Friday, 24 February 2017

25 February: Brock Polarizes Opinion

On this day in 1987, Peter Brock got up and went to work, only to find that it wasn't really there anymore. The Holden Dealer Team was no longer affiliated with either General Motors-Holden or their dealer network, and his Special Vehicles operation no longer had the special relationship with the factory that made the whole thing work.

In effect, HDT was dead in the water, and to explain why I'll have to commit what is the ultimate blasphemy in Australia.


1984: The Ghost of Le Mans
To those in the know, the whole thing started at Le Mans in June 1984. Brock had taken a Bob Jane T-Marts-sponsored Porsche 956 to the 24-hour classic, to be driven by himself and Larry Perkins. That project is mostly beyond the scope of this article, so suffice to say they didn't do very well, underperforming by the standards of the other privateer entries, not to mention their own.

The crucial incident had come around the seventh hour, when John Sheldon lost control of his Aston Martin-powered Nimrod NRA/C2 at the kink in the Mulsanne Straight, and hit the Armco at over 300km/h. He survived with severe burns, but 42-year-old marshal Jacky Loiseau was not so lucky. The poor man had been asleep at his post, head resting on the guardrail, and the shockwave of the impact had broken his neck. For almost an hour while the marshals cleaned it up, Brock had been forced to lap the black, smoking wreck, over and over again. And believe it or not, he came to believe the soul of Loiseau had infested his body for the trip back to Australia.

For you see, Peter came home from Le Mans in very bad shape. He looked gaunt, and the spark and vitality that had characterised him all his life was gone. Some of it was simply his body telling him he wasn't 18 anymore (he'd turned 39 that February), but some of it was also twenty years of cigarettes and booze catching up with him. More than a few believe he'd developed a case of fibreglass poisoning – an occupational hazard in car manufacturing, but exacerbated by the hours spent in the Porsche, or Bob Jane's Chevy Monza Sports Sedan, or both. Either way, the stress of the last few weeks, of spending hours in the furnace heat of the Porsche's cockpit on top of weeks without proper sleep, had turned the situation critical. It was clear something had to be done about his health, and it was at this point Bev stepped in.

Beverley was the de facto Mrs Brock, and even if it was by deed poll rather than a marriage certificate, and she was the longest and most significant relationship of Peter's life. She was also a fan of all sorts of New Age hippie stuff, so she took Peter to see her chiropractor, a Victorian schoolteacher-turned-health practitioner who became the most notorious name in the Australian automotive landscape – Dr Eric Dowker, soon better known by his nickname, "Dr Feelgood."


Now there's nothing fundamentally wrong with New Age spirituality itself. It's bullshit, sure, but it's mostly harmless bullshit, which puts it ahead of most of the other kinds of bullshit. There's also nothing wrong with being a schoolteacher, which is one of the most underappreciated jobs out there (especially if you measure jobs by how much they're paid, which you totally should). And there's certainly nothing wrong with being a chiropractor, as anyone with a bad back will jump to tell you. But – and it's a big, round, Kardashian but – a chiropractor is not a medical doctor. Having completed five years of university-based education, an Australian chiropractor is entitled to introduce themselves as "Dr," but they're a doctor in the same way you can be a Doctor of Geology or Philosophy. They're healthcare professionals, and they can fill out the excuse form when you chuck a sickie, and they're way, way more qualified than Dr Phil, but they definitely don't have medical degrees. And when they're former schoolteachers with heads full of New Age nonsense, you have to ask serious questions about whether you want them fiddling with your spine. Try this little excerpt from Brock's '86 Spa campaign:
I had just had a road accident in Australia, and I had some serious whiplash. Dr Feelgood noticed this and offered to work on me. He decided that he did not have enough energy to fix me, so he got his wife and Brock’s wife to join hands so that he would have the healing power of three people! – David Segal, motoring journalist turned HDT press officer, Motor Sport article Thunder without the storm, July 2005
Despite all that, Dowker seems to've been pretty good as a chiropractor, and his initial prescriptions for Peter were sensibleness itself: Brock was put on a strict vegetarian diet and ordered to knock off the fags and booze. It's a sign of how worried he was that the thirty-a-day Marlboro man and borderline alcoholic actually complied, but the results were phenomenal. Brock bounced back in record time, emerging fitter and livelier than ever.

