AMC now features a regular double-sided poster. This time we salute a pair of Bathurst 1000 winners, Greg Murphy’s Lap of the Gods Commodore and Tricky Dicky’s Tru-Blu Falcon. The No.1 song on October 4, 1981: The Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’.
Countless tributes have been written about the late Harry Firth since his death, aged 96, in late April. But what better way to highlight Harry’s extraordinary life than to nominate 96 key achievements, experiences and interests
Grew up as a boy from Snowy River. Born and bred in Orbost, in far north-east Victoria, on April 18, 1918.
Wrote music as a teenager and played the drums in a band. Lived through the Great Depression. Educated himself about mechanical matters. “I had a vast collection of books from when I was at school – ‘Speed And How To Obtain It’, ‘The Motorcycle’, etc. I read anything I could get my hands on that was relevant to motorsport and sporting cars and bikes. This was how I taught myself about machines and motorsport.”
Successfully ran the gauntlet of the local church minister enlisted by his mother to “try and mend my ways” – ie steer him away from cars and motorcycles.
Camped out at Ninety-Mile Beach, Victoria to see his first thoroughbred racing car in
action – the ERA of British star Peter Whitehead – in a record attempt. Rode his motorcycle there.
Read Mein Kamph, the autobiographical manifesto by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in which Hitler outlines his political ideology and future plans for Germany. In doing so, Harry felt strongly about repelling the spread of Nazism.
Volunteered for the Second Australian Imperial Force when war broke out in September 1939. The Second AIF was the name given to the volunteer personnel of the Australian Army in World War II.
Joined the signals unit as it had motorbikes! Was a despatch rider in the signals unit for the Sixth Division, the very first Australian division to see action in WWII.
Was part of the biggest convoy to ever leave Australia, in 1940, heading for the Western Desert, North Africa.
Performed his dangerous ‘messenger’ role during a big push of 800 miles by the Six Division over two months, which drove the Italian Army back. Forced to throw his bike and himself off the road into ditches on many occasions to take cover from Messerschmitt Bf 109 strafing.
Repaired and rebuilt all manner of military vehicles with whatever he had at hand.
Continued to perform his despatch riding duties in the Greek campaign.
“Chased out of Greece by the Luftwaffe,” wrote Harry in his unpublished autobiography. Departed from Greece to Crete on 25,000 tonne liner that was subsequently torpedoed. “Jumped 25 feet off liner onto the deck of a destroyer.”
Witnessed the destruction of a British destroyer from bombing – one of the events that most affected him and led to the nightmares that afflicted him for the rest of his life.
Redeployed with the Sixth Division to the New Guinea campaign. Spent time in hospital with dysentery. Built a distillery from a 44-gallon drum and copper pipe salvaged from wrecked Japanese vessels. Built the still because “the troops were going troppo.”
Survived six years of service only to fear for his life during the return trip to Australia aboard a DC3. ED: Before we outline Harry’s post-war working life, here is an insight into the life experiences that his overseas military service and his motor racing activities provided. It’s an edited extract from the ‘foreword’ of what is effectively his unpublished autobiography. The following shows that Harry was a well-travelled man of many experiences and interests. It begins, “There wouldn’t be many people in the world who have done any of the following, let alone all of them...
“Stood on the slopes of Mt Olympus (Greece), Mount Kilaminjaro (Tanzania) and the Pyramids (Egypt). “Bathed in the Dead Sea. “Could describe the inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the holy lands.” [This is the site in Jerusalem identified as the place of crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus Christ.]
“Slept in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
“Visited the carpenter shop where Jesus worked [with his father]. “Shook hands with the Pope. “Took a Gondala ride in Venice. “Drove a car down the Olympic bobsled run in Cortina, Italy, which was the scene of the 1956 Winter Olympics.
“Didn't go beyond grade nine at school – don't even have a certificate. But the diploma of real world says ‘Master of Motorsport’. “Have genuine convict ancestry. “Made the most of every moment.” “Worked 7am to midnight most days for 30plus years of working life.”
Slept with a Beretta pistol under the pillow and carried it around upon returning home from the war to ward off the “local yobs” of Orbost.
Had a healthy disregard for convention and “an acquired hatred of waste and red tape.”
Moved to Melbourne to work for Preston Motors. “The first week there found I had more tools than everyone else put together!”
Worked at various automotive establishments over the ensuing years before setting himself up in his own business, initially as a sportscar specialist.
“Ran in a (motorcycle) scramble with a ‘Velo’ but decided it was highly dangerous compared to cars. I sold the bike to concentrate on car work.”
“Competed at the first (and only) Point Cook meeting, in 1948, with the MG P-type. This was my first circuit race. I did well in my second race, the 1500cc Scratch Race, in about fifth place, and was way in front in the handicap race, but made the mistake of looking back around to see by how much I was in front, and overshot the corner and spun. I heard the usual comments of ‘Who is this chappie?’ and ‘What school did he go to?’ Couldn’t resist interrupting with ‘Orbost Higher Elementary – if you know where Orbost is, on the Snowy River.’”
