The old Grey Six

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents - Story: Steve Nor­moyle Im­ages: Chevron Ar­chive

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.

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