1979 Repco Reliability Trial - Dispelling the Bullshit

This article was published in an Autosport Forum in 2002 when Barry Lake was a journalist working for Modern Motor magazine. Thanks to Mark Beckman for finding this. Barry Lake sadly passed away in 2012.

By Barry Lake

If you want to get me REALLY upset, start telling these legends (spelled “lies” or “bullshiit”) about the Holden Commodores in the 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial.

I was teamed with Rauno Aaltonen and Shekhar Mehta in the car that finished third outright in this Holden 1-2-3. And I can tell you that those cars were remarkably close to standard. I have since been re-acquainted with one of them and was very much reminded of this. If you ever have the opportunity to look at this surviving car you will see what I mean.
The in-line six-cylinder engines were built to Holden Torana XU-1 Bathurst specifications, but with (I was told) a milder (or early version, or Bathurst compared to sprint race, perhaps) camshaft for better low down torque and greater reliability. So the engine had been proven in Bathurst results.

Shocks and springs were upgraded, but were again aimed at simplicity rather than out and out performance. The roll cages were bolted in, not made as part of the structure. Only mods to the body were extra welding (not fully seam welded, though) and they had extra thickness material where the rear shocks were mounted on the body – I think also at the top of the front struts.

Gearboxes and diffs were standard XU-1 type competition ware as used in races and rallies throughout the 1970s and therefore well proven. Nothing particularly special about them, however.
The fairytales about multiple replacement of struts were just that – fairytales.

Aaltonen/Mehta/Lake on the first stage of the 1979 Repco, Photo: Ian Smith

I kept a log of all the problems with our car. Going from memory here, without time to dig it out, but well-established memories.

The start was in Melbourne and we ran around Australia clock-wise. Adelaide was the first major stop and the front struts were removed from our car and replaced with spares (pretty sure all three cars, but certain about ours). These struts were flown to Perth where they were stripped down, checked and re-assembled. When we arrived in Perth, these original struts were replaced and the second (Adelaide-Perth) set rebuilt and kept as spares. The struts were never touched again.

George Shepheard, the team manager, was concerned about the ability of the oil in the limited slip differentials being able to last the distance. Rather than drain and replace the oil, he planned to replace the differentials in all three cars at approximately half distance. Easiest way to do this was to replace the entire rear axle unit (live axle) complete. Brock’s car got the first one, in Port Hedland, WA. The Ferguson/Bell/Boddy car got its diff somewhere around Mount Isa in Queensland. George told us he was going to change ours at Townsville, Queensland. Since ours was running perfectly, both Rauno and I asked to keep the original. Both of us had been caught in the past with replacing perfect parts with new ones that had an unexpected problem. But George insisted. It was fitted in Townsville and – sure enough – there was something missing from the handbrake mechanism, so we had no handbrake thereafter. That was a handicap, because we used it often to get around hairpin bends and for setting up the car at other times.

The only problems we had with our car were:

Somewhere after Broken Hill, the retaining ring for one front shock absorber unscrewed out of the strut. We had to screw it back in beside a bush track, using a tree branch as a spring compressor. They apparently hadn’t been “loc-tited”. These had come loose in the Ferguson car and fixed at a service point, but we had not been told of this, so had not checked ours.

After Perth, in WA, we lost the use of our clutch. They were mechanical, cable-operated clutches and the pressure plate was a heavy-duty unit, putting extra load onto the firewall, where the cable was located, Our cable simply punched a bigger hole through the firewall! Eventually, in some outback town in WA, one of the mechanics on the service crew found what I think was a bicycle sprocket at the local wrecking yard that had the right sized hole. This was attached to the cable and firewall and the clutch worked again.

Somewhere in Queensland, we had a problem with the throttle linkage becoming sticky. At a service point, a mechanic found a broken spring inside one of the two carburettors, replaced it and that was the end of that.

In Victoria, only a day or so away from the finish, there was a screaming noise came from, it seemed, the gearbox. It was for all the world like a seized bush or bearing and our hearts sank. We were in the forests, far from any assistance. But the noise went away and we never heard it again. It might have been mud packed around the tailshaft, or a stone jammed in there for a while, or something silly like that.

