Leading the Charge
66 Magazine sat down for an exclusive interview with Giltrap Group founder, Sir Colin Giltrap.
66 Magazine sat down for an exclusive interview with Giltrap Group founder, Sir Colin Giltrap.
Across 50-plus years at the forefront of New Zealand’s automotive industry, there remains a distinct throughline in the remarkable career of Sir Colin Giltrap.
It’s an absolute passion for cars and driving. And now, after a lifetime dealing in internal combustion, his main automotive passion is for electric vehicles.
With a view of the Waitemata Harbour and Downtown Auckland, it is the pick of the offices at the Giltrap Group headquarters. It's also usually empty.
If you want to track down Sir Colin Giltrap (the first rule: “it's just Colin”), your best bet is to head to one of the Group’s various Great North Road showrooms. We tracked down the famously reluctant interview subject in the comfortable surrounds of Bentley Auckland.
It's not the chairs upholstered in genuine Bentley hides which attract Giltrap to the showroom; at 80, his enthusiasm and passion for both his customers and the latest cars remain as strong as ever.
"I've still got energy, and Jenni doesn't want me at home all day. I enjoy being at work and in the showrooms and I’m still excited by every new model,” he says.
As reassuring as the legacy of a marque like Bentley is, it’s the new features that usually pique Giltrap's interest. From technology to design, it's this automotive curiosity which is responsible for more than six decades as an industry leader in New Zealand.
"I still like going to motor shows to see the latest and greatest cars. Going to Geneva or Paris to get the first look at the next season's cars – if you were using a fashion term – still excites me. We always want to sell the latest and greatest; that's what keeps the business going. Cars really are like fashion, and the fashion now is electric vehicles."
Having first met Colin on pit lane of the Paul Ricard Circuit in France, where the ear-splitting noise of an unmuffled race engine, combined with the aroma of freshly burnt racing fuel seemed to ignite in him a whole new level of enthusiasm, I was ready to assume he would be an unwavering fan of internal combustion.
However, it turns out that this dyed-in-the-wool petrol-head has experienced what can only be described as an 'electric epiphany.'
"Believe it or not, I've fallen in love with electric cars,” he says.
“If you’d asked me two years ago, I'd have said not a chance. But after driving a Jaguar I-Pace in London and then an Audi e-Tron in Auckland, I'm absolutely sold on them. They are so good around town. The quietness, everything; it's quite an advancement. Everybody has to be a bit green today; we have to look after the planet for future generations."
Being ‘a bit green' even stretches to the building we are sitting in. The Giltrap Group headquarters was purposefully designed to achieve the highest possible Green-Star rating.
“We were very keen to have a top-rated green building. We're selling cars that are all designed to have the lowest possible emissions, so it's good to have a green building for the future. This is built for the long term."
There is a reasonably strong chance that Giltrap isn't the only one surprised at his 'conversion'. After all, the internal combustion engine has powered a lifetime of success for he and his family.
"Electric cars are the immediate future; hydrogen is lurking in the background. EVs will be even better in two years. The batteries are situated close to the ground in the cars, so weight distribution and handling are both better, and that instant torque means they are fun to drive."
Cars have been a lifetime love for Giltrap, who was in the business a decade before co-founding Monaco Motors on Hamilton's Victoria Street in 1966.
He started trading cars while at New Plymouth Boys High School, beginning with Morris Minors.
"Since I was a young lad going to school, I was keen on luxury cars. When I was 18, I would buy used Jag's – the Mark 1 2.4's. I bought every one of them I could in Auckland and sold them in the Taranaki.
“My father had an agricultural equipment showroom that I would use to put the occasional special car on display in. His business did well, and he moved on to Hamilton. So, when he retired and sold the business, it gave me the opportunity to concentrate on good cars."
