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Chris Amon 1943-2016

It was with much sadness that we heard Toyota's ambassador, Chris Amon, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Although he was famous as a Ferrari driver for three years, he actually worked with Toyota New Zealand for 33 years, making a significant contribution to the Toyota brand in New Zealand. He was held in great respect from those within the Toyota New Zealand team and the New Zealand public.

In addition to some snippets from Toyota New Zealand CEO Alistair Davis's tribute to Chris, and former Toyota New Zealand CEO Bob Field, we have reproduced some of the extensive tribute published in the September / October issue of New Zealand Classic Driver – words put together by journalist Allan Dick.

The Toyota Connection

Chris Amon’s legendary abilities with regard to testing and developing Formula One cars were put to a much different use after he retired from racing. However, his association with Toyota got off to a difficult start.

In the ’80s and ’90s, New Zealand had the best Toyota Corollas and Coronas in the world in terms of ride and handling, thanks to the unlikely partnership of a retired Formula One driver and the local division of the world’ s largest carmaker.

The retired Formula One driver was, of course, Chris Amon.

What made the partnership even more unlikely was that Toyota - a conservative company in almost every way - allowed Amon to break every rule in the Japanese book of Kaizen; the traditional step-by-step method of improvement.

It was a partnership that started with angst and annoyance, but one that became so good and so beneficial, it would last until just a few months before Chris’ death.

What made the partnership even more unlikely conservative company in almost every way - allowed Amon to break every rule in the Japanese book of Kaizen; the traditional step-by-step method of improvement.

Sorting out ability

Chris was more than just an uncannily fast racing driver in any car he sat in - his testing and ‘sorting-out’ skills were legendary. His ability to read the behaviour of the chassis of any car was something he was seemingly born with – perhaps explaining why he was able to go so fast when he first started racing as a teenager.

That ability was honed during the mid-’60s while he was waiting for a drive in a Formula One car with the fledgling McLaren team. Much of the funding for the McLaren team in those early years came from tyre-testing for the American giant Firestone who were entering international motorsport in a big way, challenging the established tyre-makers, Goodyear and Dunlop.

Chris had an uncanny ability to be able to detect the slightest changes in a car’s behaviour after the various changes made by the engineers. During one testing session, the tyre engineers decided to play a trick on him. After some high-speed laps in a racing car he came into the pits, the engineers gathered and there was a debriefing session.

Chris had lunch and when he returned he was told to do some more laps on another set of tyres and wheels but they were, in fact, unchanged from those he’d previously tested. He went out and the engineers started to have serious doubts about the wisdom of what they had done. It was a trick that could have back-fired and damaged Chris’ reputation.

But when Chris came back in he said: “You know, if you hadn’t told me you’d fitted new wheels and tyres, I’d swear that they were the same. I could tell no difference.”

His testing abilities were confirmed when he joined Ferrari, with Enzo Ferrari calling him the best test and development driver the Scuderia had ever had.

The Motor Show

In the early ’80s, four or five years after retiring from racing and returning to the family farm, Chris became a regular contributor to the television programme, The Motor Show, hosted by long-time broadcaster and car enthusiast, Dougal Stevenson. Chris’ role was to thrash the living daylights out of cars around Manfeild motor racing circuit and evaluate them in terms of handling, ride and other qualities.

“He was particularly harsh on Toyota products,” says Alistair Davis, now managing director and chief executive officer of Toyota New Zealand.

“This didn’t sit well with us at all, and there was quite a bit of anger welling up at what we thought was unfair criticism of the cars.

“Initially some toyed with the idea of ignoring the criticism and dismissing Chris as ‘just a retired racing driver’ – but that wasn’t the way of Bob Field, who was running the company at that time. Bob suggested that we should be pro-active and get Chris into the office for a talk, and see if there was any way we could turn this into an opportunity.”

Bob Field found Chris calm, polite and very diplomatic, but he challenged him to develop the cars into something better. Chris accepted the challenge, and so an unusual partnership was created.

