Australian Muscle Car

Mus­cle Man: Joe Felice

- Story: David Has­sall 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”


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
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