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Man on a mission: Grant Rivers part one

2 April 2019



“I’m here for a good time, not a long time!” That’s a statement which has been made many times, over many years, by Whanganui engine-builder and racer Grant Rivers. Now heading into his late 50s, he’s lived that mantra at 200mph, at work, at play, and behind the steering wheel of more racing machines than most of us have touched …

It was pretty much like any other summer Sunday in 1971 in the quiet river city of Whanganui. Tony Rivers was out for the day, while his wife Lillian stayed at home looking after their three children. Their two daughters, Christine (16) and Jillian (13), were inside helping Mum with the things that women do, while 10-year-old son Grant, as usual, was occupying himself in his father’s shed, where he was always building trolleys and carts, and doing up friends’ bicycles for them. Home again by mid-afternoon, there was still time left in the day to get the lawns mowed, so Tony quickly changed into his old clothes, got the old lawnmower out of the tool shed, and topped up the fuel.

It was an old Villiers single-cylinder roller mower — one of those cumbersome old machines that propelled themselves along, with the operator only having to walk along behind, operate the throttle, and guide its direction. On this day, the Villiers engine fired into life on the first pull as usual, but, when Tony disengaged the clutch, there was no forward motion. Odd … it had never done that before. Something was wrong. Through the kitchen window, Grant anxiously watched his father try in vain to get the mower working, and then began to anticipate the inevitable question as Tony gave up on the mower and started walking towards the house. “Grant, there’s something wrong with the lawnmower. Do you know anything about this?” Yes. Yes, indeed, Grant did know something about this …

The Villiers mower was a two-stroke single-cylinder configuration, with the fuel tank mounted above the engine. The 10-year-old schoolboy — in his first year at intermediate — had figured out that, with the small crankcase, the motor plates of the Villiers engine would fit neatly over the frame of his bicycle, and even the fuel tank would fit within the confines of the bicycle’s frame. With a hacksaw, an electric  drill, and a few other hand tools from his dad’s tool shed, Grant had, that morning, unbolted the engine out of the mower, and mocked it up into position with bits of wood, aligning the Villiers’ crankshaft sprocket with the bicycle’s rear-wheel sprocket. He had drilled the bicycle’s frame, made up some mounting brackets from some metal pieces he’d found in the shed, made a longer chain out of spare bicycle chains to connect the two sprockets, and then made up a cable to operate the throttle and attached it to the handlebar. By early afternoon, Grant Rivers, of 30 Surrey Road, had the fastest bicycle in the district. After getting the hang of making the bicycle move under its own power, he was doing high-speed runs up and down Surrey Road in the quiet suburb of Springvale, and — to the astonishment of a number of drivers — easily keeping up with the cars driving along the road. “The gearing was so high that I had to run like fuck along beside it to get it going and then jump on!” he recalls with a laugh, some 48 years later. What the 10-year-old school boy didn’t understand then — unsurprisingly — was gear ratios. After a few more laboured starts, as a result of a way-too-high one-to-one ratio, and, after mastering the inelegant starting process, the clutch in the old Villiers fried itself, and Grant Rivers’ very first engine-conversion project came to an abrupt end. He pushed the bike home, pulled out the Villiers engine — complete with fried clutch — and reinstalled it back into his dad’s mower, then tidied up the shed so that Dad would be none the wiser … until, of course, Tony Rivers went to use his mower later that day.

Brat or brilliant? Devious or determined? How does a 10-year-old child, without textbooks or internet, without mentoring or teaching, and not yet even old enough to brush his teeth without being reminded or put his toys away when he’s finished playing with them, understand how to go about the successful design and engineering of a mechanical engine conversion — rudimentary as it all may have been — with all of its attendant details? Tony Rivers obviously had the wisdom to immediately decide that his son was brilliant and determined. Just as he remained for the rest of his life, Tony was massively proud of his son, and, on that spring Sunday, when faced with a broken lawnmower and the attempted covering up of the crime, he was sufficiently impressed with his boy’s practical aptitude and innovative thinking that there was no scolding or discipline of any sort.

