Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Micro Machines

Funny thing: while John Cooper's former driver was off winning the World Championship in a car of his own design, a car developed by John Cooper was winning Australia's premier race.

Although the annual 500-mile test of showroom machinery was their creation, by 1966 Armstrong York Engineering were no longer behind it. They'd pulled out and gone home, taking their marketing budget with them, but this only showed the race had taken on a life of its own. Irish tobacco brand Gallaher stepped up to take over where Armstrong had left off, making it the centrepiece of their high-exposure push into the Australian market. Parallel to the naming rights change came a switch to defining the classes by dollars instead of pounds – not a huge ask, as all it required was to double the numbers and replace the pound with a dollar sign. The new classes were thus:
Class A – up to $1,800

Class B – $1,801-2,040

Class C – $2,041-2,700

Class D – $2,701-$4,000
Of greater significance was the wake-up call the organisers had received from the 1965 running of the race. Ford and their motorsport contractor Harry Firth had played the rulebook like a harp, building the minimum 100 hot Cortina GT 500s needed to qualify for the race, then walking all over the opposition for the third year running. Displeased that their mass-production showcase was being corrupted by these small-volume, largely hand-built "Bathurst specials," the organisers upped the minimum number of registrations for locally-built models from 100 to 250, the same as the imports. The GT 500 build programme in 1965 had been quite costly for Ford, so the prospect of another 250 this year didn’t stack up in the accounting department, especially when the all-new XR Falcon range had dropped only a month ago. Another Bathurst win for a four-cylinder British box wouldn’t do their marketing campaign any good; as a result, Firth’s plans for a Mark II Cortina came to nought, as Ford elected to have a gap year instead.

So, with no GT 500s on the grid, a quick scan of other potential race winners showed only one real contender – the Morris Cooper S.

In 1963, John Cooper of the Cooper Formula 1 team, with whom Jack Brabham had won his first two World Championships, had developed a hot version of the British Motor Corporation’s 1959 economy car, the "Morris Mini Minor" – initially, against the wishes of its designer Alec Issigonis. The golden idea behind the Mini had been to mount the engine sideways (ingeniously, placing the gearbox inside the sump of BMC’s A-series engine to save space) and make it front-wheel drive. The wheels were then placed at the corners to free up the rest of the car’s floorplan for passengers and cargo – standard practice now, but quite radical in 1959. This efficient use of space meant, even by U.K. standards, it could be built absurdly small – just 3 metres long and weighing in at 620kg, roughly half of a normal car’s imposition. This of course meant it could get away with having half an engine, so the 848cc four-pot of the initial launch proved adequate for ordinary driving, especially when its unique rubber cone suspension gave it the razor-sharp handling of a billycart.

Since small, light and radical was the Lotus formula for success, it occurred to Cooper to build a homologation special for British saloon car racing. He fitted fatter tyres and twin 1¼-inch SU carburettors that lifted the power from the new 997cc engine from 25 to 41 kW, which made 140km/h achievable and necessitated fitting 7-inch Lockheed disc brakes. Issigonis was displeased, but BMC boss George Harriman drove it and loved it, sealing a 10-year deal with Cooper on a handshake and a £2 royalty on every "Morris Cooper" produced. The car was good, but there was more to be had: by the time the Morris Cooper S was launched, the engine had gone up to 1,071c. This was basically one of Coventry-Climax’s Formula Junior engines, detuned for road use and fitted with two smallish pancake air filters for the twin SU HS2 carburettors. With a 9:1 compression ratio it liked a diet of 95 octane or better, but that was the only concession that had to be made to its racing and rally background.

But that wasn’t the end either: if you fitted a different crankshaft, you could stroke it out to 1,275cc, where it would give 56 kW at 5,750rpm (although the redline was a glorious 7,000). Packing the power of an FB Holden into a car with half the weight had some startling results: the car would pounce from 0-100 in 13.5 seconds and go on to a top speed of over 150km/h, depending on the gears. As a competition special, only 1,000 units had been envisaged by BMC, but the car was such a hit that soon they had to put it into full-scale production. For just £695, you got what was basically the fastest car in Britain, with extraordinary acceleration and an uncanny ability to weave in and out of traffic, both around town and on the track. Even on Britain’s new motorways you wouldn’t be overtaken much. If you could live with the cramped passenger compartment and the weird angle of the steering wheel, it was a genuinely brilliant, small, fast car, as equally at home picking up the kids and shopping as it was picking off the backmarkers around Brands Hatch. And if you resisted the urge to put the boot in, you could even do 8.4 litres per 100km.

