Racing legend Fred Gibson made his Bathurst debut in a Mini and recalls finishing runner-up in the 1966 classic. Meantime, Gover, yes everyone just calls him ‘Gover’, remembers his favourite Fords and Ford Australia personnel.
Racing legend Fred Gibson made his Bathurst debut in a Mini and also recalls finishing runner-up in the 1966 classic.
The word ‘mini’ only ever really meant one of two things, didn’t it? One was a garment that caught the eye of red-blooded males, the other was a car that got the same blokes pretty revved up as well, back in the Swinging Sixties. I can’t remember the first time the skirt in question caught the Gibson eye, but I remember very well making acquaintance with the cars in the early years of my racing career. I’ve just been reminded that it’s 50 years, almost to the day as I write this, since the Mini Cooper S left its mark on Bathurst. That same day I partnered Bill Stanley to outright second behind the winning entry.
The winner was, of course, the #13 car – lucky for some – piloted by Rauno Aaltonen and Bob Holden, which completed 130 laps in the 1966 Gallaher 500 to our #17 car’s 129. Morris Cooper S entries took 16 of the 19 spots in the Class C entry list – and no fewer than nine of them occupied the first nine positions in the race itself!
We’re talking about the heyday of the British Motor Corporation, or BMC, of course, and my invitation to take part in that history-making 500 came about in part because of where I was living at the time.
There was a pub in the Sydney suburb of Hurstville where a mob of us used to gather on a Friday night, not so much to drink as to exchange yarns about motorsport. One of them was Donny Holland, who was pretty well connected. Not only that, but BMC Zetland was not far at all from Randwick, and I was one of a number of motor racing enthusiasts who benefited from the BMC presence of ‘Hot Bits Eddie’ – a bloke who used to be able to conjure up racing parts through the back door! I bought a lot of parts off Hot Bits Eddie, including close-ratio gears and such like, and they all used to come out in brand-new packaging too! And at half the price of retail!
That BMC connection, I think, helped get me the drive when the well-known Hurstville dealership Vaughan and Lane decided to support a Mini Cooper S entry for the ’66 Great Race. This is where I have to correct that great figure in Australian motorsport journalism, the late Bill Tuckey, after whom the Media Centre at the modern Bathurst is now named.
In his history of the first years of Bathurst Bill said, in his 1966 chapter, ‘Another rookie was a pleasant-faced Lotus Elan sports car racer called Fred Gibson’. Now Bill was right, of course, about the pleasant face, but he seems to have forgotten that I actually raced in the first Bathurst 500, in 1963, co-driving a Mini 850 with my old mate Kevin Nicholson. Before that I had also taken part in the Bathurst 6-Hour sports car event with my mate’s MG-A twincam, so there was already a British connection of sorts where FG was concerned.
Anyway, I was pretty chuffed to receive the invitation for 1966. It put me among a whole swag of big Australian names, for a start, names like Firth and Matich, but it also meant I could rub shoulders with some of the biggest overseas drivers of that era. This was the first truly international Bathurst and it meant a lot to me to sit in the drivers’ briefings alongside guys like Aaltonen, who was European Rally Champion in 1965 and Paddy Hopkirk.
They called Rauno ‘the rally professor’, and we certainly learnt a thing or two. It was an education to see those Coopers barrelling down the straight – no kink at the bottom in those days – literally bumping each other along. If you nosed the car in front, it meant you also enjoyed the tow. You both went something like 5mph faster! Mind you, you needed the guy behind you to jump on the brakes at the bottom…
As far as my own car was concerned, it had taken a bit of getting used to. In those days the first time you met was in practice at Mount Panorama, and I found, again on the downhill straight in particular, that if you didn’t hop on the brakes as soon as you lifted, the thing would start to dart sideways across the track. I mentioned it to my co-driver, Bill Stanley, who wasn’t as technically-minded as I was but agreed that he had experienced the same problem. When I nagged hard enough for the guys to take a closer look, they found that the car’s front sub-frame was out of whack after a road accident. They replaced it and the car was like brand-new.
Which was a lot more than you could say for some of those Mini Coopers early on in that 1966 race! One was in the fence on lap 6; then my old pal John French whacked a Valiant at Murray’s Corner; another outbraked itself at the bottom of Conrod; on lap 11 another rolled over. Even the best of them came unstuck: Matich was using a Firestone racing tyre that seemed to put extra loading through the front wheels and he kept breaking the centres, but worse than that, he eventually lost a wheel at The Dipper and went into a tree, of which there were plenty beside the track in those days.
BMC’s bigwigs must have been relieved to see #13 out front and untroubled while Bill and I followed along, a lap down at the end but immensely pleased with the result and the whole experience. It was a landmark result for me and, of course, it paved the way for an even better result just one year later, but that’s another story! FG ED: A tribute to the FG/Bill Stanley #17 Cooper S was on display at this year’s Bathurst 1000.