NZ’s Pete Lodge shook the shaky isles in the 70s with a series of wild nitro-fired Fiat Topolino fuel altereds
This article on Pete Lodge was originally published in issue 16 of the Street Machine Hot Rod magazine, 2015
PETE Lodge has a lot to answer for. He is pretty much solely responsible for my life-long addiction to nitro fumes and the roar of blown engines of the hemispherical persuasion.
I remember my first taste of the quartermile sport as if it was yesterday, even though it must have been around 1970 or thereabouts. The place was a deserted industrial estate at Wiri in southern Auckland with a stretch of bitumen barely more than a quarter-mile long. The Pukekohe Hot Rod Club pioneered drag racing there, and even went to the trouble of stretching string bunting down both sides of the road so spectators would be restricted to the footpaths during racing. Basic doesn’t even come close!
Hombre doing what a short-wheelbase, ridiculously over-powered fuel altered is supposed to do – scare the hell out of magazine photographers
It was here I first heard Pete Lodge’s Fiat Topolino-bodied fuel altered, Baloo, and with that my lifelong dependence began. Baloo was a revelation in NZ at the time. It was the country’s first real blown Hemi and ran on a fair dose of the good stuff. It had an original steel Topolino body, complete with opening driver’s door, which made it easy for Pete to squeeze into the tiny coupe in his white ‘safety’ overalls.
Early outings saw Baloo either sideways or up in smoke – or both – as the ‘slicks’ were simply retreaded circuit racing hoops, which coped about as well as you’d expect.
Pete Lodge takes on another Kiwi legend, Dave McDougall in his Y-block Ford-powered altered
“They were second-hand Formula 5000 tyres from memory and we found someone to retread them,” Lodge recalls. “But when we put air into them they bowed across the centre so we actually had to cut them back by hand with a knife and grind them to reshape the tread. It was that basic at the time!”
Nothing is more righteous than a blown flatty. Pete’s first dedicated racecar was this 6/71-compressed ’37 Ford dirt-dragger, complete with a quartet of Strombergs. Of course, if you’re running four carbs, you’ve gotta run four rear tyres!
I caught up with Lodge at his northern Auckland home, where he and his wife of more than 50 years, Janice, now live. The sprightly and energetic 68-year-old is still heavily involved in drag racing, acting as crew chief on the family’s highly successful Top Alcohol rail driven by one of his four sons, Shane.
The original Baloo in action at Wiri in southern Auckland. Tyres were retreaded F5000 rejects, and the car handled accordingly
The dragster is housed in an impressive race shop next to the house. In keeping with Lodge’s do-it-yourself engineering approach, there is plenty of industrial-sized machinery, including lathes and mills to make the Lodge operation pretty much self-sufficient.
Apart from the dragster, pride of place in the workshop is occupied by a piece of classic English iron. For the past couple of decades Pete and Janice have been involved in classic bike racing, running a couple of ES2 Nortons. Initially ridden with a lot of championship-winning success by Pete, these days a newer Norton is steered by talented rider Nick Cole. With an engine pretty much entirely cast and machined by Pete, it even managed to take out a world title at the prestigious Barber Festival in the US in 2013, and regularly crosses the Tasman to defend Kiwi honour at classic bike meets.
But drag racing was where the Lodge name first rose to the fore in NZ motorsport. When Pete and Baloo came to the line, spectators made extra sure they toed theirs; in the finest traditions of blown fuel altereds, Pete sometimes seemed to cover a halfmile to get to the end of the quarter. Baloo never really seemed sure of which route to take – mostly it was the scenic route, with plenty of on/off throttle, lots of sideways action and clouds-of-tyre-smoke drama.
“It was all or nothing,” Lodge recalls with a chuckle. “I’d put my foot down and it would either go up in smoke or take off in whatever direction it was pointed at the time.”
“They loved Lodgie because he was all over the place most times,” Janice chimes in.
