Road of dreams

Wil's private track called 'The Road'; photo Chris Benny

To have a private race-track is truly something different, the ultimate luxury for one who loves
Ferrari and extreme performances. Here is the story of dean wills, passionate Australian Ferrarista who tells how, after a three-year journey littered with obstacles, this dream finally became a reality

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Bright Saturday and Sunday mornings were special for Dean Wills and friends. Early, the earlier the better, they rose to greet the rising sun and deserted roads in their Ferraris. The old Pacific Highway, ignored by everybody else for the motorway, stretched north from Sydney’s outer suburbs, a snaking, rolling slice of blacktop, ideal for blasting. Theirs was an indecent pleasure and kept them coming back, week after week. Except when it rained. The rule (no exceptions) was 58km/h through the tiny, 60km/h speed-limited villages. Once beyond the de-restriction signs, well, who knows how fast they went? The local police, tolerant of their behaviour and responsible attitude, left them alone to their enjoyment. Sometimes they even stopped to talk cars. Until, somebody (were they perhaps jealous?) reported them to different police station. One Saturday in 1996, Wills set out on his weekly indulgence in his new F 512 M, the last of the Testarossa generation of mid-engine, 180-degree, 12-cylinder Ferraris. Tearing south on his return, the Ferrari frolicking on the empty roads until his fun was interrupted by the sound of sirens. Flashing blue lights filled the F 512 M’s rear vision mirrors.

Driving licence cancelled, Wills contemplated a world without cars. In his despair, worried that ever increasing traffic, especially of pushbike riders, could result in an accident, and concerned that speed limits were both coming down and more stringently enforced, Wills seriously considered selling his not inconsiderable collection of wonderful cars to buy… a boat. What was the point of a Ferrari if it couldn’t be driven at all, let alone properly as the engineers intended? Life, Wills knew, would become no more than a dreary state of suspended animation. Until Margaret, Wills’ charming wife of 55 years planted an idea. ‘You’re OK to live with when you’ve got your cars, but without them you’re impossible. Why not build your own road?’ Initially, Wills wondered if he could buy a disused strip of road. No joy: disused roads were not for sale. The best solution was to build a suitable road.

So began a project that would last three years, consume money and required overcoming sceptical locals, who believed Wills was planning a motor-racing complex. The result, however, has achieved legendary status among Australia’s car enthusiasts. Few have seen The Road, even fewer have driven its sinuous curves. Rumours and conjecture abound on enthusiast internet forums. Everybody has heard or read something of The Road; it’s a private race-track; dozens of car clubs want details in order to hire the road for track days; various V8 Supercar teams, Australia’s national championship for the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, are (wrongly) said to use it for private practice.

Dean had simply stuck a compass on a map of Sydney and environs, centred on his home, and drawn a circle, based around how far he could drive in an hour. The search for suitable land within that circle began. Eventually, they found three parcels of adjoining land totalling 74 hectares (183 acres) on a ridge at Kulnura, near Central Mangrove, a comfortable hour’s drive north from his home. With a gravel sub-strata soil, it was an ideal place for the road of Wills’ dreams. The 5.1km long, 7.0m wide (the width of an Australian two-lane country highway) road took a year to build. With 22 corners – from flat-in-fourth sweepers to first-gear hairpins – a couple of longish straights and a return loop that creates a one kilometre karting track, for the Wills’ grand and great grandchildren, it’s hard to imagine how any enthusiast could ever become bored. An industrial road sweeper keeps the surface pristine. Dean also planned a five-car garage, plus an area at one end of the building for a toilet and coffee machine, for The Farm. Again Margaret offered sensible advice. ‘Look,’ she suggested to Wills, ‘why don’t you look after the road and the garage, and I‘ll look after the room at the end?’ That room grew to be an informal country home with a wide “all round” veranda, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large casual living area that’s now littered with motoring magazines. Former Australian racing driver Frank Gardner (he died in 2009), who won three British Touring Car championships and started in eight Grands Prix in the mid-’60s, walked the planned road in each direction, giving advice. Dean especially loved Gardner’s comment on the road’s tight esses. ‘There is no such thing as a bad corner, you just drive slower.’ After a few exploratory laps, ex-world champion bike racer, Wayne Gardner told Wills, ‘There is only one track in the world I prefer to your road and that’s Suzuka [the Japanese GP circuit].’

