Round Oz panel vans

Australian Muscle Car - - Front Page -

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.

The replica

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.

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