I was born in Melbournes’ Kew and moved to Traralgon, in Victorias La Trobe Valley a long time ago! I suppose I can blame my lifelong interest in all things mechanical on my grandfathers as they were both blacksmiths. I have never been keen on horses and so I am possibly lucky that I was born after the motor car.
From a young age I was fascinated by anything with wheels or gears that whizzed around . My dad bought a new Ford Consul when I was 9, I studied it closely and learnt all I could. It was one of the first production cars with independent front suspension , dad would pull up in the main street and people would come up and push the mudguards up and down to show their mates how it worked, he used to get so annoyed!
He was a civil engineer and had 400 guys working for him at the local paper mill. In the early 1950’s he bought a derelict farm 10 km out of town. He loved farming but wasn’t very practical and he stayed at the paper mill and gradually improved the property on weekends.
In 1954 when I was 11 he bought a new Fordson diesel tractor. There were not many diesel’s on local farms, it was our pride and joy. I still have and use it! I learnt a huge amount from it. I remember when dad was at work I removed the Simms injector pump and pulled the governor apart and various pieces, Dad was due home so I stuck it all back together and went to start it, it wouldn’t! I hurriedly checked everything and figured out that because the injector pump had a small block coupling it could be put back 180’ degrees out of timing so I quickly removed all the pipes and refitted the pump and just managed to start the engine as dad drove up the driveway.
The Consul developed a bad flat spot when you accelerated . I reckoned it was a challenge , I pulled the downdraught Zenith carbie to pieces. It had this funny looking thing held on with three screws on the side of the carbie and the book called it an economiser. I pulled that apart and the small rubber diaphragm had a hole in it. I put it all back together and during the week got another diaphragm from the Ford dealer. I fitted it on the following weekend and the Consul ran perfectly.
Dad told the whole world what a great mechanic I was, repairing something that the paper mills top mechanic could not etc, that was my first mechanical victory!
Over the next few years I had a Bedford truck given to me which I loved and knew every nut and bolt on as well. Dad bought me another ‘problem’ , in the mill workshop they had a small machine called a Calfdozer. Its a baby bulldozer built in England by Aveling Barford. The mechanics couldn’t start the engine, a Dorman single cylinder petrol unit. Dad bought it for me for 40 pounds, $80 now, and we lugged it home we could only unload it at a gravel pit we had so every bit of spare time I had was at the gravel pit trying to start this weird machine. It has a Zenith carbie as well, I first tested for spark of course and it had a wonderful big orange spark, after much fiddling with the magneto, timing and points it finally had a nice small blue spark and the thing duly burst into life. I still also have the Calfdozer and give it a run on occasion.
Motor Apprentice & Repco Rep…
All of this ‘fettling’ of machinery made my career path clear , dad agreed to me leaving school which I disliked very much! , but on the strict condition that I completed a motor mechanics course with RMIT by correspondence, which I did over 4 years, completing the practical elements some years later. I was encouraged to read books, no TV in those days but it was starting in the cities. I read all the motor magazines I could including ‘Wheels’ and ‘Modern Motor’, writing letters asking advice about my various farm engines. Phil Irving and Charlie Dean were my heroes, I read all I could about their projects including the Repco Cross-Flow head for the Holden ‘Grey’ motor.
I became interested in motor sport and bought the first Mini Cooper to be sold in East Gippsland, entering many hill climbs and usually winning the up to 1000 cc class. The first Coopers were 997cc ,only later did the 1275cc ‘S’ arrive . A few of us formed a new club, the Latrobe Valley Motor Sports Club’, its now known as the Gippsland Car Club .
