Gerard charts the revival of a legendary early ’70s Kiwi race track icon — the Joe Chamberlain/Dennis Marwood/John Riley TransAm Camaro.
Following the austere war years, during the 1950s New Zealanders began to look around for more exciting pursuits than the more traditional pastime of working on the land. As the memories of international warfare began to fade, local motor sport took off and began to infiltrate the minds of many a young Kiwi — a number of them from the market gardening area of Franklin County and Pukekohe.
One such man was Louie Antonievich, son of a Yugoslavian who had been a gum-digger in Dargaville. Louie was a larger than life character, and a hot rodder before that term became common on the local scene. He loved having a good time and was a bit of a thrill seeker. His passion for hooning around in early US V8s would probably have been limited to tearing around Franklin’s back roads — until the advent of stock-car racing.
Louie took to it like a duck to water. This was prior to his establishing his wrecking, engineering and tow truck business on the west side of Pukekohe Hill. At the time of his discovery of stock car racing, he was working as an electrician/engineer and a number of his good mates helped prep and tow his classic Ford V8 coupe stocker.
As the stock-car extravaganzas at Epsom Showgrounds swelled into prime Saturday night entertainment for a legion of fans, there emerged a South Auckland racing driver’s cult. These hard men of stock-car racing fame were a select band — a ‘take no prisoners’ brigade of drivers who were all seat-of-the-pants racers.
Louie was part of this inner circle, with his nickname, ‘Louie the Leopard’ (a leaping leopard was often emblazoned on his car). Others in the gang were Johnny Riley, Red Dawson and Garth Souness, to name a few. They were a tight knit crew who would become folk heroes on Saturday nights. Their weapon of choice, more often than not, was a pre-war V8-powered American coupe.
These men also formed the nucleus of the revered NZ Stock Car Racing Team that travelled to Australia and slaughtered the Kangaroos twice, in 1958 and 1959. They played hard, both on and off the track, and Louie’s patch out in the back-blocks of Pukekohe was the scene of many serious rave-ups with the Riley, Dawson entourage.
Growing Interest in Motor Sport
It was from this rich and colourful family that Tony emerged, one of seven children for Louie and Maureen Antonievich. Tony has strong memories of the antics of the rumbustious racing clan, and the deep mate-ship among the South Auckland racing driver/car dealer Mafia.
“Dad was a very charismatic person, he was a naughty boy at times, but he certainly enjoyed life and I never saw him do anything violent or bad to anyone.”
Pulling apart gearboxes and engines at age 11 was natural in a compound overrun with automotive mayhem. Like his dad, Tony had the passion in his veins.
The closing of the circuit at Epsom brought a curtain down on the first era of stock car racing in Auckland, and local hot rod racers were forced to look for new racing pastures. Hill climbing and grass track racing opened fresh opportunities in the area for a growing interest in motor sport. Eventually, of course, this would to lead to the building of the Pukekohe race circuit in 1963, and the Meremere drag strip 10 years later. The Pukekohe Hot Rod Club was a powerful influence in the area.
Hill climbs and grass track racing were essentially club level racing though, and in the early 1960s this was the only avenue for most of the top hot rod racers. Eventually, the lure of competing on the track enticed those with a sizeable bankroll into circuit racing. This was the route Dawson, Riley, Souness, Rod Coppins and others chose to take. Shedding their hot-rod legacy, they were soon competing in single-seaters and sports cars before entering the bank-breaking US big-banger saloon racing category.
Louie would have loved to embrace serious Detroit iron but with seven kids and a busy wrecking parts business, he just didn’t have the resources for this type of campaign.
Instead, he contented himself with becoming a legend at Pukekawa’s grass track meets in his hot 4.5-litre (272ci) Ford V8-powered ’39 Chevrolet coupe, and later in a 5.0-litre (302ci) Chevrolet V8-powered Zephyr MkII. Young 15-year-old Tony was Louie’s number one fan, and was about to embark in his father’s footsteps.
