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
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.