Australian Muscle Car

Mus­cle Man: Joe Felice

- Story: David Has­sall Au­topics.com.au, Graeme Ne­an­der, Barry Cock­ayne

He was Holden’s face of mo­tor­sport in the 1970s, the man who de­vel­oped the Holden Dealer Team, sacked Peter Brock and Harry Firth, and ush­ered in a decade of clas­sic To­ranas

Joe Felice was Holden’s face of mo­tor­sport in the 1970s, a young man with ac­cess to the Gen­eral’s cheque­book and a brief to do what­ever nec­es­sary to beat Ford on the track. He de­vel­oped the Holden Dealer Team, sacked Peter Brock and Harry Firth, and ush­ered in a decade of clas­sic To­ranas – the XU-1, SL/R 5000, L34 and A9X.

When a go-get­ter by the name of John Bagshaw be­came sales and mar­ket­ing chief of Gen­eral Mo­torsHolden in the 1960s, he wanted to rid the com­pany of its staid im­age and saw mo­tor­sport as a key in­gre­di­ent, es­pe­cially Bathurst. But he had a prob­lem – GM had a world­wide pol­icy of not rac­ing. That didn’t stop him, though. He cre­ated a covert op­er­a­tion called the Holden Dealer Team and plucked a 21-year-old rac­ing en­thu­si­ast out of the com­pany garage to over­see a pro­gramme that would turn Aus­tralian mo­tor rac­ing on its head.

Joe Felice was the son of Mal­tese im­mi­grants from Mel­bourne’s north­ern sub­urbs but was soon one of the most pow­er­ful men in the sport, con­duct­ing a fac­tory race team cloaked in the il­lu­sion of be­ing a rally op­er­a­tion with a dealer-funded track off­shoot fronted by wily old Harry Firth and later John Shep­pard with spon­sor­ship from global to­bacco gi­ant Phillip Mor­ris.

Felice and Firth moulded Colin Bond and Peter Brock into su­per­stars who won races on Sun­day and sold heaps of cars the rest of the week. At the same time, they con­ceived and de­vel­oped ma­chines that are now mus­cle car leg­ends – the To­rana XU-1, SL/R 5000, L34 and the daddy of them all, the A9X. These were barely dis­guised race­cars that racked up ve Bathurst wins in eight years, yet Felice slipped them through the con­ser­va­tive GM sys­tem with the guile of the shiny-suited sales­man he was.

It wasn’t all plain sail­ing, though. Along the way he had to sack both Brock (in 1974) and Firth (in 1977), de­ci­sions he re­calls as the low­est pe­ri­ods of his ca­reer, in­evitable as they were. At least he was able to rec­on­cile with the great Brock and bring him back into the Holden fold for a nal, glo­ri­ous two-year steam­roller with Shep­pard be­fore the cor­po­rate mo­tor­sport-haters at Fish­er­mans Bend had their way.

When Holden pulled out of the sport af­ter two suc­ces­sive dom­i­nant Bathurst wins, Felice had to move on to less ex­cit­ing but bet­ter-paid roles within GM. But even though he is long re­tired, the pas­sion­ate 72-year-old still has rac­ing in his blood and re­mem­bers fondly his decade as Holden’s Mr Mo­tor­sport.

Top: The HDT at Bathurst, 1973, be­fore the start (Felice fac­ing cam­era). Felice was one of the VIPs at last year’s Phillip Is­land Clas­sic.

“GMH in the early days was a very con­ser­va­tive com­pany whose spe­cialty was man­u­fac­tur­ing fam­ily mo­tor cars,” Felice says. “GM Cor­po­ra­tion had a strict no-rac­ing pol­icy world­wide, but John Bagshaw (be­low

was de­ter­mined to change the Holden brand im­age to one with a more dy­namic pro le. John was very in­ter­ested in mo­tor sport and to­gether with Peter Lewis-Williams (be­low right), who worked in GMH Sales Pro­mo­tion and raced cars at the time, they de­cided to team up with Syd­ney mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist David McKay and some will­ing deal­ers and started up the Holden Dealer Rac­ing Team.”

How­ever, af­ter lack­lus­tre out­ings in the 1968 Lon­don to Syd­ney Marathon and Bathurst 500, Felice said the part­ner­ship with McKay – who he de­scribed as ‘a prima donna’ – was strained. Then Holden dis­cov­ered that Harry Firth had been sacked by Ford and was keen for re­venge.

