Heard about this VB?
We love stories about privateer attacks on the Great Race, especially one-off campaigns in the era when a new car could be purchased from a dealer and raced on the Mountain with minimal upgrades. The Tom Heard Automotive-entered #19 Commodore assault on the 1980 HardieFerodo 1000 is a perfect example.
There are glimpses of this Neville Bridges/Sue Ransom-driven VB in the race telecast, especially late in event when it’s trailing smoke.
We’ve been in touch with Tom Heard a couple of times over the years and the former mechanical workshop owner provided us with some good background on the assault. Heard told us that he offered a drive to his employee Neville Bridges if Bridges did the bulk of the prep work. Neville jumped at the chance, so Tom bought a brand new (but superseded) 4.2-litre (253ci) VB Commodore from Newcastle Holden dealer Young and Green in mid-1980.
Young and Green gave Heard a discount in return for signage for its MAMI Insurance business and loaned Heard a truck to transport the car. Bridges’ father, Harry, organised backing from his own employer CIG Welding Supplies. Bells Radiators also kicked the tin.
With Bathurst fast approaching, Heard, the Bridges Jnr and Snr, Dale Harvey (who helped with this story), Alan Murphy, Frank Krohn and others pitched in after-hours at Tom Heard Automotive in Hunter Street, Newcastle to complete the build.
Heard says no body-strengthening was done and the only things done to the suspension were fitting Lovell Springs, Bilstein Shock Absorbers and K-Mac stabliliser bars. He says the team built a 308 motor with extractors, mild cam and twin 45mm Webers. It also ran with a standard M21 gearbox and limited slip diff (no locker).
As a shakedown, Neville Bridges drove the Commodore in Newcastle’s famous and now defunct King Edward Park hillclimb on August 30, 1980, while Bathurst co-driver Sue Ransom drove Neville’s Group C Torana XU-1 that day. That’s Bridges beside the car in the small image.
The team even had time for a couple of days testing at Oran Park, one on the way to Bathurst from Newcastle!
Once on the Mountain, the squad soon encountered dramas. Firstly, the 308 race engine had some major oil leaks, so the original 253 went back in for practice. Also, the plan had been to race the car without wheel-arch flares and spoiler. However, the scrutineers would not allow this and a set had to be obtained – no easy task at such short notice and with qualifying nearly upon them. Bathurst Motors Holden didn’t have any in stock so an SOS went out to GM-H in Melbourne. These were not due to arrive until Saturday – after qualifying! In the interim, Alan Browne’s Re-Car outfit kindly offered to lend the team a set, but only once the donor Commodore had safely qualified itself. This achieved, the flares were removed, hastily fitted to #19 for Neville and Sue to complete their minimum laps and qualify! The flares were then refitted to the donor Re-Car VC! Talk about stress city...
The THA VB qualified 40th, using the 4.2-litre V8 motor, with a best lap of 2m49.5s, some 27 seconds slower than the Brock example and 12th of the 14 Commodores entered. They were, however, seven seconds quicker than the six-cylinder Scotty Taylor/Kevin Kennedy Commodore and far better off than the troubled Phil Lyon/Bill Stanley VC which didn’t record a time. More importantly, they were in the race.
Ransom found the Commodore heavy to steer and the seat uncomfortable. She had her own seat brought in from Sydney in time for the race.
Installation of the 308 race donk was completed after final practice and the team was understandably nervous about gridding up Sunday with it freshly installed. Thus, the Commodore was taken out to the backblocks near Blayney on Saturday evening for a run on a straight stretch of road.
The crew was relieved when all went well... yet they still had another big job to complete overnight. So it was back to a Shell service station’s workshop for the last-minute replacement of the Panhard Bar with the Watt’s Linkage rear demanded by officialdom.
Needless to say, by this stage the team had had very little (if any) sleep and were not confident the car would last the distance on race day. To their credit, in the finest Bathurst traditions, the Novocastrian team never gave up and took their position on the starting grid.
With the help of attrition, #19 quickly gained positions in the race to be running somewhere, Heard can’t recall exactly, between 20th and 25th approaching mid-race.
Then, surprise, surprise, the Watt’s Linkage broke, damaging a tyre. Several laps were lost while this was repaired... by reinstalling a Panhard Bar!
Yet they struggled on, the car smoking badly due to a holed piston but circulating several seconds faster than its best qualifying time.
The crew was relieved to reach the finish, with the blue, red and silver VB completing 134 laps for 22nd outright and 12th in class A. That’s not to be sneezed at given the rookie team had a total budget of about $20,000, inclusive of the car’s initial purchase.
Sue Ransom, the only team member with prior Bathurst experience, played a big part in getting it home. She recalls it was “a bog-standard, small block Commodore with the most amazingly heavy steering l had ever experienced. l literally had difficulty turning the wheel at low speeds and I’m pretty strong!”
She says the smoke came from two sources: the engine maladies and the rear-end failure that caused “severe tyre rub through some corners.”
Bathurst 1980 exhausted Tom Heard’s meagre budget and the car didn’t race again.
He says it was put back on the road and sold in either 1981 or 1982. It gave its second owner several years of faithful service before Heard lost track of it. There were suggestions online a few years ago that it’s still on the road, but we cannot validate those claims... unless someone reads this and contacts AMC via amceditorial@ chevron.com.au
Whaddayaknow? Does this beast still exist?