Australian Muscle Car

Grandpa’s axe

- Story: Jon Thom­son

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.

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 ??  ?? With a trans­fu­sion of ex-works HDT rally Monaro me­chan­i­cals, Ken Cu­sack’s HK Monaro rally car was trans­formed into a fire-breath­ing, rock-throw­ing beast. The Monaro went on to a lengthy com­pe­ti­tion ca­reer, sur­viv­ing many a mishap, such as this en­counter with the green­ery (left).
With a trans­fu­sion of ex-works HDT rally Monaro me­chan­i­cals, Ken Cu­sack’s HK Monaro rally car was trans­formed into a fire-breath­ing, rock-throw­ing beast. The Monaro went on to a lengthy com­pe­ti­tion ca­reer, sur­viv­ing many a mishap, such as this en­counter with the green­ery (left).
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 ??  ?? The Cu­sack Monaro was a crowd favourite in the Vic­to­rian rally scene for many years.
The Cu­sack Monaro was a crowd favourite in the Vic­to­rian rally scene for many years.
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