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Remembering legendary burnout master John Peterson

By Simon Telford | Research: Boris Viskovic | Photos: Simon Davidson & Peterson Family, 13 Jan 2020 Features

We remember John Peterson, the man who brought the burnouts to the world

Remembering legendary burnout master John Peterson

THEY say you should never meet your heroes, but I’ve never met anyone in the car scene who was disappointed after coming in contact with John Peterson. JP was one of the true founding fathers of the street machine movement and a folk hero to Ford fans everywhere.

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of Street Machine

John passed away at the age of 72 in August, and his memorial service was attended by over 1000 friends and family. It was by turns a moving and uplifting day. If there was ever a guy who lived life to the full, it was JP. There were many tales of automotive adventure and a lot of laughs, but it was John’s devotion to his family, his generous nature and loyalty to his mates that were the recurring themes.

John Peterson

John’s first burnout win involved two full powerskids the length of Heathcote Park and back in 1977

Along with family and friends, those that spoke at the service included Chic Henry, Victor Bray, Norm Hardinge and former Rare Spares General Manager Dave Rayner, who acted as MC. Dozens of Zephyrs and Zodiacs formed a guard of honour, and John was taken for his final ride by his son Shane in the mean black Dodge pick-up that was JP’s workhorse for many years.

Read next: John Peterson interview (2005)

John Peterson

The extent of John’s influence on our sport is hard to fathom. Before JP, a burnout was a short skid drag racers did to warm up their tyres. The cars that did big burnouts were full-on race cars, dragsters, altereds and funny cars – it was not really the domain of street cars. But John turned burnouts into an art form, laying the foundations for the sport we have today. Would the Street Machine Summernats have been so successful for so long without burnouts?

John Peterson

John behind the wheel of a Mk1 Zephyr stock car in the mid-1960s

Impossible! Watching a John Peterson burnout changed the direction of a young Victor Bray’s life and many others.

While JP and his iconic black Mk3 Zephyr are most famous for their burnouts, the pair also won multiple trophies on the show circuit and made a wicked combination on the drag strip too. All the while, the Zephyr, known as Dark Horse, was driven to and from events with John’s family on board. He lived and breathed the idea that a street car could also be a race car and a show car too.

John Peterson

That street-driven ethos is an important part of the Peterson mystique, as was his underdog status – making the humble 289 Windsor punch well above its weight. A big part of the appeal was John’s enthusiasm for the Blue Oval product – and his vocal hatred of anything with a GM badge. Truth be told, JP owned more than a few Holdens in his early years – much like Ford’s other favourite son, Dick Johnson – but once he saw the error of his ways, he never looked back.

John Peterson

JP lent his driving and tuning services to David Gale’s Baroness Model A coupe, in which he nailed a long-standing B/HR record to the tune of 11.4sec at Calder Park

John’s interest in cars began early. “I was sort of brought up around them with my father,” John told Supercar in 1984. “He was always playing around with cars, all the hotties of his day, like Studes, Olds, Buicks. I learned to drive in a ’39 Chev.”

John Peterson

It didn’t take long for the young JP to acquire a ride of his own: “When I was 11, I was doing a paper round and got sick of riding a pushbike, so I saved my money and bought a ’37 Willys which I used to hide from my mother. I’d ride the pushbike up to the Willys, throw the bike in the back seat and do the paper round with the car. Mum found out about the Willys, took it off me and drove it herself.”

John Peterson

John at the wheel of a genuine AC Cobra, which he tuned in the mid-1980s. As Dave Rayner tells it, John classified himself as a commission agent for the Australian Taxation Department, wheeling and dealing in car parts, driving tow trucks and building engines along with being the proprietor of Fat Jack’s Conversions

John’s early racing included piloting FJ Holden stock cars at the Daylesford Speedway. “The promoters offered a cash prize to the first car to roll, and John managed it every time, five times in a row!” says his wife Margaret. “They had roll bars back then, but nothing like they have now.”

John Peterson

Back in the saddle at the first Ultimate Burnout Challenge in 2009

John’s drag racing career began in the mid-1960s with a 1950 Vauxhall, fitted with a Holden 179. That ran mid-17s, quite respectable for a street car of the day. He then dabbled with an FX Holden, getting it into the 16-second zone. Seeing the light, John started to campaign a Mk3 Zephyr in 1968-69, getting into the 15s with a worked Zephyr six powerplant.