Fettling the Corolla.

Remember, this was the era of local assembly when requirements called for a large percentage of the vehicles to be manufactured in New Zealand.

“In February 1983, we were getting ready for the first front wheel drive Corollas, and Japan sent us down excellent working drawings for the components we were going to have manufactured locally,” says Alistair.

“But as good as the drawings were, we still needed to have complete cars to fit these components to, to ensure they were 100 per cent accurate.

“So we also got two factory prototypes - a sedan and a liftback - and because they were still highly secret and hadn’t been seen anywhere in the world, we disguised one as an Alfa Romeo and the other as an Audi, complete down to the badges.”

Alistair told us in his own words what happened:

“We took these cars to Manfeild and handed them over to Chris. In his usual manner he focused on the good points first, but then started making suggestions.

“His first call was to have a roll-bar fitted. Now Japan just didn’t do rollbars - cars were built to a cost and it was felt in Japan that a roll-bar was an unnecessary cost, so there was none.

“Chris drew one up and we had it made in Australia, fitted to the car and decided to adopt it for local assembly along with the other changes he suggested.

“Chris worked very closely with one of our engineering staff, Ashton Rowe, and they quickly became a team. The result was a Toyota Corolla that rode and handled superbly - far better than anywhere else in the world.

“That car was a huge success for us. Sales boomed and took Corolla from eighth in the New Zealand market to number one. Around the world, the car had only been getting mediocre reviews, but in New Zealand they were rave reviews. Japan wondered what we were doing so right in New Zealand and they thought it must have been our marketing. They looked at our advertising and saw the connection with former Formula One driver Chris Amon and became very worried.”

So concerned was Japan that they sent the designer, Fumio Agetsuma, to New Zealand to investigate. Alistair says this was a first for Toyota - it just wasn’t done to change factory specifications, but the proof was in the reviews and the sales they were getting.

Two Corollas were taken to Manfeild for Agetsuma to try himself - a Japanese spec’ car and one that had been ‘Amonised.’

The result convinced the Japanese that the New Zealand car was far superior and they took Chris to Japan to advise on other products.

A tribute from Bob Field

I first met Chris 34 years ago - he had recently rubbished the ride and handling of our Corolla on national television so I was not expecting our meeting to go well. I was so impressed by his humble and pragmatic approach that he left that meeting with a contract to help us with the suspension for the new Corolla in 1984.

Chris developed a close mutual respect with TMC Japan’s Chief  Engineer and the practice of tuning Toyotas specifically for New Zealand driving conditions became official policy from that moment.

Toyota Japan was so impressed with Chris that they invited him into their own development process. The only problem was that Chris didn’t want to spend long periods of time in Japan.

But such was Chris’s growing reputation that Toyota Japan agreed to bring their development programme to New Zealand. And so started a long succession of prototype models being developed by Chris and our local engineers - a unique honour that had never been afforded to anyone else.

Five years after engaging Chris as a consultant we became No 1 in this market, where we have remained for 29 straight years. How much of our success is due to Chris is hard to say. But when you consider that he transformed a weakness in our product into a compelling competitive advantage, I would describe his contribution as monumental.

Almost single - handedly he raised the safety and quality of Toyota suspensions - first here and then globally. And this in turn forced other car makers to raise the ride and handling safety of their own cars.

One can only imagine the number of lives that have been saved by his work - it is probably in the thousands and, for me that will be his enduring legacy.

In all the many tributes flowing following his passing, a consistent theme was Chris’s humility and consideration of others. His modesty meant a reluctance to make speeches at the product launches of vehicles he had worked on - he always worried that he may talk about things people weren’t really interested in. We eventually solved that problem by setting up Q&A sessions at these launches and they worked a treat - the questions would extract from Chris a never - ending flow of absolutely compelling stories about all things motoring.

So, on behalf of all our people who worked closely with him on product development (Paul Carroll, Spencer Morris, Bruce Buckland, Will Kennedy and the late Ashton Rowe to name a few) I would like to thank Tish and all of Chris’s family for sharing him with us.

