HIS name was Norman Smith, but they called him ‘Wizard’, because of his almost unbelievable driving skills and feats of endurance. He won more than 40 major reliability trials in the 1920s, and set 30 city-to-city interstate speed records – when racing cars over the dirt roads of Australia was still accepted.
Norman adopted the Nuvolari style of flatout driving – arriving at a corner almost out of control, throwing the car sideways until he reached the apex, slamming the foot down to straighten the skinny-wheeled vehicle, and roaring off again. He was that good.
Don Harkness was also a race car driver, and half of the Sydney engineering firm Harkness & Hillier. A brilliant designer, he was a friend to Norman, and the two decided in the late 1920s to begin work on a land-speed-record car based on a modified Cadillac chassis. The plan was to fit the car, which was dubbed ‘Anzac’, with an ex-RAAF, 1922 Rolls-Royce Eagle aero engine of 18.7 litres, which punched out 360bhp, and try for at least the 10-mile world land speed record on New Zealand’s Ninety Mile Beach, located in the top half of the North Island.
The finished car was a large two-seater, with open wheels and race car-styled long-bonnet body, and in 1929 it was shipped to NZ for the record attempt. Wizard was to be the driver, with Harkness taking the riding mechanic’s seat.
Wizard decided to tour the public roads of the North Island for publicity before the attempt, but only succeeded in stuffing the clutch.
Geared for 200mph, they bolted the clutch together overnight.
So it was a push-start the next day, and on the soft and rutted sand of the beach, with the sun in their eyes on the return run, they clocked an average of 149mph (240km/h) with a top of 168, to claim the Australasian 10-mile record.
The team then went back to Sydney to plan an all-out attack on the land speed records of the world.
Smith and Harkness had a shoestring budget, but plenty of ambition. Somehow they persuaded the RAAF to release a classified 12-cylinder Napier Lion aero engine, which had a weird ‘broad-arrow’ cylinder layout with a bank of four in the centre, another bank of four on the left and another on the right.
Supercharged by a centrifugal blower, this massive engine developed 1450bhp and had pushed Henry Seagrave’s Golden Arrow landspeed car to a new outright record in 1929, averaging 231.45mph (372km/h) over the two-way measured mile at Daytona Beach.
The RAAF wanted a security deposit of £5000, which was paid by an ex-politician, so in his honour the new car was named the Fred H Stewart Enterprise.
They made the girder chassis of the 10-metrelong car, fitting two clutches and a hydraulic gearbox driving split-vee driveshafts that went back to each individual rear wheel, with a choice of two final drive ratios. That move achieved a low seating position for Smith. The 10-stud wheels were 239mm in diameter with smooth Dunlop tyres guaranteed to 300mph, and the car had only 20 degrees of steering.
The Enterprise was shipped to NZ early in January 1932, but Smith refused to fit the two side radiators Harkness had supplied and had a conventional assembly fitted up front instead, resulting in a very public falling out between the two.
But finally, on 26 January 1932, when the tide was right, Wizard took his seat and steered the car to a 149mph (240km/h) first leg with a top of 227 (366km/h), barely able to see with sand clogging his goggles. They had to replace all four expensive Dunlops – cut to pieces by the exposed toheroa shells – with conventional road-racing tyres for the return run. On that run the Enterprise got airborne after hitting a stream at over 200mph, clocking 178mph (288km/h) to set a new 10-mile two-way world record of 164mph (264km/h).
Smith, sand-blasted and with badly bruised shoulders, sat and waited for months for the weather to clear in order to try and beat Sir Malcolm Campbell’s mile and five-mile world records. Eventually, after Smith had a new sandclearing windscreen fitted, on 1 May 1932 he tested the Enterprise and announced he was ready to try for a record. The first run was to start from the south, but in the run-up to the start/ finish line, the engine suddenly burst into flames.
Those bloody toheroa shells had managed to squirt water into one of the magnetos, and the bottom-mounted carburettor caught fire, which caused Smith to make a hasty exit from the car while it was still travelling at 31mph (50km/h).
After that failed attempt, Wizard returned to Australia, where he sued Smith’s Weekly for calling him a coward. Fred H Stewart got his money back, and Smith retired a bitter man to fish and play golf. The feud between Norman and Don was over, the Napier engine went into a speedboat and the chassis of the 10-mile record-breaker sat slowly rusting for years behind Smith’s Sydney garage.
The wizard driver passed away on 1 October 1958, while Don Harkness the brilliant engineer died in 1972. That was the end of an astonishing era, of two brave men who set out to challenge the world of outright speed. s