In the good old days saloon car racing was a filler to pack out a real race programme. There was no formal championship for saloons until 1959. (That they were also called “stock cars” implies that few or no modifications would be allowed or accepted). But the championship changed all that and before long the fields morphed into the much lamented, by this author anyway, days of the allcomers. The shots below show a startl ine incident in a 1965 allcomer field at Pukekohe. This is a big and various field. The car with the exhaust stacks through the bonnet is Rod Coppin’s Zephyr Corvette.
In these circumstances the pre war Chevrolet Coupes provided a rare opportunity for budget racing. They weren’t all that expensive, they had a big torquey motor, readily available spare parts and go faster bits were available if you knew where to look. Quite a few found their way onto the tracks. The July 2016 Classic Auto News lists a half dozen South Island Coupe drivers (Silvester, Algie, Gillum, McElrea, McPhail and Stanley). There may have been a few more, but an ask around among the silver-backs suggests that no more than four cars ever turned up at any one meeting.
Up north an apprenticeship in the old Coupes was almost a rite of passage. An appreciation of how ubiquitous these cars were can be found on the Roaring Season website. Google “Ron Silvester and his Chev Coupe” and prepare to loose yourself in reverie, if you will pardon the pun, for some time.
The big racing problem for the Chevy six was its splash lubricated bottom end. An easy fix was to build up on a GM truck crankcase, if you could find an army surplus one. A lesser problem was its siamesed cylinder head, attended to by taking advantage of American Hot Rod sources. They could offer 12 port cross flow heads, stroker kits and fuel injection.
But such kits were rare in New Zealand due to a protected local market and its attendant import restrictions. Getting spares in for existing local vehicles was difficult enough but importing go faster speed equipment was much harder. (In the early ’60s an attempt by the Baker brothers to bring in Corvair engines and gearboxes for a planned small run of racing sports cars saw the parts turned back at the border, on the basis that as there were no Chevrolet Corvairs on the New Zealand register then there was therefor no need for spare parts for them.)
It was a bit easier if you had direct access to overseas funds or if could claim that the bits were for a GM truck in need of repair. At least one Wayne full house conversion kit found its way to New Zealand on that basis, (Google “Goldies Normac” to find it). But in general the holding of a motor spares import license was more or less an invitation to print money, so upsetting the bureaucrats was not really an option. Never the less rumor places a Wayne engine in a Christchurch workshop, but never installed into a race car, and the Roaring Season site has Rod McElrea’s 6 cylinder Coupe with a McGurk engine. (A McGurk is more or less the same as a Wayne, the two suppliers having once upon a time worked together).
The best solution was a small block Chevy engine, but as the NZ assembled Chevrolets were the base line budget ones V8’s were a rare fitment. Even so by the mid ’60s small block V8 engines were reasonably available in New Zealand and began finding their way into the Allcomer fields. The cars that received them generally included the word “Corvette” in their name but the engines almost certainly were not ex Corvette, just small blocks brought up to Corvette specs or better. The hot rod boys knew how to fettle them too. The few remaining 6 cylinder racing Coupes got pushed out into club racing and hillclimbs and just sort of faded away.
The ones that survived to the present day are the V8 engined ones and we can thank the allcomer and OSCAR classes for providing a home for them until their historic value was realised. The Silvester Coupe is the best known of these, but there are others.
It is not possible in a short article to do justice to each and every car, so what follows is the time line for a car that links both the North Island and the South Island fleets. This is the Rod Coppins/Ron Silvester Coupe. It was originally ran by Rod with the full race Corvette engine that came into New Zealand with the Tec Mec Maserati 250F. (Rod was the last person to race the Maserati in that form). The photograph alongside shows it at Pukekohe in ’64. At the end of the season the engine came out of the coupe and went into the Zephyr Corvette headlined in opening photo montage. The remaining bits of the Coupe passed onto the hands of Barry Pointon. He rebuilt it with a more gentle 327 small block.
The car found its way to Ron Silvester in ’65. The spec sheet for it at that time makes interesting reading. By now it had aluminium door skins, roof and bonnet, a Humber Super Snipe 4 speed gearbox and Wolsely 6/110 disc brakes all round. The photograph shows the car at Renwick in 1966. But development of the car didn’t stop there. This author recalls it at Ruapuna in mid ’69 dicing furiously with Red Dawson’s Mustang and Neil Doyle’s Anglia Corvette, making up in shear grunt what it lacked in agility.
But by then it was a different car. The first one had attacked the inside hairpin wall at Ruapuna in ’66, triggering a multiple shunt and damaging itself to the point that a rebuild on another chassis was a better option than repair of the old one. A task made easier by the fact that Ron ran a car sales yard that happened to have another ’38 Coupe on it. The photograph shows the extent of the Ruapuna carnage.
The story of the Silvester Coupe does not stop there. By the early ’70s the family put it into storage, with Grant later bringing it back to life for historic racing. The car is presented today in the same form that it was in went it went into storage. By that time the engine was out to 370 cubic inches and the drive train had been replaced with more modern hardware. You may view it any day at the Silvester Performance Parts show room, and if you get a chance to see it in action savour the experience.
Cam Neil runs a ’39 Chev Coupe in the North Island. Cam built it in the 1990’s as a good idea at the time. It is a “retrospective” car rather than a replication of any particular older one and has served him well. This coupe shares one piece of common ground with the Silverster one. Both have appeared at Rod Millen’s invitation only Leadfoot Festival. With the recent adjustment to the replica/retrospective rules for saloon cars we may yet see a few more. Let’s hope so.