Family was never far from his mind so we can appreciate and empathise with the deep sense of loss you are feeling today.

It was an absolute privilege to work with him and a special honour to have been his friend.

Breaking the Rules

Despite the fact he had spent 17 years of his life travelling internationally - and that he was a licensed pilot - Chris famously didn’t like flying much, and he didn’t get to Japan as often as the Japanese wanted.

“He went perhaps six times,” says Alistair.

“But the first time was something to be remembered. Ash Rowe was with us and we arrived at one of Toyota’s test tracks where there was a team of engineers and test drivers waiting for us. The news that Chris Amon, a former Formula One driver, was arriving was widespread and one of the test drivers was anxious to show Chris how good he was.

“Chris was never a good passenger, but out they went and did several laps and when they came in Chris was as white as a sheet and had to go off and have a cigarette or two to calm himself.

“Then Chris took the test driver out for some laps and broke the lap record, from a standing start. When they came back, the test driver said that Chris was a very good driver.”

When it came to developing the cars in New Zealand, again Chris broke all the rules.

“Before the testing, Chris would ask that the Toyota engineers bring to the circuit all of their optional suspension components - springs, shock absorbers, bushes etc. Again Chris would be very diplomatic, saying the car was very good, he liked the seats, he loved the engines, he liked the position of the rear vision mirrors - but, maybe it understeered just a bit too much.

“Then Chris and Ashton Rowe would go off by themselves into a huddle, with Chris smoking and Ash taking notes, and they’d come back to the engineers with their list of changes. At first the engineers were horrified because that wasn’t the way you did things - changes were made one at a time and the results of each change evaluated. But here was Chris Amon suggesting mass changes, all at once.”

But again, the proof was in the results.

A tribute from Alistair Davis

I first met Chris in January 1968 just after he had won the Levin round of the Tasman Series. I was 10. He was my hero and he generously signed my autograph book. I followed his exploits for the next half dozen years as his career waxed and waned.

Sadly I lost the autograph but in my office I have a large Michael Turner painting of Chris at the 1967 British GP, which Chris signed a good 40 years later. There has always been a bit of hero worship in our relationship.

Once we stopped assembling cars in New Zealand we wondered whether we should end our relationship with Chris now that we could no longer use his skills for development. But we kept on using him to test our thinking on new models - to get a professional and independent opinion on how our product compared with others.

We also involved him in our motorsport activities.

In the 1980s he helped us to campaign Celicas and Corollas under the banner of Toyota Team New Zealand.

He also did a bit of competitive driving for us. Over his career of course he drove many different classes of car, from F1 to Indy cars to Can Am touring cars. But when he drove for Toyota he was in perhaps slightly less exotic machinery than many here today would associate with Chris. He did a Targa with Murray Walker and one of the strangest was competing in and winning the ENERGYWISE Rally in a second-generation Prius. Such was his competitive instinct that he spent weeks honing his economy driving skills and every morning he would polish the bonnet and windscreen to ensure the best possible fuel consumption.

Besides that involvement, we collectively hankered to get young New Zealanders back to the top of motorsport - back to the glory days of Chris, Bruce and Denny.

And that is where the Toyota Racing Series (TRS) came in. To give Kiwis a better chance at the big time we needed a more competitive class of racing in New Zealand, with a more technically advanced single-seater vehicle - one with wings and slicks.

In the early 2000s we collectively started to hatch a plan for TRS.

Chris became the patron of the TRS and the trophy, a model of his iconic helmet, bears his name. TRS quickly became the premier race series in the New Zealand motorsport calendar and sparked a revival of open-wheeled racing in this country.

Since we started, the series has had three international and nine local winners.

But more importantly, many local drivers have honed their skills in TRS and have gone on to outstanding international careers. To further boost the opportunities for Kiwis we started a Kiwi Driver Fund, of which Chris was the founding patron (although he told us he would prefer the title El Capo).