Tony Rivers was unsurprised when Grant went into business as a young man in his late 20s. Dad had seen early signs of some entrepreneurial skills within his clever lad at around the same time as the Villiers mower incident. Tony had pretty much left Grant alone to play around in the shed doing up bicycles for his friends. As young as nine years  old, Grant was running a little bicycle-customizing business out of Dad’s shed for a customer (an older teenage boy) who would bring him bicycles to do up, which the customer would then sell for a profit. Grant’s work involved swapping frames around, changing components such as mudguards and handlebars around, smoothing everything up, and painting the frames different custom colours. Tony’s pride in his boy’s early signs of work ethic suddenly waned a little, however, when the police knocked on his door asking questions about Grant’s involvement in a stolen-bicycle ring. Happily, after some questioning of Grant in Tony’s shed, the police quickly realized that, at the tender ages of nine and 10, Grant had no idea that his little business was the essential ingredient in said stolen-bicycle ring (in fact, Grant was so naive that he didn’t even consider the implications of his customer’s request to “smooth off” those unnecessary numbers on the underside of the frames with a file!). And nothing more was said.

These happy endings were early indications of the very close relationship that Grant had with his dad — who was a truly lovely guy — until his passing in 2012. As sad as it is for any of us when we lose a parent, the upside was that ‘TR’ (as Grant and I affectionately called him) had watched — on a daily basis over the following 40 years as he supported and helped Grant at the River’s Speed and Spares workshop — the sparks of mechanical brilliance that he had seen in his little boy that day in 1971 evolve and develop into a skill set and volume of experience matched by only a few in New Zealand.

There’s an old tongue-in-cheek adage that goes ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’, which, of course, means that we make our own luck, and our ‘luck’ (if you can call it that) is generally determined by how hard we work and how sensible the decisions we make are as we navigate our way through life. The person who authored that saying must have known Grant Rivers. Grant’s got a lot of toys, and, as is commonly said about people who have done well, by others who haven’t done so well, that clearly means that he must be a rip-off merchant or a drug dealer or a bank robber. Or probably all three. I’ll offer a fourth alternative: the guy has worked his arse off. A typical Grant Rivers day, which applied from his late 20s to his early 50s, looked much like this: he got out of bed at 5.30am, was at the gym by 6am, started work at 7am, worked until 6.30pm, went home for dinner and to see his wife and kids, went back to work until 11pm, and then got back home and into bed by 11.30. He cut it back to eight hours of work on Saturday. On Sunday, he would work for four hours in the morning, go home and cook the Sunday roast (because he enjoys cooking), mow the lawns, and then catch up on recorded motorsport on TV. And that’s for the quiet part of the year. During the summer months, with motorsport happening, evenings were reserved for engine building, and he’d be back at the shop until between midnight and 2am every night of the week, depending on what was going on. We all work late nights now and then, but ‘all-night-every-night’ is Grant’s normal — as normal as knocking off at five or six o’clock is for most people.

For the last 30 or so years, regardless of the time of day or night, I’ve only rung Grant at work. I know his work number off by heart, but not his home number — because I never ring it unless it’s Sunday afternoon. He has wound back that crazy schedule now that he’s into his mid-to-late 50s, though, and tries to stick to an 8pm knock-off.

Don’t think for a second that because he’s so busy he doesn’t socialize. He’s one of the most social guys you’ll find. Regardless of his gruelling work schedule, he’ll be out with the boys on Friday and Saturday nights, and can party like you wouldn’t believe. “Old Grub” — meaning Grant — “man, that guy can still write himself off pretty good, can’t he?!” a mutual friend said to me recently, laughing.

Another reason he’s done well is because he doesn’t make dumb decisions. He’s never been impulsive and he’s never taken a risk in his life. Everything he does — in business, in racing, in buying and selling cars, and in his home purchases — has been sensible, measured, well informed, and he’s always prepared to walk away from a deal rather than become emotionally involved and pay too much. He’s not a tight-arse; he’s careful and sensible.

So yes, he has some toys, and good on him — he bloody well deserves them!

‘Works hard and plays hard’ is another saying that applies to a number of characters within motorsport, and Grant is one of them. If his work schedule is hectic, his playing schedule is equally so.

Few people know the depths to which Grant’s obsession with motor vehicles go, and the extent of his energy levels. He’s one of those guys who redefines the word ‘commitment’, and that cuts across every aspect of his life: work, racing, family, and helping his mates.

