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Thread: Restoration Thread - The Standefer Datsun 1200

  1. #1

    Restoration Thread - The Standefer Datsun 1200

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    A few years ago I purchased and imported into New Zealand a 1967 Pontiac Firebird with the intention of building it into an FIA Group 2 historic racing car. Over the next couple of years I collected various parts, some of which were quite rare. But I didn’t progress beyond parts-collecting, and the project really didn’t go anywhere.

    A big part of the problem was that, as a motoring writer, I’m blessed with being both really busy and with little time to build a race car from scratch, but not wealthy enough to pay someone to build the car for me! The stalled project was eventually abandoned, and I sold the rolling body and a few of the parts. I kept most of the rare parts.

    Having sold the Firebird, I was almost immediately struck with sellers remorse. I started looking for another Firebird, destined to repeat the very same problem. Completely by chance, I happened to be on Facebook one day when an advert popped up in my feed for a Ford Anglia Pre-65 race car. It was an older build, and sported many features that could make it a good candidate for converting it into a historic racer, including some nice steel flares, and4-spoke American Racing Wheels. Better yet, the price was under NZ$10,000. I suddenly began questioning why it was I ever considered building a larger, much more expensive car form scratch, with a build time spanning several years, when I could simply purchase the old Anglia, buy some trim pieces and nudge it in the direction of a historic car, and be racing it the next summer.

    The trouble is, I was born in the 1970s, and when I started attending racing events later in that decade, nobody was racing Anglias anymore. But that Anglia inspired me to start looking seriously at a small-bore car. When I started going to the races as a kid, Ford Escorts and Datsuns were the small-bore cars of choice, and while I’ve owned a couple of Escorts before, I really preferred the idea of getting a Datsun. I’ve always loved the look of the Datsun 1200 coupe, and with that, jumped on Trademe, thinking I could pickup a cheap project car for a few hundred bucks. I was shocked to discover how desirable these little Japanese classics have become; nice examples had shot up to around $30,000, and project cars simply don't exist.

    So I decided to see if I could find something in the US. My preference was to find an old race car with period history, but one that needed some sort of restoration work. I didn’t really want a stunning turn-key car, but likewise I didn’t want a rotten hulk that required everything. I still wanted to get my hands dirty. I scrolled through various Facebook pages, and eventually discovered what appeared to be the exact thing I was looking for. It was an old racer, with known Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) history dating back to the early 1980s. It appeared to have good bones, and a well-built roll cage, but it needed stripping down, the body cleaned and straightened/repaired, and new paint applied. It came with a short block race motor (no cylinder head, header, intake manifold, carbs etc),and a stock 4-speed gearbox. The only trouble was, it had originally been posted for sale four months before I discovered it. As Facebook doesn’t remove old ads, I assumed it had surely been sold. I tentatively contacted the seller, and waited until the next day before getting a response. Thankfully, it was still for sale.

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  2. #2
    There was a small problem, however. The seller, Peter Zekert, is a great and enthusiastic supporter of SCCA GT-L/4/5 racing, and owns several cars. He regularly loans his cars out to help bolster the grids, and is incredibly generous to fellow racers. And he was hoping to loan this car to someone wanting to get involved in racing. When he found out I was from New Zealand, he really wasn’t at all keen on selling me the car. I had to convince him it was going to a good home, that I’m a racing historian, and that his car would be restored, and he could come to New Zealand whenever he wanted, and race it. Thankfully, he agreed.

    With that, I also purchased a few more parts from Peter to be shipped with the car. These included a Datsun GX alloy cylinder head (modified to his specs by Brodix), plus some 48mm Dellorto carburettors, and a steel hood and deck lid. The car, as supplied, had a fibreglass hood and deck lid. In addition I purchased an oval port (for the GX head) twin-carb intake manifold advertised elsewhere in the US.

