Race across the World
Extract from John Smailes’ new book about the 1968 London-to-Sydney Marathon.
The Australian V8 power battle that played out on the global stage is just one subplot John Smailes outlines in his latest book Race across the World. Here AMC presents extracts to whet readers appetites for the new book’s full Marathon story.
On 16 December 1968, Scotsman Andrew Cowan, his brother-in-law Brian Coyle and British Rally Champion Colin Malkin, in a Hillman Hunter, won the greatest road race of all time, the London-Sydney Marathon, from Paddy Hopkirk, Alec Poole and Tony Nash in an Austin 1800 by a margin of just six minutes, after 16,694 competitive kilometres in 10 days, seven minutes and nine seconds.
Ian Vaughan, a young Victorian trials driver and engineer at Ford, along with Bob Forsyth and Jack Ellis, was third in a Ford XR Falcon GT a further six minutes back. They led home the Australian Ford works team to first place in the Ladbroke’s Team’s Prize, in third, sixth and eighth places, beating the best in the world.
The marathon had attracted 98 entries, 25 of them works teams from nine manufacturers, and in Australia all eyes were on the clash between the V8s: Falcon GT versus Holden Monaro.
John Smailes covered the marathon in 1968 and co-wrote a book with Holden team leader and Australia’s first touring car champion David McKay. The book, published in 1969, was called
The Bright Eyes of Danger. You can buy a copy these days online for around $1500, such is the everlasting interest in the great race. To mark its 50th anniversary, Smailes has written a sequel – the book that should always have been written, with in-depth analysis of how and why the marathon occurred. It’s called Race across
the World and it’s just been released by Allen & Unwin. It follows Smailes’ acclaimed Allan Moffat autobiography Climbing the Mountain.
Although the marathon was far more than a clash between two makes, Allen & Unwin has agreed to pull out some excerpts concentrating on the Holden vs Ford rivalry, which occurred at the height of the V8 power battles in Australia.
Ford was always going to enter the marathon. The world’s second-largest car maker may have been publicly listed, but it was still run by the Ford family, and Henry II had determined that in the 1960s motorsport would be his point of difference. As a volume manufacturer, he was compelled to build plebeian cars in their hundreds of thousands, but that didn’t mean he had to accept ‘boring’ as a cornerstone of his company’s image. Henry II wanted to bring excitement back into his grandfather’s company – and he had the will and the money to do it. Boy, did he have the money.
In seeming isolation, three Ford outposts independently discovered the marathon and entered teams, for the most part ignoring each other’s efforts. Ford UK was the most logical primary entrant, and they attacked it big time with no fewer than six Lotus Cortinas. In Germany, Jochen Neerpasch, who had just been poached from Porsche, entered the V6 Ford Taunus, a glimpse of the Cologne Capri to come.
On the other side of the world in Melbourne, Bill Bourke, a big-talking American salesman, had adopted Henry II’s crash-or-crash-through philosophy as a means of reclaiming lost sales in the Australian market and perhaps even saving the Australian Ford plant from extinction. Horsepower was the key. Bourke had argued with Dearborn to let his locally made Falcon be endowed as a performance car. In all other markets it was everything Henry didn’t want – boring and utilitarian. But in Australia, Bourke had equipped it with a Mustang-derived V8, and Ford had won the Bathurst 500 on debut.
That was in 1967. For 1968, Bourke figured he’d chase the double: a back-to-back win at Bathurst and a tilt at the marathon. The two events were separated by less than two months, and a win in both would be a huge boost to the end-of-year sales push. How many Falcons should he enter? Well, three seemed like a nice number – one for each step on the podium.
General Motors, the world’s biggest car company, was never going to enter the marathon and it was all because of its own success. In 1962, GM held 53 per cent of the US domestic market and was heading perilously close to the definition of monopoly, something frowned on by the US government. The Department of Justice had already acted against other conglomerates, forcing them to break up. GM had determined that by stopping motor racing it would be less visible, arguably less successful in the salesroom and would save a lot of money besides.
In Australia, GM’s Holden division, a direct Detroit subsidiary, took advantage of what Professor Geoffrey Blainey termed the ‘tyranny of distance’ in his bestselling 1966 book of the same name. Distance from Detroit brought some secrecy. In 1968 GM-H approached David McKay to run a fleet of its new Monaro coupes in the Bathurst race. Naturally, they would run under the banner of the Holden Dealer Racing Team, a company McKay registered. And they lost. A privately entered car, Bruce McPhee’s, won.
Entering Bathurst made McKay’s job harder when it came to the marathon. McKay had sold the concept of the marathon to the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, Sir Frank Packer, who became joint sponsor and owner of the event with the London Daily Express. McKay had convinced Packer that it was essential not only to sponsor the event but also to enter it. After all, that was his motivation. He wasn’t much interested in the marathon unless he could be in it and win it.