But quietly, just to his closest friends, Brock admitted that Dowker had also performed an exorcism to get rid of the ghost of Jacky Loiseau. And the light of his miraculous recovery, Brock seemingly came to believe it was this, rather than the health regime, that had made the difference, and started seeing things Dowker's way. And so the weirdness started.

1985: Perkins Pulls the Pin
The next sign that something was rotten in Bertie Street came when Larry Perkins made a shock exit from the Holden Dealer Team in mid-1985. He diplomatically told the 12 July edition of Auto Action:
My job, as far as I was concerned, was one-hundred percent centred around preparing the two team cars. That’s what I enjoy doing, and that’s all I really wanted to do. Now, it’s Peter’s team, he owns it, and so he is quite entitled to decide how it is run. I guess it’s fair to say we disagreed a little on the way things might be in the future, so in the end it seemed like the best thing for me to leave.
And co-drive for Dick Johnson at that year's Bathurst

Behind the scenes, however, the rumours were rather more sinister. As part of his New Age spirituality Dowker believed in the healing power of crystals, saying the right one would keep out "negative influences." Brock had been wearing one around his neck for a while now, and Bev had long been swinging hers over meals. Guests at their home were told crystals were used to purify the water in their swimming pool and spa (along with, one hopes, chlorine). Employees at HDT Special Vehicles started fitting them to the engine dyno, and eventually the engines themselves.
The whole thing started some three or four years before it hit the headlines. My first indication that there was something, well, not odd, but just a bit different, was people dangling crystals into cups of tea and over meals. I thought, "What's going on here?" and so did a few other people. We thought it was harmless; if people wanted to believe in crystals for whatever reason, who cares? Then it developed a bit further than that. The first indication I had that it was having some influence on the racing team was I think Larry and Neil Burns found crystals either strapped to, or located on, the engine dyno and/or on the engines themselves. – John Harvey, Wayne Webster's Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
It was only a short, slippery slope from there to something more sophisticated, and soon a smallish box was being attached to the racecars – the infamous Energy Polarizer.

It was Brock's longtime publicist Tim Pemberton who came up with the name, tongue stuck firmly in cheek, but it was seized upon by the boss who exclaimed, "You’re fucking right! Of course, that’s what it is! That’s it... Polarizer, Polarizer!"
I was practising for a touring-car round of the Sandown 500 and I was just at the end of the back straight, and I lifted off the throttle and went for the brakes to head down through the esses when I felt something bang my foot. I knew it was metal and my first reaction was that one of the mechanics had left a screwdriver or spanner or something in the car, and it had come through as I drove around the circuit, and ended up rolling into the cockpit area. I had a quick look and couldn't see it, but I knew something was down there and I wasn't going to take a risk so I just backed off, cruised along and headed for the pits. – John Harvey, Wayne Webster's Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
The item was a Polarizer. This was not harmless: this was a loose object in the cockpit, and if it had gotten wedged under the brake pedal the results could've been disastrous. "Everyone had a bit of a laugh about it," said Harvey, "but that was the first I was aware that they were being secretly put into the race cars." This is why Perkins had abandoned ship: allegedly he'd found one fitted to the Commodore he’d raced at Lakeside. According to his contract, Perkins was in charge of the HDT racecar preparation and had final say on what was fitted to the cars, so Brock was actually in breach of contract. Larry called Peter out on the whole thing, telling him he was out of his mind and doing considerable damage to everyone’s image – and was sacked for his trouble. He signed on to co-drive for Dick Johnson instead, keeping him employed while he worked to set up his own Perkins Engineering team, which had debuted late in 1986.

Building PE 001

If it had stayed there, it would've been a footnote to Brock's career – costing him the services of one of the best engineers in the business, but not much more. But Brock wasn't content to restrict his Polarizer to the racecars alone. As the proprietor of a road car business, he had the opportunity to sell them to the general public as well – and that opened up vast new opportunities for legal problems that would cost him a lot more than Larry Perkins.

1986: Talking to a Brock Wall
In March 1986, HDT Special Vehicles started marketing a road car with the Energy Polarizer fitted. Holden was paying their advertising bills through agency McCann-Erickson, and this one used the slogan: "Body by Holden, Soul by Brock" (another of Pemberton's). Now Holden had to act. Senior engineer Ray Borrett decided to cut open a Polarizer and found nothing more than four magnets wrapped in tinfoil embedded in epoxy resin – likely made by Bev herself using stuff from the family home in Eltham. Brock had been insisting, "It’s a magic cure – it makes a shithouse car good," but if so nobody had a clue how it was supposed to work. Holden made repeated demands to explain what the Polarizer did, and Brock finally issued a statement... one which didn’t clarify matters much.