    Buying a car of any sort internationally during a global pandemic is not really a smart idea. Further adding to the drama was that the car was based in Illinois. It took a full 7 months to reach me, finally arriving in March this year. In the meantime, I got busy trying to uncover more of its history. I began scouring the internet looking for Datsun 1200s that shared some of the details my car has. A couple of the give-aways were the aftermarket flares, the American Racing Vector wheels, the position and proximity of the three brackets at the top of the windscreen, and the fact it didn’t have the plastic covers in the faux air vents in the rear quarter panels. Through my internet trawling, I found a neat looking blue and silver car, raced by Ron Leonard. But I concluded this couldn’t be the same car, as it had a completely different roll cage to my car.

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    I asked Peter what he knew of the cars early history, if any. He said a good friend of his, Mike Eby, purchased it in 1981, from another Datsun racer. Eby already had a Datsun 1200 race car, but this one was faster. When Eby raced the Datsun, it was painted red/white/blue. I sent Peter a photo of the blue and silver car I found on the internet, and he confirmed it was the same car. I quizzed him on the roll cage, however, so he phoned Mike and asked him to fill in the gaps. Mike confirmed that shortly after purchasing the car from Ron Leonard, he decided to build a new roll cage. That explained why so many features were the same, but the roll cage was different. Finally, I was making progress.

    So far, I knew the car had been raced by Ron Leonard up until late 1981, before being purchased by Mike Eby. Further research revealed that in Leonard’s hands this was one of the fastest Datsun 1200s in the US. It raced in the SCCA GT-4 category for engines sizes from 1000 – 1300cc. Up until 1980, GT-4 was known as C/Sedan. When the SCCA established sedan racing in 1966, it had four classes based on engine size:

    A/Sedan: 2,001cc – 5,000cc
    B/Sedan: 1,300cc – 2,000cc
    C/Sedan: 1,001cc – 1,300cc
    D/Sedan: 0 – 1,000cc

    Because the United States is so massive, the SCCA is split into multiple regions. Each region has its own Regional championship throughout the year, and the top three drivers in each class, from each region, then qualify to compete at an event called the SCCA Runoffs, which is essentially a National Championship. In the 1960s, this event was called the American Road Race of Champions. At the Runoffs, each class has its own race, and the winner is declared the SCCA National Champion. It’s a really big deal.

  3. #3
    So in 1981, Ron Leonard, who I discovered lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, qualified to compete at the Runoffs in the GT-4 division. His Datsun was listed in the event programme as the Standefer Datsun 1200. Through further research I found that Standefer was one of the largest Datsun dealership in the US. They were also based in Chattanooga, TN. In 1981, the Runoffs were held at Road Atlanta, in Braselton, Georgia. This was the home of the Runoffs for many years. These days its held at Road America.

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    Anyway, at the 1981 Runoffs, Ron Leonard qualified eighth from 24 cars, and went on to finish fourth in the race, chasing home the Honda Civic of Jim Dentici, Keith Krop’s Datsun 1200, and the Honda Civic of Rich Lee. I was really excited to learn this. It’s a huge deal just to make it to the Runoffs. To finish fourth in such a competitive field meant this was a car with a rich history that was truly a top car in period.

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    What I really wanted to do next was try and track down Ron Leonard, to learn more about the car. The trouble was, 1981 was 40 years ago. Where would I even start? I posted on a couple of Datsun racing pages on Facebook, plus a page called Remembering The Original Road Atlanta. Initially, I got no bites, until a guy called Dave Hester responded, saying he used to work for Ron back in the early 1980s. Ron was a Pharmacist. Dave said he began working for Ron in 1980, and that Ron was already racing the Datsun then. The meant the car almost certainly had history going back to the 1970s. Unfortunately, the Pharmacy where Dave said he last saw Ron, around 10 years ago, no longer exists. Another dead end.