Before the advent of A1GP in 2005, Giltrap's support was mostly low-key. Once his 'Black Beauty' started winning in A1GP, however, the black and white Giltrap Group logo displayed across the car’s flanks became synonymous with success. Today, racers like GP3 World Champion Mitch Evans, V8 Supercar Champion Shane van Gisbergen and Brendon Hartley in Formula One continue to sport the Giltrap Group logo.
Matamata followed Hamilton, before a move north to Auckland where Giltrap bought Coutts & Company on Great North Road. The established dealership included “a lump of import licences”. In the days of strict import restrictions, building his allocation was key to bringing in the cars that he was so passionate about.
That passion has been paralleled by good fortune. The perfect example was the purchase of Coutts' which included the distribution of what was then a boutique brand: Audi. As with his decision to take on fledgling Hyundai a decade later, Giltrap's prescience would prove to be solid gold.
"Audi grew to Volkswagen, Bentley and all the great cars that are part of that Group today,” he says.
Hand in hand with the love of luxury cars is Giltrap's passion for performance, especially in its ultimate form, motorsport.
“I still get a kick out of watching a young Kiwi driver like Liam Lawson or Marcus Armstrong come up and take on the world. It's been great watching New Zealand drivers come to the attention of the big teams.”
Over and over again, the lines have converged in an almost poetic nature. Fifty years after he became friends with the late Bruce McLaren, Colin would open the world's 50th McLaren dealership.
From running Denny Hulme and Stirling Moss in endurance events to owning the race car that Scott Dixon drove to victory in Indy Lights, Giltrap has been inextricably linked with Kiwi motorsport success.
“My favourite time was the Tasman Series when we had (Sir) Jackie Stewart, Jimmy Clark, Bruce (McLaren), Graham Hill and Phil Hill here. We used to go water skiing at Lake Karapiro and Lake Taupo; all together as friends. Jackie Stewart still a very good friend and a terrific guy."
But if Giltrap was at the heart of motorsport, it is because motorsport is in his heart.
The romance blossomed in the 1960's when Giltrap become part of the Formula One jet set who spent European winters racing in New Zealand.
But the series he wants to talk about right now isn't the upcoming Formula One season.
In the same way that his everyday motoring has gone electric, Giltrap’s racing passions are also 'amped' up. He mostly wants to talk about the Mexico e-Prix, won the day before by Mitch Evans, one of three Giltrap Group-backed drivers competing across the two championships that headline FIA's electric series (Brendon Hartley also competes in Formula E, with Mitch’s brother, Simon Evans, racing in the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy).
In keeping with his growing EV passion, he has become a firm fan of Formula E, helped in no small part by the success of Evans, who with his victory in Mexico had taken the lead of the World Championship.
I was thrilled at that news. I'm already planning to be at this year's London E-Prix and the New York round also.
Two Giltrap backed drivers, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley, were instrumental in its success, with Bamber claiming victory in the world's biggest sports car race in 2015, and again with Hartley in 2017.
Of all the brands who have embraced electrification, Giltrap singles out Porsche as the world leader.
On the track, the 919 Hybrid was unbeatable for three years in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Seeing his drivers on the Le Mans podium was nothing compared to Giltrap's reaction after driving the Taycan, Porsche's first road going EV.
"It's the greatest car I have ever driven," he enthuses.
His smile is so wide, I'll admit to wondering if there is a punchline coming. Not a chance, as he continues to effuse.
Earl and Mark Webber told me it was amazing when they were demonstrating the Taycan at this year’s Leadfoot Festival. I had to drive it to believe it and it is the biggest surprise ever. It’s quick, it handles brilliantly and most of all it’s fun. It’s everything I love about a car, but more… and it's an EV!
The power source may have changed, but Giltrap's love of a good drive and a great car has never faltered.
“I've never wanted or thought of doing anything else. I'm so happy that the path I have been lucky enough to take has gone so well for us all.”
Words by Shaun Summerfield
Photos by Vinesh Kumaran and Giltrap Group archive
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