In 1963 I read a local paper advert for employees required by Repco , they were opening an automotive workshop and parts store in Traralgon, I had since married and needed a better income than that derived on the farm . They didn’t offer me the manager’s job much to my disappointment but instead a drivers job distributing parts, engines and parcels . A new EJ Holden ute was mine, I did a huge amount of miles ,in those days, travelling up and down the Latrobe Valley in Gippsland Victoria sometimes twice in the one day. It taught me how to drive as things were totally different to today . The highways were pretty much free for all and there was no speed limit but if you exceeded 60MPH you had to prove in the case of an accident or incident that you were driving within your ability and safely. To give you an idea, the local police station in Traralgon had one car, a Ford Anglia with a top speed of about 70 MPH.
I enjoyed the job immensely and learnt lots of stuff in the workshop. Crankshaft grinding and cylinder head surfacing, clutch rebuilding etc. and of course engine assembly. I was lucky to work with the grandson of the Chairman of Repco’s Board, Sir Charles McGrath.
Mr David McGrath (brother of Sir Charles) was the managing director of our parts company and his son David junior was spending time in our particular branch learning the internal operations, he became a good mate and through him I learned a great deal about the parent company.
Repco owned ‘Brenco’ in Moonee Ponds Victoria , a machine tooling company,’ Warren and Brown’ in Footscray, a hand tool company and ‘PBR Brakes’ in Moorabbin and so the list went on. Each entity had a director on the Repco Board ,i was to learn a lot more of the politics of Repco as time went on.
On the road to Repco Brabham Engines…
One of my tasks was to organise brochures etc, to be packed in each parcel we consigned. One day I received a bundle of these telling of the proposed development of a Repco Brabham Formula One engine. I read every word and decided that was what I wanted to do!
The following week the Melbourne Motor Show was on, I took the long train ride Melbourne for the show. Pride of place on the Repco stand was the prototype RB engine. There was a young fellow in a suit looking after the display , I asked him a few questions. He couldn’t really answer me and told me he was a student draughtsman helping Phil Irving in the drawing Office. That was enough for me, if this guy worked there so could !
I got him to divulge where the engine was being built, out in Maidstone near Footscray to Melbourne’s inner West. The following day, Monday, I took a ‘sickie’, hired a taxi and ventured out to Maidstone. After a lot of driving and walking around I found a small group of factories. They were ACL factories (Automotive Components Limited). ACL was operating under licence to an American Company , they manufactured in Australia, ‘Perfect Circle Piston Rings’, ‘Glacier Bearings’ and ‘Polson Pistons’. In the prior year the American company made moves to take over ACL, as this would have been a disaster for Repco, it was decided by Repco to buy ACL. So I arrived at these 3 factories, one of the empty ones had been assigned for the RB project.
I banged on the door , a guy answered but no way was he going to let me in. He explained that it was a special project and not open to the public. I gave him my whole story, he seemed to be happy that I was already a Repco employee. Finally Kevin ,let me in , I could see about 8 machines and 6 guys working making various components. I explained to Kevin that I would love a job there.
He was a bit taken back ,he told me these are Repco’s top guys and very special operators. I was young and confident and told him I would sweep the floor or anything if he would consider me. We stood and watched a guy turning something in a lathe, as I stood there an older guy wandered across to talk to the lathe operator. It suddenly struck me that this was the legendary Phil Irving standing beside me. In person, I could not believe it!
I took up the subject of a job again and he asked if I would like to look over a piston ring factory ? Anything to please Kevin as by this time I learned he was the works superintendent. He took me into the adjacent factory and introduced me to the manager, saying he would see me later and off I went , the Manager was good ,he stopped the machines, mainly operated by women , to show me what they were doing and held up various production lines to show the finished products . I now know that Kevin had arranged the factory inspection to have a second opinion on me.
I went back to Kevin and he said’ look we have decided to give you 3 weeks trial, but you will have to accept a lesser wage than you are presently getting in the country’. That didn’t worry me to work for Phil Irving, I would have worked there for nothing ! So I had to go home and tell my poor young wife that we were moving to Melbourne. I did not have a clue where to, all I knew was I had my job at Repco Brabham Engine Co and I was happy!
And so, an incredibly challenging but successful part of my life commenced…