John Peterson

Why Zephyrs? “My cousin’s husband had one and it had all the tricks of the day,” John told Supercar. “You know, a swan on the bonnet, homemade fins, spare wheel on the boot, spats, whitewalls, three-tone paintjob. All the trickery, aerials, foxtails, pom-poms, venetians – it had it all. I reckoned it was the ant’s pants.”

“Ken Spence’s Zephyr was also an influence,” says his son Shane. “Kenny motivated him to step it up.”

John Peterson

John and mate Endre Papp changing a tyre on the Petersons’ Highway Hilton bus, which took the family on some great adventures throughout the outback

The famous Dark Horse Zephyr was acquired as a stocker and was used as a work vehicle while John was servicing bulldozers, with the back seat removed to accommodate oil drums and tools. A 289 replaced the factory six, and once the working life started to take its toll on the car, John started a restoration – never taking the car off the road for long. The car emerged from the process as a show-winner – and running flat 12s with a mild 289 and Top Loader combo.

John Peterson

John taking on Rod Hadfield’s blown Chev-powered Zephyr at the Kerang drags in ’72. And yep, JP won

The Dark Horse won a stack of trophies over the years, including at the Melbourne Hot Rod Show and at the drags – including the ANDRA Super Stock Eliminator gong, won in Adelaide in 1977. “That was his favourite trophy,” says Margaret. “We divvied up the trophies amongst the kids and grandkids a while ago, but he kept that one. He was proud that he was able to drive the car there with the family, win the event and drive home. He very rarely broke anything and even if he did, he could fix it.”

John Peterson

JP and two other street machiners were paid by the City of Melbourne to perform burnouts on the street for the 1982 Moomba Festival

The concept of the burnout as competitive performance art was born at Heathcote in 1977. JP joined in what passed for a burnout comp in those days, fitting the Zephyr out with its spare wheel and borrowing another from an unsuspecting mate. John eclipsed any other attempts by powerskidding the full length of the quarter, turning around and repeating the feat all the way back to the startline, before popping the tyres and driving off on the rims. At the 4th Street Machine Nationals in 1980, John won both the burnout competition and the go-to-whoa, establishing himself as the burnout king. This was followed by the first and last-ever paid burnout show on the streets of the Melbourne CBD for the 1982 Moomba Festival! And while there was no burnout comp at the fifth Street Machine Nationals in Canberra, JP won both the infamous Iron Man comp and the motorkhana. Wayne Barbour nabbed the burnout title in 1984 in his Corvette, but JP again took out the go-to-whoa.

John Peterson

Always restless, JP sold the Dark Horse in the late 80s and built a white version, which appeared at the seventh Nationals in 1987. This was fitted with a stove-hot 302, Doug Nash five-speed, three-quarter chassis and wheel tubs.

John Peterson

“John had some issues with his back and dropped out of the car scene for a while after that,” says Margaret. “But when he started working with Norm and Vicki at Aussie Desert Cooler, he found his love for the scene again.”

John Peterson

Each of John and Margaret’s kids were gifted a Ford upon reaching driving age. Shane scored this black XP hardtop, Sharyn a Mk3 Zephyr, and Melissa a Mk1 Cortina, which she still has. All manuals, of course!

JP went to Canberra for Summernats 16 in 2003 and was back in 2004 as a guest judge at the burnout competition. The urge to mix it with the new breed had started to form and in 2008 John brought the white Zephyr back to Canberra for ’Nats 21. “The car was in pieces only weeks beforehand; John always left things like that to the last minute,” remembers Margaret. “He and Shane put the car together, with a lot of help from Billy and Mick Mildren. John was very excited to be competing again; both he and Chic had tears in their eyes.”

John Peterson

John’s work with Aussie Desert Cooler brought him face-to-face with car people at shows and swap meets all over the country, and even after he retired from the radiator game, he continued to be a regular at the swap meets and cruises.

Becoming a grandfather also meant a lot to John. “Our grandchildren started arriving in 1991 – five boys and three girls,” says Margaret. “Since then, John’s many holidays involved the grandkids. Even if he was going to a show somewhere or just for a drive, he’d pick up a couple and give them a fun day out. At the last few ’Nats he attended, John had three grandkids in tow. He loved them to bits and made sure they had a good time.”