It wasn’t exactly rocket science to figure out that on leaving school Tony would enter the motor trade. He served his time as a panel beater, and his first serious car was no less than a ’57 four-door Chevrolet Bel Air, powered by a 6.5-litre (396ci) big-block. Fairly serious stuff for a teenager — although hardly surprising when you consider a family background that encompassed hot rods and racing.
Around this time Louie dug deep into the family coffers, and bought two race-prepared Chevrolet motors from Ken Holden, who built professionally engineered motors for sprint and race cars. Tony remembers that Holden, who ran a speed shop in Manurewa, had previously owned an engine shop in California before moving to South Auckland to wed a Pukekohe girl. Holden had maintained his Stateside connections, which enabled him to import and sell high-performance equipment. Holden was a true enthusiast, bringing fellow countryman Ron Grable out to New Zealand to race F5000 cars, and had also imported the Pontiac Firebird TransAm that Rod Coppins would later acquire. Holden was also an accomplished sprint car racer on the dirt at Western Springs.
The engines which Louie purchased from Holden — the LT1 350 Chevrolet — had particular significance. Built at GM’s racing division and fitted with a Duntov racing cam, Chevrolet ‘pink’ rods, 12 to one compression and fuel injection heads, this motor was a veritable power factory. The Stage 3 racing engine was the type of unit Red Dawson purchased for his race cars during his frequent buying excursions to the US.
In those days these LT1s had to be run on aviation fuel, and Tony remembers accompanying his father to nearby Ardmore airfield to collect avgas. It was also at Ardmore that the younger Antonievich would begin to combine his passion for fast cars with a love for flying and working on aircraft.
Louie would also buy a 302 Z28 engine — another Holden-imported race motor. But this tipped the balance over with the bank, and he got into financial strife, being forced to sell this motor. Tony remembers it as being highly strung, with little low down torque for grass track racing and a tendency to spin the rear wheels.
“It was too peaky and more highly stressed than the 350.” Fortunately, the 350 was held on to. It did duty in Louie’s later Zephyr MkIV drag racer and was also an exciting daily runner. Tony recalled he got into speeding strife on several occasions with the local constabulary — hardly surprising with that sort of powerhouse under the hood.
A big part of Louie’s business was the tow truck side, travelling to smashes in the local area. Some of the accidents he attended were pretty grim affairs, especially at places like Bombay’s collision crossroads on the old road south. Louie — and later, Tony — did the driving sorties, and their recovery vehicle was typically heavy duty.
Louie had installed a 7.0-litre (430ci) Mercury Marauder motor into a 1948 Ford Jailbar truck — a technical feat in itself — and this beast did the business very effectively. The cops in their state-of-the-art HT Holdens, with 4.2-litres of V8 power, were holding them up as they thundered cross-country to accident scenes. Tony remembers picking up a few tickets!
After racing a 105E Anglia at Meremere’s grass track, Tony moved on to a 1967 Camaro convertible. They installed the 6.5-litre powerplant from the ’57 sedan and this became his daily driver and drag racer. Tony laid a 12.6-second pass on the Meremere strip with the Camaro, and remembered that the V8 had so much torque that it was opening up the door gaps on the Camaro’s body, such was the body flex under fierce acceleration!
Tragically, all this adrenaline-pumping fun came to a sudden end in 1978 when Louie ‘The Leopard’ Antonievich’s life came to an end in a road accident. He was only 49 and, for Tony, the loss was momentous. He withdrew from motor sport as the reminders were too much, and concentrated on his work and family.
By the mid ’80s, Tony had established himself financially and began looking around for a special car to restore. An ex McConnachie Brothers speedway Camaro was considered, but he was looking for something a bit different. He found it one day on a mission to buy a cowl induction hood for his 1967 convertible. A battered ex circuit racing Camaro caught his eye in a workshop, looking strangely familiar. He admitted that — “I fell in love with it right then.”
But the current owner wasn’t selling.
