A Gift From Ferrari – Chris Amon and Bruce Wilson

Chris Amon and Dino, 1969 Tasman Series (photo: Terry Marshall)

A Gift From Ferrari. Bruce Wilson was a mechanic for Chris Amon for nearly a decade, and recently he shared a few random memories with us of those heady days on the national and international racing circuits. Words: Gordon Campbell. Photos: Bruce Wilson Collection.

One of Bruce’s prize possessions is a black cap with a Ferrari emblem on it — apparently the sort you could buy at any Ferrari merchandise outlet, but this cap wasn’t available in shops — it was personally presented to Bruce by Il Commendatore, Enzo Ferrari himself. Such gestures were not made lightly, so Bruce must have assumed some importance in Mr Ferrari’s world. Bruce’s incomparable skills were a valuable gift to Ferrari, and the hat was a token of the great man’s appreciation, something for Bruce to treasure to this day.

Bruce Wilson in the ‘low-line’ Cooper that Chris bought from David McKay

Bruce Wilson in the ‘low-line’ Cooper that Chris bought from David McKay


After completing a mechanic’s apprenticeship, Bruce spent several years in a shearing gang and doing all manner of other jobs, including car repairs at home, to raise enough money to buy into Hunterville Motors in the Rangitikei. During that period, he also had the distinction of being the first inductee into New Zealand’s compulsory military training system. He has good memories of those three months, and believes they gave him the self-confidence he would need in later life.


A PARTNERSHIP BEGINS

Bruce eventually took over the business and renamed it ‘Wilson Motors’. By then, he had built up an enviable reputation as a mechanic, specializing in exotic cars. Early in 1961, he married a Danish girl, Susan, who had cooked for the shearing gang. Returning from their honeymoon, Bruce found a little rear-engined Cooper racing car in the corner of the workshop. He was told it belonged to Chris Amon, and that its Citroën gearbox needed repairs. Bruce Harre, one of the mechanics, had suggested to Chris that Bruce would be the man for the job. Bruce hadn’t heard of Chris Amon or worked on a race car before, but he was intrigued by the little machine with its 1500cc single-overhead-camshaft engine fitted with four Amal carburettors.

A Gift From Ferrari - Chris Amon and Bruce Wilson

Chris Amon, Bruce Wilson, and one of his employees with the Maserati 250F, possibly at Levin, 1961 / Wilson Motors


Chris arrived and asked if Bruce would repair the gearbox, and Bruce agreed to do so. He went to Levin with Chris, where Duncan Mackenzie had a quiet word — he was the previous owner of the Cooper and Chris needed to slow down, he was too inexperienced. Ironically, Duncan was killed at Cabbage Tree Corner that day and Ron Frost, former international racer and influential larger-than-life figure in New Zealand racing, asked Bruce if he would go with the police to answer any questions they might have about the wreck. It took the rest of the day, and that was the end of Bruce’s first race meeting. However, he decided he liked motor racing. Chris bought a Maserati 250F, and Bruce happily took over looking after it, even though he’d never seen one before. The 250F had a history of unreliability, which Bruce solved by completely stripping and rebuilding it.

They would tow the Maserati to the top of Vinegar Hill, north of Hunterville, and test it on the Manganoho straight. “A local farmer would ring the traffic police, who would send an officer from Marton. Of course, by the time he got there, we were well gone. The cop would call in and explain to the farmer that there was nothing he could do unless he could catch us in the act, and then drive to Hunterville to have a cup of tea with us at the garage. As long as we didn’t do anything really silly, the police would ignore us,” Bruce remembers. Coopers, Bob Smith’s Super Squalo Ferrari, and the ‘little Ferraris’ (Tasman Series cars) were also tested there, although only at weekends when the highway was very quiet.


LIFE IN THE FAST LANE

In amongst the usual work in a racing team, Bruce found he could be called upon to do some out-of-the-ordinary things. On one occasion, they were involved in shooting a New Zealand advertisement for Shell, which entailed making up a frame mounted on the back of Andy Buchanan’s Brabham to support Bruce while he filmed the driver in action and recorded the sound effects. During the 1966 Formula 1 season, they also helped out with the Hollywood movie Grand Prix, mixing with James Garner and the other stars. Susan flew out to Milan to meet the crew, and after it was all over, they drove back to England with Chris in the Zodiac MkIV that Ford had given him as part of his reward for winning Le Mans that year.

