The Melbourne control was at a BP service station in Church Street just up from the Hawthorn Bridge. That station has long since been replaced by ‘modern development’. Time allowed was generous so we prepared for our engine removal by removing three of the six bellhousing bolts, and two of the four bolts retaining each of the radiator and bonnet. From check-in we were to be allowed one hour for service before being due at impound at Olympic Park.
After a lighting trip through the back streets of Hawthorn we drove into the workshop at Queens Avenue and the crew were ready. Those who know the Kent engine are aware to change the cam followers you have to remove the camshaft – a major dismantling job. A new camshaft and followers were there, plus new sump and timing cover with gaskets already cemented on to save time. Our fellow rally driver Doug Hughes who ran a body works in Murrumbeena had turned up – with the engine out he moved in to straighten the left front guard and fit a new headlight, without cosmetic niceties of course. My great friend John Pryce (Motor Racing Manager of BP) was there to time the operation. We drove out 42 minutes after we arrived.
As we headed towards the city in Burwood Road we had just under 15 minutes to reach Olympic Park and we were travelling opposite the peak hour traffic. All went well until we reached the famous ‘bottleneck’ in the narrow part of Bridge Road. There the traffic choked up. Most people in motor sport know Harry Firth as a man of few words with a rather deep gruff voice. Having spent many hours in the same car with him I know another side – at times of real crisis that voice can go up an octave or two or more.
As we crept past Lennox Street steam came from under the bonnet. Upon seeing the traffic solid to Punt Road the Firth voice went up an octave or two ‘We must have a loose radiator hose”. I shouted “Turn left” and we were in a little cobblestone lane – Verity Street. As we rattled down it the voice went up another octave or two -“Christ, it’s a dead end.” I replied “Keep going”. I had local knowledge. My good friend Morrie Monk (the founding President of CAMS) had his engineering business at the bottom of Verity Street. I knew there was another little lane which led through to Punt Road. We burst onto Punt Road, down to Swan Street and checked in at impound with only seconds to spare. The Cortina was steaming like an overheated pressure cooker. We pushed it into its parking spot and retired for some rest.
The next stage was Melbourne to Canberra via Gippsland and the Alps. Out of the city to Pakenham there was generous time. As we drove out of the south gate of Olympic Park the Firth van was there with Ian Tate and Matthew Philip on board. They spent ten minutes checking the engine over – the loose radiator hose was tightened, water replaced and we were away, with added confidence. The run through Gippsland had some testing sections which took points off everyone, and we started to work our way up the leader board. From Cooma to Canberra were several very challenging sections and we continued our charge. By Canberra we were two points behind leader Ferguson, with our team Cortinas of Vaughan and Kilfoyle close to us.
For the final stage – Canberra to Sydney – Bob Selby-Wood had stated the pressure would really be on. We increased our determination. The pot certainly was well and truly stirred on that stage. The imported BMC cars were all having mechanical problems, whilst of the locals Evan Green also had mechanical problems and Bob Holden crashed. Barry Ferguson had an “off’ and hit a tree. Actually the recorded times show we had moved into the lead before Barry’s crash. Nearest to us was Greg Garard some 25 points behind us, whilst our other team members had dropped back a couple of places. Victory was in sight, but there was another crisis to come!
The engine was starting to use considerable oil. It was fitted with twin DCOE Webers. They had trumpets. but no air cleaners. The first two stages had been particularly dusty and obviously the piston rings had suffered. We carried spare oil of course but as we approached Kangaroo Valley we had used all our oil and on bends the pressure gauge indicated the sump was low. In the grey light of early dawn I scanned the paddocks for a tractor. I figured the temporary removal of a sump plug could provide us with oil – even if it was rather secondhand.
A solution appeared – in the form of a control. The smiling face of the official was familiar to us – from other Selby-Wood events we had run in. He certainly could be described as a “battler”. As usual he was accompanied by his wife and two or three toddlers, in a rather dilapidated car- an early Morris Oxford as I recall. As we checked in I asked the question “Would you have any oil to spare?” His face fell as he muttered “I use re-refined oil, you would not use that would you?” Here was his big chance to help the leading crew in a top factory team and he had ‘blown it’ by not having what they needed. I cannot recall what my comment was, but with one hand I thrust money into his and with the other hand seized a gallon tin of oil. We topped up the sump and were on our way. The rest of the story is history, well recorded in the journals of the day.
I have chronicled this latter incident not just because this individual made a vital contribution to our victory, but because he is representative of the hundreds of volunteer officials supporting motor sport. All love the sport but many do not have the means to be competitors, so taking on officials jobs is their way of enjoying the sport. Without them motor sport as we know it could not exist.
To this day I do not know the name of this particular official. Perhaps he will attend the reunion. read this, and make himself known. After 36 years we will be able to put a name to the one who helped us in this incident.
1 October, 2002.