Driver, car reunited decades on

By David Thomson on Sat, 21 Apr 2018

The Drivesouth Otago Rally Fest has been and gone for another year, attracting a big contingent of visitors from throughout New Zealand and overseas, as well as a large number of local fans.

As usual, the event delivered high-speed thrills and spills aplenty, with Hayden Paddon's dominance of the national championship component of the event and Regan Ross's well-deserved classic rally triumph the obvious headline-grabbers.

Away from the high-speed action, one of the joys of Otago Rally is the scope it provides for unexpected motorsport reunions.

Such was the case when visiting Kenyan rally co-driver Lofty Drews was reunited with a Datsun 240Z rally car he had last seen, and competed in, close to half a century ago.

Drews, who now lives in Australia, gained international prominence for his co-driving prowess on the gruelling East African Safari Rally.

As a specialist co-driver for that uniquely challenging event, he managed no fewer than eight top-three finishes in the 1970s and 1980s, including a memorable victory for Datsun with fellow East African Shekhar Mehta in 1973.

Rallying assignments outside of Africa were rare for Drews, but in 1971 he and Mehta were dispatched to Britain to contest that country's premier event, the RAC Rally, for Datsun.

Attracting an estimated three million spectators, the 1971 RAC was a huge event that threw the worst of winter conditions at competitors. Little wonder, then, that the top eight finishers were drivers from Scandinavia, and that Drews could regard simply finishing (in 19th place) as a reasonable achievement.

Memories of that achievement came flooding back for Drews on the eve of the Otago Rally, when he paid a visit to the Autocourt car yard in South Dunedin.

Autocourt's Nelson Cottle is a collector of old Datsun and Nissan rally cars, and was keen to show Drews an old Datsun 240Z he knew was similar to the one Drews competed in during the early 1970s.

What Cottle did not know was that his car was, in fact, the very same car Mehta and Drews had used to contest that 1971 RAC Rally.

That fact was established by the car's temporary-export Japanese registration plate, the numbers and letters of which were well- remembered by the man who spent close to a week in the car all those years ago.

Among other memories from that British Rally adventure, the challenge of competing in snow for the first (and only) time stood out for Drews. Most vividly, the now 78-year-old remembered sliding off the road in the snow, and being pushed back on by spectators he described as ‘‘speaking in a strange foreign language''.

I can only presume they were Welsh, or perhaps Scottish, spectators.

Cottle has owned this particular 240Z for 12 years, but work and family life have been such that the car has sat largely untouched ever since.

Having learnt of the car's history, he is now planning to restore it to the livery it wore when used by Mehta and Drews on that 1971 British rallying adventure.

That's my sign-off story, both for this weekend's edition of Drivesouth, and the next couple as well. I'm taking a short break from writing, and will leave you in the capable hands of Cat Pattison and Richard Bosselman until mid-May.

David Thomson