Otherwise. The cars gave no problems whatsoever. And there were no precautionary replacement of parts other than those mentioned her-in. So ignore all the invented stories you might have heard or read. I know of no major problems with either of the other cars, although I drove the Ferguson car shortly after the event and its clutch was slipping. But that could have been done loading it onto a truck after the event. Barry Ferguson told me it hadn’t slipped during the event.

Peter Brock’s car, I just remembered, had something break in a front strut or hub and lost a wheel, in WA, in a dry creek crossing. With the legendary Brock luck, they were in a situation where help and spare parts were at hand. Peter also had a couple of tries at damaging the car, balancing it on its nose after a jump near Coober Pedy, trying to drive over a cliff in a forest in northern NSW, but escaped pretty much unscathed both times.

So, how did these cars beat the far more highly modified Fords? Planning, organisation, starting preparation early, testing extensively, fixing only the problems, avoiding getting involved in a power race or weight reduction race.
Mastermind of the entire effort was George Shepheard, son of the creator of the 1950s RedeX Trials, former (early 1970s) Australian Champion co-driver (with Colin Bond in Holden Dealer Team Holden Toranas, and now, in the 2000s, at around 60 years of age, a major contender in Qld championship rallies as a driver in Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.) George told Holden that these events always are lost on minor problems that arose because people started their preparation too late and missed finding them, and often through insufficient budget. He told them he wanted a certain budget and he wanted it by a certain date (many months before the event). If they were late, or under-budget, he wanted nothing to do with it. They complied with his requests. He built a test car “Old Silver” and we tested that thing almost to destruction, in testing and in various small rallies. Any weaknesses that showed up led to fixes being developed, tested again and, if necessary, a better fix found. Rebuilt, it acted as one of the service vehicles (and a potential – though unused – source of spare parts) during the event.

In fact, the only real weaknesses found were some spots in the body (fixed by the aforementioned addition of extra metal in the appropriate areas) and in particular, the engine mounts. The latter could be too soft, or too stiff and a number of (I believe) variations were tried until the right ones were developed. This was the single greatest factor in winning the event.
The Ford Cortinas, from what I saw and was told, had far more powerful engines, lighter weight, built-in strengthening roll cages, and other tricky gear. But they didn’t have time for extensive testing and struck numerous problems that could be minor in a testing situation, but are major when you’re out on the wilds of the Nullarbor Plain, hundreds of km from the nearest town, made road, or railway line. We did our development months in advance; they did it as the rally progressed. Their niggling problems often developed into major dramas. Among their problems, I believe, were broken engine mounts. Mark also possibly is correct about too-stiff springing – something else that could have been discovered with extensive testing. George knew how to win major rallies and proved it to the nth degree. Planning, organisation… and do all the hard work before the event, not during it.

During and after the event there were numerous stories about cheating, massive rebuilds, clone cars, knowledge of the route, pace notes and all sorts of other fabrications. I became so heartily sick of it all I was highly stressed about it when I went to a Ford (Fairlane/LTD?) release not long afterwards. Edsel Ford II was fairly new to Ford Australia then; I was fairly new to Modern MOTOR magazine. I knew who Edsel was; he had no idea who I was. Over lunch, he began repeating all the crap about how Holden had cheated and Ford was robbed (sounds like V8 Supercars 2002…). Eventually it got to me and I snapped, leapt to my feet and pounded the table so hard the crockery and cutlery leapt in the air, shouting at Edsel that it was a load of bullshit and I was sick of hearing it. I don’t remember seeing anyone more shocked; he had no idea it was coming. He changed the subject. Always seemed very friendly and respectful to me for the rest of his stay in Australia. When I got back to the Modern MOTOR office, the story had preceded me. The editor, Wayne Cantell, called me into his office and said, “I should point out that we don’t usually try to strangle the President of a major car company during lunch…” But he was struggling to stifle his laughter.

Barry Lake chatting to the media during the 1979 Repco, Photo: Chevron Publishing