Jack Brabham winning the 1969 Australian Gold Star Series event at Easter Bathurst in his Brabham BT31 Repco…he is heading across Mount Panorama between ‘Skyline’ and ‘The Dipper’…
Those who have read the first three Repco articles may recall that we have been chronologically going through the history of Repco’s F1 and Race Engine program of the mid 60’s partially through the eyes of Rodway Wolfe who worked for the company as both technician and storeman during the glory years from 1966.
This article is out of sequence, its’ about Jacks’ 1969 Tasman mount, the Brabham BT31 powered by the Repco ‘830 Series’ 2.5 litre V8, logically the 1967 and 1968 F1/Tasman/Sportscar engines and race records come first. Rodways’ manuscript is running ahead of my own research so we will run with this article now, one he is intensely passionate about for reasons which become obvious, i will re-number once we have covered 1967 and 1968 down the track.
‘In the historic vehicle world there are some fascinating stories of various cars and some seem to just keep accumulating historic events and happenings throughout their existence. The BT31 Repco Brabham is one such car. The following story is mine, I was lucky enough to purchase the BT31 early in its history making saga…
BT31/1 was constructed by Brabham Cars for Brabham Racing Organisation…(Sir Jack Brabhams works racing team, a separate entity from Jack and Ron Tauranacs’ race car production entity) It was built especially for the 1969 Tasman series, not just a modified Formula 3 car as some have suggested. It was bright red, unique itself as the FI BRO cars were all green and gold.
The engine was a ‘Tasman’ 2.5 litre ‘830 Series’ the car fitted with low profile wheels and tyres and various other features. It was consigned by sea freight to Australia, there seemed to be ample time for its arrival for the start of the Tasman series of races in New Zealand in January 1969.
I managed Repco Brabham Engine Company’s spare parts operation, we awaited the cars arrival with great anticipation. By a twist of fate the Melbourne ‘wharfies’ went on strike due to some industrial problem. They were cooperative and sympathetic to us and offered to unload the car if possible. A search revealed the car crate to be under many hundreds of tons of freight so it was not to be.
Eventually the strike ended and the crate arrived at RB on the Wednesday prior to the last race of the ’69 Tasman Series at Sandown Park, Melbourne. It was very disappointing but Jack being Jack he still wanted to be on the Sandown grid, Repcos’ home town race.
If anyone has been lucky enough to purchase a new Brabham they will know what I am talking about. The cars arrive in a very long crate just wide enough for the chassis and suspension, tanks and body parts are packed along the crate in front of the chassis. In this case a tubular space frame.
The Car That Jack and Rodway Built…
As despatch and receiving was part of my job I had the great pleasure of assisting Jack to unpack the car. I have been lucky in my life to have many days I enjoyed to the fullest but that Wednesday with Sir Jack has to rank as the best. I spent the day helping the World Champion assemble his car, imagine a star of today doing that!
Every part went together like a dream, Jack sat in the cockpit while we fitted instruments, adjusted pedals, steering wheel reach etc. We discussed many subjects including his flying in Europe. He asked if I had seen any ‘Brabham Holden Toranas’ in my travels. At the time he had done a deal with General Motors Holden, it was possible to buy a Torana with Brabham badges and gear knob, steering wheel. It was truly a memorable day for a boy from the bush!
Meanwhile my RB colleagues were power testing the ‘830 engine’. It was one of the best and most reliable of our engines. Finally it was fitted and the car was ready for testing mid Friday afternoon prior to the Sandown meeting on Saturday/Sunday.
We loaded the car on an old open trailer of Jacks and set out for Calder Raceway, near Keilor, an hour from Melbourne. Kevin Davies went in his car, I went in mine and I think Michael Gasking took his too. (1959 Australian Gold Star Champion) Len Lukey and his wife took Jack and Betty Brabham and one of the toddler Brabham boys.
Len Lukey towed the trailer. We stopped at Keilor and Jack disappeared into a house for a few minutes. He borrowed the key to the circuit from Calder owner, Jean Pascoe. We proceeded to the circuit, unloaded the car and with just a handful of us there Jack started testing.
The fuel cam was causing a hesitation coming out of corners but Michael Gasking had a selection of test cams and soon had the fuel mix OK.
Len Lukey parked his car on the infield and they all stayed in the car watching. At one stage Jack walked over and carried his small son to BT31 and took him for a few laps as he sat on Jacks lap, no wonder all those boys raced! Another memorable moment for me. It was such a lovely casual setting with Jack just wearing his Parka jacket, no fireproofs.