‘People are inclined to call it a track, but it’s a private road, a two-way country road,’ says Wills. True, as our photographs reveal. No barriers, no gravel run-off areas, no ripple strips, no garish advertising signs, nothing to suggest Wills’ wonderful road could be construed as a race-track. The road has no crown, flat curbs and regular road signs on each corner. It’s so politically correct that there are even recommended corner speed signs. The strip of blacktop runs through grassy fields, native Australian eucalyptus trees dot the paddocks and the road rises and falls with the undulations of the gentle hills. And, because the road is free of any of the safety measure now mandatory for a track, if you should somehow tire of perfecting the apexes, you can drive it in the other direction for an entirely different learning experience. Motoring heaven. With no cows or sheep or horses to upset the ecology, the Wills’ farm has also become a native habit for birds and animals. To prove the point, on the day we were there a Red bellied Black snake, not one of Australia’s most venomous snakes, slithered across the track. No racing is allowed and there is no official lap record, at least not one that is talked about in public.

‘The lap record is how long the smile lasts. That’s the only measure of time.’

Wills’ son Mark says: ‘The lap record is how long the smile lasts. That’s the only measure of time.’ ‘I don’t allow racing or timing,’ says Wills senior. ‘The best way to drive it is one gear higher than you expect. You need to be smooth everywhere, any jerky actions of brakes, or accelerator and you’re not fast. Today, I just like tootling around getting to know the car.’ The road is in demand for car-club events and launches for favoured manufacturers, but permission is rarely obtained, insurance is always a major issue. This is, above all else, a private road. Wills grew up in Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. From as early as he can remember, cars were his life. To this day he remembers the registration number of his father’s 1939 Ford V8 Deluxe: SA 196742. During school holidays, he began trading in second-hand cars, buying at auction in Melbourne and selling in Adelaide where prices were slightly higher. Already an astute business brain was in evidence.
In concert with his frequent car-buying activities, Wills’ career at cigarette company WD & HO Wills (no relation) was in the fast track. He became managing director and chairman in 1984 and, by the time he retired a decade later from the now Coca-Cola Amatil, he had increased the company’s capitalisation from AUS$400m (€295m) to AUS$8.5bn. ‘As motivation, my boss allowed me my way with motor cars. Through all these years I was nuts about cars.’ Almost all were sports cars: MGBs, a V12 E-Type Jaguar (‘one of the worst cars ever, but I loved it’), BMWs, Lamborghinis and the restoration of a Jaguar Mk V drophead.

Wills admits he is a serial supercar buyer, one who forgoes the more obvious trappings of wealth to buy and drive cars he loves. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that Wills was quietly working up to Ferrari. ‘My first Ferrari, a 308 GTS, was a company car,’ he admits cheerfully. ‘My boss told me I had to buy a Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t want to. A Mercedes was “too Doctor” to be acceptable. I wanted something that gave me pizzazz. Scuderia Veloce advertised the 308 in the local paper. Ironically it had been owned by a doctor who decided it wasn’t practical. It had never been pranged [“crashed”], had 10,000km on the odometre and was white with black upholstery. Now that was a car. That was November 1977. My boss was leaving on an overseas trip and I rang him and told him I’d found a Ferrari that I’ve got to have. The Mercedes was AUS$42,000, the Ferrari AUS$42,750.’ ‘If you have to have it, you have to have it,’ the boss told Wills. Ferrari bought, Wills used it as his daily drive. At the time Wills’ company was sponsoring the local BMW JPS racing team, headed by Frank Gardner. Wills complained to Gardner that the 308 was a bit skittish at the rear. ‘Frank said he would teach me how to drive, it was the greatest lesson I ever had and he cured the handling.’ After 34 Ferraris and counting (more than any other marque) Wills especially remembers the 330 GTC as the sweetest, the little Dino 246 (‘the best in Australia’) as perhaps the prettiest, the 612 Scaglietti as very colour dependent (‘blue works, not red or silver’) and a much missed 550 Barchetta, especially fitted with electric seats from a Maranello. But no Enzo or F50, two very special Ferraris, sadly only built with left-hand drive. ‘I won’t own a car I can’t drive up to the farm on a Sunday,’ says the pragmatic Wills.

