The Gumboot Rally is a twice-yearly event run in New Zealand by a small group of committed petrolheads. The purpose being to explore and enjoy the best lesser-travelled roads in New Zealand, see some out of the way places, join in a scavenger hunt and have a great time. Each event is themed and teams put in quite an effort dressing up themselves and their cars. The theme for the September 2019 rally was “Gumboot Rally Championship” and I was determined to bring Project Rusty along, as it’s basically a rally car.
Well, life intervened, and as the rally drew nearer I realised that my car wasn’t going to be up to a 2000+ kilometre trip over a weekend, it was still partly dismantled, and had no WoF. And I didn’t fancy rushing it and coming back from another Gumboot on the back of an AA truck like last year’s Taupo event. Adding to that disappointment, my daily driver Audi A4 decided its cam chain tensioners had had enough, and it wasn’t economically viable to repair.
I couldn’t do the Gumboot without a car, so I had a chat with our friends at Holden New Zealand, and they had a new Commodore VXR available that weekend. As long as we brought it back in one piece as it was going to be signwritten and used as a show car at the Supercars race the following week. I thought this was an excellent choice – the new Commodore is a great car which gets an unfair amount of negative comment online purely because it’s not the same as the old Aussie-built car.
My co-driver and I flew up to Auckland the day before the rally and Ubered to Schofield Holden in Newmarket, armed with our Gumboot Rally sponsor sticker pack and most of the items on the infamous Gumboot “what to bring” list. All we were missing was a jerry can. Purpose unknown.
It was pouring with rain when we arrived and the car was sitting outside – not the greatest for sticking decals on a car. We talked nicely to the detailing guys and they let us move the car indoors and helped us dry it off. Soon we had the stickers installed and we were on our way to our hotel for the night. But not before we had a chance to stand back and have a good look around the Commodore. Finished in Absolute Red, with 20” wheels and red Brembo calipers, the Commodore VXR is a great looking car. And I think the rally stickers really look the part too.
The rally started this time at SafeStore in Westgate. We were a little delayed by grabbing the required jerry can, and the need for a Mcbreakfast, arriving at 9am just as the car park was filling up. It was quite a sight, packed with around 65 cars of all types and ages, from 1960s American cars, 1970s British, 1980s Japanese, 2000s Australian, and many more. Plus of course our shiny new 1200km Commodore, though the honour of being the newest car was taken by a bright Orange Colorado. Some serious work had been put into some of the cars for the event, not to mention the teams’ costumes.
Soon we were called indoors for the drivers’ briefing, where it was made clear that this event is on public roads, and road rules must be adhered to. We also had the first chance to look at our route books for the event. Finally the purpose of the jerry can was revealed – every time we were out of the car we had to carry it, or we’d be penalised on points. It was at that point some teams regretted bringing the biggest cans they could find!
As we queued to leave, we had a quick read of the book to get an idea of where we were going and what we had to do. The book consists of directions – which were a little clearer this time than previous events, and occasional questions based on things we would spot along the way. Then there are missions, such as “Go into Mitre 10 and buy rally supplies”. These ones always cause much amusement for locals when 65 cars and 140 people all arrive at about the same time and invade a local town or shop, dressed in costume and carrying jerry cans.
Bonus points can be achieved by spotting a series of landmarks along the way, and noting their order. We only managed to spot one of the nine so we failed that test!
Once we were out on the open roads we had a bit more of a chance to test the Commodore’s abilities. When you accelerate there’s a lovely growl from that 3.6-litre V6. It’s pretty quick too, with 235kW of power, driving all four wheels via a very slick 9-speed auto transmission. It’s a pretty big car but it handles well, it feels stable and planted and the 4 wheel-drive system lets you power around corners with ease. There is a fair bit of tyre noise from those 20” wheels on rougher surfaces,as you get with most cars. This was not unexpected but it seemed to confuse the voice recognition system several times, making it activate at random times with an Aussie-accented lady piping up with “How can I help you?”. What made it more irritating was when she was cancelled, and you just wanted her to shut up, she said “I hope I can help you next time”. Every time. Sigh.
At various points along the way, there’s a diversion onto gravel roads, with a tarmac alternative given if you don’t want to risk the dust and stone chips. Holden had given us the okay to take the gravel sections, so it would have been rude not to give it a go. Fortunately the rain had stopped, and the damp surface meant the roads were less dusty than they might usually be. They were great fun in the Commodore. When cornering on the more slippery surface there was initially a little understeer, then the four wheel drive and safety systems did their magic and the car just drove nicely around the bends, giving the driver a real confidence. We took it pretty easy, but that feeling of looseness on a gravel surface is really enjoyable.
By lunchtime the sun was blazing and outside temperatures up to 19 degrees. This was when we really appreciated the dual-zone climate control, but even more so, the ventilated front seats. As the event continued we found ourselves driving through farm country, coastal roads, tourist towns, stopping at various out-of-the-way spots and trying to complete our missions. The Commodore performed well throughout the day and was easy to jump in and out of to perform the various tasks.
I have to admit we cheated a little at the end of day 1 after about 300km of driving. The sun was low and in our eyes, and we were both getting pretty tired, so we skipped the final twisty bit, and ferry trip from Russell, and took a short cut up the main highway to the Copthorne in Paihia where the first day’s driving ended. We had a little extra time to check in and have a quick glass of wine before the evening meal and festivities.
At the overnight stop, the Gumbooters all sit down and have a buffet dinner together, and there’s a prize giving for best theme (voted for online). This is the chance to socialise and get to know a few people, or catch up with friends from previous events.
The next morning, after a very disappointing room service continental breakfast we gathered in the hotel car park with the others, ready to head off for the day. Day two was more of the same fun and games, more locations as we headed across to the West then meandered South towards the finish. One highlight was a bonus mission to call at the home of a Gumboot regular who wasn’t on this event and drop off an 80th birthday card for him. He had no idea that we were all coming to invade his street!
There were more highway sections on day two, with quite a big distance to cover, but we still managed some more gravel fun and a lot of great driving roads. A few times on the highway sections we made use of the Commodore’s smart cruise control to make sure we kept to speed limits, and took some of the stress out of the longer sections.
Eventually we all made it to the final destination at the Wade Tavern in Silverdale, for a well-earned meal and drink. It was another well-organised Gumboot Rally event and we had a great time. The Commodore performed flawlessly and coped with all of the roads effortlessly, keeping us comfortable and cool. Over the whole event the car was pretty good on fuel too, in fact we equalled the quoted figure of 8.9l/100km. Not bad for a big V6!
The Commodore VXR does a great job as a comfortable grand tourer, with enough power to make a satisfying drive, but plenty of comfort and safety features to make sure you’re well protected. Thanks again to Holden for loaning us the Commodore VXR.