Like so many good ideas, it just sort of happened. Working on last month's Monaro issue with Holden PR, Tim ‘Plastic’ Pemberton, l mused how great it would be to drive an old Holden HT Monaro to this year’s Bathurst 1000. mere days before the launch of the new Monaro.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2001 issue
“Nally,” Plastic replied in his inimitable deadpan rasp, "I've just bought a mint HT GTS 350; it's all yours. Just don't bend it.” Bewdy!
The Holden Dealer Team was brand-new in October 1969 and entered three HT GT5 350s in the Hardie-Ferodo 500 for Colin Bond/Tony Roberts, Henk Woelders/Peter Macrow, and Des West/Peter Brock. Their mission; to take on Ford’s mighty GT-HO squadron.
Legendary team manager, Harry ‘The Silver Fox’ Firth, decreed the team would run-in its racecars by driving to Bathurst, so we decided to follow the same route the team took in 1969, leaving from the former HDT workshop in Auburn, Melbourne.
I heard the Monaro pull up outside my place before I saw it. Plastic was right; it was in beautiful nick. HG Wells had his Time Machine and Doctor Who had the Tardis, but here was my time travel capsule, warmed up and waiting.
Inside it’s all Sixties sportscar style with a large, thin-rimmed steering wheel, a deep-set tacho red-lined at 5500rpm and a 140mph speedo. Black vinyl is everywhere, save for chic houndstooth check seat inserts, and there's stacks of headroom and legroom, with seating for five ample Aussie arses.
Brock had briefed me on the HDT route, but after checking a map, it appeared either his memory was failing or HDT had gone the long way.
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After taking back roads out Melbourne, the HDT convoy veered off the Hume towards Shepparton on the Goulburn Valley Highway, then followed the Newell and Mid Western Highways before finally joining the Olympic at Cowra. It added another 200 kays to the 970km trip. Why go the long way? “It was a pleasant drive," Brock said. HDT did the trip in “around eight hours”, but we would spread the journey over two days.
I had never driven a Monaro before and Brock cautioned me about the heavy shifter, heavy clutch and even heavier non-assisted steering. But how bad could it be? A prod of the short-throw throttle and the big Chev growled easily into life, settling down to a basso profundo idle. The sloppy linkages in the four-speed Saginaw gearbox clanked as I rammed (you have to) the shifter into first and we were away. Easy.
I wasn’t prepared for the first 90-degree corner and the strength required to pull on three turns of lock, though. Now I know why they call these things muscle cars you need ‘em. By the time we reached the old HDT workshop, I had tennis elbow from manhandling the Monaro through the peak hour shuffle. The low-backed bucket didn’t help either, and my neck ached like buggery. God help me, I thought. If I get Liberace’d in this, my head will end up in the back seat.
The historic HDT workshop is now run by ex-Formula 2 racer Ray Boys. Boys recently took it over from ex-Firth/HDT alumni Ian Tate, who ran his race engine business from the premises from 1978. Tate also drove one of the three GTSs to Bathurst in ‘69. Still a good mate of Brock’s, Tate remembers him as “young and timid, but a hoon in the street”. “Bond was the lead driver in those early days,” he said, “Brock was nothing special it took him three years to come good.”
After a quick once~over from Boys, we set out, along Melbourne’s congested, tram-track laced streets. Finally, we escaped the suburbs and I gave the Monaro its head. The owner’s manual claims 300 horsepower at 4800rpm and 380 ft lbs of torque at 3200 and, with the tall 3.36:1 diff and a low fourth cog, it felt like it. At 60mph, the engine was spinning at 2750rpm, about 1000rpm more than the Gen III in our SS chase car (albeit in sixth).
Overtaking was a cinch, with the brawny Chevy just a restless big toe away from train-like pulling power. In fourth, it thundered from 40mph to the old ton (sorry, Plastic) in no time; and from 70mph on the big coupe was up on its toes, dancing like a heavyweight champ. The power delivery was a politically incorrect, brutal shove, accompanied by an exhaust throb that sounded like a cross between a diesel locomotive and a death metal singer.
