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40 Years of Almac Cars

By Patrick Harlow


At one time the Hutt Valley could have been considered the Detroit of New Zealand starting with the arrival of General Motors in 1926, followed by Rover in 1932. Rover only lasted a little over a year. Four years later, Todd Motors and Ford had joined the fray building factories to assemble Ford, Chrysler, Dodge, Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam cars. Austin arrived in 1946 and eventually became New Zealand Motor Corp (NZMC). At one stage almost three-quarters of New Zealand’s automotive production was coming from the Hutt Valley. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was one of the few places in New Zealand that regularly had zero unemployment.

By 1990, after around 60 years of manufacturing in the Hutt Valley, it was all gone, with one notable exception, Almac Cars in Upper Hutt. Almac was in the business of building stunning automotive fibreglass bodies with a separate tubular steel chassis.

Unlike the fully built-up car industry, the kit car industry still had a few years to go before entering its twilight. It is a twilight that has, thanks to the hands of many enthusiasts, lingered on until today with a handful of companies still building kitset cars throughout New Zealand. Of these, Almac Cars, is the longest surviving, and one of the most successful. It may have never happened if Alex McDonald had not met and fallen in love with a young Kiwi primary teacher who went to work in England as part of her big OE.

Alex started work as an apprentice fitter and turner, graduating as a draughtsman for Vickers Armstrong in the UK. In the late ‘50s, the first boom period for kit-cars was in full swing. Thanks to the mainstreaming of fibreglass production several companies were selling unique fibreglass bodies designed to utilise parts from mass-produced cars such as the Ford 10 and Austin 7 to create lightweight sports cars. One of these was Jem Marsh who would later go on to found Marcos Cars. Initially, he had a business selling go-faster bits for Speedex cars and would eventually tentatively dip his toe into the kit car market with a pretty coupe called the ‘Speedex Sirocco’. What is interesting is that only 11 Sirocco kits were sold between 1960 and ’63; what is important is that one of these kits was bought by Alex McDonald for £90.

In those days, the kits were very crude by modern standards and to build it Alex had to teach himself how to fibreglass. Three years later, he was driving the Sirocco, powered by a Ford 100E side-valve engine, out on dates with his Kiwi girlfriend.  He drove it around for a couple of years before trading it for a TVR Grantura and then on to an MG Midget before he emigrated to New Zealand in 1967. He settled in Upper Hutt, working as a draughtsman for Dunlop.

In 1971, Alex decided to be his own boss and started a fibreglass business, Almac Reinforced Plastics, in Nicolaus Street, Upper Hutt. His timing could not have been better as the ‘70s was a boom period for fibreglass products, with even architects using it to enhance buildings. Everything was being made using fibreglass, from garden furniture to building ornaments. Almac procured a contract to repair the doors on the Wellington commuter trains. Other contracts involved making props for both movie and TV, including Lord of the Rings and Avatar, truck wind deflectors and playground equipment. With business going well and a bit of cash in hand, Alex decided to go back to his love of cars. It was time to create his own Almac car.

His first attempt was a Mini-based sports car, but it never got past the mock-up stage. This was the era of the Beach Buggy and, inspired by the popularity of the VW, for his second attempt, he decided to use a VW chassis. Simply called the ‘Yellow Car’, it was a wedge-shaped coupe, which was the popular style at the time, shared by cars such as TVR and the Lotus Esprit. Sadly, the Yellow Car was never finished, as, by the end of the ‘70s, the world had moved away from the VW-based kits. The beach buggy craze was on the wane, and, although Alex did not know it the Cobra craze was about to start.

For a first-time build, it is easier to learn from something that already exists than it is to blaze a new trail with something untried and unproven. So, Alex decided to set his dream of creating a unique Almac car aside for a short time and started work on a car that would be sold in kitset form as a close facsimile of the AC 427 semi-competition Cobra. His first attempt at building the car started with the modification of a fibreglass body he had bought at auction. However, it quickly became apparent that it would be much easier to start from scratch.

