Amon – after the racing years

Chris Amon didn't lose his interest in cars after he ended his racing career ... nor did he keep away from circuits.


CHRIS Amon’s overseas’ motorsport career has come to the fore, but his life after that time – particularly the period when he undertook road car development work for Toyota New Zealand – also deserves a mention.

Here some memories of that period.

On his driving

EVERY racing driver has a style; some attack, fighting the car, bending it – occasionally literally – to their will.

One or two are so precise and measured in their input, so delicate in their touch that the experience becomes amazingly smooth. If not for what the instruments were relating, you would swear that they could ‘slow down’ speed.

Amon was one of the latter. His intuition at the wheel was uncanny. He could be a showy driver, but only if the car demanded it: I’m thinking of the Maserati 250F, a car expressly from the 'oversteer' era.

Amon had this amazing ability to simply operate on the edge without providing very much sign that he was at that point.

This made passengering all the more desirable; obviously there would be a point at which you needed to hang on tight, but there never seemed a potential for anything untoward to occur. He was always in control even when at a pace where you would be utterly certain there was none left to be had.

I loved the opportunity to see him at work. He made it look so easy. Deceptively so.

I was reminded of this in conversation the other day with my friend, Otago Daily Times motoring writer David Thomson. He and I  reminisced about having been in a car with Amon driving. As David reminded, Chris would probably have had a cigarette in hand (and so just one hand on the wheel) and would be casually conversing about some technical aspect. As the world outside became a blur, it was as if we were in a little bubble of calm such, as David put it so well, was the “smoothness, nonchalant style and immaculate racing lines that made him, ever so naturally, easily the quickest driver on the track.”

And quick he was. You only truly realised his pace when striving to keep up. Fat chance of that. We motoring journalists rated ourselves as being above average at the wheel – and maybe one or two really were – but I never, ever saw any of our fraternity come close to out-driving Amon, and those few who did manage similar pace did so in far more ragged style. Mind you, I doubt many other race drivers here were to his quality, either. Several of those who associated with him through various Toyota New Zealand motorsport programmes were big enough to admit that.

On occasion, because I was then at the Whanganui Chronicle and he was motoring editor for what was then the Manawatu Evening Standard, my friend, the late Neil Nelson and I used to meet at Manfeild circuit where we’d wangle a couple of free laps in whatever performance-minded road test car either one of us had at the time. We’d see Chris quite a bit – Toyota NZ seemed to be almost permanently resident then - and he often had interest in what we were driving.

On one instance, it was a very potent four-wheel-drive hot hatch from a rival Japanese brand. Neil and I had taken turns driving it hard and, being competitive, we’d been timing each other. When Chris ambled over, we suggested he might like to try it. He did one full languid lap; usual style, ciggie and conversation.

Neil showed me the stopwatch. Chris has beaten our best time by 2s. Without even showing any sign of trying. In fact, on return to the pits, he remarked that it would have been quite fun to have fully stretched its legs. Worth mentioning, now, perhaps, that Neil and I had both driven solo; whereas we’d both ridden with Amon. So, quite a lot of ballast.

Amon used those same deft skills on the EnergyWise rally, an economy drive to discover the country’s thriftiest car. Distributors went to extreme lengths to highlight the absolutely frugality available from their wares; doing so with the Prius was Chris’s job and he put his absolute heart into it; even before the event began, he had built up an incredible knowledge about keep the hybrid at optimum. I recall him being amazingly attuned; he could tell you every single thing about how the car worked.

This, I guess, was a reflection of the strength that made so good as a test driver for Ferrari and, before that, Firestone. When researching a magazine feature about Le Mans some years ago, I recall reading about how he would astound the Firestone people by being able to accurate judge the pressures of his car’s tyres simply from feel. I thought it surely had to be apocryphal, but on asking, he confirmed it was a knack he’d developed.

On the road car work

Car of the Year, as awarded by the New Zealand motoring writers’ guild, is a huge deal – it’s the prize all car distributors covet most.

Of the 28 recipients; just two have been Toyotas. The 86 coupe – an obvious choice back in 2012 due its global star status – and the family medium model we chose back in 1992.

That one was probably, in hindsight, the best car ever assembled in NZ for Kiwi tastes, regardless that every part of it was sourced out of Japan. But our Corona wasn’t like anyone else’s. The efforts of a small team including Amon ensured that.

“We don’t test cars, we develop them.” Rival distributors tended to sneer at that claim out of Toyota NZ in respect to the programme it ran in the Manawatu, but those of us who wrote about it knew it wasn’t marketing B/S.

That year’s Corona was the finest hour of ‘Amonisation.’ Previous Corollas, and an earlier generation Corona, had benefited from the pre-launch finessing processes that were undertaken at Manfeild circuit and on public roads driving in and around Feilding.

Those cars, especially that Corolla Amon Corolla GT liftback – a wonderful marriage of the five-door body with a 4AGE engine, with the first aero aide every developed for a production road car in NZ (a fiberglass bib shaped in the only wind tunnel in the land, run by the DSIR) – had won over sceptics, including at Toyota Japan. When all this localization got under way 10 years previously, they’d openly wondered what more a retired F1 driver could possibly know about road car suspension tuning that its own people? Then they drove those previous cars and recognised … well, quite a lot, actually.

