Before the NW motorway was opened in 1956, the Northern Sportscar Club organised a standing quarter-mile sprint followed by a flying quarter mile sprint along the new motorway near the Te Atatu offramp. I went along on my pushbike, having recently arrived in NZ and living at the top of the Waikumete Hill. This was where I saw my first Peugeot 203. Ron Roycroft had brought one along as well as his Bugatti. It was actually his wife’s car. Campbell Motors had given it to them as a discount when they bought an Alfa P3B to compete in the Grand Prix.
When I came to NZ, my first rally efforts were in a Standard 10 which I owned for a few months to do up. I joined to the MG Car Club, but the MG itself became unsuitable for reliability trials, which in those days were likely to be 12-24 hour events. I had limited success with the Standard 10. It was reliable enough but being a typical English car, the brakes were minute and they never lasted the route – even if they were adjusted halfway.
In 1956 I bought what was to be the first of many Peugeots. It was a 1954 203C with 40,000 miles on the clock. By the time I sold it in 1967 we had covered over a quarter of a million action-packed miles and I had become a lifetime fan of Peugeot handling and reliability.
The Peugeot 203 was great. We competed in both the North and South Islands. Peter Elford or John Dowling were my usual navigators and we were often placed in the first half dozen. I never won any of the really big ones, but we came close enough to keep us really keen.
Initially I tried to keep the mileage down on the 203 and used the Standard 10 as it was a little peppier, being a smaller car with almost the same size engine. It didn’t handle, steer or stop as well as the 203, but I had no compunction about drilling holes in it for extra lights etc. For the year or so I had it, we tended to alternate the use of the two cars.
The 203 was used for towing the racing car as well as for trialling. The engine was very slightly modified. We took the plate off the head behind the distributor and made an inlet manifold on that side. It was an approved factory modification which made it into a true crossflow motor. This made it go very much better. It revved a lot sweeter and it made about 10mph difference to the top speed without affecting fuel economy. We added a Weber twin choke carburettor too. The only disadvantage was that it occasionally iced in winter, which was the reason it hadn’t been done that way in the first place although the Darl’mats were modified in that way.
Basically the 203 was always absolutely reliable. It only had one failure at about 250,000 miles. Coming back from Napier one Sunday afternoon after one of the Blossom Rallies, a universal broke at 75mph near Te Puke. All of a sudden there was an almighty crash from under the car. My first thought was that I had broken a crankshaft or a conrod so my foot went on the clutch smartly and we coasted to a stop. To my surprise and relief the engine was turning over sweetly when we stopped.
The universal is out of sight inside the torque tube, so it took a while to figure out why we had no drive. Maurice Washer Motors in Te Puke serviced some local Peugeot taxis and had it back on the road by the following afternoon and I flew back down to pick it up. This was the day after the plane crash in the Kaimais.
I sold the car in 1967 as I was going overseas and got almost as much as I had paid for it. It made such a lasting impression on me that when I had the opportunity to buy a 1955 203C in 1990, I did not hesitate very long – and all I have had to do to it is to give it some cosmetic improvements. It still rides and handles extremely well for a car older than my sons.