But don’t let anyone tell you the Bathurst Minis of 1966 were British imports. Local production had begun as early as 1961, and 7,905 Cooper S’s were ultimately built by BMC Australia between its introduction in 1965 and the expiration of the licence agreement with John Cooper in 1971. These were put together at their Victoria Park plant in the Sydney suburb of Zetland, halfway between the CBD and Mascot airport. Far from mere knock-down kits, these cars had locally-pressed bodies and used local trim and glass; only the engines came as fully-assembled "crate" units. Deviations from U.K. spec included a seven-row engine oil cooler to cope with Australia's 45-degree summers, upgraded Hydrolastic suspension (in place of Britain’s rubber cone type), bigger 7.5-inch brake discs and callipers, 10x4.5-inch 145-series tyres, and distinctive winding front windows with the quarter-vent flaps so beloved of Australia’s smokers, which wouldn’t reach the U.K. versions for several years. Most significant was a (second) right-hand fuel tank, which wasn’t even available as an option in Britain, but came standard in Australia. The reason? A certain race held on a mountain west of Sydney...

After a slow start to sales in the early 1960s, the $2,280 Cooper S was a bombshell: Wheels magazine’s February ‘66 road tested titled "Sooper Dooper Cooper," found that it reached 100km/h in 10.6 seconds and covered the standing quarter-mile in 17.6. Although its top speed was barely 160km/h, they said, "...it is incredibly fast point-to-point. This is the car’s biggest feature – its ability to twitch and dodge and swerve and skip and change line and flick from one attitude to another at any speed right up to its maximum... Very rarely do you come across so much performance wrapped up in one small package." Modern Motor even said the Mini made the traditional sports car obsolete: here was a practical four-seater family car that could out-handle and outrun dedicated sports cars like the MGB and Austin Healey Sprite; the supposedly-hot Holden EH S4 wouldn’t see which way the Cooper went. And with no hot Cortinas on offer this year, it was the only game in town for Series Production, so 24 of the 53 cars entered for this year’s Gallaher 500 were Minis. Seven of them were either the Morris Coopers in Class B or the Australia-only Mini Deluxe/Morris Mini 850s contending Class A, but 17 of the 19 cars entered in Class C were the faster Cooper S. And three of those were works cars, entered by BMC Australia itself, painted dark green not because it was the traditional British racing colour, but in deference to main sponsor Castrol.

The factory’s driver lineup comprised local talents paired with Mini’s big-name international rally stars, here to compete in the inaugural Southern Cross Rally just a week after Bathurst. Irish Mini legend Paddy Hopkirk was paired with local Mini ace Brian Foley in the #28C, while European champion Timo Mäkinen was initially paired with Queenslander John French in the #23C, although Mäkinen was replaced by local man Steve Harvey before the race due to a clash with the Finn’s overseas rally commitments. The third BMC team car, the #13C, saw Finnish rally ace Rauno Aaltonen teamed with the real star of Bathurst 1966 – Sydney’s Bob Holden, who’d become good friends with BMC Australia’s PR boss Evan Green, and been invited to drive for the works team at Bathurst.

Seen here in his early 20s, because Australia is brutal. (image)

Born with what he described as "twisted feet," and having contracted polio while in hospital at the age of 5, Bob Holden had been told he would never be able to walk properly. But he did. Determined to "get mobile," he soon defied the doctors and started walking anyway; walking led cycling, which led to competitive cycling, until at 18 he was blown off course during the Colac to Warrnambool cycle race, landing in a culvert under several other unfortunate riders. The incident injured his knees and forced him out of the sport for good, but the end of a promising cycling career proved the beginning of a stellar, 60-year motorsport career. "I wanted to do something else," he said, "so I started playing around with motorcars." "Playing around" might’ve been a bit of an understatement: he had been building, racing and rallying Minis for a couple of seasons now, hence his friendship with Evan Green. Inexperience meant he’d missed out on Bathurst 1965 with the new 1,275cc Cooper S: "I had ace mechanic Peter Molloy [who later built the engines behind Allan Moffat's 1977 double-whammy] on my pit crew. He didn’t know you had to take off the second fuel cap to vent the system when refuelling. We spent 12 minutes in the pits and it cost us the race."” But the effort had earned him a place on the BMC factory team. Now, at age 33, he found he had the unique advantage of being the only qualified mechanic among the six works drivers. Hence, he was in a position to do something about it when, although theoretically equal, one of the three cars earmarked for Bathurst proved less equal than the others.
On Monday before the race all three cars went on the dyno. Dave Bradford, an English apprentice I knew well, rang me and told me there was a problem. Dave said: "One of the cars is down one and a half horsepower... and you know which one you will get!" – Bob Holden, AMC #91
One and a half horsepower might not sound like much – just 1.1 kW – but on a 56 kW engine, that was a significant deficit. The Mini just didn’t have that much power to spare. Thinking fast, Holden prevailed upon Green to let him take the car back to his own workshop and give it the once-over with his own hands. The catch was that if the other drivers heard about it, they would likely raise a fuss and demand the same treatment for their own cars, so it had to be done on the sly. So, after everyone else had gone home, Holden got into the #13C, drove it back to his workshop, rolled up his sleeves and started an all-nighter.

