The last Monaro
It was the first (and only) HQ Holden and the last Monaro to start in the Great Race. It was also the first Holden in the Bathurst classic to be powered by the 308 Holden V8 engine – as well as being the last Holden to use the 350 small-block Chev.
Ron Dickson’s HQ Monaro GTS, the last Monaro to start the Great Race.
At the 1973 Easter Bathurst race meeting, Ron Dickson set a new class lap record in his black Holden EH Sports Sedan. As this was the last traditional Easter Bathurst meeting, Racing Car News declared Dickson’s machine to be the ‘fastest ever EH at Bathurst’.
It was certainly a quick car. That weekend it was clocked at 252km/h down Conrod. Such was the EH’s pace that its 202 Holden six engine had been plagued by a litany of oil surge problems, but this had been cured before the Bathurst meet with an intricately baffled sump designed especially for the car by Bo Seton.
On the Sunday night at Bathurst, Dickson and a few mates were gathered round a big camp re at the back of the pits. Then someone came over to their campre asking about the driver of the black EH. He was pointed in Dickson’s direction.
‘My name’s Les Muir,’ he said, upon being introduced to Dickson.
‘Do you have a Holden dealership?’ Dickson replied, well aware of the prominent Holden dealership named Muirs in Ash eld in Sydney’s inner west.
‘Yeah that’s me,’ said Les Muir. ‘But I just wanted to ask you something: did you paint your car?’
Dickson had not painted his EH. It was black when he bought it.
“Then Les lifts the bonnet of the car and has a look at the numbers,” Dickson says. “And then he looks at his notebook, and he says, ‘This car was one of the black EHs made for me’.
“Apparently he was the only dealer General Motors used to make black cars for. If you remember, Muirs’ service vehicles were always black. Les Muir had six black EHs made, and mine was one of them.
“Then Les says to me, ‘Your car is the fastest EH I’ve ever seen. Tell you what: how you about run a car for me in the Hardie-Ferodo?’ And I thought, ‘fantastic!’ “‘Right, I’ll order a black XU-1’, he says. “But then I said to him that we shouldn’t run an XU-1, because I knew from my EH that the 202 engine wasn’t going to last the distance – they’d run out of oil. You couldn’t keep the oil in them across the top of the Mountain. By the time they get to Conrod Straight they’re out of oil, and that’s where they blow up. But also, everyone was running XU-1s, and I thought it would be good to have something different.
“So I said to Les, ‘Order a black Monaro instead.’”
As it turned out, Muirs already had a black four-door GTS 308 in its showroom awaiting a new owner. So instead of a life on the streets of Sydney, this car would be bound for Mount Panorama in October.
Quite aside from any questions over the XU-1 engine’s ability to go the 1000km distance (as the rst ‘1000’, the ’73 race was almost 200km longer than the ’72 Bathurst 500) in the rst year of modied Group C cars, the Monaro was hardly an obvious contender.
By the time of the HQ’s release, Holden had given up on the idea of the Monaro as its agship sporty performance car. The Torana was now Holden’s weapon of choice when it came to competition, and in 1974 there would be a V8 Torana – further consigning the Monaro to boulevarde cruiser status.
Yet maybe a HQ at Bathurst wasn’t so fanciful after all. It wasn’t as though no one was using them in competition. There was Bob Jane’s Improved Production GTS 350. At the same time the HDT was rallying a 308 four-door HQ – which Peter Lang (the HDT driver who would win that year’s Australian Rally Championship) apparently reckoned was better in the forests than HDT’s XU-1s!
And then there was Bruce McPhee. The ’68 Bathurst winner intriguingly had entered an auto GTS 350 HQ coupe in the ’73 race. Racing Car News’ Bathurst preview went as far as to predict a possible top four result for McPhee (Bathurst history showed it was foolish to underestimate the wily McPhee) but McPhee’s Monaro never materialised. Instead he and co-driver Tom Nailard ran an XU-1.
Sports Sedan driver and noted race mechanic Bob Stevens would co-drive and prepare the Muirs Monaro.
“My memory of it is a bit hazy,” Stevens says, “but I think we only had about a week to get the car ready. We had a rollcage made for it at Bond Roll Bars but I don’t think we did much else to it. It was pretty standard. We took it for a run out to Forbes and back to run the engine in.”
The 308 engine had been stripped and blueprinted, and made 270 horsepower on Bo Seton’s dyno. The car’s race debut came at an Oran Park Toby Lee Series Sports Sedan round in August. Then came the Sandown 250.
