Possum Bourne's Ford Cortina - Playing Possum
The late Possum Bourne burst onto the local rally scene in a mongrel home-brewed car. We chat to the current owner and caretaker of the infamous yellow Cortina V8, Don Fenwick
Taupo low volume vehicle certifier, Don Fenwick, used to work for some of the greatest rally teams in the world. The self-titled ‘mercenary mechanic’ has a CV that includes a stint with the British-based Rally Engineering Development organization (RED), which prepared WRC-spec cars for clients like the Ford Motor Company, Toyota Team Europe, and Austin-Rover. This brought Don into regular contact with drivers the calibre of Colin McRae and his father, Jimmy, Didier Auriol, Ari Vatanen, and Roger Clark.
At around the same time, in another hemisphere, a young bloke in Pukekohe was making a name for himself in a backyard special. Possum Bourne arrived on the rally scene in this country, full-lock sideways in a 1964 Ford Mk1 Cortina with a 3.5-litre Oldsmobile V8 under the bonnet. Given that the car often finished stages with parts of the surrounding scenery attached to it, it was an arrival every bit as spectacular as that of the junior McRae in Britain.
Don would eventually become part of this Kiwi special’s story some 34 years later when he and his late friend, Graham Marshall, persuaded Peggy Bourne to sell the Ford/Oldsmobile hybrid to them in 2012. Possum Bourne had purchased the original white Cortina V8 with its black vinyl roof from its creator, Dave Dixon, in 1978, but promptly rolled it spectacularly at a Kaukapakapa grass-track event and wrote it off. He, and co-driver, Ken Fricker, then painstakingly pulled out the powertrain and placed it in another Cortina body, but the rebuild would only last as long as one of its initial road tests.
Possum relates the story in Bourne to Rally, the autobiography written just days before he was tragically killed in a road accident during the lead-up to the 2003 Race to the Sky hillclimb: “The increased power and torque (of the V8) was hard on the driveline. I found this out the hard way. “We kept the Cortina at Ken’s garage in Karaka, and he had a Maori guy, Jack Kani, working for him. Jack was a big bloke; he played prop for the Ardmore rugby team and weighed around 19 stone.
“We took the Cortina out to check it before a coming hillclimb, Jack sitting on an apple box instead of a proper seat. I used to take people for rides on that apple box at the time, and my sister, Deb, said it was the thrill of a lifetime. “We were drifting the Cortina around a corner when the axle suddenly broke. The sudden locking of the rear wheels tripped the car over, and Jack, with no seat belt to secure him, got chucked out the back window. “He was hurt, but not too badly. It was an absolute miracle that he didn’t break a bone.”
The New Zealand police gave Possum a good talking-to after the incident, but no charges were laid (it was 1979) However, the Pukekohe Car Club did suspend his competition licence for a couple of months. “It was the right thing to do. The break from competition gave me the opportunity to sort out the Cortina.
“We got another body shell to tidy it up (the car’s third), and started beefing up the drivetrain so it could handle a full rally instead just the short burst of a hillclimb.” Possum’s regular trips to the stock car track on the weekends inspired him to persuade his great mate and car-club rival, Max Irwin, that they should fit diffs from Wolseley 6/110 saloons to their rally specials. Max was refining his equally historic rally hybrid – a Ford Mk1 Escort powered by a 4.0 litre Rover V8 – at the time.
“Possum told Max that all the stock car boys were using the 6/110 diffs and that there were plenty of ratios for them,” says Don. There was a forge on the Irwin family farm, so Max suggested that they melt aluminium and pour the molten metal into the Wolseley diffs to lock them before fitting them.
“This gave us more reliability,” writes Possum in the book. “For the suspension I installed the front uprights, springs, and Bilstein shocks from a World Cup Escort, and had to fabricate my own bottom arms because of the wider wheel tracks of the Cortina. “I also put in the World Cup Escort’s pedal box and quicker steering rack. With the V8 sucking fuel through a four-barrel Holley carb, and driving a four-speed Mark IV Zodiac gearbox, it was a pretty smart little car. “It weighed 1005 kilos and developed 260 horsepower.”