    Then someone suggested I contact the International Motor Racing Research Center, based at Watkins Glen. I’d already built a relationship with Joe Cali and Jenny Ambrose at the IMRRC, as they’d very generously supplied me with beautiful copies of various Chevrolet Camaro homologation papers, for use in a book I was writing about Racing Camaros. I asked if by chance they had any photos of Ron Leonard’s Datsun 1200, and while they didn’t, they did have a copy of his SCCA Novice Permit and Log Book. This little treasure-trove showed the Datsun began racing in early 1976, and the various tracks it competed at included Road Atlanta, Indianapolis Raceway Park, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Rockingham Speedway, Savannah, and others. Many US speedways feature an infield ‘road course’, for SCCA and IMSA racing events, and combining both sections of the banked speedway and the road course.

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    The paperwork also showed Ron’s middle name started with a ‘P’. So I decided to pluck up the courage, Google search all the Ronald P Leonard’s in and around Chattanooga in the White Pages, and see where it got me. I can tell you, it’s a very strange feeling phoning a number on the other side of the world, and asking the voice at the other end if, by chance, they happened to have raced a Datsun 1200 back in the 1970s! The likelihood of me actually finding the right person seemed almost impossible. And even if I did find the right guy, there is a good chance he had no interest in reliving his time in racing. Motorsport has burnt many people over the years. A great number have gone broke, or divorced, because of their obsession with racing. A lot of people involved in the sport don’t look back on their time in it with happy memories.

  4. #4
    Assuming I’d hit a bunch of dead-ends, not knowing what sort of response I’d get, I tentatively phoned the first number that came up. It rang for a while, then went to voice mail. I didn’t leave a message. I nearly left it there, but decided to try the next number. A male voice answered with a friendly “hello”. I asked if I could please speak to Ron Leonard. “I’m Ron Leonard”, said the voice. So I jumped right in and asked if they happened to have been an SCCA race car driver back in the 1970s. The phone reception was quite scratchy, and he didn’t understand what I said. I asked again, and he said, “No, I didn’t race in the 1950s, but I did race in the 1970s”. The line was so bad he thought I’d asked if he raced in the 1950s!

    With that, I asked him if, by chance, he raced a Datsun 1200.Yes, indeed he had. Not quite believing my luck, I introduced myself. “My name is Steve Holmes. I’m phoning from New Zealand. I believe I have your old race car!” The response was even better than I’d hoped. He was so excited to learn his old car had survived. He began telling me the story of how he and his brother David built it from a street car in 1975, and spent the next several years developing it, making it faster and more competitive, and finally qualifying for the Runoffs in 1981. It was one of the most enjoyable periods of his life, and he was so pleased to learn the car had survived, and that it was to be restored back to how he and David raced it. As soon as he and I got off the phone, he phoned David and told him their old car had been discovered, and that it had ended up with a motorsport historian and writer from New Zealand. And this guy wanted to restore it back to how they had it, with the blue and silver paint, as it appeared at the 1981 SCCA Runoffs. It was David who designed the blue and silver paint scheme, which they ran for the first time in 1980.

    Ron and I now email each other several times a week, and have become close friends. He has really enjoyed the whole process, and reliving his time racing the Datsun. He has also filled me in on the cars history with him, its various features and details, and the development carried out by he and David. This information has been invaluable, because of the details only he and David know about; things such as the layout of the dash, suspension design, etc. This is all information I’d otherwise have to guess at.

    So, Ron and David were budget racers. They were typical of thousands of SCCA amateur racers who had day jobs and raced on the weekend, funding their own campaigns. Ron already owned the Datsun, and used it as his run about, carrying out deliveries for his pharmacy. In 1975, he attended a racing event at Road Atlanta, where Formula 5000 was the main drawcard, and with that, he got the racing bug. He and David decided to strip down the little Datsun, and build it for SCCA C/Sedan competition. He went to SCCA Driver School, and then began racing in early 1976. The car was pretty basic to begin with. Neither Ron nor David had ever been involved in racing, and Ron himself had no mechanical background. Ron bought a book by Smokey Yunick on building a small block Chevy engine, and, deciding a 4-cylinder was basically half a V8, combed through the book, learning as much as he could.