They called it "A.B.A. energy" in the release, but later they dropped the pretense and openly called it orgone energy, an established pseudoscientific concept from the 1930s, very big in feral circles. If you feel like taking a swan dive into that particular cesspool, you can start with the Wikipedia page, which defines orgone as "a massless, omnipresent substance similar to luminiferous aether, but more closely associated with living energy than inert matter." No mention of whether it surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together, but if so it wouldn't be surprising. If it had been fitted to an X-Wing or TIE fighter I have no doubt the Energy Polarizer would've been immensely effective, but here in the real world of just the four fundamental forces, it meant Australia was having to ask whether Peter Brock was, in fact, stark raving mad.
But the clanger of all time was when Peter said, "to effect the best possible performance from the Polarizer, it is recommended that all cars fitted with the Polarizer have 22 psi tyre pressure." Our partners at that stage, Bridgestone, had a heart attack and wondered how the hell they were going to get out of that. Here they were sponsoring Peter Brock, and here’s Peter Brock and his Polarizer claiming that you must run your car on 22 psi, which is pretty close to flat. – John Harvey, Wayne Webster’s Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
Slug was being level-headed about it, but Skippy gave us a sterling example of Ben Carson Syndrome when he commented: "Peter was saying you could run your road cars with 17 psi of pressure. But you would pull the tyres off their rims in the carpark! [But] Dr Eric Dowker was a very good physio and he helped my back. As for the crystals, well I believe they do work. Look at what Holden has now with magnetic suspension?"

David Parsons, on his suspension settings

That opened the floodgates: soon everyone seemed to have a mate who worked at Bertie Street, and rumours about the Polarizer flew thick and fast. It had to be fitted to the engine bay to the millimetre, they said, and couldn’t be swapped from one vehicle to another. Six hours of driving time were needed for the best results. It even had to be "introduced" to the car – you would leave it on the bench for a hour, then sit it on the right-front guard for 45 minutes, then finally attach it to the firewall – although sceptics in the crew just laughed and bolted it straight on. The "printed circuitry" was allegedly just a piece of paper with the words "go fast, handle great," written on it, having been shrunk down to virtual microprint by HDT secretary Debbie Thiessen, by reducing the photocopy 50 times over. Brock sent one to the CSIRO for testing; they sent it back, replying they didn’t have the equipment. The controversy attracted the attention of the Australian Sceptics Society, who investigated the affair and promptly awarded Peter their Bent Spoon award for "the year’s one supreme example of pseudo-science."
In the Sun Herald article, Brock is quoted as saying that his device "improves performance handling and ride comfort as well as producing better economy and less component wear." A very impressive gadget if the claims are true.

When asked to describe how the device achieves these remarkable results, Brock is quoted as saying "The Energy Polarizer is a transmitter that emits a signal [that is] neither electric nor magnetic nor is it a radio wave or X-ray.” (Mr Brock seems to be unaware that all of these are forms of electromagnetic energy.) He further claims "It’s a form of energy called orgone energy" and goes on "British medicos are using a derivative of it to produce body scans" (in this he seems to be referring to Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging, MRI, which certainly uses electromagnetic energy, a great deal of it, and not orgone energy which does not appear to exist).

Mr Brock is also quoted as saying "We haven’t altered molecular structure but realigned the molecules into an almost crystalline layout" and "Inside my Polarizer, among other things, you’ve got magnetic energy acting on a crystal which causes the transmission of a high frequency wave which in fact is orgone energy. When the car is fully charged with orgone energy, the molecules are all nicely aligned and you can feel it working better."

When the journalist put it to Brock that his claims seem to challenge the laws of physics, Brock admits "physics doesn’t recognise that this energy exists or that it can do these things" and "the laws of physics are going to have to be re-written..."

Australian Skeptics therefore believes that, in light if these facts, there is no reason to believe that the Brock Energy Polarizer has any effect whatsoever on the performance of a motor vehicle. Australian Skeptics will always be willing to take part in testing of this or similar devices and will publish the results of the tests, whatever they reveal. In the absence of any properly conducted tests, we would strongly advise anyone contemplating the purchase of a device that makes its claims based on "energies unknown to science" to save their money.