‘The 599 is the best all-round car I’ve owned.’

His favourite Ferrari? ‘That’s easy, the 599,’ Wills smiles the smile of a man who knows of what he speaks. ‘The 599 is the best all-round car I’ve owned. You can drive it everyday, it looks great, yet with a down flick it drives like a racing car. But I would turn the bright work rusty with tears if I couldn’t have all the others.’ Today, the Wills 12-car garage houses three red Ferraris: California, Scuderia Spider 16M and, of course, a 599 GTB (his second). Wills’ cars are never driven on wet roads, they are beautifully maintained, always serviced according to the book, and detailed every six weeks and, because he has so much choice, their annual mileage is limited. All this helps maintain values when it comes to funding the next purchase. His next Ferrari? A 458 (red, with tan interior) is on order and arrives early in 2011. To drive The Road.

The prancing horse down under
The Australian love affair with Ferrari began as long ago as 1952, when Bill Lowe attempted to order a 212 direct from Maranello. Request denied because there was no factory representative in Australia, the solution was obvious. Lowe, a former amateur racing driver who finished third in the 1929 Australian Grand Prix, became the official Australian Ferrari importer. His Vignale-bodied 212 Export Coupe arrived soon after and a trickle of cars followed. During the early ’50s, at the same time Lowe was becoming a Ferrari dealer, wealthy enthusiasts ensured a variety of Ferrari Grands Prix and sports racing cars found their way to Australia: Type 500, 125 F1, 555 Supersqualo, Monza 750 and 375 Plus. For a time in the early ’60s, Ralph Lowe drove a 250 LM as his everyday road car (before it returned to Europe to act as the back-up car for the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hourwinning 250 LM of Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory), while the local Scuderia Veloce 250 LM won scores of endurance sports-car races on Australia’s Surfers Paradise, Longford and, most famous of all, Bathurst circuits.

Also during the ’60s, Ferrari competed in the Tasman Cup, an eight-race series in Australia and New Zealand that effectively duplicated the world championship. Chris Amon, who took a pair of Tasman Dino 246s Down Under, finished second to Jim Cark in the 1968 series and won the following year. It was Lowe who persuaded Ferrari to build the Dino 246 road cars in right-hand drive. In 1973 Lowes sold close to 50 cars, most 246 Dinos. By 1974, when Colonel Ronnie Hoare’s Maranello Concessionaires took over Australian distribution, Lowes where the oldest Ferrari importers in the world. Today, European Automotive Imports (EAI) are the official importers and Ferrari sales have grown to such an extent that Australia (population 22 million) is now Maranello’s 10th global market. In the early ’90s, selling 25 Ferraris was considered a good year. As Ferrari expanded the model range and reduced the wait for right-hand drive cars, demand grew steadily from 62 in 2000 to 101 in 2006, before peaking at 163 in 2008. Following the global financial crisis, sales declined to 104 cars in 2009 but picked up to 130 cars in 2010. EAI, with dealers in five key Australian cities plus Auckland (New Zealand), says the waiting list for the new 458 Italia stretches to 18 months, while the national Ferrari car park is put at 1,800 cars (including the Lowe’s 212 Export), an astonishing achievement and testimony to the country’s longterm prosperity and seemingly instinctive affection for fast red cars. It helps that since 1999 Ferrari has won six Australian F1 Grands Prix.

Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 12, March 2011

To get more of The Official Ferrari Magazine mix of people, lifestyle, arts and culture: Subscribe now