  5. #5
    The Datsun was painted factory metallic blue, and remained this colour until 1980, when David had it repainted in its attractive two-tone livery. The development was ongoing. Back in the 1970s, Datsun in the US was extremely proactive in helping racers compete and win with their products. They produced a vast catalogue, called the Datsun Competition Parts Catalogue, from which could be ordered almost any racing part for any Datsun model. In addition, there were books on how to make Datsun race cars competitive, providing info on engines, brakes, suspension etc. Throughout the 1970s, SCCA racing was awash with Datsun racers in both B/Sedan, C/Sedan, plus various Production sports car classes. The Datsun 2000 Roadster, 240Z, 510 (known elsewhere as the 1600), 1200, B210, 710, etc, were all hugely popular, and all models enjoyed enormous success. It was through its active racing programs that the Datsun brand was established in the US market.

    Pete Brock, who was involved in the design of the 1963 Corvette Stingray, as well as the Daytona Cobra Coupe, established Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) and picked up a Datsun racing contract, going on to achieve great things with the 2000 Roadster in D/Production in 1968 and ‘69, the 240Z in C/Production from 1970, and the 510 in the Trans-Am 2.5 Championship. Others, including Bob Sharp and Jim Fitzgerald, etc, were also highly successful Datsun racers. Many will be aware that actor Paul Newman raced Datsuns and Nissans for years, and became an SCCA National Champion. Kiwi racer Rodger Freeth raced a Nissan 300ZX space-frame IMSA car previously raced by Newman. Datsuns with good period racing history have now become highly collectable, particularly the 240Zs and 510s.

    As for my car, when Mike Eby purchased it off Ron in 1981, he rebuilt it with a new roll cage, and repainted it red/white/blue. He then qualified for the 1982 SCCA Runoffs, finishing sixth. So in two years, it finished fourth and sixth in the National Championship. Mike continued racing it, but didn’t compete at the Runoffs again, and it was eventually sold to Matt Grassi, who repainted it red. Matt continued racing it (by now the SCCA had reshuffled its classes once more and GT-4 was now GT-5). He then sold it to Brad Lewis, who stripped all the old paint off and repainted it aqua blue. Brad then qualified again for the Runoffs in 1999 and 2000. It still wears Brad’s paint scheme today, albeit in rough shape.

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    As well as the tracks listed above when Ron drove it, its also raced at Mid-Ohio, St Louis Raceway, Pocono, Rockingham, Mid-America Raceway, Memphis Raceway, Gateway International Raceway, Blackhawk Farm, and Huntsville. Unfortunately, the log books I have only go back to the 1990s. They don’t include the early stuff. I guess the early log books have all been lost.

    To be continued.....

  6. #6
    Semi-Pro Racer Paul B's Avatar
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    What a great story Steve, Its fantastic that you have taken the time to search out the history and the drivers. They are very cool cars and very nice body style.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Paul B View Post
    What a great story Steve, Its fantastic that you have taken the time to search out the history and the drivers. They are very cool cars and very nice body style.
    Hi Paul, hey thanks so much. Its a fun little car, and all these old racers have interesting stories to tell.

  8. #8
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    Steve,
    I agree totally with Paul and enjoy how you have weaved this all together and I know a future book must be in the works with all this material.
    What year is your Datsun 1200 ? The last year they sold in the States was 1976.

    ( Datsun 1299 facts & figures.)

    https://www.conceptcarz.com/z19786/datsun-1200.aspx

    (Ken H)

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by khyndart in CA View Post
    Steve,
    I agree totally with Paul and enjoy how you have weaved this all together and I know a future book must be in the works with all this material.
    What year is your Datsun 1200 ? The last year they sold in the States was 1976.

    ( Datsun 1299 facts & figures.)

    https://www.conceptcarz.com/z19786/datsun-1200.aspx

    (Ken H)
    Hi Ken, many thanks. I'm not totally sure what year the car is??? I think its a 1972 model. One of the log books has a hand-written note referring to "1972 Datsun 1200". I asked Ron but he can't remember.