There Dickson found himself in amongst the top under 2-litre cars. The presence of the big Holden in the middle of the small car class was the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons – Ford Escort driver Graham Ritter spent a frustratingly long period trying to get by the Monaro (which kept repassing the Escort on the straights). At the same time, Ritter was fending off Ray Harrison’s Alfa for the class lead, and after a while he tried slipstreaming the Monaro in an effort to break free of the Alfa. Unfortunately, the time Ritter spent tucked in behind the big HQ caused the little Ford’s engine to overheat and blow its head gasket!
But Dickson had his own problems. For one, he had no brakes (caused by boiling brake uid) for the last 30-odd laps. But before that, he was almost an enforced retirement after BP’s trackside fuel supply ran dry! With rival Shell only having sufficient supplies to service its contracted drivers, there was no more fuel available and not enough left in the Monaro’s tank for Dickson to nish the race. Luckily local Victorian drivers Pat Crea (whom Dickson already knew) and Ritter came to the rescue and gave Dickson’s crew enough fuel to get the Monaro home. Clearly there were no hard feelings on the part of Ritter after the demise of his engine!
“The brakes always went away,” Dickson says. “But the XU-1s could always outbrake you. The car was under braked for the weight, but so were a lot of cars in those days. We always tried to look after the brakes. Bob used to say to me: ‘Be light on the brakes, Ronnie, light on the brakes!’”
At Bathurst the HQ was 20th on the 58-car grid, behind the Leo Leonard and Ray Kaleda Chargers, alongside Murray Carter’s Falcon XA
Hardtop and ahead of two of the 16 XU-1s in the race.
Dickson’s doubts about the XU-1s’ engine durability proved well founded on race day. Only six of the 16 were still running at the end; more than half of the XU-1 retirements were caused by engine failure. And as the Toranas struck trouble, for a while the Monaro looked like it might be on for a result. At around the time Doug Chivas famously ran out of fuel in the Brock HDT XU-1, the Muirs HQ had been in sixth place behind Bob Forbes’ XU-1 and ahead of the Kaleda Charger and Carter Falcon.
The HQ’s solid run hadn’t escaped the attention of the Holden executives trackside at Bathurst, as Dickson relates:
“Near the end the GM guys came over and said, ‘What can we do for you? When you come into the pits, don’t come into your pits, use ours!’ But I said, ‘No, that’s not happening; we’ll just do our own thing.’”
When it came to GM assistance, Dickson had already been shown the (slightly) cold shoulder, although not from Holden, but from HDT boss Harry Firth.
“The GM guys in Melbourne introduced me to Harry Firth and they basically said to him, ‘We want to support this car, and Muirs is one of the biggest Holden dealerships in Sydney’. But Harry was very protective of his agenda with GM. I think Harry saw it as infringing on what he was doing with the XU-1s.”
In the end it didn’t matter whose pits Dickson used, as the HQ ended its race with a dropped valve a little over 30 laps from home. It was a disappointing end but it at least presented the ideal moment to t a 350 V8 engine. They’d elected to run the ’73 Bathurst race with the 308 engine which the car came with, but the plan had always been to upgrade to the 350 (the four-door GTS was available as a 308 or a 350).
In ’74 Dickson did some of the South Paci c Touring Car Championship rounds as well as selected ATCC and local NSW races.
The now 350-powered Monaro was a winner at the Oran Park South Paci c round in a drama lled eight-lap preliminary race. Brock retired his HDT XU-1 with brake problems; Dickson was third going into the penultimate lap, where the big Monaro bustled past Scotty Taylor’s XU-1 through Sutton’s Corner. With leader Forbes’ XU-1 blowing its engine on the nal lap, Dickson went on to beat both Taylor and Jim Hunter’s XU-1 to the chequered ag. This prompted Racing Car News to editorialise that the people ‘bagging’ Dickson over his choice of the HQ should think again!
However, there was no glory for the black HQ at Amaroo’s ATCC round. After qualifying 13th, Dickson went off at the Dunlop Loop on lap 20 before getting clobbered by Allan Moffat (starting from the rear in Fred Gibson’s Falcon after his own XB coupe failed in qualifying) coming onto the straight.
“The car was a bit of a handful. Bob Jane took a liking to me, I don’t know why, and at Oran Park one day Bob got together with Bob Stevens and they changed all the settings on the bars and things and tied it down at the back a bit better. That made it a lot better.”
