Syd Jensen

Syd Jensen

Syd Jensen was one of New Zealand’s top racing drivers in the late 1950s and early 1960s having graduated via the 500 route. He raced a variety of Coopers and competed in at least five different ‘models’ from an early Mk VII to a formula two T45. “The King of Levin” is considered to be New Zealand’s best ‘500’ driver.

“He was world class on bikes as well as cars” recalls author and historian David McKinney. The facts prove that this statement is not at all exaggerated. 500s have a rich history in New Zealand motor sport and featured prominently in the results during the 1950’s in the major races. These ‘giant killing’ little cars were pitted against varied fields of the large capacity grand prix cars and ingenious NZ built ‘specials’ that did battle on the local circuits. Syd first came to prominence in motor racing circles when he rode his pre-war Triumph Tiger 100 to victory in the 1947 and 1948 ‘Senior’ New Zealand Motorcycle GPs held at Cust, the 6.2 mile unpaved circuit near Christchurch, where over 3000 gallons of waste oil were deposited on the dirt roads to solve the dust problem. He was to win the ‘Junior’ event in 1951.

Photo by Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image. Photo : Bruce Valentine Davis.

Left, Syd wins the 1948 Cust Grand Prix. (Photo: Cust Museum courtesy Bernard Kingsbury- archivist)

These fine efforts were rewarded by an invitation from the Auto Cycle Union to represent New Zealand at the 1949 Isle of Man TT. The 27 year old Jensen placed 12th in the Junior TT riding a AJS 7R and then, on a borrowed Triumph GP500, he came home 5th in the Senior TT – this considered a particularly outstanding achievement for the GP500 was considered a particularly solo to handle. Returning to the Isle in 1950 he was 16th in the Junior event astride the AJS but had to withdraw from the Senior TT with the experimental Triumph 500 cc engined AJS 7R. "Syd didn't boast, but he knew how good he was, and he knew what he wanted to do," recalls Peter Stone. "He was a meticulous mechanic. His bikes and his workshops were all clean and gleaming." On 1st June 1953 the six foot tall Kiwi squeezed himself into a tiny JBS-JAP 51/13 that had been imported by Ron Frost and made his four wheel debut in the 75 mile Dunedin Road Race. Frost together with Arnold Stafford, later to play a part in the management of the JW Gulf sports car team, and Syd appeared to have formed an ‘informal’ team. Having stalled on the start line and having lost the best part of a lap he worked his way through the field to finish an impressive fifth behind the likes of Ron Roycroft’s 3 litre Tipo B Alfa Romeo, Bob Gibbons’s potent 1100 vee twin JAP engined Cooper T15 and Frost in the other 500 JBS-JAP third.

His next major event was the New Zealand Grand Prix held at Ardmore in January 1954 where the JBS was fitted with a Vee Twin JAP in order to do battle with a contingent of visiting drivers including Ken Wharton (BRM V16), Peter Whitehead (Ferrari 125), Jack Brabham, Fred Tuck and Horace Gould (Cooper-Bristols), Tony Gaze (HWM) and Stan Jones, father of Alan the former F1 World Champion, in the fearsome 4 litre Maybach Special - the supercharged engine of this incredible creation had come from an Afrika Korp’s scout car that had been captured in the desert warfare of WW2!

Syd was forced to retire in the closing stages of the 100 lapper as Jones was accorded victory in a disputed result after nearly 3 hours of racing.

By 1955 motor racing in New Zealand had become more professional. The “Frost Stable” had upgraded its team cars and Syd was equipped with Ron Frost’s single cylinder Norton engine Cooper Mk. VII 11/53 whereas Frost and Stafford were running Mk. VIII models. In a race won by Prince Bira on a Maserati 250F from a brace of 3 litre Ferraris Syd brought the little 500 home sixth overall and won the Leonard Lord Trophy for the first New Zealander to finish. A few weeks later he was third overall at Ohakea against two big specials boasting Chrysler and Cadillac power, respectively. For 1956 he imported a brand new Cooper Mk. IX Norton (24/55) and finished an impressive 7th overall in the New Zealand Grand Prix - won by Stirling Moss’s Maserati 250F from the big Ferrari 500/750S’s of Tony Gaze and Peter Whitehead. He was second home among the local drivers – shaded by the 3.4 litre Jaguar powered Bugatti T35A driven by Roycroft.

1956 – Syd drifts the Cooper at Levin. ("Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image." photo : Bruce Valentine Davis)

Alongside team mate Arnold Stafford. ("Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image." photo : Bruce Valentine Davis)

At the opening of the new Levin circuit, Syd battled with Tom Clark’s 8CM Maserati and eventually finished third in the feature race. A week or so later at the Lady Wigram he brought the hard working 500 home 5th overall, beaten only by the Ferraris of Whitehead and Gaze, Leslie Marr’s streamlined Connaught and Reg Parnell in Aston Martin’s first effort at a grand prix single seater - the bulky DB3R or DP155. The reliability of his car over this period says much for both his preparation and the mechanical sympathy of his driving.

