This country's number-one carmaker has a niche market of avid enthusiasts
Twenty-five years ago this month, Aucklander Neil Fraser ordered the materials he needed to fill a whopping three orders and started what is now New Zealand's largest car manufacturer.
Back then, New Zealand factories were still assembling tens of thousands of vehicles a year so Fraser's cars, built from scratch, were less than a drop in the bucket. But the bucket was about to spring a leak.
As the assembly industry wound down and ended, Fraser's little firm on Auckland's North Shore revved up. Although all-time production is still fewer than 350, the company now stands proud as our No1 carmaker.
With annual output usually typically fewer than a dozen it's fair to say that Fraser Cars Ltd supplies a niche market. But what a niche.
It started when the young motorsport enthusiast was racing a Lotus Cortina and couldn't help notice how well the Lotus Seven two seaters did on the track. Being a dextrous Kiwi, Fraser decided to build his own version.
The Seven had first appeared in 1957, quickly becoming a sensation in club racing. Its popularity was boosted because it could be built at home from a kit, saving serious money in taxes. After production ended in 1972, the design went to a major dealer, Caterham Cars, which still makes it.
In a twist to the story, a major New Zealand car assembler, Steel Brothers, built Lotus Sevens in Christchurch for domestic sales and export, the last in March 1979.
Fortuitously, Fraser took his newly finished Series III lookalike to the annual motor show in Auckland where it attracted huge interest, and those three firm orders.
A quarter of a century later, the frame of the first car hangs on the wall of Fraser world headquarters, an unpretentious two-floor factory unit in Birkdale. The car was damaged racing about 20 years ago. One day, when there's time, it will be reassembled and returned to the road, or track.
Fraser retired from the car-making business, selling the firm in 2006 to his foreman, Scott Tristram, and wife Ida, in what they describe as a "protracted" timetable - just as well, as the couple had no business experience. Scott's background was originally as an engineer in the luxury end of the marine industry and Ida was a teacher.
"Well, life's short," says Scott, of the ownership change, "why not enjoy what you're doing?"
Today, the enthusiastic duo run a thriving business - it's more of a "Fraser family" really - that involves not only building the Clubman series of cars, but doing maintenance work, assembly of other high-end kit cars like a recent Cobra, restoration, and preparation.
The couple established a strong internet and social media profile for Fraser Cars and have customers in Australia, Japan and America.
On the internet customers get regular photo updates. Once delivered, the owner can report on modifications, exploits, or just chat about it on the website.
The Tristrams also organise and support club days to bring owners together and give them a chance to get some track time. Most recent was a silver anniversary weekend at Taupo that attracted more than 50 Frasers and similar cars. Yup, they let rival makes join in.
These days many Frasers are used as street cars, although usually only on nice days. A standard Clubman has no weather protection, no ABS, no stability control, no airbags, no radio, no heater, no self-cancelling indicators, no power steering ... and no doors.
It takes a special kind of person to appreciate a Fraser, let alone put down the $50,000 or so to own a new one. And that's building it yourself. Most Frasers are sold as kits, for the owner to finish as time and finances permit.
The whole car doesn't arrive all at once like some giant Meccano parts bin. A builder can start with, say, a rolling chassis, then add other component kits later. Some Frasers won't see the road for months or years after the parts have left the factory, but Scott says they do get finished. To his knowledge only one has ever been sold as an unfinished project.
A Toyota twin-cam of the type used in the Celica is usually the engine of choice, although almost anything that fits can be substituted. When Driven visited, mechanics were working on one with a Mazda V6. Ford Duratec 2-litre engines are becoming popular alternatives but, no, they've never done a rotary or a tarmac-ripping V8.
"We'd actually love to do a V8," says Tristram, gleam in eye, "but it takes dollars."
Lotus Seven replicas are common internationally, but the Fraser Clubman series stands out because of its high level of craftsmanship - and there's not a robot in sight. It also remains true to the spirit of the Series III original. Ida regards the cars more as works of art than competitive club racers.
Her view is shared by those owners who lavish love and attention on their gleaming garage beauties, and rarely take them on to the road.
Because the Clubman has been in demand for a quarter of a century and shows no sign of letup, the Tristrams have no plan to introduce a new model. However, many subtle changes have been made to the design over the years.
One of their treasured company documents is a well-thumbed "little red book" that records the basic details of every Fraser built, started by Neil Fraser when he built Car One. It's a fascinating history that's updated each time another chassis is made. The Tristrams took over at chassis 290.
Trouble is, the book is getting full. Just like building a new model, having to go out and buy a new red book hardly seems right.
Low and open and a thrill to drive
It wouldn't suit many motorists, but it only takes a quick blast to understand why others would pay the price of a decent European hot hatch for a bare-bones Fraser Clubman.
Little else on four wheels puts the driver and passenger in contact with the road quite as intimately as a Fraser if you can get in.
A Fraser is long, low and lacks doors. To get in, the driver has to stand on the seat then, in a sort of crouch, work the knees under the steering wheel. Way down there somewhere are the pedals placed close together, making narrow shoes essential. The clutch pedal is
inconveniently to be polite about it close to the transmission tunnel.
Assemble the four-piece racing-type seatbelt, adjust the two panoramic outside mirrors, flick the ignition key somewhere under the dash and you're ready to go.
The Fraser company's demo Clubman has been set up for general duties rather than the track but it's still surprising to discover how flexible the Toyota twincam/five-speed combo is. Just like an ordinary car.