National WOW MuseumON NOW
“One day, when two guys were having a beer…” is the start of many New Zealand stories about beating the odds.
This ‘road to Bonneville’ story started in the workshop based right here behind the National WOW Museum, with two mechanics chatting about Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA being on their bucket list.
One turned to the other, beer in hand, and said, “Well, really, we should probably take a car – just for fun.”
Garry Orton and Guy Griffith met in Nelson in the 1980s through a shared love of motorsport. They became business partners in 2001, restoring and maintaining classic cars and running race teams.
Blood, sweat and tears followed the ‘why not?’ moment and they were rewarded with a dream run at the iconic Bonneville Speed Week in 2012, when the Project ‘64 team, led by Guy and Garry, set a new land speed record for cars under 1000cc in what is now the World’s Fastest Mini. They followed this up with a second run in 2016 in two classes, breaking their 2012 record and setting a new one.
The Project ’64 Mini’s achievements are noted amongst motorsport media as the most significant for a Kiwi since ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ Burt Munro, of Invercargill, set an under 1000cc world record at Bonneville on August 26, 1967, on an Indian motorcycle.
Finding the right car – and transforming it
Finding the right car was crucial, and Christchurch-based motorsport legend Larry Mulholland had just the thing – a dusty 1964 blue Mini Cooper S that had been in his shed for 15 to 20 years. To the untrained eye, it didn’t look like much, but it had potential and “the bones were good.”
Garry and Guy led a $100,000 transformation of the Mini with critical input from Palmerston North-based engine builder Bryan Hartley; his son, experienced racing car driver Nelson Hartley; Garry Grant of Alltrax NZ; Mulholland; and volunteers from the Minis in Nelson Inc.
Bonneville presents many challenges for racing.
The altitude is 1286m, while the Mini is tuned at sea level. As the day heats up the air thins increasing the altitude factor (2100m was the highest measured). Solution: Turbo-charge the Mini.
The salt surface isn’t like anything else you’ve ever driven on. Solution: A top driver, Nelson Hartley.
Can we do it? Yes we can!
There were sceptics; people unconvinced a “brick on wheels” could break a speed record. This made the Project ‘64 team even more determined. The aim was to break a 1000cc-class record by a Suzuki Swift at 131mph (210km/h). The previous record for a Mini was 121mph.
In 2012, at Bonneville, the Project ‘64 Mini smashed both the unofficial record for the world’s fastest Mini and its official class record, with a staggering 146.6mph (236 km/h). Its top speed was faster 156mph (251km/h), recorded while it was still accelerating, but the Mini had had enough after breaking its first record so a second attempt to officially claim it was not run.
In 2014, the team decided to try to beat their own record at Bonneville Speed Week 2015. The goal speed of 175mph (281kph) was deemed ridiculous in a car known to be hopeless in a straight line.
Leading up to Speed Week the Mini was adjusted to run in more than one class before being flown in time for the August Speed Week. Unfortunately, while she was still in the air heading to the USA, Speed Week organisers cancelled the event due to wet salt following a bad season of rain.
Of course, the team was undeterred. Stored in the USA for the year the Mini was then unpacked in 2016 to race again. The goal of 175mph was not met due to head winds and engine issues, but records still fell; 144.033mph on race petrol and 156.006mph on methanol.
With two official records and a recorded top speed of 166mph (into a 9 mph head wind) for their 1964 Mini Cooper S, the little rocket became a celebrity for the second time – topped off with an appearance on American comedian Jay Leno’s globally popular show – Jay Leno’s Garage.
The champion Mini then made a comparatively slow trip back to Nelson by Maersk Line container ship and is now taking a well-deserved smoko break at her new home in Nelson.