Colin Rus­sell

Among for­mer Lot 6 me­chanic Colin Rus­sell’s many achieve­ments in motorsport was build­ing the en­gine that won the first Bathurst clas­sic held over 1000 kilo­me­tres. AMC sat down with Rus­sell to hear his rec­ol­lec­tions of fet­tling the fastest GTs of the late

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

Among this for­mer Lot 6 me­chanic’s many achieve­ments in motorsport was build­ing the en­gine that won the first Bathurst clas­sic held over 1000km. We sat down with Rus­sell to hear his rec­ol­lec­tions of fet­tling the fastest GTs of the late 1960s/early ’70s in both quar­ter mile and tour­ing car com­pe­ti­tion.

There seems to be peo­ple in the world who at­tract good for­tune and an ex­cit­ing life like oth­ers at­tract mos­qui­toes, hay fever or ex­cess debts. Talk to some­one like re­tired Mel­bourne me­chanic Colin Rus­sell and you start hear­ing sto­ries about Hol­ly­wood celebrity Fred As­taire and tour­ing car vet­eran Al­lan Mof­fat and Ford’s leg­endary Lot 6 race work­shop and you be­gin to think that no mat­ter what you’ve done you’ve been liv­ing an ex­tremely bor­ing life.

Colin set out to be a sim­ple me­chanic, but fate seemed to have other things in mind for him. His nat­u­ral skills as a very com­pe­tent me­chanic and his like­able, easy go­ing na­ture made him a stand­out in any crowd, and soon he was seem­ingly falling into the most un­likely but dream­like jobs.

These days Colin lives the quiet life of a long-re­tired grand­fa­ther, with wife Merle in the Mel­bourne sub­urb of Air­port West. Pass him in the street and you wouldn’t give him a sec­ond glance, but 44 years ago he was bolt­ing to­gether the en­gine that would take Al­lan Mof­fat to a win at the first Bathurst clas­sic held over 1000 kilo­me­tres. A few years be­fore that, he was fine­tun­ing drag racer Larry Ormsby’s record-set­ting quar­ter mile GT-HOs. In other words, he was equally adept span­ner­ing cars that raced for 12 sec­onds or for over seven hours.

Yet he still sees his years as a hum­ble TAFE teacher as the most re­ward­ing time of his life, all be­cause of the in­ter­ac­tions with young en­thu­si­as­tic stu­dents.

He still re­ceives monthly phone calls from Amer­i­can Al Turner, who headed up Ford’s Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles unit, and he is one of the few sur­viv­ing mem­bers of that small band of broth­ers who worked at Ford’s Lot 6 (Ma­honey’s Road, Broad­mead­ows) skunk works from 1968 to 1974. He is also a wel­come face in the pits at just about any tour­ing car race meet­ing in Aus­tralia.

We hooked up with Colin dur­ing a visit to Syd­ney to re­live some of those great mem­o­ries from a life well lived.

AMC: Be­fore we get to the ex­cit­ing stuff, what was your back­ground that led to your ca­reer around motorsport?

Colin Rus­sell: I started an ap­pren­tice­ship in 1952 with a fel­low by the name of Jay Pas­coe at a garage called Jays Mo­tors, in sub­ur­ban Rich­mond. Jay was the brother of Jim Pas­coe, who with Jay, fin­ished up as the owner of Calder Race­way. They, with three oth­ers – Jack Cor­rie, Fred­die Han­lon and Mick Bram­ley – started the cir­cuit. I fin­ished my ap­pren­tice­ship in 1957, and right across the road from Jays Mo­tor was Su­pe­rior Cars, which was one of the first car yards in Mel­bourne, owned by Stan Jones.

I fin­ished up work­ing for Stan, who was well es­tab­lished by then, work­ing on his Maserati 250F (Grand Prix car) with John Sawyer, who was the main man. I got in­volved in quite a few projects for Stan, in­clud­ing build­ing a go-kart for his son Alan, who went on to win the World Cham­pi­onship.

I also got in­volved in the mak­ing of the movie, On the Beach, where I looked af­ter the Fer­rari that Fred As­taire was driv­ing in the movie. Nice lit­tle jobs like that.

AMC: You got to work with Fred As­taire? CR: Yes. He was a lovely man. He didn’t walk, he glided across the floor. That was all shot down at Ber­wick, where I worked.

I met Larry Ormsby, a young guy with a chain of brake re­pair fran­chises un­der the name of Brake Ser­vice Com­pany. He kept on at me about how good his busi­ness was and why wouldn’t I want to work for him. Af­ter a cou­ple of years of this I even­tu­ally gave in and went to work for him in April 1968.