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At highway speeds the steering lightened up and needed only small amounts of lock for most comers. And you could easily adjust your line by leaning on or lifting off the throttle. Basically it’s an understeerer but it didn’t take much to break the skinny rears loose. The suspension was surprisingly stiff and corrugations would cause the rigid front end to judder. There was no hint of float or body roll though; not were there any rattles or squeaks. What a good car!
Around town, the HT was surprisingly quiet, but on the open road, the noise from the modem 14x6 Dunlop Monzas was deafening. The 270mm disc/254mm drum brakes had good initial bite and felt like they would haul you up from high speed - at least a couple of times. But if you gave the firm pedal a hard squeeze, the nose tends to wander as the rotors squealed in irritation. Jabbing them just locked the rear tyres solid.
As dusk approached, ghostly mobs of roos started gathering just off the road so we decided to stop at Narrandera. This was timely because when I turned on the headlights the tail lights failed, and the only illumination at the rear was from the dull glow of the number plate bulb.
The next morning we were Bathurst-bound. From Jerilderie on, the Newell was flat and fast with long sweeping curves. Traffic was sparse and must have been even thinner in ’69. These roads were made for opening up the Rochester four-barrels and there are stories, perhaps apocryphal, of the HDT Monaros running three-wide at high speed. Brock wasn’t saying.
Rolling into West Wyalong, we spotted the modern facade of the local Holden dealership, but in the lane behind we found its old corrugated iron workshop entrance. Gordon, the manager, was suspicious at first (“Are you setting me up?”) when we asked to take photos, but he relaxed when he saw the Monaro.
We pushed on. With the speedo pointing straight up to 70mph (okay, maybe more), we flashed past massive sunlit canola crops and purple paddocks of Patterson’s Curse, through Cowra, and into Bathurst.
We arranged to pick up Brock at 5.30 for a nostalgic lap of the track. Right on cue, Peter Perfect vaulted the pit wall and settled in behind the wheel. He found first and we took off, hard. To go racing in 1969, all HDT did was blueprint the engine, pump up the tyres and fit better pads, a four-point harness and rollover hoop, so this car was close to race fettle.
Griffin’s Bend was coming up at 90mph. “Brakes?” Brock yelled, “Have we got any? Doesn’t matter, I’ll float her in.” Banging it into third, he tipped into the right-hander, the Dunlops complaining loudly. It was about then that The Time Machine took hold of The King of the Mountain, catapulting him back three decades. He was 24 again, and loving it.
“I’m in a time warp,” he grinned as we skimmed the concrete wall through The Cutting before Brock buttoned off for traffic. “I’d love to unleash this thing,” he sighed, right arm out the window giving the royal wave. How does the car feel? “It feels right. We weren’t allowed to change the suspension in those days and the standard suspension was very stiff. We ran Michelin XAS tyres at 45 or 50psi. You had to; the things weren’t d signed for ripping around a racetrack.”
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After an impromptu 20-minute autograph session, I managed to prise Brock away from his adoring public and we blasted off again as a little kid yelled: “Do some doughies Brocky!” We screeched into Forrest’s Elbow, Brock's line millimetre perfect. “This car always had more understeer here than the HO but we didn’t mind because you used the understeer to wash off speed.”
The tight left-right Chase loomed large. It wasn’t there in 1969 and Conrad ran in a scary straight line down to Murray’s Corner. “We’d hit around 130mph on Conrod, I suppose,” Brock said, right elbow on the door. “We’d lift off after the second hump so as not to abuse the brakes before Murray’s. If you did, you’d have no brakes for Hell Corner, which was worse”.
We jumped out at The Chase so photographer Brunelli could take some shots. Brock roared back up Conrad, did a U-ey, and then took aim. How was that? “Magic!” Brock bubbled. “Doesn’t it sit beautifully through there? It doesn’t get any body roll; it’s not a big lurch-mobile. This is good, isn’t it? THIS IS GOOD! This car is 32 years old and it’s a I think I’m going to have to get one.”