We had been there about an 1.5 hours, Jack seemed happy with everything and suddenly into the gate roared a car which skidded to a stop and out jumped a very irate man. He started shouting at us all, especially Jack who was still sitting in the cockpit. He yelled something about no engines were to be started at the circuit after 6pm at night and it was a council by-law etc. He would report us etc. When he finally managed to get a word in Jack calmly said ‘we will pack up now fellas’ the irate man left as fast as he had arrived.
I have often wondered how funny it was that he never knew he was abusing our World Champ!’
Needless to say the car was at Sandown next day for practice…
sergent.com reported the race as follows…
‘It was a battle for pole again between Amon and Rindt, although the dark horse of the meeting was Jack Brabham hurriedly arranging a marriage between a Brabham BT31B F3 chassis and the 2.5 twin-cam Repco V8 engine. It was certainly the smallest and lightest of the V8 powered cars at the meeting, and although he fitted a wing to the rear, Brabham was down on horsepower compared to the other Internationals.
John Harvey was having his first competitive drive in the Bob Jane Repco Brabham BT23 Repco V8 since his Easter accident at Bathurst in 1968, and was using the outing as an extended test session for the coming Gold Star rather than trying to drive a hard race first time out. This was born out by Harvey’s practice time which put him 14th on the grid among the 1.6 F2 cars.
Rindt (Lotus 49 DFW) got the start and lead the field through Shell Corner and held it through the very slow Peter’s Corner, but Amon (Ferrari Dino 246T) used his better gearing for the straight and took the Austrian as they headed over the hill and down toward the Esses. Hill (Lotus 49 DFW) had started in third position but dropped back sharply on the first lap when his throttle linkage came adrift and Courage (Brabham BT24 DFW) broke a previously twisted half shaft down the back of the circuit.
Amon and Rindt started to open a gap to Brabham, who was holding off Bell for third place. Kevin Bartlett (Brabham BT23D Alfa) pulled sharply into the pits on lap 5 with a broken exhaust which threatened to set fire to exposed oil and fuel lines while Hill re-joined the race and set about climbing back through the field. John Harvey spun when his Repco engine overheated and poured out scalding water at Dandenong Corner and he retired with a very sore neck from the results.
Meanwhile Hill was forcing his way back up and he took Levis on lap 33 for sixth place but couldn’t get any higher after his four lap deficit after the start. Garrie Cooper drove steadily throughout the race to finish eighth and first resident Australian home in his own Elfin 600B. Leo Geoghegan hadn’t started as mechanics found a leaking fuel cell in the Lotus 39 Repco V8 and they couldn’t repair it in time.’
Amon won the race and the Tasman Series that year from Rindt and Courage. Rindt and Brabham were second and third in the race.
Check out this fabulous film made by Alec Mildren Racing of the Australian Leg of the 1969 Tasman Series…
After that Sandown event, Jack returned to Europe to commence his F1 campaign for the year. Brabham’s BT26’s fitted with the Ford Cosworth DFV V8 for 1969 rather than the RB 860 Series 3 litre V8’s which had been so unreliable for he and Jochen Rindt in 1968, and caused his decision to bring the F1 partnership with Repco to an end.
The BT31 returned to the Maidstone factory, the engine was removed and the car stored for a while. We had two 830 2.5 litre engines for the car, one of course the spare.
In April 1969 the car was brought out of mothballs and taken to Bathurst for the Easter ‘Bathurst 100’ race…
‘This race has also been widely reported over the years needless to say the BT31 started from the rear of the grid and hosed off all the Australian cars and set a new lap record for open-wheel cars of 2 min 13.2 seconds.’
I wrote about this weekend in another post a while back; https://primotipo.com/2014/09/01/easter-bathurst-1969-jack-brabham-1970-et-al/
‘Of course that was the old track layout with the full Conrod Straight and notorious hump. Typical of Jacks foxiness, he fitted both front and rear high wings for Saturday practice which resulted in some teams working frantically all night to install front wings as well to their cars. Of course Jack rolled out the BT31 on race morning minus the high front wing’.
The car was suffering some fuel starvation problems in practice. Very hastily the electric fuel pump was borrowed from Charlie Deans’ Lancia road car, some of you may remember Deans contribution to Australian motor racing in the Stan Jones article published a while back;
It assisted fuel flow into a reserve pot arrangement in the fuel system and a switch fitted to the instrument panel. Jack turned the pump on each lap for either the climb up the mountain or the run down Conrod I cannot recall which.
