The old Grey Six
Holden’s motorsporting history began with the humble old ‘Grey’ inline six cylinder engine.
With Holden killing off its six-cylinder twin-turbo Supercars engine, fans won’t get to see a ‘six’ contest our top-level touring car series for the foreseeable future. While many fans welcome the retention of the V8, there are those who lament the fact the General won’t be unleashing its new V6 on our racetracks as original planned. For these are people with long memories, who fondly recall when the first six-cylinder powered Holdens went racing.
For many Holden fans the idea of a Holden race machine not powered by a V8 engine is unthinkable. And yet, for all the glorious history of V8-powered Monaros, Toranas and Commodores in Australian touring car racing, the real heritage of Holden’s motorsport history lies with its six-cylinder engines.
It’s a six-cylinder legacy that runs deep. Let’s not forget that for the rst 20 years of Holden’s existence, there was no V8. And even when the rst V8-engined Holdens did appear, with the 307 and 327 Chevys that became available in the HK range, it was some time before they began to nd their way onto our racetracks en masse. Even as late as the mid-1970s, for example, a well-developed six-cylinder Torana XU-1 Sports Sedan was likely to be just as quick as one with a V8 transplant – as well as being less expensive and more reliable.
Similarly in touring car racing, the Torana SL/R 5000 and the L34 upgraded version were, in their debut year of 1974, hardly a demonstrable improvement on the tried-and-true XU-1. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but, given the disaster that did transpire at Bathurst with the new LH model Torana L34s in 1974, the Holden Dealer Team may well have not lost that race had Harry Firth hedged his bets by running an XU-1 as backup (indeed, Bob Morris was so unimpressed with the unreliability of his new L34 that he thought he’d have a better chance of winning Bathurst in ’74 by sticking with his old XU-1).
So, just as that familiar rumble of the LS Series alloy V8 and (in touring car racing) the 5.0-litre cast iron small block Chev is the Commodore’s calling card today, back in the day for Holden it was the trademark angry wail of a hotted up six-cylinder.
But, of course, there were two eras of the Holden six – one coloured grey, the other red.
The 138 cubic-inch (2160cc) ‘Grey’ straight six (so named because the engine was painted grey) was the original Holden engine that powered everything from the rst 1948 ‘humpy’ Holdens right up till the EJ model in 1962.
The original 48-215 (and all subsequent Grey six-engined Holden models, for that matter) was hardly what you’d call a sports car. But it was fairly light, it handled well at least by standards of the day, and the Grey six had good torque. It was no Jaguar, but it was more than a match for most of the popular English cars of the time.
And because the Holden was such an instant sales success (around one million Grey six Holdens were sold between 1948 and ’62), by the mid ‘50s pre-loved ‘Humpies’ were plentiful, and therefore inexpensive. Not many aspiring young racers could afford a Jaguar, but a second-hand Holden was well within reach.
Before long a whole industry had sprung up manufacturing aftermarket performance parts to service the growing army of young enthusiasts and would-be racing drivers wanting to hot up their Holdens.
Those early racing Humpies were a colourful (and probably critically important) addition to the then embryonic Australian touring car racing scene. There’s no doubt that the proliferation of ‘early-girl’ Holdens energised touring car racing right at a time when it was starting to develop into something more than just a support-race sideshow. Before long, too, the rst Holden racing stars and ‘hero’ Holden race cars began to emerge.
Probably the most famous Humpy racecar was the heavily modi ed (and sinister looking) black Leo Geoghegan 48-215. This car, with its four-speed MG gearbox, underbody fairing, streamlined front end and alloy-headed engine, was not only one of the catalysts for the formation of the rst actual set of touring car racing technical rules (its mods were so outlandish that it forced CAMS to come in and set some parameters for sedan racing), but it was effectively a Sports Sedan long before that category even existed.