Drag racers know that Grant’s a committed and busy guy, because they see him drag racing an alcohol funny car, and an alcohol dragster for his kids — sometimes at the same time. You’ll never know the amount of work that these cars involve unless you’ve done it — and Grant repairs and maintains two of them. Then there’s the help and advice that he’s constantly providing to his many mates in drag racing. And you don’t get your name attached to national records or life membership to the NZDRA for being a sometimes-racer.

Circuit racing people know that Grant’s a busy and committed guy because they see him racing his black 1965 Ford Mustang at Manfeild and Taupo, or his classic HB Vauxhall Viva race car, or, more recently, his Historic Formula Ford 2000. All while he bounces around from pit space to pit space, tuning and sorting problems with various cars belonging to his many race mates and customers. In one season — 2017 — Grant won the Manfeild Winter Series Classic Class Championship and the NZDRA Competition Class National Championship.

The tarmac rally fraternity also knows the name Grant Rivers well because he’s been a regular competitor in the Targa in his ’65 Mustang, and, in fact, was the outright winner in the highly prestigious Historic category in 2003.

And then there’s the stuff that none of those people know about — the local hill climbs, flying-quarters, burnout demonstrations, and car shows. On top of all of that, he’s also active within his local hot rod club of 40-odd years: the Wanganui Road Rodders. As they say, if you want something done well, get the busiest guy.

Like many of us as young teenagers, Grant wanted a motorbike but — entirely sensibly — wasn’t allowed one. Simple enough to resolve, though. At age 13, from carefully saving money earned doing up push-bikes for people, he bought one anyway and stored it at a friend’s house. The game was up, however, when he canned off and hurt himself, and then had to explain the missing skin to his parents.

His first car, purchased at age 14, was a Ford Popular, perhaps influenced by both his dad and grandad having owned Fords for as long as Grant could remember. The Pop was nothing fancy, just a standard one, but it was tidy. Grant painted it a medium shade of blue with his mother’s vacuum cleaner, and adapted larger diameter Ford V8 wheels to gear it up, enabling a genuine 70mph. Still at school, at 15 years of age, he drove it from Whanganui across to Palmerston North to attend his first Palmy Swap Meet in 1976.

Grant perfected the art of getting the Pop high up onto two wheels during U-turns. The harmless fun never failed to reduce young girls, who, for a couple of seconds were certain they were about to die, to either tears or hysterics. I witnessed this many times from inside the car, and, although I’m sure it didn’t help either of us in terms of getting lucky with the girls, it was always huge fun.

For as long as he could remember, there was never a question as to what he wanted to do when he grew up. By age 16, Grant had left school, had begun a motor-mechanic apprenticeship, and was on his way to fulfilling his dreams. Immediately, wages — regardless of how minimal apprentice wages were — paved the way towards running a V8. A 1957 Chevy four-door sedan was purchased, with every cent he earned during the week being poured into the petrol tank each weekend. Wages and weekend fuel were so closely aligned that he’d bicycle to work all week to enable his wages to last all weekend. “I had my first root in that car!” Grant remembers fondly. “On the front seat and the back seat. Actually, thinking about that, I remember  one night that I was rooting my girlfriend on the front seat at the same time that a mate was rooting his girlfriend on the back seat. We had a bit of a race going on!”

As the burnout addiction that one would expect when you pair a 16-year-old lad with a V8-engined car quickly developed, any spare cash from the odd perk-job went into replacing rear tyres.

There was a small irony in relation to the ’57. This was Grant’s first V8, and he’s generally known as a stubborn-as-all-hell Ford guy. At exactly the same time, and also at age 16, I’d just bought my first V8 — a ’63 Fairlane Compact — and I’m generally thought of as a Chevy guy. Weird. Having said that, throughout our lives, I don’t think either of us has really been as strongly biased towards Fords (in Grant’s case) or Chevys (in my case) as much as we’ve both pretended.

The Chevy only lasted a year. Grant joined Wanganui Road Rodders in 1977, went to a few hot rod events, and found himself being seriously drawn towards early cars.