In 1981 there was not much information in books or magazines about the Cobra. Airfix was producing a plastic 1/24 scale model Cobra at the time. This model along with some profile drawings found in a modelling magazine became the basis for the buck. Working as time permitted Alex spent the next couple of years building the buck out of foam and plywood. It was while the buck was taking shape that Alex met Grahame Berry of Graham Berry Race Cars.

Grahame, a well-known hot rod builder and automotive enthusiast, wanted to be involved, so Alex and Grahame came to an agreement: Alex made the body, Grahame made the chassis, with the car officially known as the ‘Almac 427SC’. Being a patternmaker by trade, Grahame also made several patterns for the unique aluminium parts such as the AC pedals and wheels. Graham Berry Race Cars also built several turn-key Almac 427SCs for customers.

A rolling chassis of the 427SC, with the body and steering fitted, was first displayed at the March 1984 National Hot Rod Show. Demand was such that 17 of the 427SCs were sold in the car’s first year of production. Almac Cars was now in busine̶ss.

Back then Alex believed he might be able to sell between 25 and 35 cars before the limited New Zealand market was saturated. He was wrong. Originally advertised in the NZ Hot Rod magazine, the car has taken on a life of its own and is now purchased by people from all walks of life and careers.

It is one of my biggest regrets that Alex never fitted an Almac badge to the bonnet of the car. Although it strongly resembled a Cobra it was in almost every dimension unique to Almac. The front suspension initially came from the Holden Torana and the rear from the Jaguar with a tubular platform chassis connecting them. The only Cobra part on the car was the windscreen, albeit an after-market version. These days even with the multitude of other Cobra-like cars out there, such as Factory Five, ERA, Backdraft and even one from Shelby, an Almac badged 427SC can stand proudly in the crowd. Most builders are unaware that these cars can be registered as an ‘Almac 427SC’ ̶  the registration sticker does not need the words ‘Cobra replica’ on it.

More than 350 427SC cars have been manufactured, of which at least 30 were sold overseas, and with more orders on the books this car still has a long life ahead of it.

By 1986, the Almac 427SC was selling so well that Alex, who had never been happy building something that somebody else had already created, decided to add another model to his marque. The intention was that this car would be cheaper and easier to build than the 427SC. Sticking with the retro theme, he designed a car inspired by the MG TC/TD. It was never intended to be a replica, so no measurements match the original, and the car was designed to fit a slightly modified Triumph Herald chassis. The ‘Almac TC’ was released to the public in 1986, and by New Zealand kit-car standards, could be called a success with 25 kits being sold in two years. This time, there was an Almac badge on the fibreglass grill surround and the boot.

It was a classic-looking roadster, complete with a long bonnet and a turning circle that few cars can beat. The Herald was originally intended to be the single donor, but builders were soon putting bigger motors into the car and Alex was not happy with a modern Toyota 2.0-litre engine going in a car with a chassis that was originally built in the ‘60s.

From this would evolve the 1989 Almac TG, the first car with a body and chassis completely designed by Almac. Visually, it was a facelift of the earlier car, but underneath it had a modern steel tubular chassis designed to take the drive train of an Isuzu Gemini. The recommended engine was a Toyota Celica engine and gearbox. It was Almac’s first kit in a box; buyers could request everything, down to the last nut and bolt. Unfortunately, this more expensive model did not sell as well as its predecessor and demand tapered off after 16 or so had been made. Production of the TG stopped in 1991.

Working with his now adult son Stuart, Alex began work on a completely modern Almac sports car and, a modern interpretation of the Cobra. Alex believed that his new sports car could be built for as little as $25K. To keep prices down Alex used the Ford Cortina as the primary donor car. This was also the first Almac car to be sold with a comprehensive build manual. The prototype was originally fitted with a 2.0-litre Pinto engine but this was quickly upgraded to a much more acceptable Leyland 4.4-litre V8.

With a total of 36 different mouldings, this car was easily the most complex yet; despite that, the kit, including all the body panels and the spaceframe chassis could be bought for less than $10K. Sadly, when the Almac Sabre went on the market in 1994, Japanese-import MX5s could be bought second-hand for a similar price and the Sabre did not sell in the quantity expected.

