Ron Learnan

Ron Learnan

Ron Learnan completed a science degree at the University of Auckland and shortly thereafter in 1953 he went to England with a dream of becoming a racing driver. He was to experience the great thrills of the sport and have a lot of fun but also endure the heartbreaking moments when things go wrong. Soon after arriving in England he purchased a Mk IV Cooper and began his brief two season adventure that took him to famous tracks such as Snetterton, Brands Hatch and Silverstone and hillclimbs such as Great Auclum. Amazingly the first race that he entered was the first time that he had ever been to a 500 race! According to Learnan it was during his third racing outing that he was involved in a heavy accident and the chassis suffered extensive damage. He took the car back to his lodgings and set about repairing it in the garden, teaching himself to weld at the same time!

During this re-build he was given guidance by George Henrotte, who was an accomplished specials builder, and later became well known with Piper cars, the Piper tuning establishment and the Gemini team. George was at the time involved with his formula three Ettorne project and had been experimenting with using shock cord as a springing medium but after a testing accident he handed over the driving duties to Roy Jacques, who also began to assist Ron with the rebuild. Henrotte had some advanced theories for the time and advocated that Ron construct a light tubular space frame and keep only the original suspension towers at the front and rear. In the end the ‘revised’ Cooper retained only the wheels, wishbones, springs and steering of the donor car but included some parts from more modern Coopers. The RGR-JAP ran mainly in the special events for ‘slower’ JAP engined cars. This class was dominated by Henry Taylor and the RGR seldom featured in the results -  a fifth in his heat of the Yuletide Trophy on Boxing day 1954 and a fourth place at the 1955 Whitsun meeting at Brands being the most notable. The Learnan car was considered rather fragile and re-welding and ‘beefing’ up seemed to be the order of the day.

At Silverstone in 1955. (Photo: Sports Car Talk)

Ron recalled that at the August Bank holiday meeting at Brands Hatch a scrutineer, believed to be the famous Sammy Davis, became worried when he observed the wheel lifting antics of the Learnan ‘Cooper’ through Paddock Bend and reported this to John Cooper. Apparently, after a look at the car Cooper declared that the car had nothing to do with him and disassociated himself with it. As a result Ron re-named it the RGR after Roy, Graham and himself.

August 1955 was a busy time for Ron. Here he tackles the banking at the fast Great Auclum hillclimb in Berkshire. (Photo: Sports Car Talk)

In 1955 Ron had become chief chemist at the KLG sparking plug company. At the end of the season he was approached by Ken Tyrell about a project involving an experimental JAP engine that had no steel liners, using instead the alloy cylinder wall for the bore as they were doing with their industrial engines. As there had been a fair amount of scepticism about this and it was felt that racing success would boost sales of the industrial engines. But Ron decided instead to return to New Zealand. In New Zealand he found that parts for the JAP engines were not easy to come by and so he set about fitting Norton pistons, conrods and crankshaft in a JAP block. The fitting and turning to enable this was carried out by a Mr Heimgartner who was later to become much sought after by the racing fraternity for his precision engineering skills.
Back ‘home’ he competed with the RGR with many variations of bodyshape and engine changes from JAP to Norton and even his JAP/Norton ‘cross’ in club type events. Having taken a position with a company called Fibreglass Incorporated he soon replaced the aluminium bodywork with glass fibre and changed the upper transverse leaf spring to the progressive rate spring as being used on the Mk VIII and Mk IX Coopers. At the same time a 500 racing Norton engine was fitted well ahead of the rear axle and the cockpit moved further forward. Pannier type fuel tanks were fitted but until Ron managed to get them to drain properly he had some embarrassing moments caused by the unequal weight distribution. The car was later fitted once again with an aluminium body, made by Johnny Morel – one of New Zealand’s best metal craftsmen and it was in this form that the RGR set a time of 16.5 seconds for the standing quarter mile at Ardmore. In 1958 an ambitious Ron entered the Norton powered RGR for the New Zealand Grand Prix – the only 500 on the list, but the days of the 500s in ‘big time’ events were over even the great Syd Jensen in a new Mk X preferring to give the event a miss, and he Ron did not qualify.

Wheel lifting antics at College Corner, Ardmore in 1958. (Photo: Sports Car Talk)

As the composition of the racing fields began to change with the advent of a more professional era Ron decided to build a one off sports car called the Volcoupe in the late 1950s early 1960s and what was the RGR passed on to other enthusiasts. Ron Learnan died in 1987.


Ron and the interesting Volcoupe.


Thanks to Rob Young, Stuart Buchanan, Max Fisher and Richard Page. This synopsis is based on parts of a story by Richard Gray in Sports Car Talk, 1989 following his interviews with Ron Learnan.