Packer agreed but he wasn’t at all concerned with the Fiats or Audis or any of the other lowhanging fruit McKay could bring to the table, even if they could win. As the owner of Australia’s leading newspaper, Packer wanted Australia’s number one car brand as a racing partner. You don’t say no to Sir Frank. For six months McKay and editor-in-chief David McNicoll worked at breaking down Holden’s barrier until finally in April they achieved agreement. They would not be official Holden entries, although a skunkworks of Holden people would be involved.
Compared to Ford Australia’s commitment, which was up-front, official and highly involving of its key people including drivers, the Holden effort would hold back enough to handicap it before it even left the starting ramp.
Preparation was everything, and the Australian V8s were the most powerful in the marathon. Ford’s GT Falcon developed 171.5kW and a stump-pulling 420 Nm of torque. It would flash from 0 to 100km/h in 8.5 seconds, whiplash-producing for its time. Holden’s Mon a row as producing 186kW. Ken Harper, a homegrown genius, built two of Ford Australia’s GTs in a large shed in the backyard of his home in East Malvern. Harry Firth built his in his own workshop. Firth devised a system of watercooling the big Ford’s brakes. Ian Vaughan “wasn’t game to use the system in case it made the brakes explode.”
The Australian Ford team were the only ones to install toilets in their cars. The specially designed potty sat unused, a step too far.
David McKay drove the London to Bombay section to lay down supplies and survey the driving conditions while the Monaros were being built. McKay specified air-conditioning and three-speed automatic for his car. Ford called up its rally team, including its in-house engineers and Firth, who’d won the inaugural Australian Rally Championship that year. Holden decided its entry was outside company policy and did not allow its engineers, among them competent race and rally drivers Tony Roberts and Bob Watson, to participate. “It was a big mistake,” said Ian Vaughan.
David McKay got lost on the first night on the run from Calais to Paris after the Crystal Palace start in London. Barry Ferguson in another Monaro almost didn’t make it through the night when a red light on the dashboard and a squealing sound announced that the fanbelt had come loose. “The battery had lost all its power,” co-driver David Johnson said. “We knew if we stopped and tried to fix it in the normal fashion we were gone.” Doug Chivas, number three in the car, made the repair with the engine running. McKay, lost on back roads, stormed into Paris control with only six minutes to spare – he should have been there an hour earlier.
Out of Paris, Ian Vaughan’s Falcon GT was screaming a high-pitched howl from the gearbox, when Bruce Hodgson in the second team car arrived from behind. “Settle down,” he said. “Bloody Harry (Firth) hasn’t run in the bushes on the shaft. Stick it in third gear for 20 minutes and you’ll be all right.”
On the first special stage – 300 kilometres from Sivas to Erzincan (the longest stage called on pace notes ever at that point in time – Firth, starting second on the road, found a shortcut to the mountain pass and forced his way in front of road leader Bill Bengry. Back in the field, Barry Ferguson earned the ire of eventual winner Andrew Cowan. Cowan was all over the back of the Monaro, looking for a way through. “The stones from his car broke our windscreen and our lights,” Cowan claimed.
Ferguson had a different story: “Sure, we passed and repassed Andrew but our power was the advantage. It was only when our brakes started to fall to pieces that we backed off.” When they went to service the brakes, they fell apart in their hands.
Any hope David McKay had of, personally, winning the marathon evaporated on this first serious stage. He spun into a field, then pushed his way past another competitor and stalled on
a bridge, gashing the side of the Monaro. When he stopped for what he thought was a puncture, he found his wheel hanging loose. By the time McKay arrived at control, he’d lost 66 points. John Smailes’ comments: It’s not possible to tell the full story of the marathon in anything less than a book.The Monaro versus Falcon battle is just a small part of the story and so much happened, hourly.
At Bombay (Halfway):
Lying seventh, 10th and 11th, the (Australian) Ford team were in good spirits. Even Roger Clark, marathon leader in a Lotus Cortina, had praised the drivers of the big Fords for their pace over the technical super special stages that so much favoured cars like his. But John Gowland, Ford’s team manager, argued with Harry Firth. The Falcons were scheduled to have rear axle and drive-train assembly changes in Bombay as preventative maintenance. Firth declined the axle change. “There’s nothing wrong. Don’t touch it,” he told Gowland.