“Harry never ever for­got or ever for­gave any­body. He let it be known he was de­ter­mined to show Ford they had made a big mis­take get­ting rid of him and that he was in­ter­ested in mov­ing to Holden to up­stage Ford.”

Not only was a deal done with Firth Mo­tors to pre­pare the cars, GMH also de­cided to get more di­rectly in­volved in con­trol­ling the pro­gramme while still giv­ing Detroit the ap­pear­ance it was all dealer-con­trolled. When Lewis-Williams left at about the same time, the com­pany needed some­one in­ter­ested in mo­tor­sport man­age­ment.

With a de­gree in mar­ket­ing and busi­ness man­age­ment, young Felice was given the role ahead of driv­ers Bob Watson and Tony Roberts, who worked with him in the en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment. “Tony and Bob’s am­bi­tions were to be top driv­ers and it was felt too po­lit­i­cally risky to have ac­tual driv­ers who worked for Holden be­ing in­volved in the com­pany pro­gram. They might have been more suited to the gig than me, but I was told that no one from GM was to be in­volved. Bob and Tony got the shits about it. In fact Tony ended up rac­ing a Ford and Bob went to Re­nault be­cause he couldn’t get a gig

with us and felt he was get­ting shafted. It got a bit awk­ward.

“My rst job was to go to Syd­ney to tell David McKay that our agree­ment with him was over. I can tell you he never for­gave us till the day he died, and this was re ected in ei­ther bad write­ups or no men­tions at all in his news­pa­pers.

“Any­way, the name was changed to the Holden Dealer Team to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from the old Holden Dealer Rac­ing Team and we be­came a clan­des­tine un­der­ground op­er­a­tion; ev­ery­thing was done with smoke and mir­rors. Half the peo­ple in GMH were for mo­tor­sport and half were to­tally op­posed.

“We went out and got sev­eral spon­sors like Cas­trol, TAA and Levi’s, plus we put in a big chunk of GMH money, but the story we stuck to was that our money was be­ing used for ral­ly­ing and ral­ly­cross, which were al­lowed, but any rac­ing was paid for by the spon­sors, with the cars

Felice’s first job as mo­tor­sport manger was to shut David McKay’s Holden Deal­ers Rac­ing Team (top left). The early ‘70s to­day is seen as a glo­ri­ous pe­riod in Holden’s rac­ing his­tory but, Felice says, in­side the com­pany there was con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion to mo­tor­sport. sup­pos­edly be­long­ing to the deal­ers.”

Suc­cess rst up at Bathurst with Colin Bond and Roberts in 1969 did lit­tle to keep the cor­po­rate hounds at bay, though, merely spot­light­ing the per­for­mance ca­pa­bil­ity of the Monaro GTS 350.

“We were get­ting a lot of pres­sure from the cor­po­ra­tion about them be­ing thun­der­ing V8 su­per­cars that were ob­vi­ously race cars. We were al­ready ral­ly­ing the six-cylin­der To­ranas, which ev­ery­one re­garded as rally cars, not race cars, so we made the pol­icy de­ci­sion with man­age­ment – it had noth­ing to do with Harry; he al­ways just wanted more power – to go with To­rana. This had the ef­fect of con­vinc­ing peo­ple that we weren’t re­ally se­ri­ous about rac­ing, just ral­ly­ing. Af­ter all, no one thought a small six­cylin­der To­rana could com­pete with a big Fal­con 351 V8 on the race­track.”

And usu­ally they couldn’t. Not even the bril­liance of Firth and chief me­chanic Ian Tate could turn the XU-1 into a con­sis­tent GT-HObeater, though they did en­joy a for­tu­itous Bathurst vic­tory in 1972, thanks to a wet track, Brock’s driv­ing mas­tery – and a batch of three hand-built cars with light­weight pan­els.

“Bathurst 1972 was an aber­ra­tion. We shouldn’t have re­ally won it, but we were lucky with the weather, and the car was a very spe­cial mo­tor car. We only ever built three of those cars – Brock’s car, Bond’s car and a spare – three very spe­cial To­ranas we built in the en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment on the en­gi­neer­ing tool­ing, not plant tool­ing. They weren’t alu­minium pan­els, but light­weight steel, which was pretty com­mon (in rac­ing) in those days.”

