Even people who know very little about cars and motor sport still flicker an eyebrow when ‘Bathurst’ is mentioned.
For over 80 years, involving cars and bikes of numerous kinds, motor races have helped make famous a very modest mountain that overlooks the inland New South Wales town of Bathurst.
The first 500 Mile race for production cars at the Mount Panorama circuit was held in 1963. The front-runners were Ford Cortina GTs, Mini Coopers, V8 Studebakers and specially prepared EH Holdens. As followers of Bathurst race history will know, the Cortinas won.
What happened further back in the field was important too. with fierce battles for Class victory and reputations being trashed or enhanced.
Until 1993 when the Great Race format was manipulated to maximise television ratings and appease people who didn’t like funny foreign cars with turbochargers winning ‘their’ race, the annual enduro saw a vast array of models compete for Outright and Class honours.
Some Bathurst contenders such as Brock, Moffat, Lowndes and Scaife are well known names, but there were hundreds more whose participation was immortalised by motoring writer Bill Tuckey in a variety of books devoted to Bathurst history.
Tuckey left us in 2016 but attended every Bathurst enduro during the event’s time as a multi-category event and even competed a couple of times. Via Tuckey’s multitude of words and the immediacy of his descriptions, thousands of enthusiasts who never attended those early races were able to understand the fascination and frustration of our most significant automotive event.
Now back to that 1963 race and while the Fords, Holdens, Minis and Studes battled for Top Ten spots, the ‘tiddler’ class for the cheapest models in the event was a battle between Volkswagen’s Beetle and the ultra-modern BMC Mini. The Beetle won, but not by much.
Four years later, as 4.7-litre Falcon GTs and 1.6-litre Alfa Romeos battled to be first across the line after 800 kilometres of racing, a drum-braked Dodge Phoenix referred to by drivers of faster cars as ’the block of flats’ lurched its way into history by recording 4th place in Class E.
Tyre king Bob Jane had won at Bathurst in 1963 and ’64 but never repeated his victories, despite several attempts. He was also renowned for teasing race organisers on several occasions with the vehicles he would nominate, ranging from an XJ6 Jaguar to a massive Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine – none of which ever materialised.
In 1973 when the rules changed to permit ‘improved’ Production cars and race distance was extended to 1000 kilometres, the range of eligible cars expanded and the battles for Class victory became epic.
Down the ‘cheap’ end that year in Class A, the Datsun 1200 coupes with five-speed transmissions were expected to win, and so they did. What had observers astonished though was the slimness of the Datsun’s winning margin – less than a lap – and that the car finishing a robust second was the solitary Fiat 128 coupe which wasn’t even expected to last the distance.
Ford was used to winning these events and by 1976 its tally of outright Bathurst victories had grown to eight while Holden managed just four. However, it had been more than 10 years since the Blue Oval scored a Class win; something it would change during the 1976 event.
In Class B against vigorous opposition from Alfa Romeo, one of the 25 specially-imported RS2000 Ford Escorts would prevail, while in Class C a V6 Capri – which hadn’t been sold new in Australia for several years – repelled a strong Mazda RX3 challenge.
Roll on 1979 and a spectacularly dour performance by two of Australia’s greatest drivers, when David McKay and Spencer Martin teamed to run a Volvo 242GT in the new 3 litre class and finished ten laps behind the winning Mazda RX3.
More changes during the 1980s saw Group C Touring Car regulations adopted and a move away from production vehicles. That, in 1983, didn’t stop Penrith Volkswagen dealer and rallycross champion Chris Heyer entering an Audi 5+5 and taking it from last place on the 57-car grid to 24th outright and third in its Class behind a much faster Capri and V6 Alfa Romeo.
Moving to an international Group A format for 1985 changed the complexion and complexity of the Great Race and certainly contributed to its demise as a multi-brand contest.
BMW and Jaguar headed the field, but in a Bradbury-like performance the Corolla GT of John Smith and Drew Price ended the race sitting 17th outright and as the only Class A car to be classified a finisher.
Kevin Bartlett had teamed with John Goss in 1974 to win a rain-soaked 1000, but even his majestic skills could not have changed the 1987 result. That year, for the first and only time, Maserati would contest the Great Race but the Biturbo crewed by Bartlett and German Touring Car champion Armin Hanhe lasted just 29 laps.
1992 brought a controversial finish and an end of the traditional 1000 Kilometre format. That year saw three categories; Class B for sub-1.6-litre cars, Class A for the former Group A runners including Nissan GTRs, Ford Sierra Turbos and M3 BMWs and a new Class C which was contested by locally built Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons.
Jim Richards in a Nissan won, even though he crashed after the race had been declared due to torrential rain, and once again Corollas dominated the ‘tiddler’ class. However, it was the composition of crews in the top two finishers from Class B that was remarkable and unlikely to be repeated.
Car #71 was driven by well-known racer Jason Bargwanna and his cousin Scott Bargwanna, while running second in Class and a lap behind in their Corolla FX-GT were twin brothers Neal and Rick Bates, both of them very successful rally competitors.
Virtually any vehicle that contested a Bathurst enduro is eligible for cover through Enthusiast Insurance, so if you have an ex-racer tucked away in the shed and uninsured, we would love to see it.
Also eligible are production versions of those same cars, some of which have become scarce and very valuable and need appropriate protection.
If you own such a model or are in the market to buy one, take a few minutes to visit the Enthusiast site www.enthusiast.com.au then select Quick Quote and see the levels of cover and very competitive rates we have available.