Race across the World

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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.

The start:

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.