There’s something about small town New Zealand that seems to breed world-class operators in the motor racing industry. Again and again we learn that some of our global household names in the exalted fields of V8 Supercars, Formula One, IndyCars and Superbikes got their start in rural New Zealand. Perhaps it’s those long straight – unclogged with traffic! – roads that crisscross our country districts that allowed the young men of yesteryear to really open up the throttle. To really experience the thrill of extreme speed for themselves – and to develop an itch that could only be scratched by driving ever faster on the famous race tracks of the world.
In fact, the rollcall of Kiwi small town success is lengthy; Chris Amon hailed from Bulls; Denny Hulme was from Motueka; Mike Thackwell grew up in Papakura and the legendary Bert Munro, of course was from Edendale, Southland. Indeed, the Deep South has delivered more than its fair share of Kiwi motor racing icons, including one that hails from probably the smallest country town of all: George Begg.
George Begg lived in the hamlet of Drummond in Southland, which isn’t a huge metropolis even by 21st century rural South Island standards. What made George Begg even more extraordinary is that not only did he come from such a tiny backwater town, the race cars he designed and built were at the cutting edge of motor racing at the time – for the entire world. Plus, a lot of the designing and building George did was actually completed in Drummond.
The cars he made were so innovative they earned George a stint working alongside fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren in England from 1968. Together they designed the cars that became McLaren – you know the race cars Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mika Hakkinen, Niki Lauda, James Hunt and some guy called Lewis Hamilton raced and won a total of 12 Formula One Driver’s Championships in? Cars that, certainly in the circa Ayrton Senna-era red and white livery, were the very definition of Formula One.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Of course, Drummond wasn’t picked out by George as the absolute perfect location to dream up ever faster open-wheel race cars but then again, designing them wasn’t front of mind either once he’d returned home from a largely unsuccessful stint racing motorbikes in the United Kingdom. George found that he needed to diversify his engineering business as there simply just wasn’t enough work for him around Drummond. True, he had developed a better sheep-holding device to help local farmers treat foot rot and there was some tidy business to be had repairing front-end loaders and ditch digging equipment – but if only he could think up something new to supplement his income…
Inspiration came one day when the under-utilised George was lounging about reading a magazine between jobs. The copy of Racing and Sports Car Chassis Design he was idly flicking through had been written by Mike Costin – the ‘Cos’ half of the legendary British internal combustion engine makers Cosworth. Cosworth made engines that were used in Formula One racing – maybe that was something G. N. Begg Engineer could try his hand at too?
Applying Kiwi ingenuity to engineering
The fact that George didn’t have a lot of spare race car parts lying around to work with wasn’t really a problem for him. He rationalised that ‘people made their own fences’ so why couldn’t he just make a race car out of whatever bits and pieces he could find? It turned out that a lot of the parts for his first car came from the very pedestrian Morris production cars he could get his hands on and it was powered by a motorbike BSA A10 650cc engine he found. The completed car however was a sensation, looking far more sophisticated than most other home-builts and was a winner too, taking out several races in its class, particularly hill climbs.
George then went on to mesh Chevrolet, Hillman, Austin and Hewland parts together for his first sports car model – which is when George caught the eye of Formula One superstar and fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren. Bruce put George to work over in England developing the new McLaren sports car program although occasionally George was called upon as a mechanic at Grand Prix events too.
Back to Drummond
But too soon disaster struck and McLaren’s death in a 1970 testing crash shattered the whole motor racing community – as well as George Begg. He had now lost a lot of friends to the sport – including his own business partner Spencer Allen a mere five days after Bruce. Enough was enough and so George returned to Drummond and his race car building business there.
In all, George Begg built 18 cars in Drummond, all of which were successful but particularly so in Formula 5000. One notable highlight was a car he created from spare parts salvaged from his days with McLaren – dubbed ‘the McBegg’ from its McLaren-Begg origins – which broke the New Zealand land speed record for cars with an aggregate of 284km/h. Many of these cars have been lost now, as is often the way in motor racing as they are reused to create new cars for other drivers, but some like the McBegg are currently being restored.
One thing that has not gone however is that George Begg-like ingenuity of taking whatever parts you can find and using them to create a whole new innovative masterpiece. You’ll still see that legacy wherever you go in New Zealand. But the next time you’re in small town New Zealand and see someone driving perhaps a little too fast down a back road – who knows? Maybe it might be the next Chris Amon, Denny Hulme, Bert Munro, or even George Begg.