Australian Muscle Car
Like the proverbial Grandpa’s Axe, this 50 year-old Monaro rally car has been through numerous incarnations, and boasts a heritage closely linked to Harry Firth and the HDT
With a history that is a bit like the proverbial Grandpa’s Axe, this 50 yearold Monaro GTS rally car has been through numerous incarnations, and boasts a heritage closely linked to Harry Firth and the Holden Dealer Team. It has survived a long and hard competition career, contesting more than 200 rallies across five decades, but now it has been given a new lease on life. Like a lot of Victorians, including its former owner, it is now enjoying life in the Queensland sunshine. AMC delved into the fascinating journey of this historic rally car.
Rambling across the Albert Park Golf Course during the 2017 Australian Grand Prix, we stumbled across a display of historic rally cars that included a HT Monaro GTS. It was presented in Holden Dealer Team livery and it looked the real deal. Naturally with an interest in rally and muscle cars, and with an eye for a story for the pages of this ne journal, we engaged the owner, Luke Dimech, in a chat which revealed that this car had a history stretching back 45 years and a lineage that could indeed be tracked directly to the old Harry Firth Holden Dealer Team and the Monaro rally cars the team built and ran in the 1970 Ampol Trial – as well as a whole lot of other events.
Luke told us that the car had been purchased from long-time Victorian rallyist Ken Cusack in 2014 and had been subjected to a restoration to bring it back to some of its past glory.
Luke had indulged in rallying himself in his youth. But he was also a Monaro fan, having owned two six-cylinder HT Monaros while at university. So when this car popped up for sale on ebay, he was immediately interested.
After making a one-off $17,000 bid for the Monaro, Luke woke up the next morning to discover he now owned the car. This uncovered a few logistical headaches (including how to tell his wife!): how to get it back from rural Victoria to his home in Queensland, and what to do with it.
“I saw it on Ebay and it ticked all the boxes. It was a rally car and it was a Monaro – two of my favourites!” he laughed. “I actually bid for it expecting it to go for a lot more, but I think I was the only bidder and when I checked in the morning I got the shock of my life when I realised I had won the auction.
“I realise now I got it for a song, but at the time I did have the small thought of ‘what the hell have I done?’ But once that winning bid is accepted, it’s yours and we just had to gure it out.”
At the time Luke wasn’t quite sure what he had purchased.
“I think most people would have looked at it and thought that it would be thrashed and not worth much, but I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world.”
While not one of the three Monaros built by Firth in his HDT workshop, it is a period Monaro rally car that features parts and components that were on those original HDT cars. But a bit like that story about Grandpa and his favourite axe, this Monaro has had three new handles four new heads!
As was the Holden policy back in the day, all of its ex-factory series production machines had to be crushed, as outlined in our story on the rallycross Monaro of Rex Monahan back in AMC #31. That Monahan rallycross machine was actually one of the three cars built for the Ampol Trial, and while Rex was able to use it for a few years after securing it from Firth, it was eventually tracked down by Holden – and was crushed.
The rumour goes that the reason Holden wanted the cars crushed was that they were not built in any Holden factory and in fact were hand-built at specialist Adelaide body builder Fisher Body, with extra seam welds and body strengthening to Harry Firth’s specs. Apparently
all of Holden’s competition cars of the era were built at Fisher. This was done to enable them to turn out stronger competition cars, and was also a way for Holden to keep the cars off books, as this was still the era of General Motors’ world wide ban on motor sport. It’s a lot harder to hide special mods done to a car in Holden factory than it is in an outside contractor.
It also might have been that Holden was fearful of possibly being seen to be cheating by using specially-built ‘series production’ cars,
so it was deemed necessary to destroy the evidence. Whether or not this was the case is pure speculation, but there seems little other explanation for wanting to destroy perfectly good cars with such signi cant heritage.