Such was life as a race mechanic, jetting around the world or driving across continents. On one occasion, Bruce and his brother-in-law, Karsten, drove to the German Grand Prix (GP) in Karsten’s Ford Taunus. Arriving in Nuremburg, they couldn’t find the circuit after driving around for some time. Finally asking a local, they found they were supposed to be at the Nürburgring, 200km away! At least they weren’t the only people in history to make that mistake.

 Bruce and Susan met up with Chris in Canada in September 1966 for the first Can-Am series race. After that, they drove to Watkins Glen for the USGP, where they found that the Ford-powered McLaren was a non-runner. McLaren’s mechanics, including Wally Willmott, had packed up and gone to town.

The Ford people said the engine had bent valves and couldn’t be repaired in time, but Bruce said to McLaren he wouldn’t mind having a go at fixing it. McLaren responded to the effect that he didn’t care; he wouldn’t be racing next day anyway. All the teams except Ferrari were together in a huge aircraft hangar, and Bruce set to work with one mechanic who agreed to stay behind.

At 11pm, McLaren called in to see what was happening and was told he would have a car to race the next day. He finished in sixth place — the best finish for a Ford-powered McLaren. They met up with the Revson brothers, Peter and Doug, who invited them to Kent Raceway at Seattle and then on to Laguna Seca, if Bruce would help them install the engine in their car. He was happy to do so, and they duly arrived at Kent, but there was no sign of the car. Somehow it had got lost in transit, and never did show up.

It didn’t really matter — Bruce loved aeroplanes and the Revson boys took him to Boeing, where he saw new 747s being built for Air New Zealand. “The Boeing executives took us everywhere, including Laguna Seca,” he says.

Bruce was Amon’s mechanic through the 1968 Tasman Cup season, along with English mechanic Roger Bailey, who had built a Formula 2 Dino 246T with a 2.4-litre V6 engine for the Australasian series. It was disassembled and shipped out to Hunterville, where Bruce reassembled it.

Chris arrived home from Italy with Roger and Gianni Marelli, the University of Padua’s star student and designer of the car, respectively. Roger warned Bruce that Gianni was protective of his creation and very loyal to Ferrari. When Bruce began to remove the radiator cap at Pukekohe, Gianni became very agitated. “What are you doing? This car is very special!” It took a long time for Gianni to trust Bruce. In time, however, it got to the point where he would ask Bruce how to do this or that, or what they should do here or there.


MORE POWER PLEASE

Gianni would ring Enzo Ferrari after each race to report on the results and any incidents. During their post-Wigram phone call, Enzo asked what was needed to beat Jim Clark. Amon said, “Another 20 horsepower [15kW].” The next meeting was at Teretonga, and from there the cars were shipped to Surfers Paradise for the Australian legs of the Tasman Series. When the team arrived, a new four-valve engine was waiting for them.

Clark and Graham Hill initially weren’t allowed to race because of their Gold Leaf cigarette sponsorship, but a compromise with the officials was finally reached. Chris Amon won the first ‘eye-opener’ race, and came in to report a suspected blown head gasket. He decided to run in the next race until the engine was on the point of seizing, and managed around 25 laps before retiring. The results were enough to convince Amon that he wouldn’t race with the three-valve engine again, but Gianni said it wasn’t possible to get another four-valver in time.

Chris said that Bruce could repair it, but, expectedly, Gianni wasn’t convinced. Chris responded that Ferrari hadn’t made it last more than 50 or 60 laps and Bruce couldn’t do any worse. Three or four days and nights of work followed prior to the Warwick Farm meeting. Chris spun during a frantic race in scorching temperatures, and finished fourth, relinquishing his lead in the series to Jim Clark.

As an aside, Bruce feels that Enzo Ferrari’s detractors were quick to focus on the negative aspects of his character, and gloss over the rest of this complex man. Ferrari was tall with regal bearing, and tended to be aloof. He could use his height to intimidate, but, based on personal experience, Bruce has only good things to say about the legend.