In 2002 Alex completely redesigned the Sabre, giving it a much more modern appearance, and a chassis that was six times stiffer than the one it replaced. It was called the ‘Series 2 Sabre’, so the earlier model was then called the ‘Series 1’. The only Cortina part that remained was the windscreen, every body panel had been changed, and the drivetrain was now a Lexus V8 connected to a Supra five-speed gearbox. Sales did not improve. Production of the Sabre stopped in 2010 by which time nine Series 1 kits had been sold and five Series 2 kits. Of these, to date, six Series 1 cars and a single Series 2 car have been registered and are road-legal.

With Sabre sales not going anywhere Alex started looking around again for another car to produce. Grahame Berry was retiring and was happy to pass on a completed chassis and the jigs for a Seven-type car. Grahame had tinkered around with it but the car had only been sold in very small numbers through word of mouth.

To keep costs down the Seven was based on the Mark 1 or 2 Ford Escort mechanicals. Like the Sabre, Alex included a build manual with the kit. The car was introduced to the public as the Almac Clubsprint through NZ Classic Car magazine in 2002. The Escort-based Clubsprint kit could be bought for around $4K and built for a total investment of between 9 and $12K. The quality of the Almac-produced fibreglass panels was such that they did not require painting and could be ordered in a wide range of gelcoat colours. Powered by its Escort donor motor, it was never the fastest 7 on the market but, due to the high power-to-weight ratio, it could still give most pocket rockets a run for their money and easily beat them out of a corner.

By the time 2007 rolled around, Alex was very aware that the Ford Escort was an endangered species. Another donor car was needed.

In 2008, production of the Escort-based car was stopped after only six cars had been produced and Alex started work on a bigger Clubsprint. This would not only use a modern car as the donor, but it would also be 140mm wider and more user-friendly. The donor car this time was the NA and NB MX5 (1989-2005) with its huge spare parts availability and proven capabilities. Once again Alex used his fibreglass and design skills so that the final car did not look any bigger than other Sevens unless they were parked side by side. The car was built with adjustable bucket seats to accommodate drivers over 1.8 metres in height.

This kit only cost about $4,800 depending on what extras the builder wished to purchase. Again the all-fibreglass gelcoated body panels did not require painting. In addition, there is an extensive range of after-market parts and go-faster bits that are available for the MX-5 which could be fitted by the builder to get the performance desired. For several years this would be called the ‘Clubsprint XL’, with the ‘XL’ referring to its extra-large width.

Mechanically the car had all the the advantages of the MX-5 but with superior handling due to the low centre of gravity and weight. The entire rear independent suspension could be unbolted from the donor car and bolted onto the Clubsprint. Builders would get the bulletproof reliability of the MX-5 but with the classic and more aggressive lines of the Clubsprint. Since 2007 over 30 cars have left the factory. The most recent of which was electric.

By now Alex’s son Stuart had left his previous employment and, as of 2007, was working full-time alongside his dad. Once again with steady sales of both the Clubsprint and the 427SC, they began work on a unique electric commuter car. However, due to changes in government legislation and technology requirements, it was deemed not economically feasible, so it was shelved in 2012. Not giving up and sticking with what they knew, they started the development of a petrol-powered fastback coupe that would be called the ‘Series 3 Sabre’. Similar in style to the Nissan 370Z and the Toyota 86, but definitely an Almac. The chassis would have been based on the Clubsprint, but wider again. Currently, the car is still a long way from being ready and its future is uncertain.

During all this time production and development of the 427SC has not stopped. Alex has recently redesigned the chassis to take brand-new Mustang components. It is stronger and stiffer to handle the modern Ford Coyote V8.

Unfortunately, the Hutt Valley will not celebrate 100 years of automobile production. As of March 2024, Almac cars are no longer produced in Upper Hutt. They have now moved to Matamata, where production of the 427SC and the Clubsprint will continue under new ownership. In the future, enthusiasts will be able to opt to have an Almac 427SC built entirely in-house or, later, as a kit set with the option of using their brand-new componentry, or sourcing the parts and building it themselves, in their shed, in much the same way that Alex McDonald built his first Speedex Sirocco back in 1960.

This story would not have been able to be written without the people below providing their cars for the photoshoot. This is the largest collection and biggest variety of Almac cars that have ever been assembled in one place. A watershed moment.