The su­per­car saga

De­spite win­ning Bathurst in 1972, Holden and HDT were still smart­ing from the 1-2-3 thrash­ing at the hands of Ford the year be­fore, which was when Harry Firth had started ag­i­tat­ing for a V8 to be dropped into the XU-1 en­gine bay.

“Harry’s the­ory has al­ways been more power. When in doubt, more power. He came up with the idea of putting a V8 in the To­rana. When Ford killed us in ’71, he came to me and said, ‘Lis­ten cock, this is bloody hope­less, we’re go­ing to get blown off ev­ery year. The only way you’re go­ing to x it is if we get a V8 in the To­rana.’ I thought about it and told Bagshaw, ‘I don’t think we’re go­ing to win Bathurst if we don’t have a V8, not while they’re rac­ing the big 351 HO.’

“Any­way, I got ap­proval for it, so I told Harry to put a 253 in one and give it a try. Peter tested this car at Calder against a six-cylin­der XU-1 and found very lit­tle dif­fer­ence in per­for­mance. Harry be­ing Harry, he then came to me and said, ‘Lis­ten cock, if a 253 ts in so will a 308.’ That seemed to be draw­ing a long bow, but I again went to Bags and con­vinced him that we should give it a go. He agreed, but in­sisted that the pro­ject must be kept top se­cret. Harry tted a 308 and ran the rst car as a Sports Sedan. “I or­dered three GTRs – or­ange, white and pink – be­cause the ac­cel­er­a­tor link­age on the GTR was eas­ier to hook up to the V8 en­gine than the XU-1, and they be­come our road-car pro­to­types, tted with suit­able V8 pow­er­trains and com­po­nents. Harry got two and the third was my com­pany car, com­plete with locks on the bon­net pins so no one in the plant could see what was in it.” Larry Perkins, who was work­ing for Harry at the time, nick­named that or­ange car the Lock­wood Spe­cial. It also had a huge fuel tank that took

The fall­out from the still­born XU-1 V8 pro­gramme al­most cost Felice his job. Felice was of­ten at log­ger­heads with HDT boss Harry Firth over the team’s stan­dard of pre­sen­ta­tion. Felice ‘hated’ ever hav­ing to take any­one to Firth’s Auburn HDT head­quar­ters.

up all the boot space but, Felice says, this was never go­ing to be ap­proved for pro­duc­tion ‘as we had to sell these cars to the public.’ The car was stolen from the Old Mel­bourne Mo­tor Inn one night and the pow­er­train re­moved. It was re­cov­ered, then stolen again, and re­mains on the stolen list.

“About this time Syd­ney jour­nal­ist Evan Green got wind of the pro­gram and wrote a lit­tle story for his mo­tor­ing col­umn. But some front page story fell over and Evan’s story was moved from the back to the front page. Evan was asked to get a quote from the trans­port min­is­ter, who went off his brain con­demn­ing what he called su­per­fast death traps which in his opin­ion were go­ing

Harry came to me and said, ‘Lis­ten cock, this is bloody hope­less, we’re go­ing to get blown off ev­ery year. The only way you’re go­ing to fix it is if we get a V8 in the To­rana.’

to kill ev­ery young driver in Aus­tralia.”

Holden’s busi­ness at this time was 80 per­cent eet and gov­ern­ment sales, so man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Bill Gibbs nat­u­rally pan­icked when the min­is­ter called and threat­ened to stop buy­ing cars from Holden if the V8 To­rana went ahead.

“Bill Gibbs was the most con­ser­va­tive MD GMH ever had. He was of the rm opin­ion Holden should only build white sta­tion wag­ons. Any­way, Gibbs or­dered Bagshaw to ter­mi­nate the pro­gramme. He in turn told me to kill it and I told Harry it was all over and sent trucks to the work­shop to pick up the cars and take ev­ery­thing to Lang Lang to be de­stroyed. I re­ally thought I was go­ing to be sacked that day, with all the anti-mo­tor­sport peo­ple point­ing the nger at me and say­ing I was the cause of all the prob­lems. Any­way, I sur­vived – just!

“There are a lot of myths about those two cars. As far as I was con­cerned they were meant to be crushed on the bar­rier test. Some peo­ple think they have the ac­tual cars. I don’t com­ment one way or the other.