Clerk of Course Tim Schenken, pulled up in the CAMQ course car, with Colin Bond in the back seat. “It suits you, Brock,” he hollered, and good-natured jibes about the old days flew thick and fast. “You were a bit of a ratbag in those days, weren’t you Brocky?” I ventured.
“Totally! I was rebellious,” Brock laughed. “After the race we got up to some shocking, shameful activities involving alcohol and women. There were some big headaches on Monday morning.”
Brock was besotted with the car by now, and set off on another lap. “This thing’s liking it now, it’s got the vibe. This is sensational, it’s doing it easy. We’re talking ace-ness.” Ace-ness? The next day, Plastic told me Brock wanted to drive the car in the pre-race Monaro parade. Hang on, I was going to do that! “Don’t worry, Nally,” Plastic said soothingly, “Brock won’t show up.”
At 8.20 am Sunday, 85 Monaros gathered for one glorious tribute lap in front of 50,000 fans. With minutes to go, Brock still hadn’t shown. Beauty. Then, with seconds to spare, he rocked up and consigned me again to the back. Bugger!
Still, it’s a bit hard to argue with The King on his home territory. Seven hours later Mark Skaife and Tony Longhurst won the Bathurst 1000 for Holden, 32 years after Bond and Roberts gave the Monaro its second and last Bathurst victory. The following year, Toranas replaced the big coupe.
The next day I took the quick way back to Melbourne, with a better understanding of how the Monaro got its reputation. The new Monaro has some very big boots to fill, to be sure. Sleek and sexy as it is, who’s to say it’ll be a bona fide classic in 32 years? Check with us in 2033 for the verdict.
Straight from the archives on classic MOTOR
How Brock went to the Mountain
Peter Brock recalls that it was Harry Firth’s idea to drive the HT GTS 350 Monaro race cars to Bathurst. ”Harry was looked on as quite idiosyncratic, but he was very clever and knew it was very good for the car and suspension to get a gentle workout on the highway. Driving to Bathurst gave them a nice kiss and a cuddle and you’d get a good feel for the car.
In Victoria, the speed limit was probably 75 to 80mph (120-130km/h) but there weren’t any speed limits in NSW and, of course, we found it difficult to stay in running-in mode.
Those Monaros were weapons. We tried to keep to about 3000rpm, equating to around 70mph (110km/h) but every now and then you’d have to hear the second barrel on the carby Open up so you’d flatten it a bit before backing off. You’d tell yourself you were bedding in the rings.
We had the big 26-gallon (118 litre) tank and we’d damn near get there on one tank but I remember filling up and grabbing a bite to eat at West Wyalong; there was a 24-hour place there.
We'd get into Bathurst around 10.30pm, head straight to the Abercrombie Motel and hit the sack. The next morning we’d wash the cars in the street, then go to scrutineering. When I drove up to the track for the first time I was just tingling. I was 24 and this was the best thing that had happened to me. I was overawed. I thought 'God, you can’t drive fast around here, it’s a country road." The sense of anticipation was incredible.
The night before the race there was always a lot of driving between Bathurst and Blaney, bedding in brakes and discs or some damn thing. Harry would say ’Bed those brakes in, cock.’
We were in line to win the race but we popped a cam lifter. 5500 to 5700rpm was the magic number and if you went above that the lifters didn’t like it. The car went onto seven cylinders. It’d idle okay, but once the revs got to 3500-4000 it’d be lumpy. We probably ran a third of the race like that and still only finished about 30 seconds behind Bondy.
The cars were impounded after the race and we’d drive down the main mad to Gundon’s Garage where the cars would be scrutineered on the Monday. After scrutineering the cars would be put back together and we’d drive them back to Melbourne.
We drove to Bathurst up until ’72 but that first Bathurst in 1969 in the Monaro was such an important part of my life. It was what I dreamt of doing.”