Classic Cars: World’s fastest Austin
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Film director Roger Donaldson may have a thing about Kiwi men and sheds — first with The World’s Fastest Indian, and now the McLaren doco that premieres on June 1.
But in this case both men and sheds were very much behind the scenes.
It all started in March 2016 when art director Roger Guise rang friend Richard McWhannell.
“He wanted to talk urgently about cars for the McLaren film,”McWhannell said. “He wanted to know if my Austin was the same as the McLaren Ulster.”
He had to find one urgently, but there is only one, in a museum in the UK, for it was a “Special”, an Austin 7 base, on which goes a one-off body and unique ancillaries, often home-built.
“I told him the only way to get one is to make one, and I knew a man who could make a body.”
Joss Campbell agreed he could build the car, and it’d take four to six weeks. Donaldson rolled his eyes ... Campbell cut it to three, and Guise took the concept to Donaldson’s team.
Richard McWhannell, Joss Campbell and Ian Williams with the replica body.
Meanwhile Campbell contacted Ian Williams, who has raced Austin Specials, and has the mechanical skills needed.
To cut a long story short, the shooting schedule didn’t allow a month to build a car, and late on Good Friday, March 26, the trio was given 10 days to create a mock-up, “Basically string and cardboard, that might withstand a casual background glance.”
The Austin trio were outraged. “There’s no way you can do that, it’d be a shambles,” and, moreover, any true Austin or McLaren fan would spot the subterfuge.
A quick overnight meeting resulted in a plan to build a car, using parts from their own vintage vehicles, within the timeframe.
One of the original photos used when recreating the car.
McWhannell’s Dieppe Special was already apart, “The body was off and the engine in 1000 bits.”
They knew they could cobble together a running replica that worked and looked correct.
“We are perfectionists, we wanted to do it right, as good as we could in one and a half weeks.”
The trio hit three Mitre 10s to buy enough pipe for the frame, and got to work, using the photo files they’d put together.
Williams has a background in toolmaking, Campbell is a metal magician, and all three have built Specials.
The finished McLaren replica awaits its moment.
By Sunday evening they had the elements of a tube frame and McWhannell had got the Vintage Austin Register (VAR) to open its spares shed on Easter Sunday to obtain an Austin 7 Ruby bonnet.
“It was the right length and just needed a trim, and Ian had the louvred section from a Box Saloon bonnet, and by 30th we had the frame finished and most of the panels done — Don at Fagan & Hannay got some sheet aluminium in a rush” said McWhannell.
The guys were so determined the car would look right – and not over-restored or over-finished — that Campbell even rolled the metal on tube pipe and over his leg, but it was done.
Richard McWhannell (left) and Ian Williams instructing the stunt driver at Muriwai Beach.
On the 31st, Williams and Richard Bampton, from the Vintage Austin Register, collected the chassis while McWhannell collected the engine block from engineer Brian Blackie, who had put in long hours to get it ready.
While McWhannell put the engine back together and Campbell finished the panels, Williams was fabricating the unique exhaust manifold.
The body was then taken to Fagan & Hannay for paint — matching the colour to photos of the original car — and dried outside for speed while Richard replicated the radiator number.
Roger Donaldson (in pink shirt) on set as the replica hoons on the grass.
Other parts were filched from their cars — the seats from Williams’ Austin 7 racing Special, off the road after a crash at Hampton Downs, the front wheels off his Austin 7 Nippy as the tread matched.
The bonnet strap started out as Campbell’s belt — “I was hitching my trousers up for the rest of the day”.
The men had insisted they retain ownership, they had to, to put their own cars back together.
“Roger Donaldson asked who owned it and we said, ‘Which bit?’”
After not much sleep and a nightmare schedule, the car was ready, and delivered to the set on Muriwai Beach on time.
Richard McWhannell in the Dieppe Sports that donated its rolling chassis to the replica with fellow builders Joss Campbell (left) and Ian Williams, outside the workshop where the body was built.
Donaldson’s first words when he saw it were, “Wrong colour!” and an overstressed Williams said, “Right, put it on the trailer, we’re leaving!” but sense prevailed, they started it – and once the crew realised how well it went, they all got behind it — by the sound of it, its 10 seconds of fame may have grown.
McWhannell taught the stunt driver the rudiments, and they were off.
“Roger and the camera crew were in the bed of a ute driving at 100km/h down Muriwai Beach with Roger shouting “Faster, faster!” as the Austin rapidly caught up, overtook, and headed into the distance!”
No wonder the famous director signed the body, with “The world’s fastest Austin”.
After the lads brief brief time on set, filming hill-climb and garage scenes.
Then it was over, and a week later their replica had been stripped, and their own cars were back together.
But the body still remains, a talking point in the Fagan & Hannay workshop, complete with autograph and surrounded by quips about the panels rolled on a Kiwi metal-worker’s thighs ...