“In­ci­den­tally, Bill Gibbs also killed off our lit­tle GTR-X sports car. We built two pro­to­types, one for En­gi­neer­ing and one for Sales. By then I was also re­spon­si­ble for mo­tor shows and I took that car all over Aus­tralia, and even did some pro­mo­tional laps around Bathurst. It cre­ated great in­ter­est and ev­ery­body wanted to or­der one, but Gibbs said we were in the fam­ily car busi­ness and not the sports car busi­ness and wouldn’t ap­prove the pro­ject. Bill wasn’t a car man and came to us from the rail­ways be­cause it was po­lit­i­cal to ap­point an Aus­tralian MD.

“With the demise of the so-called su­per­cars, we went back to run­ning six-cylin­der XU-1s. We knew we had the SL/R 5000 com­ing out down the track with a ve-litre V8 any­way, and when that came out no one said a word!”

The man who sacked Peter Brock

Peter Brock was dumped only twice in his life – both times by his beloved Holden. Even in 1974, af­ter only six years of rac­ing, he was the most loved driver in Aus­tralia. Team boss Harry Firth treated him like a son; to his me­chan­ics he was a best mate, and for the thou­sands of peo­ple at Holden he was their torch­bearer. But he had to go.

Early in the year he had mar­ried glam­orous 21-year-old Michelle Downes, a for­mer Miss Aus­tralia and Mel­bourne TV weather girl. “It was a mar­riage pushed by GMH and Chan­nel 7 for the pub­lic­ity, so we were half to blame,” Felice ad­mits. “They were mar­ried at Peter Jan­son’s pad, it was all on TV, and I lent them a Chev Corvette show car to use on their hon­ey­moon. It was all just a big fairy­tale.”

How­ever, the mar­riage quickly turned sour. It was ap­par­ently a toxic and love­less union, and the Truth news­pa­per re­ported that Brock had bashed his wife. There were also re­ports he had shot a dog, for which best mate Grant Steers (Felice’s off­sider at Holden) took the rap. Peter’s de­meanour was fur­ther tested by the ini­tially un­re­li­able HDT To­rana L34, which de­nied him dom­i­nant vic­to­ries at Sandown and Bathurst. Fi­nally, there was a no­to­ri­ous man­ager on the scene, who man­aged Michelle and now rep­re­sented Peter as well, and who tried to step be­tween he and Holden. It was all too much for Felice.

“Peter was a good bloke, but we sort of got to the stage of, do you put up with all this crap?

“Un­for­tu­nately Michelle had a man­ager who was also a very pushy pri­vate de­tec­tive. He was a bad bas­tard and she talked Peter into mak­ing him his man­ager also. In those days there were no man­agers – Peter and I used to deal di­rectly – but pretty soon he started get­ting in­volved in all Peter’s af­fairs. Peter had a pro­mo­tions and ad­ver­tis­ing con­tract with Gen­eral Mo­tors and a driv­ing con­tract with Harry, but it all be­came un­work­able when this guy kept in­ter­fer­ing.

“Peter and I had worked to­gether since 1969. Tak­ing into ac­count his driv­ing com­mit­ments, I ar­ranged for Peter to do dealer pro­mo­tions, prod­uct ad­ver­tis­ing, public ap­pear­ances and prod­uct launches when­ever there was time; for years I just rang him and told him what we had booked for him and there was never a prob­lem. Then Peter tells me he’s not even al­lowed to talk to me di­rectly.

“It got to the stage where it re­ally started to irk me be­cause this guy then started say­ing, ‘You’re not to book Peter for any­thing un­less I ap­prove it and you’re not to talk to Peter

Above: Brock in cel­e­bra­tory mood with Peter Jan­son and Felice (at back), but trou­ble was brew­ing by 1974. A va­ri­ety of is­sues led to Felice ter­mi­nat­ing Brock’s con­tract with Holden at the end of that year. any­more, and I’ve told Peter he’s not to talk to you any­more.’ I said, ‘That’s not ac­cept­able, we’ve got a con­tract with him and if he wants to keep that con­tract he’s got to ful ll it, and it’s not go­ing to go through you. The deal is, he goes di­rect through us and that’s it.’ But he said he would de­cide what gigs Peter would do for us, and that he’d do gigs for other peo­ple in­stead if they were more lu­cra­tive!

