Anyone who reckons there’s no point reinventing the wheel has not met Kevin Drage – an unsung hero of the local automotive industry and creator of the most famous alloy wheels adorning factory muscle cars.
If you reckon there’s no point re-inventing the wheel you should meet Kevin Drage – creator of the most famous alloy wheels adorning factory muscle cars.
Kevin Drage is a quiet man whose demeanour gives no clues as to the intellect or determination that hides behind his placid face. To say that he has been one of the great unknown achievers in the Australian automotive scene is an understatement. This softly spoken Adelaide-born car enthusiast has a wealth of knowledge and experience that until now has rarely been shared.
His inauspicious start to employment was as a tool designer in the early 1950s at Iplex Plastics where he was involved in the nascent plastics industry developing tooling for new products and a glass reinforced plastic process. From there he spent two years as a development engineer at Chrysler before moving across town to GMHolden where he spent another two years further developing techniques for plastic products.
While at Holden he was seconded to work at Precision Pressed Metals where he developed fibreglass boat hulls that sparked the fibreglass leisure boat boom of the 1950s and ’60s.
During this time Kevin became interested in motor racing and built a supercharged Morris Minor in which he won his class in the Australian Hill Climb Championship. This led to pit crewing for Derek Jolly who was racing a Lotus XV at the time, and later working with such luminaries as Bib Stillwell, David McKay and Alec Mildren when they were racing in Adelaide.
His engineering talents were noticed by Harold Clisby, owner of Clisby Industries Ltd
in Prospect, SA, where he worked from 1960 through 1967. Their main line of business was in air compressors and initially he developed a new range of products. Clisby was an engineer and a motorsport enthusiast who had travelled to Europe in 1960 where he visited Maserati, Ferrari, Porsche and Coventry Climax and saw first-hand the design and development of racing engines. Upon his return home in September, Clisby immediately immersed himself in a project to design and develop a competitive 1.5-litre racing engine (see breakout) that would comply with the forthcoming FIA rules. Working closely with Clisby were Drage and Alec Bailey, a superb machinist who also loved a challenge.
When Clisby ultimately lost interest in the V6, Drage found himself involved in another project – hovercraft. Two were built and demonstrated, with both gaining a surprising amount of media attention at the time, but neither went on to be commercial ventures.
Drage established his own design and consultancy business during his time at Clisby Industries – Drage Automotive Developments. His first client was Globe Products who wanted him to design a double overhead camshaft conversion for the Ford 289ci V8 engine. The engine’s new cylinder heads and other components were cast at Clisby Industries and machined at Globe; the completed engine installed in an Elfin 400 that was owned by John Hurd and driven by Noel Hurd. It was a beautifully crafted DOHC conversion.
Hurd raced the Elfin Globe-Ford in many events during 1967 and ’68 at Mallala. In 12 starts he achieved four first placings, a trio of second places, a third, a fourth and a fifth, a 12th and a DNF; on two occasions he also set a new lap record. Hurd, in the Australian Tourist Trophy event at Mallala on January 29, 1968, finished fifth in the Group A sports car race to Frank Matich in his SR3 Repco-Brabham. Not a bad result.
Then came a series of events that should have had Drage’s name up in lights all around the world, but sadly did not. He was in Melbourne with the DOHC Ford castings and had gone to Repco to catch up with Phil Irving but instead spent time with Frank Hallam. The discussion took on a new dimension after Drage showed Hallam the Globe-Ford DOHC castings. Drage was immediately invited to continue their discussion in Hallam’s office where he was shown a set of cylinder head drawings by John Judd, who at the time was working for none other than Jack Brabham.
The problem facing Hallam was the huge distance between their offices in Maidstone, Melbourne and Jack’s HQ in Guildford, Surrey. A huge concern was the time taken for drawings to be sent back-and-forth, plus once a component’s design had been approved – a cylinder head for example – it could take up to six months before the casting arrived back at Repco. Stirling Metals in the UK were up until then their supplier for the 620 head castings. However, having seen Drage’s expertise and his quick turnaround time of four weeks, Hallam asked him to supply cylinder heads for Repco-Brabham’s Formula 1 program. Drage accepted the challenge, duly delivering the first four castings in the promised four weeks. In his time at Clisby’s he produced more than 100 cylinder heads of four different Repco-Brabham engine types over the next two years – but nobody was aware of it!
From 1968 Drage, now chief engineer at Globe Products, busied himself with designing and developing Australia’s first commerciallyproduced one-piece aluminium alloy wheels. An early part of this program was the development of alloy wheels for the factory Ford Falcon GT-HO Phase III assault and the Holden Dealer Team’s Torana XU-1s for Bathurst 1972. Of course, in the famous event Brock was the outright winner
running 13 x 6” Globe Sprintmaster alloys, while Moffat ran 15 x 7” Globe Bathurst alloy wheels.