A tub of yellow paint that Possum ‘found’ soon decorated the rebuilt Cortina, along with the sponsor’s stickers – Fricker Automotive and Statesman shirts. In Bourne’s first rally as a driver, the car was seeded 61st at the April 1979 start of a Northern Sports Club event through Woodhill forest. It finished third. Two months later, it recorded a top-five finish in Rotorua’s Rally of the Pines, with Bourne charging through the field after breaking an ignition coil during the second stage. In August that year, Bourne and Fricker won the Riverhead Rally in the Cortina V8.
They were results that caught the eye of the late Geoff Cousins, then the distributor of Subarus in New Zealand, who initiated the long association of Possum Bourne with the brand. But perhaps the greatest impact of the car was the influence that it had on its young driver/owner. For Possum made the decision to become a motorsport professional while at the wheel of the Cortina V8. “As we moved up the field (during the Woodhill Rally), I began to relax. Then came the moment that defined my life.
“I pitched the Cortina hard through a bend, and in a long line between the pine trees, an ultra-fast straight opened up in front of us. As we accelerated down it, the V8 singing at high revs, accompanied by the pinging of the stones on the underside of the car, I remember thinking: hey, I’ve finally found it – finally found what I want to do with my life.” By the time Don first saw the car in 1995, he also was indirectly hitched to the Subaru brand, through his role as parts manager for Possum Bourne Motorsport.
He had moved back to New Zealand, and would witness the events that would lead to the third rebuild of the car while working for Possum. “Possum had bought the car back (the interim owners were Ian Chitty and David Baird), and had loaded it on a trailer, ready to take it back to his shed at home.
“He was distracted by a phone call, so he went inside, took the call, then came out again, and drove off. Unfortunately, he still hadn’t tied the car down… “It fell off the trailer as Possum drove up the hill on Mill Road, and went backwards into a bank. The boot was pushed in all the way to the rear wheels, and it was lucky that the car didn’t hit anyone when it rolled backwards down the hill.” The car would remain in that condition for the next 16 years. After Possum’s death in 2003, Don started a restoration business for historic cars in Pukekohe, and kept in touch with Peggy Bourne.
“I offered to restore the Cortina for her for no labour cost, but she never took the offer up. Then I sold my place up there and moved to Taupo. “When Peggy sold the house on Mill Road, she found some Minilite wheels that Possum had bought for the Cortina, and asked if I’d like to buy them. I replied that I’d buy the wheels if I could also buy the car that Possum had wanted to put them on. That’s how Graham and I got to buy the car in 2012. “It was still in the same condition following the Mill Road crash, and I thought: what the hell have I got into here? “It was a good thing that I had lots of old Cortinas at hand… three of them lost their lives to give their bits to Possum’s car.”
Although he was careful to keep the car original, going to great expense to restore the Autosport seats instead of replacing them, Don upgraded the transmission and roll cage during the restoration. “The cage was quite dangerous, and the Zodiac gearbox was replaced by a ZF five-speed from a Maserati. The Zodiac box will go wherever this car goes, in case someone wants to keep it original.
“It (the ZF) provides a wider spread of ratios and this helps keep the V8 cool when I take it to a track. “She’s quite hard work to drive though. Although it is quite a balanced car by the way the front cylinders of the V8 are mounted in line with the front suspension struts, there’s no power steering.
“After five laps, I have a face like a beetle’s.” Fortunately, Don’s 1963 Lotus Cortina replica sates his appetite for oversteer, and he and wife, Adrienne, have been regular competitors in Targa events.
Meanwhile the red 1965 Cortina GT, also ex-Possum, that shares space in his garage with the V8 and faux-Lotus, is being restored so the couple can take a quiet tour of the South Island. It’ll certainly provide a change of the pace for the Fenwicks.