Part of what made TRS a success was the gravitas and credibility of Chris Amon. He helped attract both local and international entrants. When we had administrative or technical problems he was always there to give advice or often just keep us grounded. Chris was a great encourager. He was always approachable. He had time for everyone.

The young drivers who entered TRS were always impressed at how available and approachable Chris was. Chris was an active patron of Toyota each year and always willing to talk to customers, to drivers, to team members, anyone.

In a world where sports stars are protected by agents, minders, headphones and reflective sunglasses, Chris was unassuming and modest - always available to offer encouragement and advice when required. He was still a hero decades after his motor racing retirement - to people who remembered the '60s and even to those born this century. I guess that sums up Chris – he epitomised the humble Kiwi achiever - a self-effacing global star who never lost sight of his roots and his connection to ordinary people. He was embarrassed by the hero worship of my childhood - but he was a hero

He made a massive contribution to building the Toyota brand in NZ and helped us revitalise NZ motorsport and thus develop the careers of the next generation of racers. Giving back to the sport that made him a star. He made a difference to everyone he met.

On behalf of all his Toyota friends, and in particular Barrie and Louise Thomlinson, John Fowke, Steve Boyce and Andrew Davis who helped build TRS, I offer our sincere condolences to Tish and all of Chris' family. May our hero rest in peace.

The Toyota Family

Chris’ direct involvement with the dynamic set-up of New Zealand’s vehicles started in 1983, and continued right through to the end of local assembly in 1997. During that time, he developed the Corolla, Corona and Hilux for the New Zealand market as well as some work on the Camry.

He also became very much a part of the Toyota family and was a regular face at the company’s media launches, where journalists would hang on every word, hoping there might be a chance to be a passenger with Chris if the event was being held at a motor racing circuit like Manfeild.

The end of local assembly, didn’t mean the end of Chris’ involvement with Toyota.

“We appreciated Chris’ opinion on all our new products,” says Alistair.

“After he sold the farm at Bulls and shifted to Taupō, Bruce Buckland and Ashton Rowe would take new vehicles up to him and spend time with him, talking about the cars. Chris remained a valuable part of our team and remained so until shortly before his death.”

And then there was the motorsport connection. Toyota New Zealand’s first real involvement with the sport was in the ’80s when the company entered competition with Celicas and Corollas - Chris was very involved in the development of those cars.

“Because of our close association with Chris, it was natural that when the Toyota Racing Series was created he be associated,” says Alistair.

“We wanted to do what we could to help revive the glory days of New Zealand racers competing internationally, and that meant a single-seater racing formula that had wings and slicks and offered a challenge to young drivers.”

So, a management committee was formed within Toyota New Zealand to find a way to do this.

“The committee consisted of Steve Boyce, John Fowke, myself and Chris,” says Alistair.

“We suggested to Japan that we introduce the Japanese Formula Toyota to New Zealand, but they didn’t allow that. Instead, we went to Italy and got the Tatuus chassis and brought the car here to be powered by locally modified production 2ZZ GE engines.

We asked Chris to be involved with TRS as the patron, because of the gravitas he brought to it. In some ways, TRS has become so popular that the international entrants we get each season are squeezing the local drivers out. So we decided to create the Kiwi Driver Fund, again with Chris as the patron, which allows promising young drivers to apply for funding.”

But the competition career of Christopher Arthur Amon wasn’t quite over - it wasn’t Formula One, but his next competitive drive was a run in the 2003 Targa in a slightly modified Toyota Camry Sportivo with legendary F1 commentator Murray Walker as his co-driver. And there was one more.

“We entered Chris in the 2004 ENERGYWISE Rally,” says Alistair.

“He drove a second-generation Toyota Prius and he took it very seriously.”

Chris learned the technique of driving the hybrid car as economically as possible, and was rewarded with what was to be his final competition success.

“Chris won the event overall with a remarkable four litres per 100 kilometres. That’s never been beaten and it was a result that Chris was very proud of, and a fitting end to the career of the sport’s elder statesman.”