Later, he discovered the car had been sold. Shortly after Tony couldn’t believe it when he saw the same car advertised in the tender section of the NZ Herald. He made a successful offer, returning with the tired pony-car racer on a trailer.
Following that coincidence, with the help of some friends, he established that he had bought more than he had bargained for when it was confirmed that the Camaro was the ex Joe Chamberlain, Dennis Marwood, Johnny Riley, American-built ’69 TransAm racing Camaro — or at least what was left of it. Which was quite a bit as it turned out.
The Camaro’s Racing History
Ian Rorison, a limestone quarry owner and operator of a fleet of trucks in the Bay of Plenty, was the man responsible for the Camaro’s arrival in NZ in late 1970. He was a senior partner of the Bay of Plenty Motor Racing Organisation — which ran Bay Park Raceway and imported various overseas drivers to star at major meetings. One of these was Joe Chamberlain with his privately run ’69 TransAm Camaro, car and driver combination that had run in the West Coast TransAm races during 1969 and 1970.
Joe had bought the car in mid 1969 as a road car that had been damaged shortly after purchase. US$1000 secured him the machine and he proceeded to rebuild it to TransAm spec, fitting all the necessary high performance gear. The engine was reputed to have been built by a bean farmer from Oregon.
Running against the factory teams with their massive budgets and tricks like acid-dipped bodies, it was impossible to compete on equal terms. He did enjoy several good runs which netted 11th place at the Kent 300-miler at Seattle Raceway (September 7,1969), ninth place at the Laguna Seca TransAm meeting of April 19, 1970 and another 11th place at the Mission Bell 200-miler at Riverside on October 4, 1970.
Chamberlain was contracted to appear with the Camaro at the Bay Park International New Year Meeting in late December 1970. He enjoyed himself immensely, even though the TransAm car ran on narrow wheels and was fitted with two four-barrel carbs on a cross ram manifold — not a serious match for the more heavily modified Kiwi and Australian big-banger V8s. Joe engaged in a wild battle with Johnny Riley’s 1966 Shelby Mustang, with both cars suffering body damage in this rough-house duel, particularly Riley’s machine.
The man from Portland Oregon next appeared at the NZ Grand Prix meeting a week later at Pukekohe, before Rorison made a successful offer for the orange Camaro, and it was to add a real wild card to the business end of the elite saloon racing grid.
Marbles and the Camaro
Seasoned racing driver Dennis ‘Marbles’ Marwood, who’d previously been the pilot of several Rorison-backed cars including the hefty Eisert-Chev Formula 5000, was the man nominated for the Camaro’s hot seat. His background in engine development and refining race-car track manners — through his business Performance Development — helped secure the drive. Performance Development’s involvement would play a big part in the Camaro’s leap to the front edge of the competition.
Dennis was a skilful, thinking race driver, looking after the equipment wherever possible, but always able to find an extra burst of speed when the circumstances demanded.
The orange Camaro was a front-runner for two seasons (1970-’72) in his hands. During that period there were some great battles with the likes of Red Dawson, Paul Fahey and Rod Coppins.
This era was the high water mark of pony car racing in this country and I’m sure many still remember it as the most evocative assault of colour, sound and fury ever experienced on local race tracks.
The ground certainly shook as a wave of thunder hit you when a good field of these awe-inspiring beasts erupted from the grid.
Marwood scored several great wins in the Camaro, though he wasn’t able to convert that into winning the coveted championship title. A great battle with Red Dawson’s 1967 Shelby Mustang at Pukekohe in March 1971 stands out in my mind. The crowd was on its feet as the two cars, locked in battle, fought out a titanic struggle. Twice Dennis hurled the Camaro through the inside of Red’s Mustang at Champion Curve — a heart-stopping manoeuvre — eventually winning by a nanosecond. It was a thunderous, epic encounter, one that exploded through my senses and remains with me today as the best race I ever witnessed.