Drilled front axle, retread slicks and a steel body – fuel altered history on show. Note Pete’s openface lid and white ‘safety overalls’
Like many an early Kiwi hot rodder, before Baloo Lodge raced on dirt tracks and back-country roads around Auckland: “We got to know some of the cops on a firstname basis”.
His first V8 was a near-stock ’49 Ford, but he soon moved on to a ’37 Ford coupe with a 6/71-blown flathead fed by a quartet of Strombergs, which he raced on a dirt drag strip at Kopuku. Adding the blower was a major ramp-up for the young apprentice fitter and turner and a pretty radical move for 60s NZ. “We made our own basic V-belt drive for it and the first time we fired it up it just absolutely shredded the belts and we had all this rubber dust in the air,” Pete laughs.
The sidevalve succumbed soon after at the strip when Lodge “blew the whole side out of the engine”, although he at least won the meeting. “We really didn’t know what we were doing a lot of the time, so we would just experiment and it was trial and error – with a lot of error!” That was the catalyst for building a proper race car; Lodge was determined to build an altered like the radical cars that were running in the US at the time. “I found a Fiat Topolino that a guy had restored,” he says. “It was all in bits, and he’d done a really good job on it. But as soon as we got it home we took to it with an axe and ripped the floor out.”
Hairy hombres – today’s OH&S folks would have something to say about all that hair so close to the injectors and blower belt. That’s Pete’s bro-in-law, Dave Reed on the left
A basic RHS square-section steel chassis was welded up while a 392 Chrysler Hemi engine was ordered from the US via a local importer. “We actually got one of the good solid-lifter ’57 300C motors with adjustable rockers and twin four-barrels,” Pete says. “But it took a while to get everything else because it was hard to import stuff from the States at the time.”
The trans-Tasman fueller feud between Aussie Jimmy Walton and Pete Lodge was a major drawcard in NZ in the early 70s
Initially the engine was blown and running on highoctane race fuel, but with stock internals and an early three-speed Packard gearbox. Not surprisingly, it shredded every tooth in the casing the first time Lodge tried to run it.
Hombre hams it up at Castlereagh at the ANDRA Nats in ’77
With no local expertise available, everything was experimental. The clutch initially was a Ford truck unit that lasted only as long as it took to fire up the motor. “It blew apart the first time we tried it out and left this really neat swage all around the steel bellhousing!”
More work went into the clutch, with Pete casting and machining his own steel plates in a twin-plate setup with a modified conventional pressure plate. “We adjusted the slip with springs and that seemed to work okay,” he says.
A visit to NZ in 1970 by Australian Top Fuel pioneer Graham Withers helped Lodge step up his combination. Withers brought his Ampol GT fueller to Christchurch for some demonstration passes at a local circuit meet, where Lodge was also running Baloo. Lodge remembers Withers asking him what conrods he was running in the Hemi. “I told him we were running the stock rods and he said: ‘Bloody hell, you’d better get them out of there!’ Everyone was running boxed steel rods at the time and Graham ended up sending me a set, which was just as well because when we pulled the motor down half the rods were bent of out shape!”
Living up to its namesake, Baloo was as mean and nasty as an ornery old grizzly. The tiny altered had the wheelbase of a rollerskate and the manners of a pitbull on ice, but somehow Pete managed to pedal it to the finish line every time. Stopping was a whole other matter though, and occasionally Baloo was towed back to the pits with a clump or two of shrubbery wedged in the front axle from a braking area excursion.
“I remember we ran out of braking room at Wiri on one run and there was a sharp right turn at the end of the strip,” Pete says. “I wasn’t going to make the turn, but there was a pair of power poles at the end and I thought I might just get through. I didn’t. The right rear wheel caught the pole and we ripped the diff out of it.”
Initially running in the 10s and hampered by a hopeless lack of adhesion, Pete persevered with what was already an outdated chassis and driveline for three years, until Meremere dragstrip opened in 1973. The decision was then taken to build a replacement car that would be capable of some serious quarter-mile performance.