“Well, that was the last straw. I told Bagshaw it was all be­com­ing un­work­able and he said, ‘It’s your de­ci­sion, what do you want to do?’ I said ei­ther he gets rid of this guy or Peter will have to go, and that was ex­actly what hap­pened. I just said to Peter, ‘Your choice – ei­ther you drop this guy or we’re go­ing to drop you.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m go­ing to stick with him.’ So I ter­mi­nated his GMH con­tract and got Harry to ter­mi­nate his driv­ing con­tract. It was a big de­ci­sion for the com­pany be­cause ev­ery­body loved Peter.”

Harry had also been hav­ing prob­lems with his star driver, who he’d al­ways in­sisted came to the work­shop ev­ery day to work. Although Brock liked be­ing around the cars and crew, the man­ager told Peter he was a big star and was wast­ing his time work­ing with nuts and bolts.

“Even­tu­ally Peter and Michelle’s re­la­tion­ship broke down com­pletely and they split up. Peter got into nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and was prac­ti­cally broke. And the man­ager had dis­ap­peared.”

Re­turn of the V8

Af­ter the almighty su­per­car furore that scup­pered the V8 To­rana XU-1 in 1973, it’s hard to be­lieve that less than a year later the new-gen­er­a­tion LH To­rana ap­peared with Holden’s 5.0-litre V8 un­der the bon­net. The in­terim SL/R 5000 was rushed into ser­vice and helped Brock win his rst Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship, but the mighty L34 was wait­ing in the wings – though it wasn’t quite the car Felice had ex­pected.

“The L34 was three-quar­ters of the way to be­ing a full-blown race car, with the en­gine de­signed by Harry Firth, GMH en­gine en­gi­neer Fred James and Repco. It was made for com­pe­ti­tion and was quite noisy. The prob­lem with the car was that it suf­fered from a small diff and pokey rear axles, and it still had drum brakes on the rear.

“At this time, one George Roberts was the chief en­gi­neer at Holden, and no mat­ter how much we pleaded with him he would not budge on these items, even though we were putting big V8 power and torque through com­po­nents orig­i­nally de­signed for a four-cylin­der car.

“It wasn’t un­til we were able to ho­molo­gate the A9X as an evo­lu­tion of the L34 (in 1977) that we got what we wanted – four-wheel disc brakes and the big axle. While the A9X was tted with a stan­dard V8 en­gine for pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it more user-friendly and easy to sell, we could use the high-per­for­mance L34 en­gine for com­pe­ti­tion. The A9X was the out­stand­ing tour­ing car of the time.”

The ‘74 sea­son also saw the in­tro­duc­tion of Marl­boro brand­ing on the HDT To­ranas – a spon­sor­ship bro­kered by wheeler-dealer Peter Jan­son – but it did lit­tle to el­e­vate the level of pre­sen­ta­tion of the cars out of Harry Firth’s lit­tle Auburn work­shop. The wily old fox had been out in the woods a lit­tle too long.

“Bloody Harry could be a pain in the arse and was as rough as guts. If you look at the orig­i­nal To­ranas, we had a green one, a yel­low one and a fuck­ing pink one,” Felice re­calls, still ex­as­per­ated. “He would put a sticker on here and the next one would have the sticker up there. In the end I got sick of it all and I got Styling (GM’s de­sign depart­ment) to come up with a whole new liv­ery – all the same colours, uni­forms, the whole lot – and they came up with the red-and­white liv­ery (1971), then the ’72 one (red, white and black) and ev­ery­thing af­ter that.”

Typ­i­cal of the Firth ap­proach was ‘The Beast,’ the Repco-Holden V8-pow­ered Sports Sedan he built us­ing a well-worn To­rana body. Felice, who had been keen to get pub­lic­ity from the boom­ing cat­e­gory, says the driv­ers wanted dan­ger money be­cause the car han­dled so badly.

“Peter and Colin said it went like bug­gery in a straight line, but then you’d have to wad­dle around the cor­ners. It was just a heap of shit. It was an old rally car that had been bat­tered and twisted and you could stick your nger in where the door pil­lars were. The boys said ev­ery time you ac­cel­er­ated you could see the body twist­ing! I re­mem­ber Peter said, ‘I hate driv­ing that thing.’ He said it used to twist and shake and rat­tle.

“We just had to be­come a lot more

pro­fes­sional. Ini­tially we were re­ally just like a back­yard op­er­a­tion, which didn’t t the two cor­po­ra­tions (GMH and Phillip Mor­ris). Marl­boro were an ex­tremely pro­fes­sional out t and had a For­mula One team com­pet­ing around the world. They were very par­tic­u­lar about the tele­vi­sion and phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance of the cars.”