The Globe Bathurst wheels came about through Jack Brabham who owned a major Ford dealership in Bankstown, Sydney. As Drage remembers, “Jack approached me in March 1971 and asked if Globe could design a 15 x 7” alloy wheel for use on the special ‘Jack Brabham Falcons’ that he was planning. Jack, of course, had strong connections with Goodyear and was well aware of the impending release of a 60 Series, low-profile 15-inch road tyre.”
Unfortunately, there were delays with the Falcon, and Brabham formally advised Drage in May that he was cancelling the program. By September that year Drage was well advanced on the design of a wheel because as he said, “Globe had the opportunity to be the first local alloy wheel manufacturer with a 15-inch alloy wheel suitable for low profile tyres and so I began some feasibility studies.”
The 15 x 7 Globe Bathurst wheel (as it became known) was destined for the Phase IV but as history notes was retrofitted to the Phase III Falcons when the Phase IV program was cancelled. The 15 x 7 Globe Bathurst wheel was later offered as a factory option on the XB Falcon and the Cobra.
“[They were] loosely based on the Ferrari Daytona-style wheel which was being made in Italy by Campagnola,” Drage says.
Despite what was previously reported in AMC, Drage says there was no Ford Styling involvement with the design of the Globe Phase IV GT wheel.
“Howard [Marsden] obviously discussed the wheel project with Ford Styling and he sent me a letter which included a magazine clipping of a five-spoke ATS wheel saying that, “our Styling Department has a particular liking for” this design”. However, by this time my original design work had already been completed.”
CAMS allowed larger wheels from 1973 and so Harry Firth contacted Drage and asked him to design and make new larger and lighter wheels for the HDT Toranas. He opted to stay with the Sprintmaster design but made them from magnesium cast by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation and machined at Globe. Some 60 or so wheels were made during 1973.
Initially Ford showed little interest in new wheels for 1973, but then in mid-August, and with Bathurst looming, Howard Marsden approached Drage and asked if he could design and supply some 24 15 x 9” front and 15 x 10” rear wheels for the XA Falcon GT. Despite the incredibly tight timeline, Drage accepted the challenge. In fact, he delivered the final four wheels by light aircraft to the Bathurst aerodrome on the morning of the race! It was worthwhile, as Moffat and Geoghegan won the race, the first over 1000km and the last for the factory Ford racing squad.
Globe’s alloy wheel business expanded considerably with Original Equipment Manufacture (OEM) of alloy wheels for Ford, Holden, Mitsubishi and Toyota. Globe’s Montego alloys were a standard fitting on the Mitsubishi Sigma Wherrett and the Sigma Turbo; Drage pioneering the polycrystalline artificial diamond machined-finish with the Wherrett Special. Drage: “I could see from my knowledge of overseas trends that we were about to experience an explosion of interest and This page and right: The Adelaidian has played an unsung role in so many successful Bathurst and Australian Touring Car Championship campaigns over a 30-year period. demand for ‘shiny’ alloy wheels here in Australia and so I considerably expanded the capacity of Globe by installing CNC machines, lathes and a machining centre to cope with the demand.”
Globe Products also raced a MkI Ford Escort for which Drage developed a fuel-injection system for the twin-cam engine that had the pump incorporated into the alloy rocker cover and was driven by the timing chain; earlier he had designed and developed a fuel-injection system for the Ford V8 engine used by Pete Geoghegan in his Mustang.
Later, Drage also worked on the Fischer Ford RS2000 Escorts fitted with his own design magnesium alloy wheels and high-performance racing ignition system. With Drage as team manager and drivers including Eric Boord, John Bassett, Tom Tymons and Keith Poole, the team were Bathurst regulars in the mid-1970s. The giant-killing squad won Class B in the 1976 Hardie-Ferodo 1000, finishing 12th outright.
In 1984 Drage became the Original Equipment Manager at the old established Adelaide firm of Castalloy Limited who had purchased Globe and Magnum Wheels. Through his consultancy business he designed all sorts of wheels and other race components for various race teams. This resulted in Castalloy installing a magnesium casting plant to broaden the scope of offerings. He was responsible for the design of racing wheels for the factory Nissan squad for its Skyline DR30 racecars of 1986/87 and then on the HR31 from 1988. As an extension of that program he designed and developed centre-lock magnesium alloy wheels for Dick Johnson Racing’s all-conquering Ford Sierras, as well as for the Percy/Grice Holden Racing Team VL Commodore. Those two teams
won Bathurst in 1989 and ’90 respectively, on Drage-designed wheels made at Castalloy.
