The first race at the aerodrome just south of Auckland had been a roaring success, despite scoring issues, and another decent field was assembled for Ardmore’s second Grand Prix on January 8, 1955. Peter Whitehead and Tony Gaze returned and both were Ferrari mounted, but the name drivers expected to draw in the crowds was about as exotic as it gets — Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh from Siam (later Thailand) was an English educated 40-year-old who’d been racing since the mid 1930s, soon after he’d left Eton. Funded by his cousin Prince Chula Chakrabongse, Birabongse raced as ‘B Bira’, and proved rather handy in the pale-blue and yellow livery of White Mouse Racing. Bira made his name in ERAs (English Racing Automobiles), but a Maserati and Delages were added to the équipe later in the decade. The official programme for the 1955 New Zealand International Grand Prix stated that he had “held the BRDC’s Gold Star for road-racing three years in succession.” And that, “Since the war he has driven in every important European event. With his latest car, the Formula 1, 2.5-litre Maserati in which he competes today, he finished fourth in the 1954 French Grand Prix. Bira is a colourful and expert driver, well worth watching.” This was pretty heady stuff 60 years ago. Completing the international set were Australians Lex Davison (3.4 HWM-Jaguar), Dick Cobden (2.0 V12 supercharged Ferrari), Reg Hunt (2.5 Maserati A6GCM), and 2.0-litre Cooper-Bristols for Jack Brabham and Stan Coffey.
The Kiwi purpose-built racing-car contingent comprised Ron Roycroft (Alfa Romeo), Freddie Zambucka’s huge ex-Indianapolis Maserati, John Horton (HWM-Alta), George Palmer in the 1950 Ohakea GP–winning Jackson — now dubbed the ‘Palmer Special’, John McMillan in a 2.9 Alfa Romeo, and George Smith, who had intended running a 1939 Alfa Romeo powered by his successful Chrysler V8. However, he transferred that engine back to his ‘special’ when the weight distribution made the Alfa unmanageable, even for the winningest driver on our local scene. In addition were four Cooper 500s with drivers including notables such as Syd Jensen and Ron Frost, while the field was completed by sports cars including Bruce’s dad, Les McLaren (Austin-Healey), Ross Jensen (Triumph TR2) and future F1 driver Tony Shelley aboard a Morgan +4.
A noticeable feature of the programme was the lack of racing — this wasn’t Bay Park-type quick-fire action, and 9.30am was the first heat for the Grand Prix cars with the second heat at 10.15. At 11.15 there was the Ardmore Handicap before the lunch interval at noon, followed by the New Zealand Grand Prix for the NZ Motor Cup kicking off at 1.00pm. That was it!
The Ardmore Handicap comprised an eclectic entry, and amongst those first away was one TR Sheffield in a Singer Le Mans — Trevor being not only something of a legend in Auckland motor-racing circles but also, many years later, the author of a fabulous book on Ralph Watson’s Lycoming. After the heats, Bira occupied the pole in Maserati 250F chassis No. 2504 (the first of these famous cars to race in NZ), while the balance of the four-car front row completed an all-Italian affair with the Ferraris of Whitehead and Gaze, and Hunt’s Maserati sitting between them. Although beaten off the line, the Siamese prince took the lead and opening lap and that, as they say, was that. For lap after lap positions at the front remained unchanged with Whitehead, Hunt and Gaze leading the charge from a sliding tail-out Brabham in his black Cooper-Bristol that was, somewhat controversially, entered as the Redex Special — this was a time when any form of commercial sponsorship on cars was considered tacky. To many of the large crowd, the race would have descended to tedium — the Ferraris stopped mid-race for fuel but Bira drove on without pitting, although he had no brakes by the end and was using his gears to slow down.
To one 13-year-old boy attending his first-ever motor race, this was all wonderful. Howden Ganley had never intended being at Ardmore that day — his plan was to get his P-class onto Hamilton Lake and fine-tune his sailing skills. The previously mentioned Velox was going to be leaving early with motor-racing enthusiast Jim Ganley driving his second-eldest son, Denis, who, as Howden remembers, “shared our father’s passion.” Jim had competed in grass-track and hill-climb events, but none of that interest had rubbed off on his eldest son, who dreamed of a life racing yachts. Yet Howden is in no doubt that the events that day changed the direction of his life: “For a start it was a beautiful cloudless day, and the look and sound of the 250F and the Ferraris was just magic — especially the Maserati; there was something about that pale-blue and yellow colour scheme.” So, was it boring? “I had no expectations — I guess when I look back there wasn’t much happening at the front, but if we wanted excitement, there was always Jack Brabham each lap — arriving at the cloverleaf all crossed up. And one guy got completely out of shape and took to the grass — he seemed to be heading straight for me, and it wasn’t until after he’d gathered it all up that it occurred to me that there was only a piece of wire separating him from us. That was pretty exciting!” Howden was besotted — by the time he’d climbed back into the Velox for the return trip, he’d decided the course of his life would be different — sailing had been relegated into second place by a life in motor racing, a life that continues to this day. In a complete switch of interests, his brother Denis became an internationally acclaimed yacht designer while his elder brother, Howden, embarked on a life of motor sport — from amateur driver/self-taught mechanic to a works Formula 1 driver then constructor/engineer, director of the BRDC, and now author of a book that tells all about what it took for him to get onto The Road to Monaco — the title of his autobiography.