Right: A rare peek in­side the fa­mous HDT tent at Bathurst. Felice says the XU-1 V8 HDT Sports Sedan ‘Beast’ (be­low) was so bad that Colin Bond and Peter Brock wanted dan­ger money to drive it!

“Bloody Harry could be a pain in the arse and was as rough as guts. If you look at the orig­i­nal To­ranas, we had a green one, a yel­low one and a pink one. He would put a sticker on here and the next one would have the sticker up there. In the end I got sick of it all and got Styling to come up with a whole new liv­ery”

I

Gen­er­a­tional change

By 1977 Felice was un­der pres­sure, not only be­cause the Mof­fat Ford team was dom­i­nat­ing the races (and with Colin Bond, who had con­tro­ver­sially swapped camps) but due to the pre­sen­ta­tion of his un­der­per­form­ing fac­tory team.

“I was un­der a lot of pres­sure about the poor ap­pear­ance of Harry’s cars from our di­rec­tors, deal­ers and Phillip Mor­ris in 1977,” Felice re­calls. “I had con­stant bat­tles with Harry about this, but all he used to say was, ‘Lis­ten cock, do you want to win races or win beauty con­tests?’ I used to say we want to do both, but he felt as long as he won that was all that mat­tered. Well, those days had gone and spon­sors only wanted to as­so­ciate with com­pletely pro­fes­sional teams.

“In the end I felt it had all passed Harry by, and he wasn’t go­ing to change no mat­ter what. Fur­ther­more, his brother Norm’s book­keep­ing was to­tally un­pro­fes­sional and of­ten ran fowl of our ac­coun­tants and au­di­tors. I was un­der pres­sure to move Harry on, but he had done so much for our prod­uct that I wouldn’t do it.

“In the end, I did ask him to re­tire grace­fully, which he nally did – re­luc­tantly – af­ter I told him that there was no choice in the mat­ter…”

With Firth hav­ing ‘re­tired,’ Holden called for ex­pres­sions of in­ter­est in pre­par­ing the MHDT cars and had about six ap­pli­cants.

“We nally nar­rowed it down to Frank Gard­ner and John Shep­pard – both ex­cel­lent prospects, with lit­tle to sep­a­rate them. How­ever, Frank wanted to op­er­ate out of Syd­ney and, as both the Holden and Phillip Mor­ris head­quar­ters were in Mel­bourne, we wanted the team to be based

here, so John got the nod.

“Well, what a dif­fer­ence! Ev­ery­thing Sheppo did was per­fec­tion. The cars looked great and still won a heap of races, and you could eat your lunch off the work­shop oor. It was a plea­sure to take peo­ple there, whereas I never took any­body to Harry’s work­shop if I could help it.

“Sheppo made my life a lot eas­ier. That was the best thing that ever hap­pened. I should have done it three years ear­lier.”

An­other big change for 1978, of course, was the re­turn of Brock. Af­ter three years as a pri­va­teer, Brock was ‘back home where he be­longed’ and won a tour­ing car ti­tle, the Repco Round Aus­tralia Trial and two Bathurst 1000s.

How­ever, with new reg­u­la­tions com­ing in 1980, ris­ing con­tro­versy over to­bacco spon­sor­ship and the new Com­modore just re­leased, Holden shocked ev­ery­one by quit­ting mo­tor sport – even though they weren’t of­fi­cially in­volved any­way!

That meant Felice no longer had a job to do. He’d had great fun over the pre­ced­ing decade, play­ing with a big bud­get and par­ty­ing hard with the boys, but he’d also seen his con­tem­po­raries over­take him on the cor­po­rate lad­der. It was time to set­tle down.

Felice took up a re­gional role in Ade­laide, where he raised his two sons, then moved in­ter­state and over­seas work­ing in sev­eral port­fo­lios be­fore nally re­tir­ing in Syd­ney in 2009 af­ter 42 years with Gen­eral Mo­tors. Now aged 72, he lives back in Mel­bourne. And he still has a 1974 LH To­rana (left) in the garage.