I was to start work on a Mon­day and went in on the Satur­day be­fore just to see how it all worked and Larry was there with his XR GT. He asked me, “Do you know much about drag rac­ing?” Well, I’d done some rac­ing down at the River­side drag strip and we’d won the 1965 and ’66 cham­pi­onships with rac­ers by the name of Barry Mil­burn and Bruno Bataglia. I’d built both their mo­tors and set their cars up. So I replied, “Yeah, I know a lit­tle about drag rac­ing.”

Larry said, “Well the bloke next door is Jack Collins and he’s the man­ager out at Calder and he wants me to take my GT out there to the drags.” So I said, “Let me take it for a drive.”

I didn’t have time to do any­thing, but I took it for a spin and I worked out where the torque range was, and so I de­ter­mined where to change gears and all I could do then was make sure it shifted prop­erly up the gears, the clutch worked fine, made sure we were get­ting full throt­tle, put a new air cleaner in and changed the plugs and we headed out to Calder the next day. Would you be­lieve, we were run­ner-up. Well, that was it, Larry was hooked. So I worked with Larry for quite a long time, through three GT Fal­cons.

AMC: Who gave you the name ‘Rus­sell the Ras­cal’?

CR: That was Larry. That was back in the days when you had to do it. We had ‘Ratfink Ray’, that was Ray Pick­er­ing. I tried not to live up to my name. Any­way, we had the XW go­ing ex­tremely well and Ford Mo­tor Com­pany and Al Turner were look­ing around, un­be­knownst to me, and he knew that we had a car that was quicker than their cars, though ad­mit­tedly we could do more work than they could, and he kept invit­ing me up to have a look at their work­shop. It was a pretty big deal, this se­cret work­shop at Lot 6, and then of course Al dropped it on me, would I like to work for him. Would I ever!

The very first car I worked on at Lot 6 was the white Cas­trol Su­per Fal­con of Pete Geoghe­gan’s. I fin­ished up do­ing a lot of fab­ri­ca­tion around the top shock tow­ers and put a brace bar across them. Of any of my skills at that stage, weld­ing was prob­a­bly the worst, but I got through it.

I was just part of a team. It was never a one-man show. Some­one once said to me, “Did you re­alise that John Wynne was the work­shop man­ager there?” “Was he?” I replied, be­cause that was some­thing I’d never known. There was no hi­er­ar­chy. We were all given a job, by Al Turner in the early days and Howard Mars­den in the later days.

My job was gen­er­ally all over the cars and ba­si­cally as a gen­eral chas­sis me­chanic.

AMC: Did you have an im­me­di­ate su­pe­rior, some­one to whom you were an­swer­able?

CR: Al Turner and Howard Mars­den. Bill San­tuc­cione was shop su­per­vi­sor and John Wynne was fore­man but those jobs never ever hap­pened. We were a gen­uine team.

AMC: So Al Turner was in the work­shop say­ing, “Colin, today I want you to do those shocks,” and then the next day he di­rects you onto an­other job.

CR: Yes, and then he’d leave and go down to head of­fice and come back at 9pm af­ter he’d knocked off down there and work with us un­til 2 or 3am in the morn­ing. A nor­mal day was an 8am start and we were sup­posed to fin­ish at a minute to mid­night ev­ery night. Why a minute to

mid­night? Be­cause if you went past mid­night you were paid dou­ble time next day and we didn’t think that was fair for the com­pany. So we worked un­til a minute to mid­night ev­ery day of the week ex­cept Satur­day and Sun­day.

AMC: (To Colin’s wife Merle) How did you cope with this? Merle Rus­sell: There were times when, say, they were get­ting cars ready for Bathurst and Colin would go to work on a Mon­day and come home on, say, Thurs­day. He’d come home, have a shower and then head off to Bathurst.

AMC: So you might see each other for just an hour or two.

Colin Rus­sell: Yeah, and that was nor­mal. Be­cause I was in my mid-thir­ties it was fine. It was what I felt was nor­mal. We were get­ting a job done, we en­joyed it; it was very sat­is­fy­ing.

That was my start into Lot 6. Later on Bill San­tuc­cione left to set up his own busi­ness and Howard said to me, “Would you like to do the mo­tors?” So I got to do the mo­tors for the first 1000 kilo­me­tre Bathurst race.

AMC: Did they pick you to do that for any rea­son? CR: I think the fact that they knew that I had a fair bit of drag rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and had built a mo­tor or two over the years had a lot to do with it.