Built speedboats using Ford and Mercury V8s bought from army disposal for little money. “My boats held all the Victorian class records.”
Built speedway cars using the same ‘army
surplus’ V8 engines.
“Went under 30 seconds at Rob Roy Hillclimb.” This was in a MG with a Mercury V8/60 engine. Hillclimbing would remain a passion for him (see Punter Pics p102).
Bought and remade 12 second-hand TC MGs into ‘Harry Firth Specials’. “I took out wood from the body and replaced with steel; put the battery in the back between the rear shockers; fitted cycle guards, tubular shockers and 1380cc improved engine (some were second-hand). I made them with bright colours – such as ‘buttercup yellow’ – and sold them all.”
“Did complete makeover of Lukey Mufflers’ Ford Customline to race as a touring car and it won many events.”
Built the first Armstrong 500 cars – the 1960 Singer Gazelle, a Vanguard and two Triumph Heralds. “They were not successful but many lessons were learned."
Received a Porsche plaque from Dr Ferry Porsche after competing with the fledgling marque’s products. “The Porsche era was particularly pleasing to me. I had one at the Ballarat Air Strip races for Formula 1 in 1961. Dan Gurney was there with a BRM but he also drove for Porsche, and he was so impressed with my Porsche that he took all details back to Germany for his car. This was acknowledged by Porsche’s competition manager.
Set new Australian standing quarter mile record in what he described as “the ultra radical supercharged MG TC special.
Won the 1961 Armstrong 500 at Phillip Island with Bob Jane in a Mercedes Benz 220SE.
Fettled Bob Jane’s white Jaguar 3.8 that won the 1962 ATCC at Longford, Tasmania.
Was Ford Australia’s first motor sport contractor, based at his humble Firth Motors workshop in Auburn, Melbourne. Therefore, he established the first factory-backed squad in local racing in a form that has remained the basic model for leading touring car teams in Australia ever since.
Started work with Ford in 1961, with the late Les Powell as competition manager. Used an Anglia to win the 1961 BP Rally of South East Australia.
Built five Falcons for the East African Safari. “The way the cars performed earned me a contract with Ford for competition. This was really the start of my association with Ford and the first step into the big time – although I was still doing work for others.”
Gave the Ford Falcon its first major motor racing victory, the 1962 Armstrong 500. The 170ci Falcon won the gruelling Phillip Island event despite a rollover in practice which necessitated a new bodyshell at his Queens Avenue workshop.
Was lucky to survive a Hell Corner rollover during the 1962 Bathurst 6 Hour Classic when his Falcon’s brakes seized on. “I had made a seat belt with dual cross-over each shoulder, and that that saved me. It did take quite some time to get the seatbelt undone as I was being compressed into a ball under the flattened roof, but eventually I was able to get out through the back window – while petrol was running out onto the road and I was getting frantic for fear of it catching fire.”
Won the 1963 Armstrong 500 in a Cortina GT with Bob Jane. This completed a trio of victories in the event.
Developed the Cortina GT 500 ‘Bathurst Special’ that won the 1965 Great Race in Bo Seton’s hands. “The ARDC never quite recovered from the legitimate interpretation which we were able to place upon their competition rules.”
Created “the last great ‘special Cortina that won the 1966 Southern Cross Rally – a GT500 MkII Plus. The vehicle was bored and stroked to a swept volume of 1722cc. I was able to
innovate and continue to experiment with the development of these vehicles in rally cars as much less attention was paid to the mechanical modifications.”
Won the inaugural Australian Rally Championship, in 1968, in a supercharged Cortina MkII. Victorious five times in the Alpine Rally. Instrumental in the preparation of the Falcons used in Ford’s 70,000 mile endurance test at the You Yangs proving ground, undertaking a test run of each one on the course.
Started development on the new XR GT by developing a ‘police special’ that, through economies of scale, drove down costs and made the first GT viable.
Teamed up with Allan Moffat to tackle two long distance races in the legendary TransAmerican Sedan Championship (aka Trans-Am) in a Lotus Cortina, at Riverside and Green Valley in 1966. This was covered in detail in AMC #61’s ‘Aussies in Trans-Am’ issue. “That Trans-Am experience really put Moffat on the map in terms of driving. At Riverside I spent two days going through things with him. I taught him time and motion studies on a race track over there: how to evaluate the circuit and how to get the utmost out of it.” Firth received several job offers to remain in the US, but declined them to return to Australia due to a rally commitment.” Had he accepted them it would have changed the course of Australian muscle car history. Think about it...
Won the 1967 Gallaher 500 at Bathurst in the XR Falcon GT. Gave co-driver Fred Gibson his big break. Sparked Holden into action at Bathurst for 1968 with the shortlived Holden Dealer Racing Team-run GTS 327s.