Geoghegan, of course, would go on to be one of the biggest names in the sport in the 1960s and early ’70s. But he wasn’t the only future star to race an early Holden. The Holden racer rollcall contained some heavy hitters: John French, Brian Muir, Spencer Martin, Bob Jane, Jim McKeown, Harry Firth, Barry Seton, Des West (whose ‘barn- nd’ 48-215 featured in our cover story in AMC #53), Bryan Thomson, Bob Holden, Garry Rogers and, more besides, all raced Greysix engined 48-215s or FJs.
Or the newer FC/FE model, in the case of the man who later would become the rst driver to win the Bathurst 500 in a Holden, Bruce McPhee (McPhee’s single-lap co-driver in that ’68 Bathurst victory, Barry Mulholland, was himself a Humpy racer…).
In Queensland in 1964 a young mechanic scrounged together enough savings to build up an old FJ to race. Money was so tight that he couldn’t afford to have the car properly spraypainted – so he hand painted it with a brush using tins of old house paint that had been gathering dust under his parent’s house. These were the humble beginnings of Dick Johnson’s racing career.
Meanwhile down in Victoria, Johnson’s future great touring car rival, Peter Brock, was preparing to make his racing debut in a humpy Holden. However, a (compulsory) stint of national service scuppered those plans; instead, when he got out of the army Brock built himself a Holden 179-engined Austin A30 Sports Sedan.
Brock would eventually race a 48-215, some 40 years later, at the Goodwood Revival meeting. Sadly, as fate would have it, that would also be the last car Brock ever raced, as he would lose his life in a tarmac rally crash in Western Australia just a week later.
Even more than 10 years on from his passing, Brock remains today Holden’s greatest star driver. But he wasn’t the rst. Arguably the original Holden touring car star was Norm Beechey – who, ttingly, also happened to be Brock’s hero. The amboyant Beechey’s 48-215 was the most famous racing Humpy in Victoria, if not the entire country – at least until it famously met its end in a spectacular rollover at Calder.
But that old Humpy, affectionately known at the time and still remembered today for its ‘PK752’ number-plate, was just one of a number of famous Norm Beechey racing Holdens. While the Beechey legend is mainly associated with V8-powered cars – the Mustang, Chev Impala and Nova, Monaro HK GTS 327 and HT GTS 350 – he went within two seconds of claiming what would have been Holden’s rst Australian Touring Car Championship crown at the wheel
of a six-cylinder EH Holden, a whole 54 years ago. But that was with the ‘Red’ six engine – and that’s a whole other story in Holden’s motorsport history.
Hotting up the Humpy
J ust as the latterday Holden V8 engines have come from Chevrolet, so too did the original Holden engine have deep roots with the iconic American nameplate.
The 2.2-litre Grey six was based on an inline Chevy six, but with some re nements. The main improvement was to the oiling system: where the Chev used an old-style splash-feed system to lubricate the big-end bearings, the Holden engine had a fully pressurised system of lubricating the crank journals.
This was an important consideration as far as racing went, if only because it was one of the few vaguely highperformance aspects of the Grey six design. In essence, it was a modest workhorse of an engine with little to attract the interest of hot up tuners.
The one big thing it did have going for it was the fact that there were so many of them, which made them inexpensive to buy.
Chief among the engine’s variety of limitations was the four-main-bearing crankshaft. With the inner main bearings having to support a pair of conrods on either side, crankshaft ex (and worse) was a serious issue for anyone who wanted to test the friendship and push their Grey six much beyond 6000rpm.
But the higher up the rev range, the more power. It got to the stage that as power outputs increased (especially with the use of aftermarket cylinder heads such as the Repco Hi-power head and Waggott’s twin-cam conversion – and even a rotary-valve head from Dunstan), some found it necessary to change the crankshaft after every race meeting!