1956 New Zealand Championship Road Race - Syd in an amazing pole position with the Ferrari of Tony Gaze alongside! (Photo by T.A. Thompson courtesy Scott Thompson)

There was more to come. Having qualified the little silver Cooper on pole position he set the crowd alight and rounded off a successful January season by taking 3rd overall, only a second behind Parnell’s Aston on the narrow confines of Dunedin’s streets in the 44-lap Festival Road Race. Outpaced by the big grand prix cars from the drop of the flag he harried them throughout and during this sensational performance he set fastest lap of the race! The race was won by Gaze (Ferrari) but the overseas drivers complained that they were unaccustomed to driving on the rough metalled surface and a track where portions were unsealed.

To top off the season Coopers made a clean sweep at the windy Houghton Bay venue for the NZ Hillclimb Championship with Jensen’s 500 a scant 0.4 seconds off the pace of Bob Gibbon’s 1100 Cooper. The tiny 500s were finding the pace hard as more and more foreign stars travelled to New Zealand for the January season bringing with them large capacity cars and in 1957 Syd acquired the ex-Roy Salvadori Cooper Mk I (T41) with 1460 cc Climax engine but his best result with it was a second place in the Christchurch Festival Road Race at the end of February that year. It is worth noting that in practice for his first race in the T41 (at Ardmore), he returned an identical lap-time to works driver Brabham in another T41. And in all his other races he was a contender for top NZ placing, and good overall results, before unreliability intervened.

Sideways....and evidence of hay bales being demolished. Racing during the mid-fifties at Levin. (Photo : Bruce Valentine Davis. "Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.")

Then it was back to the 500s. Syd had imported a new Cooper Mk. X and powered by an ex-works Manx Norton engine finished 2nd after harrying Tom Clark’s Super Squalo Ferrari in the feature race at the new Levin circuit, after a race long battle with Frost. 1958 was to be the swansong of the 500s – the international fields had become too strong and the top locals with wherewithal had equipped themselves with relatively modern imported factory built machinery. But Syd had built up a copy of his Mk. X and took the battle to the visitors. Outclassed on the wide open aerodrome circuits he was but at Dunedin he was beaten only by Ross Jensen’s Maserati 250F and the Cooper-Climax of Bruce McLaren. It was to be the last podium in a major New Zealand event for a 500. Thereafter he disposed of the Cooper to Bruce Wood, taking the latter’s Staride 52 as part payment. Syd was moving to ‘bigger’ cars.

On a visit to England in 1958 he ‘guested’ in Albert Zains interesting Flash Special and took third in the Easter F3 Junior race at Brands.
While in the UK he purchased a Cooper Mk. III (T45) and assembled it himself at Coopers. In July, during his British foray he won Anerley Trophy for Formula Two racing cars, at Crystal Palace, from a strong field that included Ivor Bueb, Jim Russell, Mike Parkes and Alan Stacey and took a third in the VIIth BRSCC Trophy at Brands Hatch – a race won by Stuart Lewis-Evans. Moss and Brabham were unable to better the lap record set by Syd during this race when they visited the track for a subsequent event. After shipping the T45 home he had a successful 1959 season where he scored a number of high placings and finished second in the New Zealand Gold Star to Bruce McLaren. To give an idea of his pace and talent his 1500 beat McLaren’s 2-litre to win the January 1959 Levin race.

For 1960 he upgraded the Cooper to 2 litres and although outclassed by the newer 2.5 litre machines of the ‘visitors’ he acquitted himself admirably. Wins at Dunedin and Ohakea, a second to Denis Hulme at Levin, and 3rds at Teretonga and Waimate saw him win the New Zealand Gold Star Championship for 1960. That was the effective end of his career, though he reappeared in the mid ’60s in long-distance production saloon races, running a Renault 8 in the Wills 6hr race at Pukekohe at the end of 1964 with former rival Ross Jensen, and an Alfa Romeo Giulia in the following year’s event. The two Jensens were out of luck on the first occasion, but in 1965 finished second overall, beaten only by a Jaguar 3.8. Between those two events he had teamed with fellow Gold Star alumnus Angus Hyslop to win a five-hour race at Teretonga Park at the wheel of a Chrysler Valiant.

Then he returned to aviation, having had his civil flying licence since 1947, and in 1956 started Aerocraft (NZ) Ltd, an aircraft maintenance company. He was also involved in the construction of aircraft and owned motorcycle and car dealerships.

A change of hat; Syd at the controls of a Druine Turbulent. (Photo :Giovanni Nustrini courtesy Falco Builders Letter)

Graham Vercoe remembers him - “He was a super bloke and would chat with anyone.” Syd Jensen died in July 1999.

Article by Rob Young. Thanks to Graham Vercoe, Scott Thompson, David McKinney, Bernard Kingsbury, Alfred Scott, Richard Hodges and Jennie Christoffels from the New Zealand National Library for help with research.