FIAT VERSUS MINI COOPER S

David McKay of Scuderia Veloce was in charge of the Ferrari team’s transport arrangements in Australia. He had hired a Fiat 125 and a Fiat 2300 saloon to tow the race car on a trailer. Gianni decided to go to Melbourne ahead of the others to sort out gear ratios and other matters, and set off in the 125, leaving Roger and Bruce to follow. When they arrived at the Sandown Park circuit near Melbourne, there was no sign of Gianni. It transpired that he had been driving south at his usual (Italian) high speed when a green Mini Cooper S latched onto his tail. Well, it was all on and Gianni kept the Cooper at bay for quite some time. When he finally stopped, he was promptly arrested by the police officer in the Cooper. Bruce and Roger had to go and make excuses to the authorities and rescue the Italian.

At Longford in Tasmania, the Ferrari engine had problems, requiring another long night for the pit crew. Amon finished in seventh place after a run-off in appallingly wet conditions, and Clark won the series with 44 points from Amon on 36.


WINNING TEAM

The 1969 Tasman Cup season was an Amon and Ferrari benefit. Bruce learned what it felt like to be in a dominant team that recorded four firsts, including Amon’s third New Zealand GP, two thirds, and one did-not-finish to take out the series by a clear margin of 14 points over Jochen Rindt and Piers Courage. Ferrari’s second driver, Derek Bell, was fourth. While the late Jim Clark was sorely missed, the quality field included the reigning world champion, Graham Hill.

The Ferrari team was a semi-works effort without Gianni. Chris was number-one driver and manager, with Derek Bell as second driver, and the cars were largely unchanged from 1968. They were a bit longer and had sprouted front spoilers and rear wings. Having embraced the new wing technology, Bruce’s fertile mind was busy looking for some extra advantage from it. He devised an electronically adjustable wing that the driver controlled with a button on the steering wheel, probably the first-ever example of a steering-wheel-mounted control. This revolution was unveiled for the Australian section of the Tasman Series, and Amon was very quick to acknowledge its benefit.

Lotus and Williams suffered an epidemic of engine failures during the season, and must have spent a small fortune air freighting engines back to England for rebuilds. The Ferrari mechanics had a much easier time, although some engine swaps were needed. Only one engine had to be sent back to Italy for an overhaul.

Graeme Lawrence bought Amon’s Ferrari with the factoryimposed condition that Bruce had to be his mechanic for the 1970 Tasman season. The team took out the series from Frank Matich (McLaren M120A) and Kevin Bartlett (Mildren-Waggott).


THE MARCH OF CHANGE

In 1970, Bruce learned how quickly things could change. Chris had signed with March and they arrived at the factory early in the year, ready to test the new Can-Am car, only to find the factory had hardly started building it. Bruce and another mechanic, Chris Charles, built the car, complete with a Chaparral engine producing over 600kW (805bhp). Max Moseley and the press were on hand for its launch at Silverstone, and Max asked Chris when he was going out to test the car. Amon replied, pointing to Bruce, “He built it, he goes first.”

That was the only time Chris drove the car. A German team wanted it for the new European sports-car series, so Moseley sold it to them. They wouldn’t take the car unless Bruce came with it, and so began his last and best year in top-level motor sport. “We had a ball,” he says, “one weekend we would be in Canada or the US for a Can-Am race, the next we were somewhere on the Continent.” Before that, he and Chris Charles had to build another car for Amon to race.

I am deeply indebted to Bruce for willingly granting me so much of his time to mine just a small part of a rich vein of memories of motor sport at the highest level. When asked if he had written his memoirs, he said he hadn’t because it seemed big-headed to write about himself — a statement typical of this humble, unsung hero of New Zealand motor sport.


Wilson Motors

Bruce with the famous steering wheel at the 2011 New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing Celebrating Chris Amon, Hampton Downs. Bruce’s memorabilia. Bruce Wilson’s son, Rolf, with the Dino 246, 1970. Another view of Dalziell’s Garage. Bruce Wilson Motors, Hunterville. The March 707 Can-Am car. Bruce Wilson’s 80th-birthday poster. Bruce Wilson in Chris Amon’s 1969 Tasman Ferrari. Wilson Motors Ltd — Mr Todd (Todd Motors) with his Ferrari and the Dino 246 when Graeme Lawrence owned it in 1970. The Alex Dalziell Garage, which became Hunterville Motors. Chris Amon and Dino, 1969 Tasman Series (photo: Terry Marshall).


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