And so was born Hombre, a car that would go on to hold NZ drag racing’s longest unbroken record. There were actually two versions of Hombre, the second with a much more state-of-the-art chrome-moly chassis that even ventured across the Tasman for the Nationals at Castlereagh in 1977, where it captured the imagination of spectators with strong burnouts and ground-shaking passes.
But it was Pete’s legendary clashes with Aussie fuel altered and funny car great Jimmy Walton that really captured NZ drag racing fans’ attention. For a few years in the mid-70s, Walton, always accompanied by his glamorous wife Elaine, would bring his Hard Goa blown Hemi T-bucket to Meremere to do battle with the Kiwi champ, and the trans-Tasman fueller feud would bring crowds flocking to the track.
Hombre took Lodge to a Top Eliminator win over Mike Gearing’s Top Fueller at the ’77 NZ Nationals, earning a congratulatory telegram for his David vs Goliath efforts from US funny car legend Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme
Both cars would envelope the startline in smoke, and generally thundered down the track in low eights at around 190mph. The Meremere strip was built on soggy swampland, which meant it was equal parts undulating motocross track and drag strip. Fuel altereds were evil-handling beasts as it was, but when Pete and Jim attempted to get to the other end first, it was invariably entertaining – and no doubt ‘interesting’ for them. On one memorable run, Jim ran out of braking room and ended up perched in a cloud of gravel and dust on a mound of dirt at the very end of the strip. That’s how Meremere got its very own Walton’s Mountain!
Cleared for take-off: Hombre was always a handful on the track – or in the air!
Hombre’s chassis was state-of-the-art for fuel altereds at the time, although its 1957 392ci iron-block Chrysler Hemi was lacking some of the latest gear. Nevertheless, Pete’s talent for engineering and tuning resulted in performances that were equal to anything else with similar hardware in the States. A 6/71 blower and classic Hilborn injection kept the motor fed on a 45 per cent dose of nitro. “For some reason we could only buy nitro premixed to 45 per cent in those days,” Pete says. “I’m not sure what Jimmy was running, but judging by the wicked smoky burnouts he used to do, I reckon he brought his own fuel over. He was a tough competitor.”
It was all strung together by a funny car-style frame designed by Lodge’s long-time crew chief Alan Smail and fabricated by Lodge himself. Also helping out was childhood sweetheart Janice, plus her dad Arnold and another friend, Brent Purdy.
Still running a ridiculously short wheelbase, it was wrapped in a locally made fibreglass body, and not long after it began racing, Amco Jeans came on board as sponsor in one of the first major non-automotive deals in NZ drag racing.
Lodge and Hombre went on to set the NZ AA Fuel Altered record of 7.60@185mph – a record that went on to set another record as the longest-standing mark in NZ drag racing, lasting for 38 years before it was broken only this year by fuel altered racer Dave Gauld. Lodge’s proudest moment in drag racing was taking out the NZ Nationals at Meremere, when he took on Mike Gearing’s Top Fuel rail for the title in 1977. “We even got a telegram from Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme congratulating Pete,” Janice remembers.
Pete Lodge exchanged his fueller firesuit for a set of racing leathers, notching up local road race championships on his classic ES2 Norton and even snaring a world title with his current rider, Nick Cole
Pete’s pioneering efforts with Baloo and Hombre were recently recognised when he was inducted into the NZ Motorsports Hall of Fame. And fortunately for drag fans, both cars still exist. Baloo occasionally runs at local nostalgia events, while Hombre is currently undergoing a painstaking restoration by enthusiast Grant Staples.
Pete keeps his hand in as crew chief on son Shane’s blown alcohol rail
Pete and Janice Lodge are a tight team, held together by equal parts mutual affection and respect. Racing is part of the Lodge family DNA. Whether competing on four wheels or two, they both remain committed to motorsport, their family and each other.
As Janice says: “He can’t fly without his cape, and I’m the one who irons it.”