We also believe that there has never been a more worthy recipient of our Bent Spoon award. – Barry Williams, The Second Coming: Australian Skeptics Magazine 1986-1990
It got worse. Contrary to corporate policy, Brock also approached General Motors in Detroit looking for approval, and was granted access to GM's massive Milford Proving Ground in rural Michigan, where the Polarizer was put through its paces on a truck. He would've preferred a car, but didn't have the clout in the U.S. to make a demand like that. He came back claiming the Polarizer had passed GM testing (it hadn't) and that the company was considering making it standard fit on all GM products (they weren't). Holden went from uneasy to a full-on panic attack. These devices were being fitted to Holden vehicles, and Holden was on the hook to warrant them. Given the outrageous claims Brock was making about their effects, all it would take was one customer without a sense of humour to bring it all tumbling down. "Everybody was a Peter Brock supporter," said John Harvey, "but if somebody bought a Holden with a Polarizer fitted, then claimed it didn't work, and then decided to sue Holden, Holden didn't really have a leg to stand on."

In October 1986, Holden wrote to Brock and Dowker proposing a series of tests at Lang Lang, the huge Holden proving ground just off the road to Phillip Island. Brock and Dowker agreed, but after four days of testing the results showed the Polarizer made zero difference. "So they did the test and found absolutely no performance gain in any area whatsoever and decided they wouldn’t endorse it," said Harvey.
I had it out with Peter many times over that issue, and I told him straight, "Mate, I don't believe in the Polarizer. I've tested it, the same as a lot of people have, and you have. You claim it makes a hell of a difference to the cars, and I cannot find any change in the area of the car's performance – none whatsoever." – John Harvey, Wayne Webster’s Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
Brock's old friend Grant Steers, then acting as liaison between Bertie Street and Fisherman's Bend, watched in horror as both sides geared up for war. "I wasn't going to put my career on the line over the Polarizer so I said to Brock, 'Wake up to yourself or you and I are parting ways.'" Brock fired him and refused to speak to him again. Before long he was refusing to put his signature anywhere on the Group A version of the new VL Commodore unless you got the Plus Pack – which of course came with a mandatory Polarizer. No Polarizer, no signature; put up or shut up. As a result, the Brock signature only appeared on the Plus Pack cars, about 173 of the 500-strong production run.


Holden called in their solicitors to warn that they had an enforceable contract with HDT, but Brock was putting them in a major Catch-22: accepting legal culpability for the Polarizer, or being seen as a corporate giant crushing the underdog. And Peter played the underdog card for all it was worth. He threatened to take the matter to the federal government, saying, "Some boys in Canberra would take a very dim view of a big American company trying to stop an Australian manufacturer having a go." On 12 November Holden released a statement, warning: "Holden Motor Company does not approve or accept any responsibility for the fitment to Holden vehicles of the attachment described as an Energy Polarizer." In December they went even further, issuing a "letter of understanding" actively banning the fitment and promotion of the device on any Holden motor vehicle. Brock and Dowker got around it by forming an independent company, Peri Integration Systems, which they made responsible for final detailing of HDT products including fitment of the Polarizer. Brock just wasn't going to be told on this – and in February 1987, while he was still basking in the glow of the Wellington win, it all came to a head.

1987: The Pot Boils Over
Despite all the publicity, it wasn't the Energy Polarizer that split up Holden and Peter Brock; that just set the temperature in the room. The real issue came at a black-tie function (Polarizer sceptics need not apply) held on 20 February 1987, where Brock pulled a United Nations flag (tellingly, not an Australian flag) off his new HDT Director, a car that was presented as co-designed by Eric Dowker, not even featuring the Holden name. It cost $55,000, a hefty sum in Australia's pre-mining boom dollars, roughly equivalent to $125,000 now. It was the most extreme makeover HDT had ever given a car, with very little of the donor VL visible through the extravagant bodykit. It was to come with your choice of 4.9-litre V8 or, if you had the cash, a special 5.6-litre "Stroker" version of the engine. With 196 kW even the 4.9 would accelerate from 0 to 100 in just 6.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 242km/h, covering the standing quarter in less than 15 seconds. Brock was clearly proud of his new creation, and was openly speaking of 5,000 orders in the States, which was grossly ambitious when he was struggling to lift HDT production to 1,500 a year for the local market.