Drage’s wheels were again used to win at Bathurst in 1991 and ’92 when Nissan competed with the GT-R – the so-called Godzilla cars – and for these he developed the first hollow-spoke magnesium alloy wheels for Gibson Motor Sport that were the lightest in the competition. He also designed and made magnesium alloy clutch and gearbox housings and front and rear suspension uprights for the Nissan GT-R. This technology (but not design) was carried over to the Johnson Falcons developed from 1992.
Continuing his connections to motorsport, Holden Racing Team approached Drage to design and make a combined dry-sump oil tank and clutch housing for their early V8 Supercarera Commodores. He also designed and made magnesium alloy suspension uprights for Nissan as well as kit car manufacturer Roaring Forties for its GT40 replica.
On the production front, Tickford asked Drage Automotive Developments to design the EB Falcon GT wheels, front spindle and brake rotors; followed by designing the EL Falcon GT wheels.
He was also responsible for producing a number of sets of alloy wheels for a variety of concept show cars; for example, the Buick XP2000, Toyota Sportiva, Toyota TS-01, aXcess concept car, Daewoo Matiz, Ford Raptor and HSV Maloo ute.
Former Nissan and Toyota design chief Paul Beranger commissioned Kevin for many of these special projects.
“He was always the ‘go to’ person when you had any alloy wheel issues. He was unflappable and used to being given very short timelines,” Beranger says. “With the Buick XP 2000 program we originally developed a double three-spoke wheel design which we began mocking up in steel and fibreglass. We had multiple problems with the attachments and the alignment of the flush centre-cap. Kevin had the answers and promptly made two sets of prototype alloy wheels for us, one set for each of the two cars built.
“With both of the Toyota programs (he also made the X–Runner ute wheels) he was asked to achieve tight deadlines, as is often the case with concept car builds. Back in 2004 the 21 x 9” front and 21 x 10” rear Sportive Coupe wheels were massive and the centres had to be matched to a blue tinted acrylic centre-cap.
“With the ‘aXcess Australia’ program Castalloy was a key member of the industry component supplier group that developed the car. Working from Steve Thompson’s design sketch, Kevin engineered the wheels, with the double section spokes running off the rim edge, accentuating the wheel’s diameter. This design was functional, due to the introduction of stick-on wheel weights which didn’t require a mechanical attachment to the outer rim edge. The radiating spoke design idea has since been frequently copied.
“We also used Castalloy, with Kevin’s expertise during the Nissan Special Vehicle Division days, engineering and manufacturing wheels for our Skyline GTS 1 and 2 programs. This was at the time Castalloy were making our racecar wheels, so it made a good fit.”
In his ‘day job’ Drage was responsible for the development of the special alloy motorcycle wheels for Harley-Davidson and Buell and travelled many times to Milwaukee to work with Willie G Davidson. As well as the concept design of hollow-hub wheels, laced (spoked) wheels and aluminium hubs, he also patented cantilevered tyre bead seat that offered a number of benefits and was first used on the 2001 Harley-Davidson V-Rod machine.
Additionally Drage has designed and patented tubeless laced-wire motorcycle wheels, two-piece alloy wheels that were joined by an innovative friction stir welding process, a boltless brake rotor for a motorcycle wheel, swing arm concepts and rapid prototyping of wheel designs from concept to reality for Harley-Davidson and Buell.
Unfortunately, like many other Australian manufacturing industries, the alloy wheel business has now moved off-shore and from 10 or 12 manufacturers in its heyday it’s now down to just two – ROH and New Castalloy.
In 2001 Castalloy became part of the ION Group and through short-sightedness on behalf of management the Group imploded in December 2004 with huge debts.
Drage retired from Castalloy in 2003 where he was research and development manager.
“I can honestly say that my time at Clisby’s, Globe and Castalloy was never dull or boring!” said Drage with a wry smile.
Today Kevin relaxes in retirement after a lifetime of creative achievement. It’s a shame that far too few people know of his contribution to our industrial history.
Drage Globe 289 DOHC V8
Top left: From left Kevin Drage, Harold Clisby and Bill Jamieson. Centre top and inset: Drage supplied cylinder heads to the Repco-Brabham F1 program. Bottom left: Drage raced a Morris Minor at Port Wakefield in 1958.
Above: The aXcess concept car of ’98 showcased the design skills of Australia’s automotive components industry. Bottom: Tickford asked Drage to design the EB GT’s alloys; Buick likewise for the XP2000.