“Older club members Murray Palmer and Willy Pelzers took me under their wing — they were awesome to me,” he remembers, and the early car deal was sealed when Grant saw Glynn Hurley’s ’34 Chevy tudor on the road for the first time. The ’57 Chevy was sold, and a stock but tidy and driveable ’37 Ford Sedan was purchased, which Grant drove for a year or so. “That lasted until I had to do a panic stop one day when some dickhead pulled out in front of me. I spun out and ended up on the wrong side of the road because of the shitty rod braking system. It could have been really bad, and I realized just how unsafe the car was with the original brakes, so I pulled it to bits the next day,” he says.

Still on apprentice wages, it took Grant a long time to build the car, as parts had to be bought as he could afford them. Trips were made to Horopito Auto Wreckers to source the hydraulic braking system; Grant rebuilt and hotted the flathead, adapted Zephyr discs to the front end, and fitted telescopic shocks onto all four corners. The sedan got a nice interior, spanky mag wheels, and a complete rewire. The paint job was a story of frustration for both Grant and myself. Grant had chosen a very nice — if not, in hindsight, a bit ‘vintagey’ looking — Roman Bronze metallic for the body and Dark Hickory metallic for the guards. It had taken us months to prepare the car, and I’d just painted it. The very day after the finish coats went on, Grant received the latest copy of New Zealand Hot Rod magazine, and, inside, there was a big colour feature on … a ’37 Ford Sedan painted in Roman Bronze with Dark Hickory guards. (Insert some seriously bad language here …) So, we sanded it down again, and I repainted it black with blue flames, and Grant got the car back together in time for us to take it to the 1981 Street Rod Nationals in Ashburton — an exciting road trip for a couple of 20-year-old shit-kickers from Whanganui!

Grant was learning flat-out every day during his mechanical apprenticeship. One morning, he leaned over the engine bay of a MkIII Zephyr while the battery was on charge and accidentally knocked the positive lead off the terminal, which sparked when it touched the inner guard, ignited the battery acid, and caused the battery to explode. “It knocked me backwards with a hell of a bang, and I landed arse-first in a rubbish bin that was cut down from a 44-gallon drum,” Grant recalls. “I had to have a wash and change my overalls and my undies! Never lean over a vented battery when it’s being charged!”

At the same time as he was building his ’37 Ford Sedan, Grant had built two engines for me. My automotive journey at that point was still focused on Fords, and Grant had built a stock-ish engine for an XA Falcon coupe that I had, and then a reasonably warm engine (good cam, intake, headers, etc.) for an XA Falcon sedan that I had after the coupe. Still an apprentice mechanic, this was Grant’s first ‘hot rod’ engine build, and the damn thing went like Jack the Bear. Grant would cruise around with me in my cars during the 1979–1981 period while he was building his ’37 sedan, and, because of his magic touch, even back then, they were fast enough to cause him to look beyond his ’37 Ford almost as soon as it was going. He wanted something fast. Looking back to that time, I got a way better deal than Grant did — my engines were awesome. His flame job — being the first one I’d ever done at age 19 — was rubbish. Helping his boss work on the famous 200mph Dowman Brothers 427 Chevy–powered Falcon sedan whetted that appetite even further.

There were a few other ‘drive cars’ during Grant’s early days, one of which was a 1948 Bedford van with a MkIII Zephyr engine in it. One of his lasting memories of that old jalopy is driving along beside me in an old Valiant ute that I had at the time, late one afternoon through suburban Whanganui, bashing into each other like we were playing out a scene from The Dukes of Hazzard, which ultimately resulted in — apart from substantial damage to both of our cars — both of us receiving a knock on our respective doors later that day from members of the New Zealand Police force and a damn good bollocking.

Grant also had a 105E Anglia, which he bought for a demolition derby but wrecked before the event by driving it down a very steep public walking track in Whanganui called the ‘Zig Zag’. I would have bet money you couldn’t fit a car down there, but Grant did it. Somehow.

In 1982, Grant Rivers turned 21, completed his apprenticeship in a near-record-setting three-and-a-half years, passed his A-grade qualification, topped his Polytech class for the third year in a row, and left the garage that he’d worked at since his school days to work at Bretton’s Garage. Here, he would learn more about engineering and machining, so that he could supplement his mechanical skills.

