Though the first serious attempts to organise motor races in New Zealand took place shortly after the First World War, a further 30 years elapsed before the sport became established, and only in the late fifties did a definite pattern emerge. By 1963 motor racing in New Zealand had achieved full international status and any future developments would be likely to conform to world standards as set by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, the recognised governing body with its headquarters in Paris.
Sumner Beach, near Christchurch, was the scene of a few motor races held before the First World War, but there does not appear to have been any set form of competition. When, in 1921, the first organised races were held, beaches were still regarded as the most suitable venues. Muriwai Beach, north of Auckland, was chosen for the New Zealand Motor Cup Race, organised by the Auckland Automobile Association which donated a silver cup from which the event took its name. In the inaugural event, the race was simply a 25-mile dash along the beach, which the winner – Howard Nattrass driving a Cadillac – covered in 17 minutes, an average speed of 88 m.p.h. The distance was doubled in 1922 and was made up of four 12½-mile laps. The race became an annual event and touring cars gave way to more specialised machines, though the most successful car of the twenties was an American Stutz in which Bob Wilson won the 1926, 1927, and 1928 events to become the outright winner of the trophy. Beaches continued to provide the main circuits for motor racing until 1949 when the use of the Wigram Aerodrome (a Royal New Zealand Air Force Station near Christchurch) was obtained for a race which used the runways and connecting roads to form a 2·1-mile circuit. The first race, the Lady Wigram Trophy of 105 miles (50 laps), was won by M. Proctor in a “Brooklands” Riley at an average speed of 66·17 m.p.h.
Until this time, lack of suitable venues had hampered the development of actual racing, though there was considerable activity in other forms of the sport – hill climbs, acceleration tests, timed trials and rallies, and reliability trials. These events were organised by national and regional car clubs, and their growth led to the formation in 1947 of a national body, the Association of New Zealand Car Clubs, the present controlling authority.
There were very few true racing cars in the country in the immediate post-war years and entries in speed events comprised saloon and sports cars, and “specials” (locally made hybrids), most of which could be driven to and from the events. The dearth of factory-built racing cars was reflected in the fields for the early distance races of which the Lady Wigram Trophy was a forerunner. A change in legislation made racing on public roads possible, but the administrative difficulties involved limited the number of road events. Near-standard sports cars were joined by locally made racing cars – a development of the earlier “special”. Many of these cars were notable for their high standards of workmanship, but even with additional events, including a second airfield circuit at Ohakea, near Palmerston North, the racing season was a short one and gave insufficient time for development and testing of specials under race conditions, with the result that in many cases they were regarded as unreliable. As more events were added to the calendar, interest developed to a point where true racing cars – mostly pre-war – were imported by New Zealand drivers. Australian entries were also attracted to the main events. Of the imports, the most successful was the P3 Alfa Romeo (produced in the mid-thirties) which, driven by Ron Roycroft, of Auckland, scored numerous successes in races, hill climbs, and timed events.
The most significant development of the fifties was the formation of a body in Auckland – the Auckland (later New Zealand) International Grand Prix (Inc.) whose aim was to organise an annual Grand Prix on an international level. The first Grand Prix for the New Zealand Motor Cup, donated by Bob Wilson, of Stutz fame, and a prize of 1,000 was held at Ardmore (near Auckland) on a 2–1-mile airfield circuit. The race attracted overseas entries, including the famous 16-cylinder 1½-litre B.R.M. This race was won by Stan Jones, of Australia, driving a German-Australian hybrid, the Maybach Special.
This race, and all major events up to and including 1963, were held under a Formula Libre classification which placed no limits on engine size, car weight, or design. This was necessary because at that time there were insufficient cars of any one class within the country to provide a “suitable” field. The adoption of Formula Libre made it possible for New Zealand drivers to purchase at reasonable prices grand prix cars that had been made obsolete by periodic changes of the main formula overseas, but at the same time it led to a still wider variety of racing cars within the country. No long-term plan for classification, either based on overseas practice or on a New Zealand formula, was introduced. Entries in some of the major races ranged from tiny 500 c.c. machines to massive cars with 10 times the engine capacity. The post-war development of motor racing in Europe owed much of its success to support given by oil companies. Some of these commercial interests, notably B.P. and Shell, extended their activities to Australia and New Zealand by giving technical and financial assistance to overseas teams visiting the country, as well as to promising local drivers. This led to the regular appearance of world championship drivers, including Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, and Graham Hill, as well as to the latest “works” cars.
While the effect of this was to turn major events into an imported spectacle in which New Zealanders were rarely among the major place winners, it provided valuable race experience for New Zealanders. Consequently a “driver to Europe” scheme, introduced by the N.Z.I.G.P., led to the discovery of Bruce McLaren, who was runner up in the world championship in 1961 and third in 1962. Sports and saloon cars, outclassed in the main events, found keen competition in special supporting events which made up the programmes at the main meetings. In 1963 the N.Z.I.G.P. changed its venue to a new specially made circuit at Pukekohe, 30 miles south of Auckland. This track, formed on a horse-racing course, made use of existing grandstand facilities. A similar type of circuit had been in existence for several years at Levin, near Wellington. After 1962, the New Zealand International Grand Prix conformed to current overseas formulae and became elegible for inclusion in the world drivers' championship.
The first Grand Prix, run on the new circuit over a distance of 150 miles, was also the last to be run under the old Formula Libre. The 1964 Grand Prix was run under the new 2·5-litre “Tasman” Formula over a shorter distance.