John Peterson

As John’s health declined in recent years, he was unable to drive, which was a huge blow. A big consolation to John was the way his family and friends rallied around him. “We’re really thankful to all the people who called John to chat while he was stuck at home or came to visit,” says Margaret. “The Zephyr Club members would pick him up and take him to their monthly meetings, which he really looked forward to. Other guys came and took him cruising, which was something he loved to do. John was connected to so many people through cars. Once he was stuck at home, his phone bill doubled! He had the same address book for decades and he reconnected with a lot of people he hadn’t spoken to in years.

John Peterson

JP’s last line-up. John was a regular at car shows in recent years on his mobility scooter, and even took it through the local Macca’s drive-through!

“Life with John was unpredictable at times and it kept me on my toes my entire life, but I loved it,” Margaret concludes. “He was strong and he taught me how to be strong. He was a great father to the kids and a special pa to the grandkids – he lived for them. It’s going to be a dull, boring life without him.”

John Peterson

JP the respected skid judge at Supernats in 2004, pictured with Ahmet the Mad Turk and another legendary Ford man, Ben Gatt

 

MARK SHEARER - CAR GUY'S GARAGE

“JP WAS more of a mentor to me than anything else. I’m the same age as his son and when I first met him I didn’t know who he was. I was looking for an answer to some question, and I got sent to Fat Jack’s wreckers and I walk in and there’s this gruff-looking dude that looked like Elmer Fudd if he was a bare-knuckle fighter. There were early Falcons everywhere and I was an early Holden guy; I don’t remember what I asked but he gave me this short answer. I was in my early 20s and a bit full of myself, and I walked off and said something derogatory. John turned around and with a low growl said: ‘What’d you say?’ I thought, well, I’m getting punched in the head anyway, so I may as well repeat it. He just burst out laughing and said: ‘What was it you wanted to know again, kid?’

“From then on I would see him around a fair bit; then I discovered he was the burnout dude, the guy with the Zephyrs and all that sort of stuff. So, it was quite a different relationship.

“I was always struck by how neat and tidy John’s garden and house were, compared to his wrecking yard. But of course, that was Margaret’s doing – John had greasy fingers, not green fingers!

“The big thing about John was he was loyal. If you were his mate, you were his mate and he would do anything for you. I’ve got a three-year-old grandson, and he has this look on his face and a sparkle in his eye that looks like: I’ve either just done something wrong or I’m about to go do something wrong. And do you know, John had that same look and bright sparkle in his eyes when I met him, and he still had it, right to the end.”

John Peterson 

 

NORM HARDINGE – AUSSIE DESERT COOLERS

“I met JP over 20 years ago. We had a yack and I thought he seemed like a good sort of a bloke. I didn’t get a name, so I asked who he was and was told that he was John Peterson – a very good friend and a very bad enemy. I never saw the bad side, but he became a very good friend to my wife Vicki and me.“When we were setting up our core manufacturing facility, we found a plant for sale in Sydney to buy. We scraped together everything we could to get it.

John wanted to know all about it and said: ‘If you need a hand, just ring me.’

“So I went to the hire place, gave them my licence and said: ‘Give me the biggest truck I can get on my licence.’ We set off and when we get to Tarcutta, the cops pull us over and tell me I’m not licensed to drive this truck and I’ll be arrested if I proceed. Vicki thought to call John, and he went straight around to the hire company to explain to them the error of their ways. They gave him a hire car to come up to Tarcutta. Vicki and Max the dog went back in the hire car and John drove the truck to Sydney, helped me load the gear and drive back. That’s the kind of guy he was, just off a phone call.

“Later he came to work for us, but we never felt like he was our employee. We always felt that he’d taken us under his wing. He’d give us advice on all sorts of stuff, and if we needed to know anything, he knew everyone.

“John did a lot of our shows for us and he loved it. At one point, Vicki and I hadn’t had a holiday in 16 years, but we didn’t feel we could leave the place with anyone. So we went to the US for three weeks and JP ran the joint. He said before we left: ‘You won’t hear from me; I’ll just handle it,’ and he did. We got back and and the place was running like clockwork.

“Even up to a couple of weeks ago he had a long phone call with Vicki about what was going on and how he could best help. He was our go-to guy. We’re really going to miss him.”

John Peterson 


GARY MYERS – BURNOUT LEGEND

“I WOULD have only been 15 or 16 years old when the Street Machine Nationals were in Narrandera. I still remember Rod Hadfield’s little red Ford Anglia with the flames on it and John Peterson’s black Mk 3 Zephyr being the standouts. He was an icon for me growing up and I loved that he did it all with just a Windsor; he used to rev that thing like crazy just with a tunnel-ram combo. He was known for his rollbacks in third gear to start his burnouts. He’d be in reverse, then put it into third and just dump it.