Marwood leased the car from Rorison for a second season (1971-’72) and with the expert engineering skills of Dick Bennetts, he developed the machine into the class act of the field. The suspension was developed further, wider wheels and tyres were fitted and the masterstroke, a Bennetts-built 5.7-litre (350ci) engine breathing through IDA Webers, provided a serious increase in power.
The revamped TransAm Camaro was a rocketship, and would have taken Dennis to the title, but for several missed opportunities.
At the Grand Prix meeting Marwood was leading by a country mile, until a brake bias problem sent the car spinning into the lupins.
Later, a shunt from behind while leading at Teretonga, courtesy of the eventual season champion Paul Fahey, put paid to Marwood’s chances.
A mid-season engine rebuild for the dynamite 5.7-litre engine didn’t help, as the original, smaller 5.0-litre engine had to be reinstalled for a few meetings. However, Marwood rounded out the championship series by winning the last two rounds in commanding fashion, with the big engine back in and going like a scorched cat.
He finished third in the title chase, but the memory of that low brutal orange streak, powering through the Loop of Pukekohe in April 1972, remains with me as my fondest memory of the pony car racing era. The car looked magnificent with its tasteful flares, and low air dam.
As an aside, the prevailing government’s inspired customs import duty was a constant headache for exotic race-car owners during this period. The need to keep re-exporting race cars to avoid hefty taxes eventually forced Rorison to sell the Camaro. Dennis had a couple of outings in the car in late 1972, which brought some good places though no wins, but with the fate of the car’s future sealed, they didn’t sink any further gold into developing it, as Rorison’s $20,000 price tag was beyond Marwood’s reach.
Marwood’s swansong with the Camaro came with a great run at Warwick Farm at the second round of the Australia versus NZ big saloon test match in August 1972. Marwood led Bob Jane’s Torana Repco V8 for several laps before coming home in an excellent second place.
The Camaro didn’t reappear again until the 1973-’74 season, now in the hands of crowd favourite, Johnny Riley. Riley fitted a 5.7-litre (350ci) engine, courtesy of Graham Harvey, but it never seemed to be endowed with a healthy supply of horses. As well, Johnny was never that serious about his racing, it was more about fun than winning. At age 50 he would have no doubt agreed that this was his final encore before retirement. He had previously called it a day after selling the green Mustang, but had been tempted to return.
And he certainly had fun, with lots of wild, off course excursions and rearrangements of the panel work. Big spins at Champion Curve at the 1974 Grand Prix meeting and Bay Park the week before were very exciting. At the latter incident, he hit Kevin Haig in the rear before spinning backwards through the fence, and tearing out the Camaro’s petrol tank. But bighearted John wasn’t interested in getting out and carefully assessing the damage — he was trying to find a gear and get back into the action. Although, with no fuel supply he was a bit handicapped!
He hit Haig again from behind at Levin a few weeks later, and this must have seemed more like his old stock car racing days than expensive saloon car racing.
Riley’s second season in the Camaro (1974-’75), was less eventful, as final retirement was beckoning. The once frontline TransAm racer was now a mere shadow of its former glory, and merely a field filler. Modifications to the front and rear suspension — designed to elevate the car to the business end of the grid — had ruined the once magical handling, and it was now quite chopped around.
Johnny had, unfortunately, listened to a supposed suspension guru who convinced him he would be vying for honours if he let him modify the car. In truth, the revised suspension geometry was all wrong. With massive rear tyres and severely modified bodywork, the once lean racer looked distorted with its sagging front end. In its final circuit outings, its appearance was verging on a dirt track speedway saloon of the era.
This was the end of the road for the illustrious Camaro as a serious race-car — although, despite its rough and battered exterior, it was structurally more original than a number of other pony car racer restoration starting points.
Having acquired the remains of the TransAm Camaro, Tony was now confronted with the enormity of the project if he was to return the classic racer back to its original guise.
It was, to put it frankly, a mess. The battered bodywork was loose and radically altered to house the jumbo tyres. It even had the ignominy of having 1972 Falcon XA scoops fitted into the guards.
