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.

Australian Muscle Car - - Muscle Man -

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.

Early days

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.

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