I do remember how great the car sounded down Conrod. It was the days of the apple orchards at Bathurst and BT31 looked magical going down through the apple orchards. When I purchased the car later it retained the Bathurst gearing, Peter Holinger and i calculated 5th gear at 186 mph at 9500 rpm so it was flying!
After the Bathurst meeting the car went to Sydney for display at Jack Brabham Fords’ Bankstown showroom.’
‘Finally the BT31 was returned to our Repco factory at Maidstone…Jack Brabham had since returned to the UK, the cars engine was removed and it sat in a corner gathering dust.
Meanwhile Repco had been negotiating with Jack to purchase the car for the Repco Export Company to place on display in Japan at the upcoming ‘Expo 70’. Repco exported engine components around the world, most people would not know that Rolls Royce in the UK were supplied with Repco piston rings. So the display in Japan was a crucial part of the company’s export drive.
We will never know the details of Repco’s purchase of BT31, all I know it was involved with import duty with the amount paid dependent on the car being used as a race car or for advertising purposes.In other words, if the car was raced a higher level of duty applied than if the car was not.
One morning the works superintendant, Kevin Davies came out of his office and went down to John Brookfield in the welding shop, (John was our magic welder of all things aluminium) and was an excellent engineer. We all heard a bit of a discussion and Kevin disappeared back into his office. John was a big guy, his nickname, ‘Lurch’. We all knew something was wrong as Lurch came out of his welding bay with a red face, set to explode.’
‘Chop up BT31…
He told us with an incredible look on his face; ‘Kevin came and asked me to cut the BT31 chassis in half!!!??? I told him to F….k off and if he wanted it cut in two pieces he would have to find someone else to f…….g cut it for him…’
‘We all rebelled, the entire factory agreed on no destruction of BT31. It was something to do with Repco buying the car from Jack for advertising only, a space frame cut in half of course destroys the car and prevents it being raced. Anyway it was all to do with the usage of the car and the marketing idea at ‘Expo 70′ in Japan was to setup a display using a tunnel with the rear of the car disappearing in one end and the nose coming out of the other.
After a lot of discussion and refusal to damage the car the nose was removed and the bracket holding the radiator cut off the front. I didn’t visit Expo 70 but I understand the display did feature the car entering a tunnel. The car’s front high wing, the nose cone and the front wheels were in my care in our RB store until the car was returned in 1971’.
Editors Note: Without being an expert on Australian race car import laws of the past, the legislators allowed racing cars to be imported free of duty into Australia on the basis that the car left the country annually…perfect for Tasman series competitors as the cars left Oz for NZ to compete each year before returning. Eventually, when the car stays in Oz, duty is payable, therein commenced, often, a lot of ‘jiggery-pokery’ with chassis numbers as impecunious racers, seeking to avoid the taxmans net, applied very old chassis numbers to very new cars! Repco, as an audited public company could not afford to play ‘ducks and drakes’ in this manner. I suspect the scenario Rodway outlines is around the points outlined here. That is, how to minimise the punitive duties whilst remaining ‘kosher’ in the process as large public company.Mark.
‘When the car was returned by sea freight from Japan Repco had undergone huge changes in their motor racing policy…
The whole Repco Brabham project had been dismantled and the factory in Maidstone was being converted to a new company, Repco Dynamics, which was to construct a new concept in automotive wheel balancers. Most of the RB employees, about 70 at the time, were given their marching orders but a few were selected for the new entity or other Repco companies.’
In essence what occurred was the commercial flow on of Jack Brabhams decision to change from Repco to Ford Cosworth power in F1 with effect the 1969 F1 season.
RB Engines raison d’etre was the supply of engines to Brabham; Brabham received race winning engines and Repco reaped the advertising and promotional spinoffs.
The sale of Tasman 2.5 and 4.4/5 litre sports car and other engines in Australia and elsewhere did not generate a commercial return, the parent companies subsidy to keep its RB Engines subsidiary afloat was increasing each year. The PR rub off ended when Jack turned to Cosworth and had lost its gloss in ’68 due to the engines unreliability in F1. Whilst the 2.5 Repcos’ won Gold Star races they never won a Tasman or Gold Star series. Frank Matich’s 1969 Australian Sports Car Championship Matich SR4 Repco win was laudable but again did not, in Repco’s view, justify the significant investment made.
Repco therefore ‘flipped’ the stock of unsold engines and other assets of RB Engines into Redco, a new company, which it continued to support. The deal was probably done that way to maximise the tax effectiveness of the transaction, with Redco then looking after the needs of RB Engine customers needing spares etc, and taking on development of the new Holden ‘308 V8’ as a race F5000 engine, CAMS having finally made the vexed decison of the new ANF1 category between 2 litre race engine and 5 litre F5000 stock block alternatives.