    BTW Ken, I know you're a Mini guy. The GT-4 race at the 1981 Runoffs also featured the very quick Minis of Doug Peterson and Jack Baumgardner. Peterson in the Fortech Mini qualified on pole but broke early. Baumgardner spent much of the race battling Ron in my Datsun.

    These great photos are from the Gladiator Road Racing website, which features some amazing images from the 1981 Runoffs: http://www.gladiatorroadracing.ca/19...d-atlanta.html

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  10. #10
    Incidentally, another car competing in the GT-4 race at the 1981 SCCA Runoffs was this pretty Alfa GTAj, driven by Bruce Perry. This car has history dating back to the late 1960s, where it contested the Trans-Am 2.0 class in the hands of Gaston Andrey.

    Amazingly, the Alfa also now resides in New Zealand, and is just 90 minutes from where I live. Pretty cool that two old racers that competed against one-another 40 years ago are now just a couple of hours apart on the other side of the world.

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    Photo courtesy: http://www.gladiatorroadracing.ca/19...d-atlanta.html

  11. #11
    Semi-Pro Racer Spgeti's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Holmes View Post
    Incidentally, another car competing in the GT-4 race at the 1981 SCCA Runoffs was this pretty Alfa GTAj, driven by Bruce Perry. This car has history dating back to the late 1960s, where it contested the Trans-Am 2.0 class in the hands of Gaston Andrey.

    Amazingly, the Alfa also now resides in New Zealand, and is just 90 minutes from where I live. Pretty cool that two old racers that competed against one-another 40 years ago are now just a couple of hours apart on the other side of the world.

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    Photo courtesy: http://www.gladiatorroadracing.ca/19...d-atlanta.html
    The Alfa GTAj is currently under restoration.
    The car has the aluminium panels as per factory fitted hence a very time consuming and expensive restoration.

    The owner plans to repaint back in the livery as per the photo.

    Great thread on your Datto Steve and I look forward to seeing it in the flesh.

    Cheers

  12. #12
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    Steve,
    You mentioned some of the Minis that your Datsun faced back in the day at Road Atlanta, a course that could flip Can Am cars !
    2001
    (The back-straight crest at Road Atlanta has been lowered and smoothed out to decrease the chances of cars losing downforce and flipping over backwards. The crest was formed during construction of the track in 1970, when crews encountered a rock formation and paved over it instead of removing it, due to time considerations and an approaching Can-Am car race. During the years at least four race cars have flipped over backwards at the top of the crest. Work to smooth the crest began at Road Atlanta the week before Christmas and was completed early in January. The crest is now about 4 feet lower and the transition from the crest to the rest of the straightaway is smoother. )

    This 1989 Youtube clip has some good in-car camera shots of the track from the famous Fortech Mini.
    I hope you don't mind me sharing this as a"Mini Guy" on your thread ?


    Doug Peterson.


    ( Ken H..)
    Last edited by khyndart in CA; 08-22-2021 at 09:59 PM.

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by Spgeti View Post
    The Alfa GTAj is currently under restoration.
    The car has the aluminium panels as per factory fitted hence a very time consuming and expensive restoration.

    The owner plans to repaint back in the livery as per the photo.

    Great thread on your Datto Steve and I look forward to seeing it in the flesh.

    Cheers
    Thanks Bruce, good to know. I imagine the Alfa would be quite a valuable car now!

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by khyndart in CA View Post
    Steve,
    You mentioned some of the Minis that your Datsun faced back in the day at Road Atlanta, a course that could flip Can Am cars !
    2001
    (The back-straight crest at Road Atlanta has been lowered and smoothed out to decrease the chances of cars losing downforce and flipping over backwards. The crest was formed during construction of the track in 1970, when crews encountered a rock formation and paved over it instead of removing it, due to time considerations and an approaching Can-Am car race. During the years at least four race cars have flipped over backwards at the top of the crest. Work to smooth the crest began at Road Atlanta the week before Christmas and was completed early in January. The crest is now about 4 feet lower and the transition from the crest to the rest of the straightaway is smoother. )

    This 1989 Youtube clip has some good in-car camera shots of the track from the famous Fortech Mini.
    I hope you don't mind me sharing this as a"Mini Guy" on your thread ?