Not just any crankshaft, though – the early Holden racers soon discovered that secondhand crankshafts, usually ex-taxi cranks, were better than new ones. The 100,000-odd
Chief among the engine’s various limitations was the four-main-bearing crankshaft. With the inner main bearings having to support a pair of conrods on either side, crankshaft flex (and worse) was a serious issue for anyone who wanted to test the friendship and push their Grey six much beyond 6000rpm.
kilometres of taxi driving created a kind-of workhardening effect on the cast-iron that made them stronger than brand new crankshafts…
Different methods were sought to help brace the main bearing caps and avoid crank breakages under the stresses of racing. John Cummins had one such mod made to the Grey six he ran in his old Bugatti grand prix car. “General Motors wasn’t interested in racing,” Cummins noted, “but it always seemed that they were watching what we did and changes in production followed our development.”
Later production Grey six engines had main bearing caps that were easier to brace…
By the early ’60s, a good Appendix J Grey motor with a fat cam, triple SU carbies and a Repco head would have around 160 horsepower – Beechey’s 48-215, for example, was said to be good for 167 horsepower. Not bad given that the stock 138ci Grey delivered a mere 60 horsepower!
And while that mightn’t sound like a lot today (167hp, or about 125kW, is roughly what you can expect from your average 2.5-litre mid-sized 2018 model Mazda, Toyota or Hyundai), it needs to be remembered that the 48-215 only weighed 1000kg. The race versions may have been lighter still. That amount of grunt in a lightweight chassis made for quite a quick machine by standards of the day. Beechey’s car clocked the standing quarter mile in a swift 15.1 seconds and would top out at just over 200km/h.
These are impressive numbers for such a garden-variety engine. But the even more remarkable thing about its competition record is the engine’s sheer versatility. Hot Grey sixes were used in just about every type of motorised sporting competition on land as well as sea. No less than 25 entries in the Australian Grand Prix in the ’50s to early ’60s period were powered by Grey sixes.
But it was in speedway racing where the engine arguably enjoyed its greatest success. By a happy co-incidence, the 2.2-litre Grey was perfectly sized for the 2.7-litre Speedcar engine limit. Fitted with locally-developed McGee fuel injection, a highly evolved Grey six Speedcar engine could deliver as much as 190 horsepower. At least until the mid-to-late ’60s, McGee-injected Grey six Speedcars driven by stars like Johnny Stewart and Garry Rush were more than a match for the side-valve V8 Fords and were even competitive against proper speedway racing engines like the American Offenhauser. Top: The Grey six had plenty of success in speedway - especially when fitted with McGee fuel injection. The engine had shortcomings aplenty, but with Australia crawling with second-hand Humpies by the early ‘60s, they made for ideal inexpensive race cars.
And as AMC’s drag racing expert David Cook observed in AMC #11 in his feature on legendary Holden racer/performance tuner Ron Harrop, the 48-215 and FJ models played an important role in the early development of quarter-mile competition in this country. Whereas drag racing in the USA was built around the Model T Ford, in Australia the humble early Holden was the ‘very meat of the sport in its founding years’.
As Cook says, it’s a shame that while the Model T’s legacy lives on in numerous breglass replicas that form the most common shapes in many drag racing categories around the world, in Australia the 48-215/FJ has almost passed from memory – in drag racing as well as road racing.
It is a long time ago – in fact, 2018 marks the 70th year since the rst Holden rolled off the assembly line – but we should pause to salute the old Grey six. And not just because of the important role it played in our early touring car racing. Those early Holdens created a whole generation of Australian car enthusiasts, in the process laying the foundations of the muscle car era that was to come later. Next issue, in part 2 of our review of the Holden six in motorsport, we’ll focus on the feats of the red engine in racing.
Above: Prototype Grey six is shown off ahead of production of the 48-215 Holden in the late ’40s. Right: VF Commodore ute ‘Sandman’ Supercars mule was used for early testing of the twin-turbo V6 Supercars engine – which Holden has since shelved.
Norm Beechey and the famous PK-752 Humpy Holden at Fishermans Bend. Des West’s Appendix J 48-215 (above right) survives today; the Geoghegans’ wildly modified black machine (top left) was one of the catalysts behind the formation of the first proper set of rules for touring car racing in Australia.