As we sat down with Allan Wills, the owner of the Oamaru Auto Collection, his first comment was that if he were 17 years old again, you would probably see his name featured largely in the local press for regular bouts relating to ‘sustained loss of traction.’ However, we all seem to mellow with age and, indeed, the same would probably apply to many of us classic car enthusiasts. No doubt more than a few received our fair share of chastisements from the MoT during our earlier years.
Allan’s passion for cars began back in the ’60s when his cousin took him along to watch a standing quarter-mile sprint. This sport was quite a big deal in those days, and one of the cars Allan clearly remembers was an extremely quick race-fettled Mini Cooper S. The car left a lasting impression on Allan – then only 15 years old. From that point he became interested in motor sport and, by the age of 16, he’d competed in his first gravel hill-climb event.
Since then, Allan has taken part in many forms of motorsport on and off over the years — including hill climbs, quarter-mile racing and car trials, the latter inevitably leading on to rallying. Allan competed in his first rally event in 1974 driving a Ford Anglia, and spent the subsequent 10 years competing in rallies throughout the country in a variety of different machines. As well as the Anglia, he also competed in three Escorts and a Mazda RX-3.
By 1984, Allan decided to give rallying a rest partly due to the fact he’d simply run out of money. Anyway, it was also time to move on to other things.
Some years later, when he was in his early 40s, the owner of one of his old rally cars phoned and told him that his wife had just presented him with twins, and would he like to purchase his old rally car back. Allan agreed to buy the Escort and, along with his co-driver from the early days, Pete Fridd, competed in the first classic rally that was run in conjunction with the National Championship round at Dunedin in 1997. This was the first classic rally ever held in Dunedin, and the event has continued ever since, with many notable international drivers such as Björn Waldegård, Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen competing at different times.
Allan and Pete were fortunate enough to win the first event and were third the second year, enjoying every moment of being back behind the wheel of his Escort.
Allan has also built an older style 500SLC Mercedes-Benz, inspired by the 1980 Motogard Rally of New Zealand for which Mercedes brought out a few coupés to compete. Coincidentally, Allan also competed on that event. The sound of the Mercedes-Benz V8s — not something normally heard in the forests of the South Island — left a lasting impression with Allan.
The Oamaru Auto Collection story began almost 19 years ago when Allan mentioned to his partner, Carol, that they should perhaps consider buying an old house to restore. Not long after that, Carol rang to say she’d found an old building, but it was a bit bigger than what they had originally intended. Subsequently, they viewed the property.
It was still very much a dream at that stage, but something they both really wanted to do one day. Allan was very much aware of the old saying, “I wished we had done that then, but never got around to it,” and decided to take the gamble by purchasing the beautiful old building. The original part was constructed in 1881 as a bulk grain, seed, and wool-storage facility. The rear section of the building was added to in 1940, noticeable by its more modern type construction. The addition was made because during the second world war, much of New Zealand’s wool was sent to the UK to support the war effort and wasn’t permitted to be transported twice on the local railway, which meant wool from the local area was transported to the store, auctioned and sold to avoid double handling. Many wonderful old photographs still hang on the wall showing the wool being handled and auctioned during that period.
This magnificent building has always been put to work, according to Allan, and was still used for storage when they purchased it 19 years ago. When he and Carol originally spoke to the owner of the building about leasing it, he said he was quite happy to sell it to them, which he did.
Once they’d taken ownership of their new project Allan and Carol wasted no time in renovating the building with the intention of having a gift shop, café, and car museum downstairs with working artists’ galleries upstairs. The rear of the building lent itself very nicely to a car collection, and they could envisage different cars to display as well as an opportunity to highlight their interest in motor sport.
Word of mouth
Allan’s partner Carol has also been heavily involved in motor sport on the organizational side of things, and was able to provide a lot of assistance in setting up this amazing car museum. As Allan and Carol have been involved in different car clubs and motor sport for many years, they are lucky to have access to the owners of many interesting classic and competitive vehicles. Word of mouth has also played an important factor, and many owners of classic cars contact Allan, happy to lend the museum their prized possessions for a period of time that suits them, depending on their circumstances. Some of the cars displayed belong to the museum and some belong to local owners, with the exception of a few that come from outside Oamaru.
The collection is also home to the ex-Stig Blomqvist / Malcolm Stewart Audi Quattro rally car. This Group B Audi was used by Stig Blomqvist during his successful bid to be the 1984 World Rally Champion and, here in New Zealand, Malcolm Stewart also had plenty of success with this car.
Allan is very conscious that not everyone shares his own individual taste in classics, and tries to keep a good cross section of vehicles in the museum to cater for different tastes. That seems to work extremely well, as I can definitely attest.
The Oamaru Auto Collection is open to the public seven days a week and is a must see for anyone traveling to the area.
Take a look at the gallery below to truly appreciate the collection.
This article originally appeared in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 263. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: