Round Oz panel vans
It was the last great round-Australia odyssey, 18,000km in 14 days across some of the harshest territory the planet could throw at a car or its occupants. Unrelenting, punishing, fast and quite simply the most difficult car rally ever run in this country. It has become known simply as ‘The Repco’.
It is of course well recorded that Holden scored an almost unbelievable 1-2-3 result in the Repco, Peter Brock taking an amazing win at the very peak of his prowess.
Some may have thought Holden’s victory owed much to good fortune, but as anyone involved in motorsport knows, there is no substitute for preparation and George Shepheard who headed up the Holden effort in the Repco proved that on every front.
As has been documented in past AMC issues, Holden totally outpointed all comers, having the best prepared cars, the best overall package, the best crews and by far the best servicing strategy.
While Ford gave its crews bulky, awkward and slow six-cylinder Transit service vans, George Shepheard used three Holden Kingswood panel vans, all powered by 308 V8s with automatic transmissions, GTS instrumentation, heavy-duty rear suspension taken from Holden’s one-tonner ute, and a full-length welded steel roofrack to carry tyres.
Holden had supplied George a GTS grilled/ twin-headlight van with GTS wheels for his rally team operations, registration JZA 225, and that would remain with him for rally support work after the Repco. Along with that, the two other V8 vans, regos KGB 693 and KGB 694, with normal grilles, single headlights and steel wheels were supplied in plain white, presumably so that they could be sold off after the event without the Marlboro warpaint.
There was also a fourth van that has an interesting backstory. It was the HZ Kingwood that was actually HDT race team supremo John Sheppard’s very own HDT work van, Victorian rego ACF 706, which was let out of the HDT lions den in Chetwynd Street, North Melbourne under sufferance.
Some of John Sheppard’s key mules including Bruce Nowacki and Daryl Bromley were keen to go on the great adventure. Bruce’s brother Ned was already part of George’s crew, but there was no budget for a fourth service vehicle, however the mules badgered their boss, while Holden’s liaison for the event, Grant Steer, apparently pulled some strings. John Sheppard was none too happy as the Repco was run in the first two weeks of August 1979, a month before Sandown’s Hang Ten 400 and seven weeks before the Bathurst 1000, so prep for the big races was fully underway.
“Next thing, Holden and more importantly John Sheppard agreed that the HDT van could do the first part of the rally to Adelaide before turning around and heading back home to Melbourne,” said George.
When George landed in the plane out past Adelaide and saw the fourth HDT van there, he had a smile on his face.
“I said to Bromley and Nowacki, ‘You bastards are supposed to be on your way back to Melbourne,’ and I hoped that they had cleared things with John Sheppard,” he said.
“‘Of course’ they replied. Only later did I find out that permission hadn’t been granted, John apparently got very annoyed and thought it was my doing, but John Lindell, the then Holden motorsport boss, cleared it all and in the short term things were fine because the main focus by then was winning the rally,” he added.
The further the HDT van went the easier it was just to keep going...
That was, until 100km out of Borroloola in the gulf country where the boys hit a horse badly damaging the van. If John Sheppard wasn’t happy before, he was ropable when he heard the van had been disfigured by a coming together with a horse.
“Bruce Nowacki and Daryl Bromley were travelling, just on dark, in John Sheppard’s van – his pride and joy,” Ned Nowacki told AMC,
“Bruce Nowacki and Daryl Bromley were travelling, just on dark, in John Sheppard’s van – his pride and joy. They hit a dead horse on the road and catapulted over it and it actually bent the chassis. The windscreen shifted over three-inches out the top. They couldn’t change gears so they cut a hole in the transmission tunnel and shifted with a screw driver.”
picking up the story. “They hit a dead horse on the road and catapulted over it and it actually bent the chassis. The windscreen shifted over three inches out the top. They couldn’t change gears so they cut a hole in the transmission tunnel and shifted with a screw driver. The van made it all the way back to Melbourne and John Sheppard’s wrath was enormous!”
It was well and truly stuffed after that and the always neat and tidy Sheppard scrapped it and requested a new van from Holden.
These Kingswood vans might have been the 1970s favourites of electricians, plumbers, painters and other tradies – not to mention surfies – but the HDT service vans were built for speed as well as carrying capacity.
Holden leveraged the panel vans’ efforts in backing up the Commodore win in print ads entitled ‘True Grit Vans!’ crediting the crews and of course the vans with helping to win the rally, and stating that the ‘Commodore 1,2,3 Repco Rally sweep was a tough act to follow but Holden vans did it’.
George Shepheard’s planning for the Repco was plotted with military precision, so not only did the service crews have the best weaponry in the V8 vans but they also had air support, plenty of reinforcements and supply lines in place to ensure the war of attrition was won.
While just about every other service crew had to battle with overloaded service vehicles, vast distances, fatigue and a struggle to keep up with the cars they were trying to fettle, the Holden boys had four absolute hot rods that could sit on 160km/h all day with just two crew in each vehicle.
The key was ensuring that each crew had a replacement pair ready to take over after service stops. So one crew would charge off to the next service point in the V8 panel van while the two guys who had just driven jumped into the team plane to fly to the next service point, hopefully for a sleep, a shower and a feed. Other crews like the Ford boys tell horror stories of spending almost the entire 14 days in the slow service trucks, with drivers falling asleep at the wheel and hallucinating from the tiredness.
