The rocky Repco road
driving for Citroen in the 1977 London to Sydney, George Shepheard asked Ferguson to be a part of the three-car team for Holden in the1979 Repco Round Australia. It would be the toughest event of all, 18,000km in 14 days with an unrelenting schedule.
This time, Barry was partnered with Wayne Bell and Dave Boddy in the number #17 Marlboro HDT Commodore.
“It was a good team, I can honestly say we didn’t have a harsh word the whole way round; we complimented each other. Belly drove all the fast special stages, I drove the long stages while Dave kept us on track,” said Barry.
Along with Ferguson/Bell/Boddy there was a Commodore for Rauno Aaltonen and Shekhar Mehta with accomplished Australian navigator and journo Barry Lake, as well one for Brock, who was partnered with engine builder Matt Phillip and navigator Noel Richards.
The cars were simple, not the fastest but reliable and durable. They had XU-1 spec. 3.3-litre sixes, M21 gearboxes, Bilstein struts, extra welds and a lot of tricks that George had incorporated after a year of testing.
While Brock was white-hot on circuits at the time, most thought that Aaltonen/Mehta would be the ones to beat. In fact, the Ferguson/Bell/ Boddy car made the running early and was leading just after Perth, thanks to astute driving and experience.
“On the Maralinga stage to Nullarbor I could just see the sharp stones and rocks would be a problem so I backed right off and Belly asked me if I was OK because I wasn’t going very fast! So I told him I thought that discretion was the better part of valour.”
They could see headlights all around them but were not being passed or passing anyone and Barry was worried they were on a wrong road, but Dave Boddy reassured him all was OK. The conservative approach paid off with the #17 Commodore being the only car to clear the difficult stage losing no points. That put Ferguson in second behind Colin Bond at the Perth halt, but when he rolled the Cortina next morning, the #17 Commodore was leading.
Up near Port Headland however, the die was cast for the Repco. Barrelling through the desert the #17 car bogged in soft, mushy sand. They were behind Brock on the road and sent a radio SOS, but the #05 car didn’t turn around. Brock told Shepheard he’d pulled them out once before and thought they could get themselves out.
Ferguson and crew were lucky that the Mehta/ Aaltonen car stopped and helped winch them out, costing 10 minutes. The Ferguson Commodore lost 31 minutes and Brock had the lead.
Despite stories to the contrary, Holden’s team meeting in Mt Isa didn’t issue orders to protect Brock for the win, the crews were simply told to be conservative and to protect their 1-2-3 position.
“No one at Holden had dreamt that a 1-23 was possible and it was now a real chance,” said Barry. “They simply said, ‘Don’t take any unnecessary risks, just get the cars to the finish!
“To catch Brock it would have meant driving hard and taking risks and if we’d gone off or broken something then we would have looked like idiots and not been too popular,” said Barry.
The run to the finish in Melbourne saw speculation about a fight for the win, but it was never going to happen and Ferguson took second in a Round Australia matching his effort 15 years earlier in the Ampol.
“It was an amazing adventure, by far the toughest round ever and we will never see the likes of it again,” Barry says.
Barry went on to drive in five Australian Safaris with Mitsubishi Ralliart in Pajeros and Tritons, winning the Marathon class and supporting the other team drivers, before going into semiretirement in the 1990s.
Extraordinarily, about five years ago Barry located his Repco Commodore sitting unmolested on a concrete pad less than 20km from his home in Sydney. He managed to buy it back and has restored it and is still running it in various historic trials and re-runs. But that is a story for another issue of AMC!
Top: The #17 VB was the lead Commodore for much of the famed 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial, although the usual Brock hysteria means his efforts have often been overlooked.