During that same year, he found a US-assembled six-cylinder four-door 1962 XM Falcon sedan. It was just a shell, but that was all he needed. The ’37 was sold off, and that provided a budget for parts buying for the XM. The now 22-year-old, just out of his apprenticeship, got to work on his mum and dad’s back lawn (there wasn’t enough room in the single garage), and, armed with the skills that he was quickly developing at Bretton’s, cut out the rear floor, built a rectangular-hollow-section (RHS) chassis, narrowed a nine-inch Ford diff, and mounted it into the car on leaf springs. He then made and fitted the huge wheel tubs, narrowed an HT Holden front end and installed it, and fitted a 429 big block Ford and C6 transmission. It was a mammoth project for a young guy to undertake completely on his own.

His ever-tolerant and wonderful parents let him take control of their garage and put up with oil all over their concrete, their lawn set on fire twice, and disc grinders going day and night. We painted the Falcon a light silvery-blue metallic, dubbed it ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, after the Eagles hit released half a decade earlier, and the car debuted at the 1983 Street Rod Nationals in Ashburton. This time, Grant had a better option than me to accompany him on the trip, in the form of Fiona — the lady he’s still married to 35 years later. 

The Falcon was a radical bit of kit for its time. Grant raced it at Thunderpark later that year (driven there and back), but, while looking like a 12-second car, with the stock engine and 2.7 diff gears, it was only a low-14-second car — not good enough. The engine was pulled out for a rebuild, but, with marriage to Fiona on the horizon, it had to be on a tight budget. The only big purchases were a cam and lifters from Cub Roberts. And clever old boss Dudley Bretton helped Grant through the process of welding up the tops of the pistons to raise the compression from 9:1 to 11.25:1. Coupled with some 5.56:1 diff gears, the revitalized Fast Lane was trailered back to Thunderpark and went a full second quicker at 13.3 seconds. At the time, I had my old Vauxhall Viva with a 307 small block Chevy in it, and, with my low-13-second timeslips, Grant and I had a bet (can’t remember what the prize was — probably watching the loser run around the clubrooms naked at the next hot rod club meeting) to see who would be the first to run a 12. Grant won out with a 12.9-second pass at 116mph. Good going for a heavy, street-legal car self-built on a budget by a young bloke only 23 years old.

By this time, Grant was no longer known as ‘Grant’. He was, and still is, ‘Grub’. He earned this name for a variety of reasons. One was his propensity for picking his nose while talking to you — something that could be a little disconcerting if you’re the guy standing there, listening and looking … Also, he could urinate for an unbelievable length of time. If six guys tumbled out of a car during a road trip for a piss on the side of the road, you could bet money on Rivers being the first to start and the last to stop. Everyone else would be back in the car while ol’ Captain Niagara was still going, and the rest of us would all be bitching at him to hurry up. The other reason he gets called ‘Grub’ was for his belches. If you haven’t heard them, you’ve never experienced anything like it. And that hasn’t changed in 40-something years. Anywhere. Anytime. In front of anyone. And right in your earhole if you happen to be side-on to his gob when he lets one go. They’re so awesome that I can still remember one in particular from more than 30 years ago. If you’ve ever driven through the small farming town of Stratford, in Taranaki, you’ll know that it’s got the widest main street in New Zealand. Grant and I stopped there one time during a busy work day to get a pie while we were on a road trip up to New Plymouth to buy the 396 engine for my Viva, and (this sounds like a tall story, but it’s the honest-to-God truth) Grub let one rip while we were walking along the footpath, and this big Maori guy, way the hell over on the opposite side of the road, turned around, broke into a huge smile, gave us a big thumbs up sign, and called out, “Good one, mate!” I even painted a picture of ‘Grub’ — a sort of cartoon character with his finger stuffed up one of his nostrils — on the boot lid of his XM Fast Lane Falcon.

With the Falcon finished and going, Grub spent some time doing a bit of non-car stuff, including jet-sprinting with friend Hugh Russell, and racing motocross bikes in hare scrambles and enduro races. Although he won the odd race, he described himself as not a naturally good rider, and realized that he felt more at home behind a steering wheel than on a bike.

Youth and freedom for Grant Rivers, however, were coming to an end. Marriage was looming, kids were on the wish-list, and there were distant thoughts about going into business for himself. So, the Falcon was sold (something that was very difficult for him at the time), he and Fiona purchased their first home, and money was needed to build a garage for the building of the many projects occupying his mind. Everything was going to be different … and yet everything was going to be the same …

Check out part two here to see how it all unfolded