AMC: Were you ever a com­peti­tor in motorsport? CR: I never drove in com­pe­ti­tion; pre­pared only. Test drove, yes. In fact I test drove all the GTs. I did 540 laps of Calder prior to Bathurst in 1972, I could hardly move my arms af­ter­wards.

AMC: In which car? CR: In both of the team XYs, I did 280 laps in one and 260 in the other. It wasn’t a good year for us. It rained and we lost and ev­ery­thing went wrong. It was Howard Mars­den’s first year.

Any­way, at the race I lifted up a churn of fuel and I couldn’t hold it be­cause my arms were so tired. I dented the roof of the car. I be­lieve that car is up in David Bow­den’s col­lec­tion, still with the dent in the roof. I doubt any­body knows that I was the one re­spon­si­ble for that dent. I once cal­cu­lated I lifted a ton of fuel, in churns. Any­way, Howard of­fered me the job of build­ing the mo­tors so I started on that. AMC: So we come to that fa­mous 1973 Bathurst race that was, for the first time, set at 1000km. This was your high­light in mo­tor rac­ing, be­cause you built the mo­tor and you won.

CR: We’d built a mo­tor that was pretty good, but Howard came up with a camshaft from Amer­ica that was sup­posed to be bet­ter. How­ever, to make it work I had to fly­cut the pis­tons, which wasn’t le­gal.

AMC: Do you know what camshaft that was? Did it come from Ford or was it from some pri­vate af­ter­mar­ket com­pany?

CR: It was a pri­vate com­pany’s cam, but I can’t re­call which. It worked ex­tremely well. It made the best horse­power. We put the mo­tor in the car with the fly­cut pis­tons for Mof­fat to test. He said that it was fan­tas­tic, so we then de­cided that we’d use those spec­i­fi­ca­tions but we’d re­tard the exhaust side of the cam with a camshaft re­grind of 5 de­grees to get the clear­ance we needed. We lost no power; un­for­tu­nately the cams were ground as if to suit a Chev.

See, on the side of a cam lobe there is an an­gle, and the cam fol­lower has a ra­diused base and the an­gle of the lobe lifts the ra­diused base. On a Ford on one side of the mo­tor, four cylin­ders, or eight cam lobes, have an an­gle in one di­rec­tion and on the other side they’re the op­po­site di­rec­tion. In a GM en­gine they’re all the same way, and they rely on that to make the camshaft go back into the block and not go for­ward at the front of the tim­ing case, whereas Ford holds the cam in with a tim­ing case thrust plate.

They had ground the cams to suit a Chev­type pro­file, but no­body picked it up. We put the mo­tors on the dyno and they were beau­ti­ful. I took them out to Calder, just me on my own, and I did two or three laps and dipped the oil and got my nice clean white rag and I’ve got sil­ver-frost in the oil. Not a good look. Pull the mo­tor out and we’d lost the lobes on one bank of the mo­tor.

We put an­other mo­tor to­gether and it was the same. Af­ter a while we had five or six camshafts pack up. What’s go­ing on? What are we do­ing wrong? One of the guys de­cided to take one of these camshafts down to Ford’s engi­neer­ing depart­ment, which was an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity. They picked the camshaft up there and said the magic words, “This isn’t a gen­uine camshaft, take it back.”

The same bloke came back, and in his top pocket was a six-inch steel ruler, and he placed it on the lobes, and said, “Hang on, these are all wrong,” be­cause one lobe should look that way and the next the other. We in­stantly had them all re­done. I put the mo­tors to­gether and we dy­noed them and had 400 or so horse­power, we were happy with that and put them in the cars and away we went.

AMC: Were there any other changes in that mo­tor other than in that camshaft?

CR: We were still run­ning the same valve springs, the same valves, the same rocker gear.

The only change we’d made from the year be­fore was the dif­fer­ent camshaft.

AMC: Were there any other changes through the driv­e­line or in the cars, or was it purely that en­gine that got you there?

CR: To the best of my knowl­edge we may have up­rated the front sus­pen­sion stub axles, but that was done for the next model and I don’t think we’d done any­thing dif­fer­ently in the car. They had the same gear­boxes, the same diffs, the same Detroit Lock­ers in the rear end.

That was a car that was struc­turally a lit­tle bit bet­ter. It was stronger, it was tighter, the XA. It had more room un­der the guards to get big­ger tyres un­der the back. We weren’t get­ting any­where near the horse­power they’re get­ting today. We say we had 400 horse­power and we thought that was pretty good. If you don’t say 600 horse­power today they start ask­ing what you’re do­ing wrong.