Unfortunately, the Director wasn't just the best car HDT had ever made, it was also the dodgiest. Holden's first notice of the car came when Brock started handing out invitations to the launch party, and it turned out he had good reason to keep it secret: the Director was due to feature optional semi-trailing arm rear suspension, sourced from the Opel Senator in Germany. In this it was well ahead of the curve, as IRS wouldn't be seen on a Commodore again until the VT model in 1997, but it had been fitted without Engineering Department approval, which raised serious questions about its conformity with Australian Design Rules, as well as Holden's warranty and insurance liability. Holden told Brock to delay the launch and let them have the prototype so they could undertake the necessary ADR testing. Brock never handed over the car.

Having been sprung on Holden, the Director was heading to market with no warranty, no insurance and no compliance plate. It hadn't even been put through basic crash testing. The Director simply could not legally be sold anywhere in the world – and Peter was determined to sell it. Cue the infamous news footage of the turquoise green Director rotating on a plinth behind the tuxedo-clad Brock, as the General's greatest soldier publicly signed his own death warrant.

I worked pretty hard to salvage it, and there was always the hope that it might happen. I'd done everything I possibly could to try and get Peter to change his mind, to no avail, and the warning bells had been ringing for some time. I'm not really sure if Peter was fully aware that Holden were going to pull the pin. For some reason maybe he thought in the back of his mind that they'd go along with it, or change their tune or something, but there was no doubt in my mind that they were about to pull the pin. They had no option. – John Harvey, Wayne Webster’s Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
Forewarned, the day before the Director's launch Holden had issued a press release severing their ties with Brock and HDT Special Vehicles permanently. Brock's part in the $10 million a year business was over, with between 9 and 12 Directors completed. Most had IRS, but probably not all.
The Holden Motor Company, together with members of the Australian Holden Dealer Council, today announced with regret that business relations with Peter Brock and HDT will be concluded. The decision was taken after many months of attempts to salvage the situation which ultimately failed as no common ground could be reached between Peter Brock, Holden and the dealers involved... The difficulties... revolve around a variety of significant concerns, including a device called the Energy Polarizer. Of particular concern are plans by HDT to launch a product which Holden has not been given sufficient opportunity to review.
"I’ve got to say," Harvey went on, "that they did everything right all the way through. For the last two years they explained their position to Peter, they tried to get him to mend his ways. A lot of people said, 'Oh, Holden gave Peter the arse' – they tried for two years to change his thinking, to save that business, and he didn’t. He just let it go."

Source (ftr, the Bowden's website is awesome and full of incredible cars, go check them out)

Harvey had no option but to resign as a director of HDT Special Vehicles, at last delivering a shock sizeable enough to get through to Peter. He tried to woo Harvey back, but it was too late. On the morning of 25 February, Peter arrived at the Bertie Street workshop with a few confused workers milling around and no management. Almost out of friends, Peter had to rely on his brothers Lewis and Phil, and was fortunate that he also had Alan Gow, who had a razor-sharp business brain and – more importantly – an independent income thanks to a stake in property development. That meant he could afford to work for the salary Peter could afford to pay him, which was nothing. Peter was deeper in the shit than he ever realised.
Peter had no more than a nodding acquaintance with business. He knew that business was a vehicle to enable him to go racing and to do road cars, but he had absolutely no idea on business, and he didn’t pretend to. He left it to others to handle that side of it for him. He never signed a cheque. To be honest, I don’t know that he was even a signatory to the bank account. I don’t think he even had a key to the premises! I walked into a massive mess. According to Peter at the time, it was only a blip in his business career, but he actually had no idea of how serious the situation was, mainly because he wasn’t involved that much in the business, but also – probably more importantly – because he didn’t want to know. Peter lived in a bubble and things just used to wash over him... In hindsight, perhaps it was denial. – Alan Gow, Wayne Webster’s Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
There was very little in the way of cash reserves, for although HDT had seen considerable gross turnover neither the road cars nor the racing team had ever been especially profitable. The Brock name still sold cars, but the transporters full of virgin Commodores would no longer be arriving from the Elizabeth plant in Adelaide. Forced to buy donor cars like any other tuner, Brock went on to roll out such lesser lights as the Group 3 Signature, the Designer Series, the Bathurst and Bathurst Aero, as well as aftermarket "Sport by HDT" kits made available to those on a budget, but that too was about to be undermined by a new deal between Holden and Tom Walkinshaw. He didn't even have Marlboro sponsorship anymore, having given Phillip Morris the flick when he went cold turkey at the end of 1984. Just a week out from Round 1 of the ATCC at Calder Park, all he had left was a modest trickle of Mobil sponsorship, and with that alone it was going to take a miracle to make the grid in 1987.

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