At the Oran Park ATCC round the Monaro quali ed ninth, but went a lap down early after a spin. The problem there was that Dickson ended up back amongst the group of cars he would have been racing, but a lap behind them. After the race he was judged to have excessively blocked Hunter’s XU-1; the Monaro driver was given ‘a talking to’ by officials and ned $20.
The Surfers Paradise round was a disaster but it could have been a lot worse. In Friday practice the HQ suffered a front suspension failure as Dickson turned into the fast righthander under the Dunlop Bridge. The Monaro left the road at some 180km/h, destroying a front wheel and tyre before coming to rest just
centimetres from the fence.
Dickson had no spares of the nine-inch Mawer racing wheels the car ran, so to get through the meeting he resorted to a pair of seven-inch wheels (on the front) sourced from a local Holden dealer. The wheel/tyre size mismatch didn’t do a lot for the car’s cornering ability, which was hampered even further by a fuel problem.
“We had fuel surge in the tank,” Dickson recalls. “The big right-hander was so long that we’d end up running out of fuel at the next corner. So I’d lose a lot of time there while it spluttered around until the fuel picked up again.”
It might have been better to have gone home at that point, because in the race the engine dropped a valve after nine laps.
“Everyone was telling us: ‘You’ve got to change the rocker arrangement on this engine because it won’t last’. But under the rules you weren’t allowed to change them. That was the conundrum. We weren’t revving it hard – Bob limited it to 6700rpm, but even at that the rockers wouldn’t last.”
They found the best solution was to short shift out of corners and rely on the torque of the engine to keep engine revs as low as possible. To that end, when Bob Stevens built the 350 he opted for a camshaft pro le designed to deliver torque rather than horsepower. With 330bhp (246kW) it was on a par with the ve-litre V8s in the L34s, but it had a very healthy 460Nm of torque.
They didn’t bother with Sandown, instead going straight to Bathurst. Pat Crea was the co-driver this time as Stevens teamed up with Graeme Adams in his XU-1.
The Great Race that year had three distinctly different Holden models in the outright class: the XU-1s, the new L34s, and Dickson’s GTS 350.
“That year at Bathurst the car was fantastic. I loved driving in the rain, and the Monaro was a very good car in the rain. Because it was heavy, it had traction. The rain was an equaliser for us.”
That year was a case of what might have been. Dickson quali ed 17th – the car directly in front of him on the grid was Moffat’s much- vaunted ‘Project B52’ Brut 33 Falcon. In the race he had been at least 15th in the early running but on lap six the Monaro lost second and third gears. Later in the race a rocker failure put the car on seven cylinders. But they nished, 23rd outright and eighth in class.
“I didn’t think ultimately that we’d be able to beat the Toranas,” Dickson says today. “I mean, for one thing, there was so many of them and I was the only Monaro, so I was like a shag on a rock. I couldn’t run with the factory Fords and the other top Falcon guys, but the rest, I didn’t have a problem with them. You have to remember also that I was an amateur driver. I had a business to run and a young family, so I couldn’t put the time and the money into it that the big teams did.”
Dickson noticed the difference when he switched to an L34 for 1975.
“The Torana L34 pointed a lot better. When you turned it, it turned straight in. The Monaro was a lot heavier and had a lot of understeer. You had to turn it a lot earlier, and then you had the transference of weight as it then began to oversteer, which you had to compensate for. So you had to be careful how fast you went into the corner. The L34, you could just throw it into the corner.
“The Monaro was a good car. I never crashed it, never did any major damage to it, but it was a struggle. With the V8 Torana, the writing was on the wall and I think we didn’t want to read it.”
Still, the HQ GTS four-door was an interesting addition to the ranks in the early years of Group C – and but for a dropped valve in 1973 it probably would have been the rst V8-powered car home behind Moffat’s winning Falcon.
Left: Dickson ran the Monaro at the Sandown 250 but was almost forced to retire due to the trackside fuel supply running dry! Above: Chased by the winning Moffat/Geoghgan Falcon down the Mountain in ’73. But for a valve train failure, the big HQ would likely have finished sixth that year.
Left, below: Upgraded to a 350 V8 after Bathurst, the HQ was more competitive in ’74 and even won a South Pacific Touring Car Championship heat, but the writing was on the wall with the arrival of the Torana L34.