Masterminded Ford’s fine showing in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon with its Falcon XT GTs. Fitted out the three team cars which finished 3-6-8, winning the team’s prize in the process. “There was a toilet behind the passenger’s seat, spare wheel behind the driver’s seat and wheel change gear mounted inside that rear door. A spare radiator was mounted on the roof. All doors had access slots and rations and cans of water. One of the cars carried two spare rear axles.”
Retired from driving having established himself among Australia's leading race and rally drivers.
Undertook early development work on first GT-HO “including 36-gallon fuel tank and twin exhaust – a project taken over by Al Turner when I left to go to GM-H in ’69.”
Formed the legendary Holden Dealer Team. In doing so, he established the commercial and organisational template that still underpins the structure of V8 Supercars teams today, albeit on a bigger scale. HDT was an outsourced factory race team with additional sponsor backing and slick presentation.
Orchestrated the HDT’s first Bathurst win in the 1969 HardieFerodo 500 with the Monaro GTS 350 and drivers Colin Bond and Tony Roberts. Made Ford regret retiring him. Pioneered meticulous preparation and painstaking development. Many of his ways were unorthodox.
Earned the nickname of ‘The Fox’. For many years his Melbourne home’s front door knocker was a fox’s head!
Spotted and developed more driving talent than any other figure in Australian racing history. Gave big breaks to Peter Brock and Colin Bond.
Crafted the greatest ever race driver on the domestic scene, Brock. Turned the gifted young tear-away in a sponsor’s and fan’s dream. “When I first met Brock he was a country yokel who had visions of the big time, but didn’t know how to go about it, and was very happy to be told how. He knew he had talent, that was obvious to anyone, and he had charisma. I had to teach him things. Things like a clean tee-shirt and jeans is not being well dressed, that a hamburger is not a proper meal. This is why I always treated him differently from the other team members. He and Ian Tate were the sons I never had. I gave Peter the best advice I could, whenever he needed it. He was the best by far. He could drive around a problem. He could adapt to anything, and he could win in an inferior car.”
Turned the LC Torana XU-1 into an Aussie giant killer.
Oversaw Holden’s 1971 Australian Manufacturer’s Championship, proving the point that good little cars can beat big cars. All up Harry’s HDT claimed five ‘ManChamps’ for General Motors-Holden, four of them consecutive (1973-1976).
Played a part, he claimed, in Chrysler history in 1971. He suggested to Chrysler Australia competition chief John Ellis that he send the Charger engine with three DCOE carburetors to the Weber factory in Italy and let them sort the carburetion.
Was a central figure in the greatest Holden mystery – what became of the XU-1 V8 prototypes.
Claimed to have named XU-1 colours, several which remained stillborn: “Tipple Pink; Arctic White; Bleu (French blue); Red Centre (Central Australia desert red); Baggy green (Australian cricket team); Magpie (Collingwood AFL club colours – black with white panels; Deep Purple (same as spiritual robes); Yellow Dolly (bright yellow); and Linamint (bright green).”
Orchestrated Brock’s Bathurst 1972 win. “Undoubtedly the ’72 Bathurst race, that was his best race. Because he knew that with all the testing we’d done, and with this new driving technique that we’d evolved for the new tyres, which only he was doing because the others didn’t understand it, he was at least five percent faster on any circuit than he’d been before. Because of that, unless there was an accident or something like that, he knew he was going to win. The race was turning point in his life. He went from nobody to King of the Mountain.” Claimed the 1974 ATCC with Peter Brock. Father of the L34. Turned the unreliable SL/R 5000 – the first Torana V8 – into a race winner and created a muscle car legend. Claimed the 1975 ATCC with Colin Bond. Developed the model that won Bathurst in 1975 and 1976 in the hands of a privateer team. Gave birth to the Torana A9X. Showed that aesthetics, contrary to popular opinion, were important to him when he ordered a stunning black Torana hatch to develop the A9X at Holden’s proving ground.
Continued to have a strong involvement in local motorsport when he accepted the role of CAMS National Chief Scrutineer from 1979-1981. ED: Here’s another batch of Harry’s own achievements, interests and experiences that many readers would be unaware of: “Played jazz three times in New Orleans. “Collected records and posters. “Cooked recipes of worldwide origin. “Studied art from ancient Chinese to that of the early Australian artist S.T. Gill.
“Name features on footpath at Bathurst (on the Champions Walk in the CBD).”
Received Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for services to motorsport. Awarded CAMS Membership of Honour. Received Australian Sports Medal. Inducted into the V8 Supercars Hall of Fame. Lived to 96.
Firth and Jim Clark
First race: MG P-type Point Cook 1948
Harry Firth MG Special
Supercharged MG TC Special
1968 London to Sydney
1967 Gallaher 500
1969 Hardie-Ferodo 500
Harry and Colin Bond
Firth’s Black Torana hatch prototype