It was a wonder the car had survived at all — I had seen it in the early ’80s, by which time it was a smoking, joy-riding hack. The only place it appeared to be going then was to the dirt track or the scrap yard — the ultimate fate of many oval racing saloons.
Tony recalled, “We threw my Dad’s 350 motor into it and took it out on the road to see how it ran. Changing between second and third gear at around 85-90mph [137-145kph], the beast simply swapped ends several times on a straight road. It then speared off backwards into a drain — a proper reality check just to see how screwed up the handling was!”
But it had been saved, and Tony now knew its heritage and decided to embark on the long and tortuous restoration process. Despite the daunting road that lay ahead, he realised he had the raw ingredients of a car with a great history, one that was worth spending a lot of money on to ensure it was restored to its former glory.
It was a car that Tony’s father, Louie, would have loved and approved of. There was also the comforting thought of that genuine factory-built 5.7-litre Chevy racing mill that he’d had the foresight to acquire from the family after his father’s death. The engine’s destiny was now assured.
History in Paint Layers
Replacement of the Camaro’s outer door skins and all the external panels was necessary. It would have been great to have retained the originals, but they were unfortunately too chopped around and damaged to be saved. The removal of the outer panels revealed the extent of lightening to the inner frame, with much drilling out of the structure. If there was any doubt as to the pedigree of the car, this was alleviated when Tony sanded down the old panels to reveal all the previous racing numbers — John Riley #50, Dennis Marwood #25 and 24 and Joe Chamberlain #2.
Tony set off to California around 1986 to source the necessary outer skins and various other parts required for the rebuild. However, in his words — “This cunning plan was waylaid for about five years when I got involved in the US racing scene.”
He stayed about six months, then came home before getting the call again, returning with his family for another two-year stint. Finally, they returned home in the late’ 80s to settle down.
Armed with brand-new panels from GM plus new suspension A-arms, stub axles and various other goodies, Tony finally got stuck in to the project. However, after briefly starting a small business in Pukekohe, he found his way into the flying industry — his other great passion.
Tony had learned to fly before leaving NZ and, along with bringing back a Cessna from the US (which he later restored), he also got involved with the helicopter industry at Ardmore, and started his own helicopter maintenance business. This consumed most of time for the next 12 to 14 years, a period which saw only sporadic progress on the Camaro.
Finally, he sold that business and found work in the restoration of old WWII aircraft. When things settled down again (comparatively speaking), he returned to the Camaro’s restoration with more commitment. With the help of good friend, Bruce Thompson, who incidentally owns the partially revived ex Rod Coppins ’69 Firebird, they set to the task.
Thompson sourced America Racing Wheels identical to those fitted to the car when Chamberlain brought the Camaro to NZ. Through his contacts in the historic TransAm series in the US, Tony was able to track down the history of the car and acquire other correct components, like the clutch set-up.
The first major hurdle though was repairing the chassis floor pan, which entailed welding in new sections in the rear where it had been cut out to form a box section.
“Riley’s ‘expert’ had chopped the whole floor out of the boot with a gas axe and added a Watts linkage system.”
This was repaired with a donor section from another car’s floor pan.
Further major repairs were required for the inner wheel arches, which had been carved away in order to fit larger tyres. Rebuilding the boot lift mechanism also proved to be a challenge, as all this had been stripped out as well and the lid was simply pinned down
Probably the biggest task though was rebuilding the front suspension. Fortunately, the front end hadn’t been space-framed, but Riley’s suspension guru had radically altered the set-up by mounting the components in a very unorthodox fashion. This included fitting metal plates on top of the shock towers to place pressure on the springs, meaning the shocks couldn’t be mounted conventionally.
The reason for this apparently was to place extra pressure on the springs! The shocks were mounted directly onto the modified top A-arms, through a series of support frame and box sections attached to the firewall. To achieve this, the inner guards had to be removed, which caused the outer panels to flap in the breeze.