All was not lost, though, because Harry Firth, ever the pragmatist, ensured that every bit of useful equipment on the competition cars was removed before they were surrendered to the crusher. As a result, there was a huge amount of Monaro equipment sitting in the Auburn workshop corner for a couple of years after the HDT moved out of Monaros and into Toranas.
From cameras to cars
Back in 1968 a young Ken Cusack started work as a maintenance technician at famous TV drama production house, Crawford Productions, which in the ‘60s and ‘70s gave us the classic Australian cop shows Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police, among others. The work in the TV business gave Ken the money in 1970 to purchase a HK Monaro 327 V8 for the grand sum of $2240. It had 17,000 miles on the odometer and was ready for fun.
Then in 1972 Cusack accidentally discovered motor sport while studying electrical mechanics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) when he stumbled upon the institute’s car club, the CCRMIT.
“I had a strong interest in photography and thought the CC stood for Camera Club but when I arrived at the Old Radio Theatre I realised it was the Car Club of RMIT,” Ken says. “I thought, why the hell not? So I joined.”
Without a clue about rallying, Ken was invited to compete in the Novice Introductory Trial in April 1972.
“I entered the standard Monaro with long time school friend Peter Hein, who later in life became the Australian manager of NGK spark plugs and was a strong backer of Peter Janson.
“We were loaned a Broadbents map book, used a torch as a map light and as a map board we used a piece of cardboard from the beer carton for the cans that were in the esky in the boot. We headed off into the night on an old dirt track called Mt Ridley Road at Craigieburn, which is now in the middle of a huge housing estate in Melbourne’s north.”
After a fraught night sliding around dirt roads, including spearing off the road through a barbed wire fence and becoming hopelessly stuck, the Cusack/Hein Monaro eventually nished 19th out of 20 starters, after being hauled back on the road by an irate farmer with his old Massey Ferguson tractor.
“I was hooked,” Cusack says. “I thought, how good is this? We started entering more events.”
Wanting to improve the Monaro, it was suggested to Cusack that he should pay a visit to Firth Motors’ Holden Dealer Team operation in Queens Lane, Auburn. There he met both Harry and his brother Norm Firth, who served as the day-to-day manager of the workshop, particularly when Harry was off managing Holden’s race and rally operations.
“I was told they had piles of old Monaro parts in the back of the building which weren’t being used because they were now racing and rallying Toranas.”
Norm told Cusack that he should go and get a trailer and come back and take it all away before it was sent to the tip.
“There was a smoky old 350 V8, a Muncie ‘rock crusher’ gearbox, lots of rally tyres, sump guards, light bars, suspension bits and heaps of other parts, so I went and fetched a trailer, I loaded it all up and asked Norm for a dollar gure.
“Old Norm told me that it would’ve cost about $40 to cart it to the tip, so give me 40 bucks and it’s all yours, he said.”
“Now I could build a proper rally Monaro, turning my HK into an HDT replica using ex-works parts which had cost me just $40! I couldn’t believe my good fortune, even in 1972 I had myself a bargain.”
Cusack spent the next few months ‘rebuilding’ the Monaro with the HDT gear, installing the big 350, the HDT rally suspension, roll bar and all of the other gear. He also met up with the other HDT Monaro owner Rex Monahan who gave him lots of advice and some more ex-HDT parts stripped out for his new Calder Rallycross car.
The ‘new’ car’s rst big event was the 1972 ARC Alpine in November. The Monaro had been
transformed and Cusack was running as high as 12th place when a right-hand wishbone broke, leaving the car stranded out of the rally in the middle of the night.
“Harry’s old 350 engine and Muncie gearbox was installed and what a transformation that was! The power and torque was amazing, you would steer it with the accelerator around corners and it would leap up hills.”
Buoyed by the Alpine performance, Ken entered the tough BP Rally in 1973 with a new navigator in Ian Baldock. However, a shakedown run in a rally just two weeks before the BP resulted in disaster. In blinding dust on a stage through the Whroo forest, they ran wide and hit a stump, resulting in a three quarter roll against an ironbark tree, with the tailshaft and the front suspension all badly damaged.
