Alan Clarke attends the unveiling of a very special car restoration project: the car Bruce McLaren learnt to drive in.
It's early evening and the wine, beer and a range of tasty appetisers are going down a treat.
The speeches are over and the 40 or so guests are clustering around the tables and nattering and reminiscing in a very Kiwi, Friday night sort of way . . . when all of a sudden the baby starts up.
Not any baby of course. It took two strong blokes to lift its bum around a corner and manoeuvre it into place. Oh, and it's 85 years old, give or take.
It's not just any restaurant-cafe either - how many would have the space or sense of fun to open the doors to a full-sized, fully functional car . . . and then green light it being started up in the main dining area?
But Mapua's Appleshed Cafe and Bar has always had a sense of style.
The "baby?" An Austin 7 Special - painstakingly rebuilt in Nelson after being bought for around $3500 on behalf of a charitable trust and shipped here in a terrible state nearly four years ago.
And, to labour the point just a little more, it was not just any baby Austin [the car that, along with the Model T Ford, revolutionised the motoring world and paved the way for affordable, mass-produced, consistency of design].
There in the Appleshed, hidden under canvas until the grand unveiling, was the car New Zealand motoring great Bruce McLaren first caught the motoring bug in - a 1929, 7hp, 750cc, 360kg gleaming model of national history, beautifully restored.
The A7 had been bought by McLaren's father, garage owner Les, on October 25, 1945. It was used as the McLaren workshop runaround in Remuera until it was sold to the Hubber family in Auckland in 1957.
Before then, Bruce McLaren - world class international motor racing driver, engineer and designer - graduated from pulling "broadsides on his trike" to learning how to co-ordinate the clutch and three forward gears of the baby Austin.
The latter fact was confirmed at the Mapua unveiling by McLaren's younger sister Jan, who told guests an uncle recalled that clearly.
Bruce had practised driving in the car, often on a beach, while his own first racing car, an Austin Ulster, was being built. [Adding heft to the push to restore the A7, that first race-car had been lost to New Zealand and was now at McLaren International in the United Kingdom].
In Nelson, some 650 hours of voluntary labour has gone into restoring the A7. There's been perspiration, inspiration and plenty of patience involved. Swap meets. Horse-trading. Persistence. Ingenuity.
Ninety per cent of the actual rebuild was handled by retired pilot, engineer and all-round enthusiast Dick Anderson of Richmond, who took over a project started by Pat Pascoe and Mike Stephenson of Nelson, members of the Bruce McLaren Trust, about three years ago. Anderson, who donated all of his time and expertise free, estimates the rebuild cost around $10,000. That's against earlier estimates of $30k-plus to do the job.
He reckons about 75 per cent of the car is original. The motor was completely rebuilt. He basically took on the project after returning from overseas to find the restoration was in that "good idea, but who's going to take it on" stage.
The restoration was a labour of love, frustrating at times, but Anderson felt he had no choice.
"I did it not so much for the trust, but for the people of New Zealand. It was a piece of New Zealand history that needed to be saved. We need our heroes to put New Zealand history into perspective."
Jan McLaren said she and the trust could not be more thrilled.
"It brings the past to life again, but it is also the present and the future [of McLaren Racing Limited]. He was a dream achiever, and this goes with everything the name stands for."
The car has been on display in CRT and is destined shortly to spend a few months at the WOW and Collectible Cars museum. Trustees are considering taking it on a road trip to other South Island centres, but it will ultimately end up in Auckland where the trust is based. Among the car's tasks will be jaunts on behalf of CCS Disability Action, which the trust supports. In part, this involvement is because Bruce McLaren developed Perthes Disease (a hip joint problem) at age 9. As a consequence, his left leg was shorter than his right and he spent about four years of his late childhood using crutches or walking sticks.
Fittingly, when Anderson flicked the key and fired it up in the Appleshed, there was not a sign of smoke; no backfire, rattle or piston-slap, just the quiet hum of a completely rebuilt motor in perfect working order.
He'd clocked up about 150 kilometres before the big night in test drives, and said it could manage 70kmh easily enough on a straight strip of seal and handled well. The main challenge had been rebuilding the bodywork, as parts of the old car were completely rusted out. Sourcing four compatible wheels and tyres had also been difficult - "I went through about 20 to get the right set".
Bruce McLaren remains a legendary figure in motorsport, both for his racing and designing skills. He was killed in 1970 while testi-driving at Goodwood circuit, England, aged 33.
Among his career highlights were winning the 1959 United States Grand Prix at age 22, then the youngest ever GP winner. He followed that with a win in the Argentine Grand Prix, the first race of the 1960 Formula One season, and won the 1962 Monaco Grand Prix. The name continues in the McLaren team, which has been among the most successful in Formula One championship history. McLaren cars and drivers have won a total of 20 world championships. And Nelson now has a small but satisfying role in ensuring the legend lives on
- The Nelson Mail