Dismantling the car, Holden found the factory’s preparation was basically sound, but he was acutely aware of the rather wide engineering tolerances of mass-produced vehicles and their ability to shake a car to bits over the course of 500 miles at the redline. He and his crew set about perfecting each rotating component of the Cooper S in record time.
I picked it up at 6pm Monday and took it to my garage at Pymble. Dave was there organising things. We stripped the car back to the bodyshell and balanced everything. We balanced all gears, brake drums and discs, axles and driveshafts, as well as checking the blueprinted motor. The parts went to Lynx Engineering for balancing and then back to the workshop. I returned the car to the factory on the Tuesday morning; no-one knew it was gone! – Bob Holden, AMC #91
On the Tuesday night, he collected it again and took it for a several-hundred-kilometre thrash at maximum speed (no open-road speed limits in those days, remember) to bed everything in and see if anything would break. Nothing did. The car was fast and held together beautifully.
I got the car again on the Tuesday night and I drove it all night to Canberra and Yass. On Wednesday Dave put it back on the dyno and found it was up one and a half horsepower, so I told him to wind back the distributor!

I was just looking for an edge, and the edge just happened to be that it had to be as perfect a car as you could possibly get. – Bob Holden, AMC #91

In qualifying, the V8s predictably ruled the roost, the speed trap recording Conrod speeds nudging 190km/h. Since pole position had to go to a Class D car, it ended up falling to Studebaker driver Warren Weldon with a lap of 3:16.7. Chrysler Valiant V8 driver Digby Cooke was next-fastest with a 3:17.9, just ahead of the Nougher/O’Keefe Valiant at 3:18.3. Bob Holden, however, was keeping his powder dry for the race. His teammates had to be kept in the dark until the start of the race, so he and Aaltonen borrowed an idea from Harry Firth and recorded their practice laps at different reference points on the track to those of the official timekeepers.
You had to sandbag because if you were fastest you might find the numbers on your car had swapped overnight. There were no logbooks then. Rauno understood the team politics. I told him we shouldn’t show our full speed in qualifying and we should just back off after the Castrol Tower at Skyline. We were timing half laps and working out what a quick lap would be without setting one. – Bob Holden, AMC #91
Even so, the Minis were generally lapping in the 3:11-3:13 zone, making life hell for the big cars wallowing across the top of the mountain, and especially under braking for Murray’s. In fact, one of the Minis recorded such an astonishingly fast practice time that the race organisers came over and gave the Valiant drivers a dressing-down!
I do remember in practice quickly catching up to a good mate of mine, Bill Stanley, in his Cooper S going up the Mountain and his lap time dropped by a ridiculous amount, like about 8 seconds, because I shoved him all the way to the top! Jack Hinxman from the ARDC pulled me aside after that and said: "That Mini you were following did an amazing lap time, an extraordinary lap time, so if I catch you doing that again during the race I will black-flag you!" – Digby Cooke, quoted in Mark Oastler’s 1966 Bathurst 500: The Valiant V8 automatics that conquered The Mountain

