80-plus years of Holden heritage
It’s 50 years since Bob Holden’s career-defining win in the Bathurst classic – and well over 60 since he started competing. AMC paid the still active race driver a visit to discuss his remarkable racing life.
Every regular AMC reader knows Bob Holden won Bathurst in 1966 in a Mini. Yet how much do you really know about this extraordinary man and what he’s overcome to achieve his many feats?
Likewise, how many know the real story behind his career-defining victory 50 years ago? How did the third-string works-entered Morris Cooper S of Bob Holden/Rauno Altonen manage to topple its two more highly fancied sister cars and the other 14 examples that were mostly driven by the guns of the day?
Exemplary driving is just part of the story of Bob’s Bathurst 1966 victory. He also took a series of canny steps prior to the event, to ensure the #13 Mini would be competitive in the 1966 Gallaher 500, as he explains over the following pages.
There are three key qualities that make Holden, who turns 84 while this issue is on newsstands, the man that he is: longevity, tenacity and generosity.
He has carved out a 60-year career in Australian motorsport, but was a factory driver for only three of those years (1966 to 1968). For the most part he has been an impecunious privateer, building and preparing a wide variety of cars in an equally diverse range of racing disciplines.
Born with a disability that left him barely able to walk, he became a talented cyclist and a quick and intelligent driver. His resolve to keep racing just for the fun of it, when many of his contemporaries hung up their helmet years ago is to be admired. Especially when you consider that he’s also a cancer survivor.
Bob Holden is also a generous man. He has provided many aspiring young drivers with opportunities to get ahead and given many a competitor a helping hand.
AMC paid a visit to the 15-acre property near Taree on the NSW North Coast he shares with partner Colleen, two alpacas, three cows, four sheep and several chickens. He calls it “the nearest to heaven you will ever get.”
Upon arrival we found him tinkering in the shed, something he says he doesn’t do as often these days due to back issues.
It’s the perfect place for a chat – he’s always up for a chinwag or to tell a yarn – and to review his large collection of scrapbooks which date back to the 1950s. With sixty plus years of service to Australian motorsport there’s much to cover.
He talks us through his challenging childhood, his first sporting love, his prolific early racing days, sailing through a Volvo’s windscreen in India, his sole Bathurst outing in a GT-HO and highlights of his time as Aussie tintop racing’s class act.
Bob Holden was born in 1932 and grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh. He was born with a club foot and had multiple medical problems as a child which meant long spells in hospital for him. “In 1938-39 I was in hospital when the polio epidemic was going on,” recalls Holden. “They had to chop me up to make my legs work. I had plaster from the hips down for three years with one leg shorter than the others by two inches. The big problem is my ankles don’t move, my right (short) leg is almost stuck. I can’t heel-and-toe – everything is by feel.” Walking was difficult for young Bob so he spent a lot of time reading. Holden was a good student with a technical bent but everything changed when the kid next door was given a pushbike for Christmas. “I conned him into leaving it next
to the back fence and I would climb on boxes in order to get over the fence and slide down onto his bike in the middle of the night so that I could teach myself to ride. A friend at tech college was a state champion and that got me interested in competitive cycling and I joined an amateur cycling club. There was a Swedish masseur called Karl Swanson who for two years worked on my legs to get them to work. By then I was studying at Frankston Tech and riding 25 miles back and forth each day.”
Holden excelled at long distance cycling races and won several events. At the age of 16 he had to travel to Adelaide for a selection trial for the Empire Games but had no way of getting there. So he bought an Austin A40 van and began teaching himself how to drive – around the block at night. Sometime after that in the Colac to Warrnambool cycle race, he was blown off course into a culvert with several riders landing on top of him, damaging his knees. What turned out to be the end of a promising career on two wheels would be the start of a 60-year plus stellar career on four wheels.
“I started looking for an MG TC. Harry Firth was known as ‘Mr MG TC’ in those days. I took every MG for sale around to him to check. He didn’t think any were any good. I ended up buying one in pieces for next to nothing and built it up. I joined the Australian Motor Sports Club and hillclimbed in the MG. I turned my workshop from pushbikes into cars and within 12 months I was being paid to fix the cars of local university students.”
By this time Holden was working in the drawing office of the State Electricity Commission where he met Geoff Strachan, a keen Peugeot club member. Soon he was a member too and campaigned a succession of Peugeot 203s in local hillclimbs and races. He even ventured to Bathurst in 1956 where his trusty 203 came second in the NSW Road Racing Championship behind Leo Geoghegan’s black Holden. There would be plenty of class wins in 203s as well as a class win in the 1958 Mobilgas Around Australia Trial in a new 403. Bob Holden was nothing if not versatile.
From Francophile to FJs
In 1958 Holden found himself working at Repco Research with great engineers Charlie Dean and Phil Irving. It was here he learnt everything about cars from the mercurial Irving. Repco were developing their own ‘Hi-Power’ cylinder head for the Holden grey engine.
“I was offered all the bits off the test car if I bought my own Holden. So I bought a black ex-cab FE, registered GSY307. It became known as ‘Gussy’ and it really put me on the map. It was one of fastest Holdens out there.”
Bob moved to Sydney in the early 1960s and after short stints at both a Peugeot and a Holden dealer he opened up his own business, the Killara Motor Garage.
Peugeot 403s would be Holden’s bread and butter on both road and track for the early 1960s – two Armstrong 500s at Phillip Island, a Bathurst 6 Hour and a seventh place in the 1962 ATCC at Longford. There was one final fling in a FJ Holden at the 1961 Lowood ATCC race where he finished an excellent fifth behind four dominant Jaguar MkIIs. He also campaigned a Lynx single-seater with his own Peugeot power between 1962 and 1964. There was no burning ambition to race open-wheelers and the Lynx eventually ended up with a young Colin Bond.
For the Francophile, going French was going nowhere. Bob needed to jump ship.
“I was living at (top rally navigator) George Shepheard’s place and he must have conned me into getting into Minis. I liked them. I bought an Austin Mini, the reddest car I’ve ever seen in my life – red everything – which turned into a 1098cc Cooper that I ran in Improved Production. That would have been in 1965 and 1966.”
1965 saw the release of the 1275 Morris Cooper S and nine were entered for the Bathurst 500, including the Killara Motor Garage-entered car of Holden and Greg Cusack. Holden had prepared the Cooper S but conceded that it was his inexperience that told in the race.
“I had ace mechanic Peter Molloy on my pit crew. He didn’t know you had to take off the second fuel cap (the Cooper S had twin tanks) to vent the system when refuelling. We spent 12 minutes in the pits and it cost us the race. We ended up sixth in our class and ninth outright, on 125 laps.”
Nonetheless, he came to the attention of BMC public relations manager Evan Green and he was signed up to the factory team.
“On a rally in 1966, Evan told me he had conned Castrol, who were bankrolling the overseas drivers for the inaugural Southern Cross Rally, to extend their time to include Bathurst, which was a week earlier. He was worried about sponsorship (in an era when it was forbidden in the 500) and I suggested he just paint the Minis the same colour as the Castrol oil tins, instead of the traditional British Racing Green.”
Far top left: Bob’s lap before the 2016 Bathurst 1000. Main: Bob’s time in motorsport dates back to the late 1950s, including a class win in the 1958 Mobilgas
Trial in a Peugeot 403.