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.

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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.

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