Celebrating 50 years of the Southern Cross Rally

Behind the scenes to the Firth / Hoinville win… (Part 1)

The motor sporting journals of the day comprehensively covered our victory in the Cortina GT500. What has never been recorded is the series of incidents which occurred during preparation and the actual event, any one of which could have caused us not to finish, let alone win the event. This is perhaps the occasion to tell the whole story.

Motor sport has something in common with fishing. Fisherman are well known tor their stories of ‘The one that got away.’ In motor sport we regularly hear how “We would have won that event if only…”. In the 1966 event we reversed this scene, as there were numerous setbacks, all or which we overcame and, in spite or which, we were to claim victory. So here is the story in detail.

The car we were to use was one of the ‘100+’ Cortina GT500 models that Harry had ‘remanufactured’ for Ford and had dominated the 1965 Armstrong 500 at Bathurst. The car was actually the ‘press test’ car which had been on loan to journalists for road test purposes. The gearbox ratios were based on the 2.5 first gear setup from the Lotus Cortina -which we feared would be too high if the fully loaded rally car faced difficult muddy going. We substituted the Escort Twincam gears (nominal 3:1 first gear). In planning our strategy prior to the event our main concern was one Barry Ferguson. Barry was a very competent driver of VW’s and was rumored to be preparing a VW of some 2 litres capacity using components from VW industrial engines. Additionally BMC was ‘rumored to be bringing from Europe Cooper S 1275 cars to be driven by names such as Paddy Hopkirk, Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Fall. Harry concluded we needed more engine capacity.Firth66

Overboring the 1500cc Kent engine was common practice but about 1650cc was the limit. We wanted more. Harry had experimented with a ‘stroked’ crankshaft which had given encouraging results. Back in MG TC days he had developed the technique of building up the crankpins by metal spraying, then re-grinding the crank with increased stroke. Through Ford channels we learned there were plans to redesign the Kent engine (into the crossflow form) and included was increasing the stroke from 72.75mm to 77.6mm to give 1600cc. Les Powell of Ford was pressed to secure one of the new cranks for us. The answer was negative – the new engine would not be in production early enough for a crank to be obtained prior to the event.

Harry decided we would go up in bore size- to 88mm if possible. To achieve this, the cylinders in the block would be removed by boring, and large ‘wet’ sleeves welded into the block. The work was entrusted to an outside firm. The project was further complicated by Harry being invited by Allan Moffat to co-drive the Lotus Cortina in a long distance touring car race in the USA. Harry departed the country leaving the project in the hands of his brother Norm at the H & N Firth establishment at 35 Queens Avenue, Auburn. Norm phoned me to report that the block had been completed, but under the pressure test “It leaked like a sieve”. After a hasty conference we decided a new block would be obtained. bored to 85mm and we would fit the home-made ‘stroked’ crank. The new engine was built, fitted and I was given the car to do some miles and check it out. The car felt very strong.

On Harry’s return from the USA he was acquainted with the circumstances. He seemed rather ‘miffed’ at the engine build, but had no option as he was about to leave for the Gallagher 500 at Bathurst. He shared a Cooper 1275 S with Ern Abbott – it was the year the regulations were changed to virtually eliminate the Cortina GT from any chance of success.

Harry’s plan was to run in the GT 500 by driving to Bathurst. then on to Sydney after the race. I did not go to Bathurst. planning to fly to Sydney on the Tuesday after Bathurst with the Rally starting that week. On the drive down to Sydney Harry was having a friendly ‘dice’ with another enthusiast (actually Max Stahl, editor of “Racing Car News”) when the Cortina went onto three cylinders. He stopped at a garage near Liverpool, removed the head and found a piston crown melted. The pistons were from forgings intended for the Repco-Brabham V8. To get the right compression height the crowns had been machined until they were just a little too thin! Harry asked the friendly garage proprietor could he suggest a competent welder of aluminum. Nearby was Bankstown Airport and of course De Havilland’s. Not only did they repair the damaged piston, but reinforced by welding the weak crown areas of the other three pistons. Harry re-assembled the motor and proceeded to the team motel in Sydney. When I flew in I was told the story. We were then ready for the rally

Our plan was not to lead from the outset, but to keep within range of the leaders. We would make our bid in the latter half- by which time some of the contenders would be out due to mechanical problems or driver error. We had used that strategy in the 1964 Ampol and it worked admirably.

Stage one went without incident – we were around tenth. On stage 2 we struck a minor problem. One tube of the exhaust manifold broke about an inch from the cylinder head flange. There was nothing that would catch fire from the escaping exhaust gases, but the noise was frightful. At 1500 rpm the noise suggested an engine speed of 6000rpm. It was like a Manx Norton exhaust note compared with that of an Italian 4-cylinder. Bethanga came up – a little town in the isthmus formed by Hume Weir. The local garage proprietor made his oxy gear available to us. I was holding the broken pieces together while Harry welded. I looked down to see we were standing in water – then I realised it was petrol The torch was instantly turned off. Les Powell and helpers had been refuelling the car at the rear and they had a spill – the old garage door slopped towards where we were working. The car was pushed to a safe spot and the repair completed.

I must report on what became known as the “Bethanga Stampede”. Bob Taylor manned a control in the centre of town. There were four special stages each starting and finishing with Bob – in a cloverleaf pattern. The town turned out in force – colored lights decorated the street. the resident policeman was away on leave and the stage was set for action. Neither before nor since has Bethanga been the scene of such action! Over the four stages we did well – Aaltonen’s Cooper· was fastest. we were 15 seconds behind. We had started our climb to the front.

Next was an easy run into Albury for a meal break. As we crossed the Bethanga Bridge (a typical country bridge of NSW with planks laid across the bridge with the result that the car generates a no1se like a giant xylophone) we lost one cylinder. We drove on and ate in silence – Harry and I both thinking it was our patched up pistons that were failing or was it our home-made crankshaft. The rest of the stage was down to Melbourne via the Alps. Before starting in earnest we were able to check the motor by removing the rocker cover. We found our problem – a valve in one cylinder was not opening. Obviously we had lost a lobe off the camshaft or we had broken a cam follower. We neutralised the cylinder by removing the pushrods and plug lead and pressed on.

The performance of the car was appalling. I remember a heart-stopping run to Dandongadale – Harry hurled the car into corners at suicidal speeds because we simply had to keep the speed up – acceleration was so poor. We slid into Dandongadale with seconds to spare – I said to Harry “l am going to check under the bonnet. I found not one, but two plug leads disconnected. Back on three cylinders the car felt like a Ferrari. The remainder of the stage proved to be uneventful except for a minor “off” near Mt Donna Buang – the left guard and headlight suffered damage. From Warburton we made an early morning phone call to Norm Firth briefing him on the rapid engine rebuild that would take place at the workshop that afternoon.

continued in part 2…

Southern Cross Gold Anniversary Rally

November 8 - 19, 2016