At the green flag, the class-based grid ensured that even though they weren’t the fastest, the big Class D cars like the V8-powered Studebaker Larks and VC Valiant automatics led the field away. The Weldon/Slattery Studebaker leapt off the line with the two Valiant V8s in hot pursuit, but it wasn’t long before they were being dive-bombed by the swarm of Minis that were soon here, there and everywhere. Where the big cars were getting on the brakes at around 300 metres from the end of Conrod Straight, the fastest Coopers were still wide open on the throttle right up to the 100 metre board! Brian Foley talked about it in a 2005 issue of Mini Experience, which was recalled by Australian Muscle Car #91:
Timo [Mäkinen] and I were back in the pack. We were slipstreaming each other and then we’d change over so things wouldn’t overheat. Charlie Smith had got away to a fairly good lead. Then Timo and I got out out of the pack and were slipstreaming each other down Conrod and I can still remember to this day our cars were touching and when I looked through his rear window I could see his instruments. The old needle was wrapped around the end of the gauge. Anyway, here’s Charlie going down Conrod doing 104mph and Timo and I just drove past him at 114mph! He was furious and shaking his fist.
I'm not sure why he remembers Mäkinen being there when he wasn't; I guess memories get rusty after half a century. Regardless, within a few laps the big cars had already run out of answers to the speed of the Minis, which ran off into the distance in their private battle for outright honours. Aaltonen took the lead on lap 2 and held it until a stunned Foley, driving right on the ragged edge, managed to catch and pass him by lap 10. From there the two works drivers engaged in a furious dice for the lead as they sped away from the pack, setting a cracking pace as they slipstreamed each other down Conrod at 180km/h, often with barely a flicker of daylight between them. It all came to an end after only 25 laps when Aaltonen’s speed finally broke him, Foley limping into the pits with fading engine oil pressure caused by a crankshaft bearing failure. The other BMC entry of French and Harvey had already suffered wheel damage in a collision with the Eiffeltower Valiant, leaving the #13C the works team’s only hope. But Holden’s sleepless nights had paid off. Aaltonen’s pace in the opening stint was so great that the Finn was able to bring the car in for the first of two scheduled pit stops, change a single tyre (the hard-working right-front), refill the tanks and it hand over to Holden without losing the race lead!

Bob Holden nevertheless had a fierce rival to contend with during his stint, when the fast but underrated Ron Haylen in a privately-entered Cooper S found himself right up with the race leader after the first round of stops. Like Aaltonen and Foley, Holden and Haylen engaged in a ferocious duel for many laps that ended when Haylen’s car blew a tyre at the dauntingly fast McPhillamy Park and suffered a race-ending collision with the wooden fence. The driver escaped unhurt, thankfully, and was left to wonder what the hell Holden had put in that Cooper that it could run the opposition into the ground over and over again.

Without Haylen behind him, Holden was left a lap and a half clear of the 2nd-placed car when he made his second and final pit stop. Aaltonen climbed back behind the wheel right and, with the #13C running perfectly, emerged from the pits still well in the lead and cruised to a dominant win. After 130 laps, Aaltonen crossed the finish line a full lap ahead of the 2nd-placed Fred Gibson/Bill Stanley Cooper S, and two laps ahead of the 3rd-placed Cooper S driven by Bruce McPhee and Barry Mulholland. In fact, Coopers filled the top nine places outright, with the highest-placed non-Mini the Eiffeltower Valiant of Nougher/O’Keefe, a sobering six laps behind.

Even so, the two Valiant teams and a Hillman Minx (Class B) driven by Lionel Ayers and Max Volkers unwittingly became joint winners of a manufacturer’s team prize – the PBR Trophy – which they knew nothing about until it was awarded to them. The fastest race lap was a 3:10, a new record, set by open-wheel ace Frank Match in another Cooper S. Total race time this year was 7 hours, 11 minutes and 29.1 seconds, nearly six minutes faster than last year, clocking up an average speed (including pitstops) of 112km/h. Sadly, the whereabouts of the winnning Mini today are unknown: it was returned to service as a daily driver (NSW plates EFK-167) shortly after its historic win; one of the conditions was that it couldn’t remain in Castrol green, so it was repainted white. It was sold to Bob Holden himself, who then sold it on to another racer.
One of my customers ended up with the Bathurst winner. John Millyard raced the Mini [the white #45C] at Bathurst the following year with Andy Frankel, who was one of [rally navigator] George Shepheard’s guys and ran my office.

John Millyard was a muso who played at a nightspot in Martin Place, and one night the Mini was stolen from outside the venue and he got the insurance money. – Bob Holden, AMC #91
If Martin Place sounds familiar, that's because it was more recently the site of the Lindt cafe siege. Anyway, that was all she wrote as far as the car went. There’s a slight chance it’s still around somewhere, and there were even rumours of a red Mini that raced at Oran Park in the late 1960s, which came to grief exposing white paintwork under the red – and, so the story goes, green under the white. But it would be impossible to verify today; more likely the winning car was taken for a joyride and ended its life a burned-out wreck abandoned in the scrub. A great shame, because it was a truly historic car – the last naturally-aspirated four-cylinder car to win Bathurst outright and, discounting the Super Touring events of the 90s, the only front-wheel drive one. Minis would win their class another five times, including 1975, the last year they were eligible, as the Victoria Park plant closed down in ‘74, costing 6,800 jobs. But overall, it was a losing battle. The Australian car, and indeed Australia itself, was changing, and next year would see the debut of an entirely different kind of machine. It was the end of an era.

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