Having the advantage of extensive testing for months prior to the Repco, Shepheard knew what might break. So to keep his panel vans reasonably light and agile, parts caches were established at key locations in Holden dealers around the country. These hoards included most of the 370 spare wheels and tyres used, axles, extra gearboxes and panels. Shepheard scheduled key component changes whether the cars needed them or not. For instance there was a complete rear-end change at Port Headland with new diffs and axle housing installed. Struts were changed regularly, along with brakes, radiators and various other critical parts.
The vans carried only what was absolutely necessary. The inventory included a spare gearbox and clutch, a diff-centre, two axles, two complete front struts, springs, a radiator and other small componentry. The vans carried some tyres and wheels on the roof racks and some spare fuel, mainly for use in the vans so that they could keep motoring even if there were no fuel stations.
George’s ‘special forces’ contingent comprised
gun rally soldiers, who were a who’s who of rallying, including Martin Byrne, Warren Blain, Ross Birnie, Arthur Evans, Bruce Garlic, Peter Muir, Phil Myres, Ned Nowacki, Geoff Ross, Mick Roberts, Dick Watman, Graham Wilkins, Tony Wilkinson, Brian White and Mick Verral. They were all rally experts who had competed and worked with George Shepheard over the years, supplemented by the aforementioned Sheppard-supplied circuit racing crew members.
Shepheard reckons the involvement of Holden marketing executive and Brock’s best mate, Grant Steers, universally known as ‘The Spear’, was crucial. The Spear, who passed away earlier this year, was the Holden liaison man and the conduit to key management helping get things approved at critical times.
Shepheard also had ‘old silver’ the mule car he had built as the prototype for the Repco cars. It had done virtually an entire Round Australia before the event and was the chase car, a first intervention vehicle, if you like.
George was really the field marshal controlling the entire operation from his aerial base in the command plane, maintaining constant radio contact with the three competition Commodores, the four service vans and old silver.
George’s then apprentice, Peter Muir, spent a lot of the event in the team’s plane where he took the struts that had been swapped out of the cars and rebuilt them ‘in the air’ as they flew to the next location.
Muir went on to buy Bond Roll Bars from George when he decided to move his family north to Queensland in the 1980s and JZS 250 became his work van, living on for some years before he traded it in for a Holden ute in the late 1980s.
That all three Commodores were close together throughout the event, running 1-2-3 from Port Headland all the way back to Melbourne, helped the service effort. George had warned that if one car fell too far behind it would be sacrificed with all of the effort focussed on ensuring Holden won the event.
Ned Nowacki reckons the vans were ideal for the task, but says it was just as unrelenting and tiring for the Holden crew as for every other team. It was only better planning and organisation that got them through.
“We still spent many hours in the cars,” said Ned. “At one stage I was in the van with [my brother] Bruce and we took off after a service in outback WA, he was driving and I quickly went to sleep, but I woke up a while later to the sound of a horn blowing, it came from the Citroen crew who had pulled up alongside us on a long stretch of dirt road, Bruce had stopped in the middle of the road and was asleep,” Ned laughs.
“We worked bloody hard, when we did the axle change in Port Headland we decided to do it like a Bathurst pit stop and swapped the axle unit in the first car in 18 minutes, we did the second in 14 minutes, but the third took 22 minutes, the heat and tiredness taking its toll,” he recalls.
Nowacki says the Repco was a never-to-be-repeated experience and it was the tremendous team effort that ensured the result for Holden – and of course the V8 Kingwood panel vans.
For Sydney-based rally enthusiast and engineer Anthony ‘Bean’ Edwards, the Holden Round Australia service vans held a special fascination particularly since he was a good friend of Barry Ferguson’s sons and had helped with various aspects of the restoration of Barry’s Round Australia Commodore after he had found it and purchased it in 2008. “I’d spent the last 15 years building and servicing rally cars and was looking for a project that would combine my rallying and car restoration interests,” said Anthony. “I wanted a muscle car but didn’t want a show pony, I wanted a practical and fast V8 that I could also use to service on rallies, so a replica of the HDT van seemed perfect. “The idea really came to me when I was servicing for Barry Ferguson on the Red Centre Trial when he debuted his Repco Commodore after he’d found it and restored it, I thought the van would be the perfect partner to the historic Commodore,” he added. “So six years ago I got the ball rolling on researching the vans. I spoke to some of the HDT team members from the Repco to get their memories of the vans and to see if they could remember what spec they were.” Anthony spoke to George Shepheard. George is now retired and his suspension business in Queensland is now run by son Reg. “The Shepheards were a great help and gave me a lot of information as did Peter Muir who worked for George at Bond Roll Bars in Regents Park in Sydney’s west where the Commodores and the vans were built for the Repco,” Anthony added.
He located a donor vehicle and set about turning it into as authentic a replica and tribute to the Round Australia service van he could, using the JZA 225 machine as its template. Anthony accumulated as much photographic evidence as he could and spoke to many of the people involved including George Shepheard, Ned Nowacki, Peter Muir and of course Barry Ferguson.
The car is now pretty much complete having been painted in the matched colour scheme and had the interior trimmed to authentically match the original. Anthony still has to sort the bullbar and the racking in the rear of the van and says he will use it to service on rallies particularly any classics where Barry Ferguson’s Commodore is competing. It is a great tribute to the workhorses that helped win Holden the Repco. Its rego now mirrors the original, with JZA 225 number plates adorning the freshly painted machine.
Far left: The Nowacki brothers, Bruce and Ned. Right and bottom right: George Shepheard’s thorough planning and back-up paid off handsomely when trouble struck in the middle of nowhere.
Above: Barry Ferguson, who finished second in car #17, owns that same car today. His sons are mates with the creator and owner of the replica overleaf.