AMC: So the win in 1973 was your ca­reer high­light?

CR: It cer­tainly was one of them. It’s some­thing to put on your CV: I built the mo­tor for the very first Bathurst 1000 win­ner. There have been so many bet­ter ones built since, but no­body else has built the first one.

AMC: Did you have free­dom of ac­tion in de­vel­op­ing those en­gines? Could you go to Howard Mars­den and say I want to do this or that?

CR: They would come up and say try this, this is sup­posed to work. I’d just put it to­gether and de­gree it in and that was it. The in­ter­est­ing thing is we didn’t own a dyno. Ford Mo­tor Com­pany did not have its own dy­namome­ter.

We used to run ev­ery­thing up on Frank Dug­gan’s dyno. I had a key to Frank’s shop. I would go around there af­ter work hours, on my own, open up the shop, put the mo­tor in, run the mo­tor, seven-eight-nine o’clock at night, go back to work, strip the mo­tor, make sure it was right, clock off, go home and be back at work at 8am the next morn­ing.

AMC: Those were the nights where you didn’t get to knock off at one minute to twelve.

CR: Ex­actly. We put three mo­tors to­gether. We had what we called the test or train­ing car and the two rac­ing cars. They went very well dur­ing prac­tice. Come the Satur­day night Howard said, “I’ve got some­thing for you. Al­lan says he wants the mo­tor out of the test car put into his race car be­cause he feels it’s bet­ter than the one al­ready in there.” So the mo­tor came out, got a quick check over and dropped in. He also said, “And with Fred’s car I want you to put a new camshaft in it,” and he gave me a new camshaft that had been stel­lited, which is a process where they put a very hard ma­te­rial on the sur­face that you can’t wear out, and a set of cam fol­low­ers. There were 48 cam fol­low­ers – 16 for each of the three mo­tors – and they were in an ANZ can­vas money bag. I tipped them out on the bench, and with them there were about eight flat wash­ers with sil­ver sol­der on one side of them. They’d fallen off eight of the cam fol­low­ers. Now I’ve got 40 cam fol­low­ers still with these tough pieces welded on the bot­tom of them of un­known qual­ity. I started us­ing a scriber and I’m try­ing to lever these things off ...

You were wor­ried that some more might be about to fall off?

Yes. Now Bathurst is an all-nighter, it al­ways is. We work all night, put new clothes on, start up the en­gines to drive down to fuel up and Fred’s car is go­ing clack, clack, clack, like it’s got a hun­dred thou tap­pet gap. Howard said, “Ad­just the tap­pets, Col.” I said, “Howard, you know what’s wrong with it, so do I.” He said, “Just do as you’re told; ad­just the tap­pets.”

I sent Fred out in a hand grenade. It wasn’t long be­fore the mo­tor went bang on full song, ab­so­lutely on full song; the first time he’d ever lost a mo­tor... well, on full song. Usu­ally you lose a mo­tor when a bear­ing or con­rod breaks when you lift your throt­tle, but he was go­ing up the hill and she went ke­bang. I felt safe with the other mo­tor, be­cause it had been proven. We’d run it and run it. That was 1973, the year we could have been first and sec­ond, with­out a doubt, be­cause the cars were so good, but it just wasn’t to be.

AMC: It seems Lot 6 was hard work, was it a good place to work?

CR: It was an ex­cel­lent place to work. There are three things I look for in a job: job sat­is­fac­tion, job se­cu­rity and the money you make. If you get two out of three you’re do­ing real well. At Lot 6 job sat­is­fac­tion was fan­tas­tic; job se­cu­rity – mo­tor rac­ing – there is no se­cu­rity; and the amount we were paid was the same as any other mo­tor me­chanic, which was $2 per hour. Eighty dol­lars a week! But we got paid for ev­ery sec­ond of over­time, so we’d get time-and-a-half for the first four hours and we’d get dou­ble time for the next four, and if you didn’t have an eight-hour break you got dou­ble time the next day, so where most me­chan­ics were mak­ing $4000 a year – which would buy you a GT Fal­con if you worked at the fac­tory – we could have bought two-and-a-half with what we were earn­ing. So it paid rea­son­ably well for the day.

We did it on a very lim­ited bud­get but we did it as a com­pany which re­ally did put its back­side on the line. GMH were in mo­tor rac­ing but they did it as a dealer team so if they did good GMH could say look how well we did, but if they went bad they could say, well, the deal­ers didn’t do so good. Ford put their rep­u­ta­tion on the line.

AMC: Did you feel much pres­sure, as the per­son re­spon­si­ble for those en­gines?