Joe Felice Q&A

AMC: You were very close to Peter Brock…

JF: I loved Peter as a per­son. He was to­tally charm­ing and a fan­tas­tic driver, and pro­moter, but he wasn’t a busi­ness­man. He was to­tally dis­or­gan­ised. I used to bunk with him at Bathurst, just to keep an eye on him. It would be time to go to the track on Sun­day morn­ing and Peter would be wan­der­ing around in his un­der­pants smok­ing a cig­a­rette and hav­ing a cup of tea. ‘Peter, where’s your hel­met and gloves?’ ‘Fucked if I know, must have left them at the track. Ring Tatey and see if he knows where they are…’ But, un­til he got in­volved with Michelle, I never had any trou­ble with Peter.

AMC: Was the still­born V8-pow­ered XU-1 to be called the XU-2?

JF: There was no XU-2 – for­get that. That was put up by Styling, but the prod­uct com­mit­tee knocked it back. I was part of the prod­uct pro­gram. The V8 was go­ing to be called the XU-1 V8.

AMC: So the V8 XU-1 was only ever an in­terim model to win Bathurst in 1972?

JF: That’s about it. The SL/R was also only an in­terim car, be­tween the XU-1 and the L34. It only had pid­dley lit­tle wheels and things, but it half-won a tour­ing car cham­pi­onship. I had that car sent to Perth for Wayne Ne­gus to run and it was up­dated to an L34 and won quite a lot of races. That was the third car in that 1-2-3 nish at

Wan­neroo be­hind Brock and Har­vey.

AMC: When you sacked Peter in 1974, was it true you wanted him to go to Eng­land to get him out of the way?

JF: No, that wasn’t true. He chose to do that. Peter had big ideas, but he had no money. And he was hope­less from a busi­ness point of view.You can see that with the Po­lar­izer busi­ness – that was all bull­shit – and the Di­rec­tor. I spoke to Peter about that my­self be­cause he was a friend of mine and peo­ple asked me to give him a call and tell him. I said, ‘Peter, you know you can’t take on Gen­eral Mo­tors. They told you: ‘You can’t call the car a Di­rec­tor and you can’t t a Po­lar­izer when our en­gi­neers are say­ing it’s bull­shit.’ He was told by ev­ery­body, in­clud­ing his friends and peo­ple he loved, but he wouldn’t lis­ten. It was a pity.

AMC: Tell us about the Marl­boro spon­sor­ship and Peter Jan­son.

JF: Peter Jan­son was a guy we had a re­la­tion­ship with any­way, he was a Mr Fixit and he was an as­sisted pri­va­teer. Jan­son was a love­able rogue, and still is, and he was al­ways try­ing to do pro­mo­tions. He used to do work with the Phillip Mor­ris guys and he came to us and said, ‘Look, I might be able to swing a spon­sor­ship deal with Phillip Mor­ris.’ I said that would be in­ter­est­ing be­cause it was the right colours – we wouldn’t want Roth­mans be­cause they’re blue and white, but Marl­boro was red and white.

AMC: You weren’t wor­ried about the to­bacco as­pect of it?

JF: Not in those days. It wasn’t a big deal; to­bacco spon­sored ev­ery­thing. Later on it was a big deal. Any­way, we pur­sued it fur­ther and in the end we did the deal.

AMC: Do you re­mem­ber how much it was?

JF: It was nearly a mil­lion dol­lars all up, but it wasn’t straight cash – there were pro­mo­tions and ad­ver­tis­ing and us­ing our cars in ads and things like that. It was still a lot of money back then.

AMC: What’s the story about Bob Mor­ris’s 1976 Bathurst win? John Har­vey still reck­ons he and Bondy won that race.

JF: I made that de­ci­sion (not to protest). Our lap scor­ers had our car in front, but Bobby’s lap scor­ers had his car in front and so did the of­fi­cial lap scor­ers. A cou­ple of oth­ers had Bob in front too. Harry had a talk to (the of­fi­cials) and they said, ‘Look, you can protest, we would have to go over ev­ery­thing again, it could take weeks to do.’ Bear in mind two things: num­ber one, Bob was run­ning for Ron Hodg­son, who was a big Holden dealer and was one of our big­gest sup­port­ers; and num­ber two, we had all the posters made, ‘To­rana wins Bathurst,’ and all the press ads were made and booked. Harry came up and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Look Harry, he’s one of our big pre­ferred deal­ers, he’s spent mil­lions of dol­lars, as much as us, re­ally… Philip Mor­ris mightn’t be all that happy, but from our point of view it’s still a To­rana and we’re push­ing To­rana.’ So I said, ‘Let it go, don’t protest.’ I rang John Bagshaw up and he agreed with my de­ci­sion. If it had gone on for a month, none of us would have got any­thing out of it. We would have blown hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for noth­ing. We had to make a com­mer­cial de­ci­sion. We were not in mo­tor rac­ing for mo­tor rac­ing’s sake, we were in it to sell prod­uct.