“You can’t argue with Harry, especially when he thinks he’s in charge,” Gowland said. He should have pulled rank; the fact that he didn’t rankles him even half a century later. Barry Ferguson was best of the Monaros, tied with Vaughan in 11th; Doug Whiteford with Eddie Perkins was 20th, McKay, 13th. In the top 11 of the most competitive eld in the greatest race in the world, four were Aussie V8s, and there was a lot of conjecture about how quick they’d be once they were on home ground.
In Western Australia:
Eddie Perkins, the veteran winner of the REDeX Round Australia Trial, was the fastest of the V8s on the Marvel Loch to Lake King section. “This was undoubtedly the worst piece of rally road I’ve ever travelled on,” Barry Ferguson, who dropped 15 points, said. “There were holes of every type, trees of every size, stumps, washaways, rocky outcrops and boulders.”
David McKay dropped 26 points going off in the dust, doubly distressing because Eddie Perkins, driving these conditions like he was in his own backyard, went down by just four points; Firth and Vaughan dropped ve; Hodgson, seven.
In South Australia:
Barry Ferguson, lying 10th, was in trouble. In Perth, the Holdens had had new differentials fitted. Unknown to them, the originals were heavily reinforced Chevrolet units while the replacements were standard. “I was in the back seat,” David Johnson recalled. “I looked out the window and saw our wheel travelling complete with axle alongside us.” They dropped 47 points with the slow drive into Mingary and handed a get-out-of-jail pass to the Falcon GTs, each of which cleaned the stage.
At Mingary, the McKay car was battered on every panel with its right-hand window pillar crushed. George Reynolds had been at the wheel when it rolled in a sand dune, and he had a serious cut across the forehead.
McKay drove into Broken Hill and arrived at the Holden dealership like it was a pit stop in the Australian Grand Prix. Reynolds was semiconscious and disoriented, and the admission nurse at Broken Hill hospital advised strongly against continuing. “It is only when the end comes that one realises how wound up one gets in the desire to nish,” McKay wrote. His was the only one of the Aussie V8s not to make it to the end.
The Aussie Alps (Last night of competition):
At Wangaratta heading towards Edi, Ian Tate, Harry Firth’s loyal mechanic and ‘the son he never had’, begged Firth to change his differential. It was the nal service before the last-night charge. Firth was lying sixth, the rst of the Falcon GTs, and he was only four points off a podium nish. But Firth would have none of it. Tate knew Firth would need all the help he could get on this last lunge. “His eyesight wasn’t what it had been and his night driving wasn’t as good as younger people,” Tate said.
Of all the stages in the overnight marathon grand nal, Murrindal to Ingebyra had the highest average speed. It was a classic Alpine road, winding through the Kosciuszko National Park. Among the strident sound of the sixes, there was the rumble of the V8s. Ian Vaughan and Bruce Hodgson both cleaned the stage, but Firth dropped three minutes. Vaughan was now four points ahead of his team boss and signi cantly only three points behind Paddy Hopkirk.
Hindmarsh Station (The last stage):
Harry Firth did his diff. The big Falcon ground to a halt. He needed parts to get going and they were dropped, allegedly by a Ford support aircraft. Firth, an excellent bush mechanic, effected the repair on the spot and dropped 52 points.
Ian Vaughan and Bruce Hodgson both passed through the stage with a loss of four points. The three Falcons had claimed the coveted teams prize but only because Firth, instead of giving up, had recognised his responsibility and pushed on. They would nish 302 points ahead of the British Leyland number one team.
It is perplexing even now to note that the two Holden teammates, Ferguson and Whiteford, traded places on the (last) transport stage. Ferguson had been 14th after Hindmarsh Station and advanced to 12th with a loss of nine points on the way into Nowra. Whiteford dropped a massive 24 and fell behind his teammate and the Lister-Welinski Volvo (into 14th). “I have no idea why,” Ferguson said.
What had happened to the Australian challenge? Everyone had said they would blow the Europeans away once they were on home soil. “You’re always faster on roads you know,” Ian Vaughan said, and on that last night he proved it. But there’d been a major miscalculation. The European armada was simply more powerful. The drivers were consistently better, more resilient, more able to not only meet but lay on the pressure. They also had better service, more facilities and bigger budgets. There was a vast gap between the top drivers and the rest of the world. John Smailes’ comments: In the story of the London-Sydney Marathon, the Falcon versus Monaro clash was an important sidebar. Both car companies, and their affiliate oil, lights and tyre suppliers, had massive advertisements ready to splash at the nish. Fifty years on, it’s fair to say that more Falcons and Monaros were sold in Australia as a result of their marathon results than there were Hillman Hunters.
This is an edited extract from Race Across the World by John Smailes (Allen & Unwin), in stores and online now. John can be seen in the winning Hillman Hunter with Andrew Cowan (standing). Cowan has bought back the winning machine from the Scottish Museum.