The old brewery building at the Leigh Sawmill café now houses completely different kinds of steel and chrome, and the fragrance in the air has changed a bit too. It’s a motorcycle workshop owned by locals Tim Stewart and Adam Lane, and they’ve called it Moto Benzina.
Tim Stewart’s impressive background is well-known in the industry, but not so much outside it. As Kiwi motorcycle racing icon John Britten’s right-hand mechanic he spent years on tracks in the USA and Europe – but it all began with riding motocross on the family farm in Whangarei, aged eight.
“I liked riding motocross, but I was better at tinkering with the motors,” Tim says. He left school at 15 and served an engine mechanic apprenticeship, but soon began road-racing in Auckland, paying the bills as a bike courier.
“My first bike was a Ducati 750; it was crap for racing. I flogged it and bought a Honda RS250 Privateer... that wasn’t bad.” Tim got to third place in the National Series but in 1988 he met his neighbour in Parnell, Loren Poole, who was also racing bikes – alongside John Britten. Tim worked on a Kawasaki for Loren that went well and John, who’d been cobbling together his own bike, eventually hired Tim, who moved to Christchurch in 1991.
“The bike John wanted to build had a girder system instead of front forks, the back shocks were in front of the engine, and the radiator was under the seat,” says Tim. “The first bike was a piece of shit, but eventually we started winning. The Japanese and Italians noticed and so did the World Press.”
The 1991 Daytona ‘Battle of the Twins’ was a ‘eureka’ moment, so they gave the Isle of Man TT a shot, but it was a disaster. The bikes never finished a race and to everyone’s horror, a rider was killed. But victory was nigh for the Britten team: they won the NZ Superbike Championship and in ’95 they finished first and second in the BEARS (British European American Racing SERIES) in Milan. John watched the race from his hospital bed where, tragically, he was battling inoperable cancer.
Tim got back to NZ the day John Britten died. He was only 45. Speaking recently in a memorial video, Tim said, “John taught me that there was always a way around any problem. I learned more from him about life than he ever taught me about motorcycles.”
By 1997 Tim was employed by Bill Buckley, a part-time bike enthusiast who made machinery which created particle accelerators for producing computer chips. Tim built a bike for him, took it to France for the Grand Prix circuit – and stayed there for several years.
Eventually back in New Zealand around 2010, he began working on Ducatis at the renowned Haldane Motorcycles in Mt Eden. But Tim had some big family problems. Denied access to his children, he was immersed in the family courts and in his own words, “the wheels fell off”.
However, in 2012 he was introduced to Graeme Crosby and spent the next few years working with the Kiwi racing legend in his Matakana workshop. They restored Kawasakis and built one-off race replica bikes for global clients.
A couple of years ago, Tim got together with Louise McRae, a well-known local artist. Together they’ve built a ‘big black shed’ in Pakiri, which was to house Tim’s new workshop. “But – oops! I’ve taken it over!” Louise laughs. The Leigh Sawmill had the perfect solution, and Moto Benzina set up shop at the much-loved music venue in 2017. The garage covers everything from servicing to import and compliance, parts fabrication to track support.
Tim and his business partner Adam Lane are looking forward to fulfilling Moto Benzina’s motto of ‘Repair, Restore, Ride, Race’. Adam joined Tim from Matakana’s Mortimer Motorsports, where he spent over four years both as a mechanic and sorting logistics. His father and brother are also mechanics, so as Adam says, “spinning spanners is in the blood”. But when a new baby daughter arrived, the motorsport travel commitments proved too hard, and this partnership has been a great outcome for him.
The John Britten biography says of Tim Stewart: “He’s a gifted mechanic with an almost intuitive touch for finding hidden horsepower.” Tim laughs at this. “Well, we’re restoring a lot of Ducatis right now; we’re also building engines for Speedway, and I’m still involved in racing. We’re looking forward to developing the custom side of the business. And yeah – I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve.”