factory and they were never seen again."
The last international grand prix appearance by a 250F was at Ardmore in 1962, when a then 19-year-old Chris Amon drove it to 11th place, a major effort when the first five places were filled by international drivers in the latest Formula 1 cars.
It was not only the end of an era for Maserati, but also for the front-engined racing car, Collier says.
"The Cooper-Climaxes were little rear-engined cars that were far more mobile and so they could go round the corners and get out of them far more quickly. From then on, the rear-engined car dominated."
When he began writing the book, Collier found he had to carefully trace the histories of the three 250Fs which spent time in NZ as it was an era when mechanics showed little respect for that traditional identifier, the chassis number.
The Maserati 250F now owned by Paraparaumu's Southward Car Museum, which has two chassis numbers associated with it, is typical. The car, originally owned by Prince Bira was to be raced at Silverstone in England in 1955, but when he was too ill to race, he lent the car to the Owen Organisation British Racing Motors (BRM) team. When their junior driver crashed the car, a furious Bira insisted they rebuild it.
"BRM was faced with the problem that they had to rebuild the 250F for Bira but they had alongside it their own modified 250F so they simply swapped the chassis over and then put it back together and crossed their fingers and hoped no one would notice."
In the event, no one really did notice. But the Bira car is just one of many examples where chassis were swapped over, or chassis numbers were transferred to other cars, creating confusion over which car raced where, and when.
Collier says his book is intended to be a reference work which will set the record straight on the 250Fs which raced in New Zealand.
"You do have to be a little bit of a nerd to read it. The stories are interesting. I tell people just read past the chassis numbers and get to the stories."
Untangling the Mystery: New Zealand and the 250F Maserati is available on request from most bookstores or from the publisher by email to: email@example.com