Tony reflected — “It didn’t look nice and was not well engineered, so I decided to take it back to what it was with the top and bottom A-arm arrangement.”
The challenge has been to return the car to its original form as much as possible, but where needed for reliability and safety, some high-tech equipment has been used.
The pressurised interim fuel tank system in the boot is one of these modern modifications, and ensures a constant and regulated flow of fuel no matter what G-forces are being generated whilst cornering. Another is the replacement of the roll cage, which was necessary as the original was made of inferior materials and the location points were not considered safe.
Craig Highland of Engine Dynamics undertook all the engine work and, in the interests of reliability, the old Ken Holden-built 5.7-litre Chev that originally belonged to his father has been dry sumped, and fitted with Cosworth pistons. The mighty warhorse is soon to be fitted with twin Holley four barrels carburettors, the configuration fitted when the car first came into the country.
Tony has kept the Koni double adjustable shocks that Dennis Marwood fitted to the car. It has the original diff, brakes and steering box, which have all been overhauled — though he has dispensed with the sway bars
Cherie Atkin of Professional Aircraft in Ardmore, a top class aircraft painter, was responsible for the delicious orange lustre on the car. It took three attempts to get it just right — as Tony would admit, he is fastidious when it comes to finish.
The immaculate 1970 period decals are the work of Tony’s daughter, Louisa, a skilled graphic artist with Super Signs in Pukekohe. She created them after carefully photographing early colour pictures and recreating them via computer graphics. They look wonderfully evocative, and are a testament to her skills.
Tony’s long labour of love for this magnificent car is now complete, barring a few minor details, and now is the time to enjoy it!
Meeting the Beast
On a fine and clear midwinter’s day, Tony pushed the machine out of his huge hangar onto the concrete apron. Gleaming in its deep orange paint in the soft winter rays, it looked low and shark-like, almost 160kph standing still. Tony hit the starter and the sheer thunder that erupted from those straight pipes was a true blast from my past.
Tony is aware of the history this car carries, being the only racing US muscle car in NZ to have seen track action in the famed pre ’72 era TransAm series, plus its wonderful local racing heritage.
“I’m really just a caretaker of a legend!” Were his words. “I’m going to have some fun, but won’t be really racing it to its extreme limits, as the prospect of repairing extensive damage is not exciting.”
Tony plans to fit larger 17-inch wheels with lower profile tyres, similar to those currently used in the NZ V8 Touring Cars for racing, which are more economical and will enhance the Camaro’s handling. Tony intends only using these tyres when he is unleashing the beast in the heat of track action. As he put it — “If I’m going to drive the thing at 160mph [257kph] on the back straight at Pukekohe I want as much help as I can get. If that means I need to buy some specific wheels and tyres, that’s great. I don’t think I’m going to impress anyone what a great racing driver I am. I just want to go to the track, enjoy driving it, and spend time talking with people who remember it racing in its heyday.”
The original smaller replica wheels will be used for display purposes.
Well you certainly deserve it Tony, and all power to you. Saving this exquisite thoroughbred from the scrap yard and returning it to its former glory over 25 years later means it’s certainly time for some pleasurable motoring. I for one am hanging out to see its first track appearance in 34 years, which should be at the NZ Motor Festival Celebrating Bruce McLaren at Hampton Downs in January 2010.
May the legends of this magnificent machine’s past be riding with Tony on that occasion.
PS: Tony’s passion doesn’t end with this mighty Camaro — he also owns a beautiful, completely original and unrestored 1969 Camaro Z-28 which he uses as his Sunday driver. Brought back from the US at the end of his sabbatical there in the late ’80s, it makes a perfect stable-mate for his orange rocket ship. How much excitement can one man deal with, I hear you ask. I can assure you, dear readers, Tony is coping very nicely with all that V8 thunder. Roll on this summer!
Words: Gerald Richards Photos: Dan Wakelin
This article is from Classic Car issue 230. Click here to check it out.