AMC: Putting aside com­mer­cial con­sid­er­a­tions, do you think you won the race?

JF: I wasn’t sure. Our lap scor­ers had our car a lap in front, but it was bloody hard in those days. We used to take spe­cial peo­ple up there who could sit all day for eight hours on the roof of a panel van at the bot­tom of Con­rod Straight in the heat or rain or what­ever – and our cars were pretty much iden­ti­cal! Look, I wasn’t con­vinced (we had won), and Bondy didn’t push it much ei­ther, it was Harves who pushed it. He reck­oned he got robbed of a Bathurst win, but the fact of the mat­ter is, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial lap scor­ers Bobby was in front. It wasn’t just to ap­pease Ron. Ev­ery­body was con­vinced that’s the way it was. AMC: So no­body else had you in front of Bob?

JF: (Shakes head.) AMC: How did Colin Bond’s move to Ford hap­pen?

JF: Well, Robyn (Bond) was push­ing like bug­gery. She was al­ways say­ing that Harry was giv­ing him shit stuff and that’s why Peter won all the time. But I’ve got to tell you, I know for a fact that Harry at one time swapped the cars over and Peter was still faster. The cars were iden­ti­cal. Even Bev Har­vey (John’s wife) still screams that we al­ways looked af­ter Peter. I love John to bits, and open-wheel­ers in the ’60s he was a top driver, but he was never go­ing to be a Peter Brock. Back in those days, Brocky and Mof­fat stood out and then there was a big gap. If Brocky was an A+ driver, Bondy was an A driver. I was dis­ap­pointed in Bondy go­ing to Ford. I can un­der­stand com­mer­cial de­ci­sions, but Peter stayed with the brand even though he had the arse out of his pants and was strug­gling. He stayed loyal. Whereas Colin saw it as a nan­cial de­ci­sion; it paid div­i­dends in the rst year, but af­ter that he re­ally never won an­other thing.

AMC: How did the re­union with Brock come about for ’78?

JF: We got a mes­sage back from Steersy (Grant Steers, Felice’s deputy and Peter’s best mate) that he was all con­trite and wanted to come back, and we ob­vi­ously wanted him back be­cause the other driv­ers were never go­ing to be Peter Brock. We were all go­ing up to Surfers Par­adise for a race, so Char­lie O’Brien ar­ranged for ev­ery­one – Holden, Philip Mor­ris, Peter and a cou­ple of other peo­ple – to go out on his boat on the Broad­wa­ter, and we kind of said ‘all is for­given, come back my son.’ We re-signed him and just told Sheppo he’s com­ing back as part of the deal. Sheppo wasn’t in that meet­ing, but he was rapt to have him any­way.

AMC: How did Bill Pat­ter­son re­act?

JF: Patto didn’t care be­cause he was to the stage where he didn’t want to put any more money into him. Patto was happy to just be part of the Dealer Team. He re­ally didn’t want to have his own car. It was just too much money, even in those days.

AMC: What about Holden’s de­ci­sion to nish with mo­tor sport at the end of 1979?

JF: It was a cor­po­rate de­ci­sion. Bagshaw had been moved over­seas and a bloke called John Loveridge took over, and he wasn’t a mo­tor sport guy at all. He didn’t want to have any­thing to do with it. There were peo­ple at GM who ab­so­lutely hated mo­tor sport.

AMC: How do you feel about Holden quit­ting Aus­tralia?

JF: I am dev­as­tated. I think about all the his­tory of that com­pany and all the work that we did… But you could see the writ­ing on the wall be­cause we got to the stage where it was 100 per­cent closed shop – if you wanted a job there you had to be in one of the unions, and they kept push­ing for more money and lurks and perks. It just got to stage where the cars just got too dear and peo­ple couldn’t af­ford them. Peo­ple just fell out of love with Holden.

 ?? Im­ages: Chevron Im­age Li­brary, Pro­ject Pic­to­ri­als, Bill Forsyth ??
Im­ages: Chevron Im­age Li­brary, Pro­ject Pic­to­ri­als, Bill Forsyth
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? left)
left)
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia