It’s 50 years this year since I made my Bathurst debut. I was part of the AMI works Toyota Corolla team [ED: car #56] in 1968.
I was the junior driver and so I just did what I was told. I never had any say in anything. It was just: this is your car, this is who you’re co-driving with, go out there and do it. That was ne by me; I was there to learn. The others, people like Bruce Hindhaugh, Brian Sampson and Barry Ferguson, had been in the factory team a while; they were older and a lot more experienced than I was, and I looked up to them.
How that drive came about was that Bill Buckle was one of the factory drivers, and he kept his Corolla from the ’67 race and modified it into an Improved Production car. He made it into a bit of a Buckle special, with a hot cam and other things, which were part of a hot-up kit for Corollas he was selling in his dealership in Brookvale. When we were looking to get into a touring car, my father said, ‘Instead of getting a Mini, let’s get something different – so you might get noticed.’
Bill and my father were friends because they were both in the left-hand-drive conversion business. So one day we took the Corolla out to Oran Park, Bill and my father, and we all had a drive – and I was faster than both of them. So Bill said, ‘I’m thinking of stepping away from the factory drive as I’m busy with business, so I’ll recommend you to take my seat.’
To me, that was fantastic. I think I was about 18 or 19 at the time. Then I got a call from the Toyota guy in Melbourne asking me to come down to Calder for a try out in one of the cars. So I went down there, did a few laps, and I must have been fast enough for them because they put me in the car for Bathurst.
I did hear later that I nearly didn’t get the drive because I had asked them whether they were going to put a roll bar in the car for Bathurst. They apparently took that to mean that maybe I was too scared to drive at Bathurst!
As it turned out, we went up there and Bruce Hindhaugh and I won our class. Then in ’69 with Brian Sampson we won again.
That second year, I started the race, and I remember the rst-lap crash at the top of the Mountain. When I arrived there, there were cars going everywhere, and I stopped alongside John French in the Alfa. He was upside down, and I was talking to him to ask if he was alright. Then they unblocked the road and I dawdled through thinking ‘Oh well, the race is going to be stopped.’ But when I got down to the pits, not going in that much of a hurry, they’re waving me on to keep going!
Looking back, I think the best learning curve for me at Bathurst was going there in a Corolla. With a small car like that, you had to use every last horsepower on every corner to get up the Mountain quickly. If you didn’t use everything the car had, and every inch of the road, you were slow.
At Bathurst, there were lots of places where you had to cross the road between corners to get over to the preferred side for the braking area. But in the Corolla, crossing the road was literally like ‘crossing the road’, because you had to be careful you didn’t cross the road in front of a faster car! Remember that in ’68/ ’69, it was the start of the Monaros, so you’ve got ve-and-ahalf litre Monaros and GT Falcons coming up on you, and you’ve got a 60 horsepower Corolla…
You had to be really careful of that, and try to not get in their way and cause an accident, but still go fast and race the guys in your class.
We raced Corollas for AMI in the Bathurst 500 those two years, and at the local tracks and at Bathurst in Easter I ran the modi ed Corolla we bought from Bill Buckle.
My father helped modify the Corolla; it ended up with a bit of a hybrid rear end – we tted a Morris Minor diff centre, so we could run a limited slip diff. We put disc brakes on the front with Minilite wheels, but the gearbox was standard.
It wasn’t that highly modi ed but it had over 100 horsepower, which wasn’t bad for an 1100cc engine. It also apparently was officially the fastest Corolla in the world at the time. It did 127mph.
AMI was the Toyota distributor, but they also had the Triumph and AMC agencies. From memory they were also running Triumphs at Bathurst in some years we were there with the Corollas.
At one point my father and I were looking at getting an AMC Javelin to run as a touring car. We had the Improved Production Corolla and we were thinking, ‘What’s the next step up?’ What would that be? What did AMI have in its stable, and were they able to give us any support? They had the Javelin, which looked pretty good.
We were talking to AMI about running a Javelin, but they didn’t want to come up with the money. I think running their Corolla team for them was enough, because even though they were actually sponsoring our Improved Production Corolla, just trying to get bits out of them for it was difficult.