Bathurst's first Champion: 1963 Cortina GT
Jon Thomson, 'Australian Classic Car Monthly', October 1995
It was a race first suggested by Armstrong Shock Absorbers, and English company with an Australian subsidiary serving the OE market. The company's PR consultant, Ron Thonemann, put forward the idea of the race for standard cars and Armstrong's board bought it.
The first race was staged at Phillip Island, 120 km south of Melbourne on 20 November, 1960. It was won by an unlikely Vauxhall Cresta driven by John Roxburgh (later president of CAMS and Australia's representative on the FIA) and Frank Coad.
It was a race that somehow captured the imagination of the Australian people and was one of the first, if not the first, motor races to be telecast. Interestingly it was on Channel 9 in the early days, those first three years at Phillip Island.
It endured a rocky time at the Island with Harry Firth and Bob Jane winning the first of their three races on the trot at the wheel of a Mercedes 220 in 1961, backing up again to win in 1962 in a Falcon XM.
The Island circuit broke up badly, had pitiful facilities and was at the mercy of the fickle weather of Bass Strait just a couple of hundred metres south of a corner they appropriately called Siberia. The Armstrong company cast around for somewhere to stage the race and Bathurst came up trumps.
When the flag dropped in 1963 the race had already become a legend with manufacturers doing special things to ensure that they could capture the prestige of an unofficial race win or a class victory. (In 1963 there was still no recognition for an outright winner. More important was a win in one of the four classes, all decided by how much the car cost on the showroom floor.)
Interestingly, only Australian-assembled cars were elegible for the race giving some indication of just how many types and models were bolted together in those wild old days of massive tariff protection to the automotive industry.
With the TV coverage switching from 9 to 7 for the move to Bathurst, the event was an important one for the car companies. Holden, banned officially by its GM parent in Detroit from competing in motor sport, found it suddenly had a limited run of 179 cubic inch EHs with special brake linings and several other minor tweaks. The EH S4 was one of the first homologation specials.
The hero of this story, the Cortina GT, was brought to the market by Ford in time for it to qualify for the first Armstrong 500 at Bathurst and Ford's competition manager at the time, Les Powell, went about preparing his team with the new 'race weapons' Ford had for the task. The question everyone asked before the 1963 Armstrong was could a four-cylinder 1500cc Cortina GT match the six-cylinder Holdens, Vauxhalls, Zephyrs and Valiants or even the V8 Studebakers on a circuit which climbed so steeply and taxed even the most powerful of machines.
Harry Firth was again teamed with Bob Jane for the first Bathurst enduro. In an era when advertising was not allowed, the Firth/Jane Cortina GT with its natty red and white colour scheme was a standout. Its little black circular number patch with 20 was proudly displayed alongside a C signifying its class in the race, for cars costing 1001 to 1199 pounds.
The race began at 9 am in those days and the grid was determined by class with the big Class D Studebakers, Valiants and Zephyrs up front ahead of the Cortina GTs and Holden Ehs in Class C, the Mini Coopers and Renault R8s in Class B and the Mini 850s, VWs, Triumph Heralds and so on in Class A. In all, 57 starters would face the flag.
It would take a bit over eight hours to complete 500 miles around Mt Panorama or 130 laps of the three-and-a-half mile circuit. (Today the current crop of highly modified touring cars are getting down to the six-hour mark for a race which now covers 1000 kilometres or around 625 miles.)
In the 1963 race, the Studebaker of Bertie Needham and Warren Weldon raced off from the start and into the lead and was still leading with Weldon at the wheel at the end of the first lap from the Holden S4s of Stan O'Shannesy and Kevin Bartlett, while Jane had Cortina GT number 20C in fourth just ahead of his works team mates, the Cortina GT of the Geoghegan brothers.
The powerful held off the petite, at least in the opening couple of laps, but then the age-old problem of what goes up must come down became a factor. While the Studebakers and EH Holdens could charge up Mount Panorama Circuit, charging back down severely taxed the drum brakes which had to slow them down from speeds close to 115mph at the end of the long downhill run on Conrod Straight. The fron disc / rear drum set-up on the Cortina GTs was far more reliable, particularly given the much lighter weight of the little British-developed four cylinder. By lap seven Jane had grabbed the lead as Studebaker and the Holdens started to suffer lack of brakes, forcing them to slow earlier and earlier.
Apart from relinquishing its top spot during rare trips to the pits for fuel, the Jane/Firth-driven Cortina retained outright and Class C leadership for the rest of the race. Its main opponent, the other works-backed Cortina of Leo and Ian Geoghegan, would retire with a blown head gasket with just over an hour to go.
The Firth/Jane mastery had taken three Armstrong 500s in a row and the first at Mount Panorama, overcoming cubic inches with a fast and nimble little four cylinder that just kept circulating all day.
Holden S4 by one lap!
It was the start of a marvellous journey for a race which is still the cornerstone of Australian motor sport enthusiasts' interest each year. No other event attracts the interest and argument that the annual Bathust enduro does.
As we approach the thirty-third running of the race, now the Tooheys 1000, spare a thought for the men who battled the Mount Panorame circuit in 1963. There were no roll cages or roll bars in those days and apart from some railway sleeper fences scattered about here and there, there was very little to stop a car from hurtling off the side of the mountain circuit and into the scenery.
At Reid Park there was a bloody great tree right at the Apex of the sweeping, awesomely quick left-hand, roller-coaster sweeper. Where there are now concrete walls, in those days the drivers had fresh air and blue skies and nothing but a lap sash seatbelt and a pudding bowl helmet. Miraculously no one was killed, and it was not until 1986 that the race claimed a driver's life - that of Mike Burgman in a Commodore.
Also spare a thought for the people from Channel 7 who mounted the coverage of the race. In those days when covering a footy game around the corner from the studios was a major task, the Armstrong 500 proved a major obstacle.
So popular was the coverage of that first Bathurst race, however, that it grow year by year with fantastic innovations such as the race camera taking us onboard as the best drivers duelled for on-track honours. Seven has covered the race every year since 1963 and as a part of the Mt Panorama Consortium (with the Australian Racing Drivers' Club and Bathurst City Council) is part of the race organisation which promises the long-term future of the race.