Anyway, with this Corona, the parent opened doors. They allowed a prototype car to be released from their super-secret test locations in Japan to spend time in NZ; a rare opportunity as this occurred well before the car’s release anywhere. If only we’d seen that one, what a scoop! (Mind you, my biggest boo-boo was mis-identifying a previous Corolla, also here extra early, as an Audi). Also, some of the Kiwis – Amon included – went to Toyota City to work with the development team. Again, a true breakthrough.

The local input was huge. Amon and Toyota engineers Bruce Buckland and Ashton Rowe had free reign to select springs, shocks, front and rear anti-roll stabiliser bars suspension bushes. They worked with Dunlop on the tyre. And another first: Renowned back specialists the McKenzie Institute helped develop the seats (a pet project, I suspect, of then-TNZ boss Bob Field, a lofty bloke who found many car seats hugely uncomfortable).

The car launched to huge media acclaim. It was another ace card for a TNZ, not the sales giant it is now but still an emergent young buck looking to unsettle well-established giants: Ford, Holden, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

Those rival brands hated hearing about the Corona (or any Amon car). Some simply set out to belittle the achievement; suggesting media had been duped by a slick Toyota marketing campaign. They sought to identify where their own cars were superior (though, funnily, we never had Coronas for actual comparison on those launches). Some – and I won’t name them – even questioned Amon’s reputation.

Was it all bigger than reality? No. It was genuinely good. And they’d genuinely put in the hard yards.

I recall one Amon car launch that actually included driving the team’s brilliantly Kiwi No.8 wire developmental test route. There was the pothole near the Feilding sale yards that Toyota had asked the local council not to repair; a tricky corner on the open road sector; sections of coarse chip perfect for assessing tyre roar infiltration. The circuit also played a huge part, though Amon always stressed that for every 10 laps at Manfeild there were 400kms of road work. “We’re not building a race car.”

I’d assume most of these cars have long gone. But if you can find a decent one, try it. Even by today’s standards, it’s not bad at all

On giving back

February 14, 2010, Manfeild, one hour before the New Zealand Grand Prix … if I’m ever asked to recollect my favourite Amon moment, this is it.

I work part-time for the circuit; that year lunchtime entertainment for the Grand Prix was our responsibility. This was the second year we’d run a historic race car from the Southward Collection, just down the road on the Kapiti Coast.

This time we had THE car, Amon's Maserati 250F.

The 250F is a special machine; just 26 were built, it had a remarkable success in the 1950s and nowadays it is often voted, often on the strength of its impressive wins-per-outings ratio (and association with five times world champion Juan-Manual Fangio) as the world’s best Formula One car. It is also one of the most valuable.

The car that kick-started his international career after being plucked from a Wellington used car yard has a fascinating history. It’s one of just two in the world with disc brakes and started off life as developmental car for a Maserari rival, BRM. When that ended, it was bought a British privateer who brought it to NZ. He was killed (in another car), it stayed and was ultimately taken as a trade-in. Anyway, Chris’ dad bought it and so the Amon racing story began ..

Anyway, come 2010, the 250F, though very much a museum piece, was looking better than it had for years. Southwards had determined to undertake a major restoration and refurbishment. Having sat, and occasionally, run on the rubber it worn in its last event, it had been treated to brand-new tyres. More importantly, they’d got a second engine and completely rebuilt it at great expense.

How’d would it go? A low-key test in the hands of Southwards’ restorations manager John Bellamore had gone well. That was the green light for an NZGP outing.

As Toyota Racing Series patron, his name on the trophy, Chris was going to be there. He never missed the NZGP.

John and I seemed to both think it would be great if he could be seen at the wheel. We both independently rang Chris, told him about the test, the opportunity. He was cautious. I’m 67, it’s been years, yadda, yadda. It probably wasn’t going to happen.

The Thursday before the race. Amon was down from Kinloch to speak at a Rotary Club dinner. We put the car outside the venue. He spent 20 minutes with us, long enough for dinner inside to go cold. Oops, the time. But just one more thing, asked with a sly smile: Any chance of a quick spin on the circuit next day? Of course.

It went well, he was in.

Sunday. On big race day, every minute counts. Weeks ago, we’d wangled around 10 minutes on the schedule. An hour out from the run, the officials told us we had maybe five. By the time the old girl was fired up, the old boy settled in, that would have been time for maybe one lap, no more.

I told Amon. Later, when the car was out on the track, I related to Bellamore his response: “The problem with getting old is that you can’t always hear what people say.”

When the finish flag came out to signal the session end, the Maserati went faster. Not race fast – the speed camera indicated around 160kmh on the straight – but fast enough to sound serious.

There are two ways to drive a $37 million, irreplaceable race car. As Bellamore did at the test, slowly and carefully. Or as occurred on this day, still with reverence … but also with more commitment.

It was special. The sensitivity. The skill. The sound! I’d only ever heard that Maserati six-cylinder howl on film. It’s a million times better in real life. I’d never seen a 250F drift, but always understood that was the style. It is.

Three laps. Over every one, the years disappeared. By the last, it was as if the teen Amon was back at the wheel and we saw – just a glimpse perhaps – something of the talent that Enzo Ferrari, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti and so many other racing greats had admired.

The place erupted, and when the car came in, Amon was mobbed by well-wishers of all ages.

It made headlines, nationally an abroad. Television news gave it more air time than the race. Italian media sought photos. So too Maserati, whose local agent had given us some shirts and caps (worn by Chris, with permission from Toyota NZ). The brand ran a great piece in their international magazine.

Best of all, it truly seemed to bring out a smile of absolute delight from a guy I admired so much.