TOUCHING down in Christchurch on a warm Friday afternoon, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Muscle Car Madness. Though I’d been given a vague rundown of the Kiwi car scene, I was a first-timer to the Land of the Long White Cloud, let alone its automotive culture.
This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of Street Machine
As a complete newcomer, I figured there’d be an abundance of Australian muscle cars with the odd American machine thrown in for good measure. But nothing could have prepared me for what I found when I walked through the gates of the Rangiora Showground, about half an hour north of Christchurch.
Watch the video: NZ Muscle Car Madness 2020
A bonanza of Yank metal stretched as far as the eye could see, interspersed with an assortment of Aussie Holdens, Fords and Chryslers. Al, my guide and photographer for the weekend, pointed out that liberal import restrictions and a strong NZ dollar had seen a huge amount of US stuff hit Kiwi shores in various states of repair. They’re cheaper and easier to keep on the road in NZ than Australia, too. Provided you can pass a basic ‘warrant of fitness’ inspection each year, left-hand-drives of any vintage are fair game, and annual registration is a fraction of what we’re slugged across the ditch.
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Left-hookers seemed to dominate the 30th Muscle Car Madness, with unusual metal like Oldsmobile Tornados and De Tomaso Panteras brushing shoulders with slammed Impalas and Buicks. The American theme was bolstered by a strong complement of old-school hot rods and gassers, which emerged as crowd favourites on the dirt cruising circuit. The insidious ‘purist’ mindset doesn’t seem to have wormed its way this far south of the equator, either. For every XY GT mock-up in attendance, there were two wearing primer and jellybean mags.
To find out more about what makes the place tick, I tracked down event founder and local legend Craig Stare. He was kicking back in his onsite caravan, enjoying a beer and “stressing about not being stressed”. He recounted the genesis of Muscle Car Madness, now three decades ago: “We thought it would be a nice little spot to run a show. The first year we had 44 cars; this year, there’s 2500 staying here.”
While we chatted, a steady stream of orange-clad teenagers moved in and out of the temporary HQ, each with a task to accomplish. “A lot of our workforce has been young people,” Craig told me. “People’s kids got bored, so we gave them jobs to do, and it snowballed from there.”
It’s a reflection of the event’s multi-generational atmosphere. At Muscle Car Madness, kids are free to roam after hours on pushbikes, motorised scooters and virtually any other wheeled implement you could imagine. They also learn what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour from the older cohort. “Everybody polices each other,” Craig pointed out. “If somebody’s doing something wrong, the campers tell them.” Maybe this was why the security guards were all smiles.
While the cars I saw in Rangiora were astounding in both quality and variety, it was the culture embodied by Muscle Car Madness that left the biggest mark on me. Craig said that everybody was family there, and I don’t doubt him. The event highlights the wonderful set of customs, established over decades, that has culminated in this sprawling network of old and new mates – even if it’s just for one weekend a year.
Father-son duo Andrew and Lachlan Kennett stuck an XC Falcon body on top of an Isuzu Bighorn just for this year’s event. The Sefton locals threw together the Mad Max-style build over two months of weekends. Andrew’s a regular to the show, with 25 attendances to his name and a variety of muscle in his garage. He said 17-year-old Lachlan is the motivating force behind much of their work, providing his own angles and ideas.
Dubbed ‘Revenge Edition’ after a workshop break-in left his last project stripped to the ground, Matt Jukic’s ’68 Charger proves he can’t be kept down. His first tilt at a classic, the Yank coupe features a blown 440 with a shot of nitrous and meth injection in reserve. A 727 Torqueflite and 83/4in Chrysler diff keep the driveline all Mopar, while the tubular front end is packed with QA1 suspension gear.
Gasser-fied in 1968, Chris Hornblow’s street-driven, avgas-drinking ’56 Chevy runs a cast-head 350 wearing a tunnel ram and twin 650 double-pumper carbs. Aside from a fibreglass front, the car is all metal, and runs reliable 11.4sec quarter-mile times.
Brendon Shearing’s twin-turbo, 509ci Monaro is fully engineered and street legal! The dry-sump, all-alloy Donovan donk has made 1585hp on the dyno with 22psi of boost. “There’s more in it with better boost control,” Brendon said. He’s so far pedalled the car to a 7.9@195mph on North Island strips.