    Doug Peterson.


    ( Ken H..)
    Thanks Ken, that video is outstanding! I really love learning about the other cars that were competing against my car in period. Another of the cars that contested C/Sedans and GT-4 for many years was Bob Boileau's Honda Civic. It was one of the first Hondas to be raced in the US, and is now on permanent display at Honda's Heritage Museum in California. Its unrestored, just as it was last raced back in the 1980s. Boileau was instrumental in setting up Honda dealerships in the US in the 1970s, and his Civic became a test bed for Honda racing. Great story on it here: https://www.motortrend.com/features/...da-civic-1200/

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  15. #15
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    Awesome thread Steve, once again thanks for sharing!

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by bry3500 View Post
    Awesome thread Steve, once again thanks for sharing!
    Hey Bry, thanks for this. I'm enjoying sharing the story of this neat little car.

  17. #17
    When the little Datsun finally arrived at my house after months of waiting, I finally got to see it in the flesh for the first time, and was really happy with my purchase. The car is incredibly original. Although its been a race car for 45 years, its been changed very little to what Ron and David Leonard built in the 1970s. The roll cage is that built and installed by Mike Eby in 1981/82. The flares are those fitted by Ron in the 1970s, from the Datsun Competition Parts Catalogue. They’re a special fibreglass flare that are pop-riveted to the body. They’re virtually impossible to find now and are not being reproduced. It still has the American Racing Vectors purchased by Ron in the 1970s, although this photos shows the 4-spoke Revolutions I had made for it. I’ll use the Vectors for wet weather driving. The rear tramp rods are those fitted by Ron and David, as is the Accusump, alloy windscreen brackets and rear window straps (Ron and David made these themselves), driveshaft hoop, oil cooler, switch panel, Oil Pressure gauge, fuse panel, and various other parts. Even the custom wheel nuts!

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    Whats so remarkable is this car has always been raced hard in modern competition. I’m the first person to have ever considered its historical significance. Usually, race cars are updated, modified, and continuously evolved. So while nobody was ever consciously preserved it, its been incredibly well preserved. But it has lived a hard life. The floors are shot. The passenger side rocker panel is bent. There are various small dents here and there, and the car was crashed a few years ago, with the front left corner requiring replacement. That’s the last time it was raced. Also, the boot floor has been cut out, with a steel frame welded in to hold a drop tank fuel cell. The steel hood and deck lid have long-since been replaced by fibreglass lift-off pieces, while the doors have been completely gutted out, leaving only the outer skin. As mentioned earlier, I did purchase a steel hood and deck lid, and I’ve also managed to source replacement doors.

    In addition, its fitted with the desirable (for Datsun racers) H165 heavy duty rear-end, with limited slip diff. Its got coil-over front suspension, vintage Willwood front brakes (still has drums on the back), and numerous other speed parts that are now hard to find. I’ve since purchased a Series-60 5-speed gearbox.

    And so now the restoration begins. I still need to source a radiator, seat, seat belts, windscreen, headlights, dashboard, clutch, flywheel, plus various parts to finish the cylinder head. And that’s just the stuff I know about. So there is a pretty big job ahead of me, but this car is totally worth the effort.

  18. #18
    Brilliant Steve. If you are prepared to go out of period you know where to get a seat and harness

  19. #19
    Semi-Pro Racer Spgeti's Avatar
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    We all look forward to the continuing story on the restoration of this neat SCCA C/Sedan Datsun 1200 Coupe.

    I do also look forward to seeing it out on the track.

    Well done Steve

  20. #20
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    Steve,
    With that LHD vehicle you could perhaps get a job with the NZ Postal Service delivering Rural Delivery mail as it is taking forever for us to get our mail delivered in NZ.
    (Like the book I sent to you that went to New York first before it came back finally to New Zealand !)

    Cheers,
    Ken H

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