After recovery, a massive amount of mechanical and panel repairs followed. The car was painted white and it only made it to the Chadstone start of the BP Rally with an hour to spare.
“I think the paint was still wet. But the hurried recovery meant that on the second division of the rally, a rear wheel bearing let go and we had to miss that division waiting for the service crew to nd us on some goat track.”
The Monaro crew eventually nished 40th out of the 62 starters, but they did nish what was a
2,240Km mini marathon.
Over the next 35 years Ken and the Monaro competed in more than 200 rallies, tackling as many as 10 to 15 events a year. In that time he contested seven Alpines (six nishes), the 1973 BP Rally and countless other Victorian
Rally Championship rounds, Clubman and Experts rallies.
“I didn’t usually feature in the outright results, but mostly took out the award for the big car class,” laughed Ken.
Although not threatening the podium places, the big Cusack Monaro was a favourite with the spectators for the noise of the V8 and the spectacle it produced as it became a regular
xture in Vic rallying. He won the 2001 VRC Historic title through consistency by nishing all seven events.
“We were always a crowd favourite at spectator points. We gave many photographers a fright as we slid the big V8 around corners at all sorts of angles, throwing rocks at them…”
As well as rallying, Ken also wheeled the Monaro out to Calder and up to Catalina for Rallycross, competing in Division 3 and winning plenty of prize money in the Clubman division while the sport was at its epoch and before it died in the mid-1970s.
Eventually Harry Firth’s ‘old smoky’ 350 blew up. After consulting both Rex Monahan and rally legend, 1970 Australian champion and former GMH engineer, Bob Watson, a modi ed 308 V8 and a two-speed Powerglide auto was tted to the old girl. This was a similar con guration that Watson competed in the VRC during the ‘70s.
“The 308 had Yella Terra big valve heads, HM extractors, a Sig Erson TQ20 camshaft, electric fans and a Holley 650 Double Pumper and the end result was just fantastic,” Ken says.
Wanting to improve the Monaro, it was suggested Cusack should pay a visit to Firth Motors’ HDT operation in Queens Lane, Auburn. He was told they had piles of old Monaro parts in the back of the building which weren’t being used because they were now racing and rallying Toranas and that he should go and get a trailer and come back and take it all away before it got sent it to the tip
“While the 350 had enormous grunt, the 308 was so much better to drive. It was lighter over the front, used less fuel, had less tyre wear and was so much easier on the rear end and LSD diff as well as the axles.”
By this time Cusack had adapted a Holden one-tonner diff housing to get better longevity out of the rear end. Another handle for the old axe!
While he was having fun ‘ ying’ through the forest in the Monaro, Cusack had a passion to learn to y aeroplanes and he took a sabbatical from rallying in 1979 to get his pilot’s licence. Once he had his wings Ken would y to rallies and the service crew would drive the car to the start boosting his hours in the process.
“We called it ‘Plummet Airlines,’” Kens says with a laugh. After a few years spent with the Monaro ‘grazing’ quietly in his backyard, a consequence of marriage and kids, Ken resurrected it in the 1990s to tackle historic events like the Ye Olde BP and Experts rallies
“Colin Bond even drove the car in a parade lap of past winners at the Bathurst 1000 one year.”
Ken competed in another 10 or 15 historic events before marriage difficulties brought divorce and he need to park the Monaro. “The Monaro was a thorn in the divorce settlement and I had to park it discreetly and would eventually be forced to sell it,” said Ken.
Top: Cusack tried his hand at Rallycross with the big Monaro - and took away some of the prizemoney ‘loot’. Below, inset above: The Monaro has been restored as a HDT replica of sorts, to reflect the fact that while it was never a HDT factory car, there is plenty of genuine HDT under the skin of this old rally Monaro.
By now he had moved to the Gold Coast working as a commercial pilot and so it was that Luke Dimech came along and made his Ebay bid to buy the Monaro.