CR: If you saw shots that were taken by Chan­nel 7 back in the day they would zoom in on my face and I looked like I was about to die. I have never felt so much pres­sure in all my life, be­cause, at Bathurst there’s only one lap that mat­ters, and that’s the last lap. That is the one lap you can’t do any­thing about, and peo­ple would say, “Boy, we bet you par­tied hard af­ter your Bathurst win.” No, the ab­so­lute op­po­site.

AMC: Did the driv­ers have much in­put to your set-up and tun­ing de­ci­sions?

CR: Ab­so­lutely. Al­lan was em­ployed as a test driver. He never spent any time at Lot 6; that was our do­main. He’d go out test­ing and he’d come back and say this car’s not do­ing this or that. He’d give us enough in­for­ma­tion to make changes.

AMC: What was the feel­ing in the pit of the stom­ach when Howard Mars­den, in early 1974, told you, guys, they’ve pulled the pin on our pro­gram at Lot 6?

CR: Pretty dread­ful ac­tu­ally. We had all the Phase IVs up on the stands, we were ready to go on them. By then I wasn’t do­ing the mo­tors, we were send­ing them out be­cause we had a time­line prob­lem. Bill San­tuc­cione was do­ing the mo­tors down at his work­shop. We fin­ished the Bruce Hodg­son one and I did the road test­ing on that. I took it up to the Black For­est, near Mt Mace­don, at night.

I couldn’t spell engi­neer but overnight I be­came one. Ford thought here’s a group of guys, what are we go­ing to do with them? We

can’t just give them a pat on the back, say thanks very much and send them on their way. So they said you guys are now all de­vel­op­ment engi­neers, so I be­came a de­vel­op­ment engi­neer on the LN Se­ries Ford trucks. The oth­ers were build­ing what we called bul­lock carts, lit­tle Fiera trucks for the Philip­pines and other Third World mar­kets.

I used to take these trucks loaded with eight cu­bic me­tre con­crete blocks and drive them over these roads, on my own, with huge pot holes and vi­bra­tions where one kilo­me­tre is equiv­a­lent to a hun­dred kilo­me­tres of road use. And I did that for quite some time. The engi­neers would come up to see how I was get­ting on and one night I ca­su­ally asked, “What’s my fu­ture with Ford?” They said, “Oh, your job is se­cure un­til you’re 65.” “Do­ing what?” “Oh we’ve got truck test­ing to do for the next 50 years.”

I thought, so I’m go­ing to be a truck driver for the next 50 years. That’s when I saw an ad for trade teach­ers wanted. I ap­plied and was ac­cepted. That was the be­gin­ning of what I see as the most re­ward­ing part of my ca­reer, as a teacher of kids know­ing my back­ground, and me be­ing a com­men­ta­tor at mo­tor race events by then, and be­ing able to sup­ply up to a thou­sand tick­ets to ev­ery race meet­ing that was on. I just loved it. Go­ing back to my three mea­sures of a good job: it was the most se­cure job I ever had, it was the most re­ward­ing job I ever had, but the money was lousy. I still got the two out of three.

I still have my old stu­dents talk to me, call me, they come to my house. So many of them be­came in­volved in mo­tor rac­ing. Ge­off Grech be­came team man­ager of the Holden Dealer Team. Peter Gray is one of the top burnout ex­po­nents at the mo­ment. So many oth­ers that all took up rac­ing. I had an 83 year-old guy re­cently tell me I was his hero be­cause I kept his son out of jail. These kids were just sponges, they wanted to learn. I just felt so priv­i­leged.

Main: Rus­sell (stand­ing third from right) had the per­fect back­ground for prep­ping en­gines for the first Bathurst 1000km – 10 sec­ond blasts down the drag strip! And build­ing AJ’s first rac­ing ma­chine (far left).

Top left: Colin says teach­ing stu­dents at TAFE gave him the most job sat­is­fac­tion. Bot­tom left: The Lot 6 crew (from left) Colin, Paul Matthews, Ge­off Sharpe, Paul Jef­fery, Howard Mars­den, John Wynn, Ray Ashcroft and John Gow­land. Right, from top: With Larry Ormsby in ’84, ’84 & ’79.

Above left: Colin Rus­sell today. Above: He prepped the Phase IV race­cars at Lot 6 be­fore Ford pulled the pin on rac­ing those cars. Left: Com­men­tat­ing with Ger­ald McDor­nan. Be­low: He was a handy test driver, too, turn­ing plenty of laps in the works GTs.

Right: Ref­er­ence from Howard Mars­den.

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