Gary Norris’s well-travelled ’53 Henry J was one of many gassers in Rangiora over the weekend. It’s currently powered by an injected Chrysler 440, with a Torqueflite transmission and ’59 Oldsmobile rear. Gary bought the racer in 1985, and now has a 9.99sec ET to his name.
Built for having a bit of a laugh with the boys, Michael Ledgerwood’s ratty KE10 Corolla harnesses a Lexus-sourced 1UZ V8. With an ITB set-up on worked heads, a strengthened chassis and shortened HiLux diff, it’s a dedicated skid weapon. His efforts this year landed Michael equal third in the burnout comp.
Ian Pakii is one of an elite few to have never missed a Muscle Car Madness. This year, his ‘Swiss Cheese’-inspired ’63 Pontiac Catalina made its debut. These fabled factory racers were heavily lightened, before being nixed by GM in an anti-racing blitz. His Super Stock-style build runs a Dart 410 block, Turbo 350 automatic and Ford 9in rear.
Grant Findley’s ‘Knight Moves’ Buick brought a touch of class to Muscle Car Madness. Inspired by the famed Hirohata Mercury, the ’50 Sedanette wears ’53 Merc chrome, which set Wellington-based builder Paul Knight back US$2500 – and that was two decades ago! The donk is a 425ci Olds, mated to a Turbo 400 auto and 9in diff. According to Grant, it’s a reliable set-up for lengthy trips – like the seven-hour drive.
With Hotwires, an aftermarket sunroof and shrunken steering wheel, Briana Ireland’s old-school LH Torana harks back to the glory days of street machining. The 308 up front feeds to a Trimatic auto and Ford 8in diff. Kade de Vries’ LC Torana hides a boosted 202, put together solely by the apprentice refrigeration mechanic. The blow-through turbo powerplant is backed by a W58 Toyota ’box and shortened 3.08 Holden diff.
Herb Lane’s 1937 Oliver tractor is powered by a tandem-mounted 327 Chev and 302 Windsor, with a torque converter between them. Aptly named ‘Oliver Twist’, Herb said the home-built rig can easily be converted back to stock, “just to please the tractor purists out there!”
Russell Lowe’s Model A isn’t your typical hot rod; in case you missed it, there’s a flame-spitting, 1650ci Rover Meteor engine up front! Extracted from a Centurion tank, the all-alloy V12 is an OHC design with four valves per cylinder – not bad for an engine designed in the 30s! Russell gifted it a 16/71 blower generating 6psi of boost, and on paper the set-up is good for 1000hp and 175mph.
Ian Neary’s SEMA-grade, V10 Viper-powered Plymouth GTX made its first MCM appearance and took home the Best Mopar trophy, pulling crowds of stunned onlookers to the Mothers stand across the weekend. Ian said the car has been getting around the country regularly, and now bears a message from living legend Chip Foose: “If I took it in for Overhaulin’, I wouldn’t give it back!”
Steve Allan stuffed a cammed LS1 in a patinaed Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It also received an inch in the sills, a four-link rear end and airbags all ’round. The Rangiora-based custom builder said the car previously sat in a police compound for 12 years, with a bullet-peppered side window!
According to GT nut Dwayne McLaren, this chop-topped XW Falcon wagon was “pretty much a piece of rubbish” when he came across it, though it had been strengthened and road-certified as roofless. The car now runs a 302 Cleveland brought out to 351 cubes, and Dwayne was an early Kiwi adopter of FiTech injection, which he also runs on his XW burnout ute. “It’s really driveable, but it’ll bark up if you want it to,” he said.
We spotted this glorious Big Red Car replica cruising the show. Owner Jay Elliot gave this Beetle a loving Wiggles-themed restoration, and said that it had carried 16 passengers at once. “It’ll be 20 before the end of the night,” he laughed.
Fresh from a tilt at this year’s Summernats Burnout Masters competition, Hayden Wilby assaulted the MCM pad in his NUTOUT VT SS Commodore. Unusually for a burnout car, the 6/71-blown LS1 is matched with a six-speed manual.