Wednesday, 3 July 2013

First Bathurst Ever

The way language works, names quickly become shorthand for larger concepts. Especially motor races. "Le Mans" isn't a town in the middle of France, it's a race that takes a whole 24 hours, and a description of the cars that finish it. It's an event. Same deal with "Daytona" - it's not a beachside community, nor even the monstrous racetrack that calls the beachside community home, it's a symbol of what the whole NASCAR thing is all about - vast, fast, populist and commercial.

In the same way, "Bathurst" isn't a town or even a circuit, but an event. And that makes it awkward when the early "Bathursts" didn't actually take place at Bathurst at all...

1960, and a new race was in the pipeline, a race destined to become far more important than the championship it would support. Jim Thompson, managing director of the shock absorber company Armstrong York Engineering, was doing what all good managing directors do and looking for ways to increase his business, especially with the local carmakers Holden and Ford. PR man Ron Thonemann told him the best way to do that would be to sponsor a motor race for production cars (what Americans would call “strictly stock”) and showcase Armstrong’s products there.

Thompson ran with the idea and, looking around for tracks to hold it on, came upon Phillip Island, Down Under’s answer to the Isle of Man, just to the south of Melbourne. The open roads of the island had been used for racing since 1928, when it had hosted the “100 Miles Road Race”, forerunner to the Australian Grand Prix. This race wouldn’t use the full 10-mile rectangular circuit however, settling on a much smaller 3-mile triangle that made up the westernmost end of the motorcycle circuit, used in the years just before the war. It started with a quick blast northeast along Ventnor Road and through a sweeping right before the 90-degree right-hander named Heaven Corner. From there it was a brisk descent straight and true down Berry’s Beach Road to a much tighter right-hander at the opposite end of the cosmos, Hell Corner (not to be confused with the other, much more famous Hell Corner that would enter the story in a few years). Assuming the driver made it through with his soul intact, it was one more flat-out straight along Ventnor Beach Road to the final right hander, School Corner, just before returning to the start/finish line. The race was set for 167 laps, 500 miles, hence the Armstrong 500.
Every man and his dog showed up to enter, 55 cars in five classes, each due to be handled (since this was an enduro) by at least two drivers. Classes A through C were for Eurotrash with tiny engines: Fiats, Renaults, Peugeots and V-dubs, plus a sizable contingent of Morris Majors, Triumph Heralds and Austin Lancers from Mother England. Class E was for cars with engines above 3.5 litres, and therefore home to the only big V8 in the race, a 4.5-litre Ford Customline. It didn’t do especially well, but as the only entrant in Class E, it was at least guaranteed a class win.
That meant the real race would be in Class D, for engines between 2.0 and 3.5 litres. Among the challengers were a single Humber Super Snipe, a Mercedes-Benz 220SE, a Standard Vanguard and a Vauxhall Cresta. But more importantly, it was also the first race deployment of a popular four-door sedan with a 67kW, 2.3-litre straight-six engine… yes, this was the race debut of the XK Falcon. It surprised nobody when one of the two Falcons failed to finish – but the one shared by Lou Molina and future tyre magnate Bob Jane did finish and finished well, completing a prophetic 161 of 167 laps.

But by then the race had already fallen to the Vauxhall Cresta of John Roxburgh and Frank Coad, after 8 hours and 21 minutes of hard driving. But it’s here that things get tricky. Armstrong had only ever planned to declare class winners rather than an overall winner, so line honours for the first Great Race have been recognised only in retrospect. Although Roxburgh and Coad are generally listed as the “winners” of the first Armstrong 500 and have appeared as such in CAMS’ own paperwork, there are plenty of racing geeks who’ll tell you the winners of Class C – Geoff Russell, David Anderson and Tony Loxton in a Peugeot 403 – actually finished the race in a faster time. The discrepancy came about because the classes were released at thirty-second intervals, meaning the winning Vauxhall started the race thirty seconds sooner than the winning Peugeot. Sadly, surviving records aren’t accurate enough to say whether the Peugeot was closer than thirty seconds behind at the finish, which is a shame, because the howls of bogan protest if we found the “first Bathurst” really was won by a French car would be more than worth the effort.
And while we’re on the subject, if you’re wondering where the Holdens finished, you’re wasting your time, because there weren’t any! The only Holden within cooee of the event was a driver, Bob Holden, in another Peugeot. Just like Scuderia Ferrari, who hadn’t bothered showing up to the first World Championship race at Silverstone, The General’s finest elected to sleep in rather than attend the inauguration of their most important race. But like just Ferrari, Holden would come to define their racing series, and with it the culture of an entire nation.


  1. le français! Sacrilège!

    Still, i cant help but feel the time when a hair drier assisted inline six showed them all how it was done stings even more. At least theyve learned their lesson, theyve weighed those poor nissans down with more baggage than a hollywood starlet.

  2. What makes it hilarious is in those days the base-level Commodore had a Nissan engine. Holden fans don't like it when you remind them of that (great little engine though).