“We paid tribute to John at this year’s Red CenteNATS, decorating the S1CKO Mustang in his honour and dedicating the skid to him.” – BV

John Peterson

 

CHIC HENRY – SUMMERNATS

“IF EVER there was a person whose reputation preceded him, it was John. The first time I heard about him was about his burnouts at the Moomba Festival; how cool!

“At the 1980 Nats in Narrandera I entered my ’62 Chev in the burnouts. I was halfway down the street doing a really serious burnout and in one moment, the fan belt broke, a rocker arm busted and the oil filler cap came off – bang! Oil everywhere. Afterwards John said to me: ‘Just as well that happened, because you were going to give me a run for my money.’ That was a tick of recognition from John, the Burnout King.

“Years later, we named the John Peterson Memorial Trophy in his honour, and having him return to perform at ’Nats 21 is a highlight of the event’s history. He was equal to the toughest guys I ever met, but we had a close bond and I’ve really felt his passing keenly.”

John Peterson 

 

VICTOR BRAY – DRAG RACER

“OUTSIDE of my family, there have been two people in my life who have assisted me with advice on my career: Mick Atholwood and John Peterson. I was down in NSW to check out a show, maybe in the early 80s. I walked into the venue with my mates and we heard this screaming engine and headed over to check out the action. We see this black Zephyr come out of the smoke, sitting on 8000rpm. We thought his throttle must have been stuck! He did a doughnut and then headed back into the smoke.

“Later on, we made a point to go and talk to this guy. I asked him: ‘What was wrong with your car?’ He shot back: ‘What do you mean? Nothing was wrong.’ I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and get thumped, so I asked: ‘So you meant to do all that? It’s a beautiful car, but you were doing 8000rpm, destroying the tyres.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘That’s a burnout.’“To me, a burnout was what we drag racers did to warm up the tyres – this was the first time I’d seen it done properly. So I asked him how he did it, how to not blow the engine and get the tyres to last. And to his credit, he came out and told me everything. I thought, man, this guy has all the answers.

This is what I want to do!

“I told John I would have a go at doing his kind of burnout when I got home. He asked me what kind of car I had and I replied that it was a ’57 Chev. He said: ‘Well, good luck with that.’ [laughs] Of course he gave me shit for being a Chev guy, but I was really taken with him and how generous he was with his knowledge.

“I was lucky enough to sit down with him many years later and talk about that day and a lot of other stuff. He influenced my life in a big way – he set me on a path that I made a career out of, so I have to thank him for that.”

John Peterson

 

DAVE RAYNER - ZEPHYR & ZODIAC OWNERS CLUB OF MELBOURNE

“I MET John in late December 1968. I’d been down to the beach in my Mk2 Zephyr with some mates and rolled the car over. Somehow I got it back to my parents’ place and parked it on the lawn. A couple of days later I came home and Mum said some ruffian had come to the front door, offering to help fix the car – a big guy, with tattoos! That started a friendship of over 50 years.

“I started spending time at his house and there were all sorts of people coming and going, buying parts. Quite a few of them had Zephyrs, and John started talking about creating a club in 1972. When he moved to a house with a bigger garage, we then had a place to meet, so we signed up 14 members to the Zephyr & Zodiac Owners Club of Melbourne at our first meeting in 1974. It's now 45 years later and the club is still going strong. John was the founder, inaugural president and later patron of the ZZOCM, after my father passed away, who was the first club patron.

“One of the most famous stories involves my dad, who was a magistrate and the mayor of the City of Broadmeadows. Dad had a really distinctive HK Premier at the time and John would service it for him. This one time, JP had serviced the car and was returning it when a couple of cops spotted him. Now, John and the Broady cops had a love/hate relationship, and they were pretty excited about the idea of catching JP stealing the mayoral car.

They pulled him over and John growled at them: ‘What’s wrong with you? The mayor is a mate of mine; I’ve got permission!’ The cops shot back: ‘As if the mayor would have a mate like you!’ So they dragged him up to the council chambers, where Dad spotted them and said: ‘G’day, John! Is the car finished already?’ The cops had to apologise and JP dined out on that story for years.

“John helped me get out of – and into – lots of scrapes over the years, but what is amazing is how many friendships were forged through him. What he has done for me in terms of friends is unbelievable.”

 

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