These are topics we will explore in later articles, in essence this is a summary of the circumstances around the issues Rodway addresses above.
‘In a corner of the RBE factory a wall was constructed with big doors and ‘No Entry’ signs, the new domain of ‘Repco Engine Development Company’ (REDCO) was set up with Mal Preston as Chief…
The former General Manager of Repco Brabham Engine Co, Frank Hallam was transferred to Repco Research at Dandenong. Don Halpin, John McVeigh, John Mepstead and Brian Heard were placed in the new company with Malcolm Preston.
Being the spoilt brat from the bush, i refused to accept the closing of Repco Brabham which was my life really. I wrote a nice letter to the board and thanked them for employing me through the RB project and told them I was returning to Gippsland. I asked them to re-employ me when they started building F1 engines again. I had been offered a job as Service Manager assistant to Michael Gasking who was the new Chief Engineer of Repco Dynamics.
It did have a huge future and I could not have found a better guy to work with than Michael Gasking but I was young and stubborn.
One day Charlie Dean arrived and said ‘What’s all this about you going home to the farm Rod’ I explained to him how I was not keen on the heavy cast iron 308 Holden engine. I had loved and appreciated my time on the Repco Brabham Engines. Anyway he said ‘right, I want you to work with Malcolm, he will need you to keep up the RB spares around the world as we have to maintain supply’.
‘The Repco Brabham engine spares represented $340,000 in value at that time!, were retained by REDCO, to sell the parts to RB engine owners. I ended up behind the wall with Don Halpin and the other boys. Looking back it was great to have Charlie Dean tell me I couldn’t leave! The time I spent at REDCO with Malcolm is another story altogether.’
Buying the Brabham BT31…
‘BT31 arrived back from ‘Expo 70’ in its crate and no one cared. Repco Brabham Engine Co did not exist, all the staff had gone. Mal Preston had not seen the car and was not interested as Charlie was continually on his back about Holden F5000 developments.
I did not envy Mal in those early months of the F5000 project he was under lots of pressure. Charlie Dean was like a small tornado wherever he went.
One day Mal asked me to unpack the BT31 as it was needed for a car show in Mornington. I spent a couple of days reassembling it around a mock ‘830 2.5’. It was rare for us to display a going engine. I recall once doing so with our one magnesium 3 litre, (which disappeared off the planet anyway) so at all times we used mock ups. They were mostly complete but had no internals.
There was no interest in the car, so i decided to write to the Repco Board asking to acquire it. I was a lot younger then but I did have some nous. I decided not to discuss it with anybody as I knew I was a ‘very small gear in a massive gearbox’. I pulled out a figure I would pay and got secretary Coral Allen to type the letter for me but I left a gap where the price offered was to be added later by me! Coral typed it and I duly posted it to the Repco Board. I trusted Coral completely but not all the bosses she typed for!
I really didn’t think I had any chance and I had not even given a thought to how i would pay for it. Malcolm asked if I would take the car to Mornington for a car show that Jim and Bill Leech had a lot to do with. I loaded the car on Jacks old farm trailer and took the car to the show, kept it polished and handed out Repco brochures and answered questions.
It was about mid afternoon when up bowled ‘Tornado’ Charlie Dean. Charlie told me he had read my letter and asked why I wanted to buy the car. I very politely (in Repco you rarely got to speak to a director anyway) told him I loved the cars history and it was important to both Repco’s and Australia’s history. He quickly replied yes we will discuss the matter next week.
He then commented on how good it looked and went to leave but just at that moment up walked one of the Leech brothers, these guys owned some serious cars including a Maserati 300S and Bugatti T37A, Jim was enquiring about the value of BT31, the conversation fortunately stopped when the entourage of Lancias’ arrived which Dean and the Leech boys joined…a close call!
A couple of weeks later I was cleaning the car. All of a sudden the double doors flew open with a crash and out came Mal Preston in ‘full flight’ RODWAY he shouted, ‘Did you write to the Repco Board offering to buy this car without even consulting me? I am your boss and the least you could do is tell me’ He was furious. He asked ‘Why didn’t you consult me first’. I replied in a rather shocked state, because you possibly would have talked me out of it Mal. He shouted at me for a minute then disappeared back to his office again. I was very low. I realised I had done my dash and might not even have a job!
A few minutes later Mal appeared very quiet and subdued. ‘I am very sorry for that outburst Rodway, I have thought about your reply and you are probably right, I would have bloody well talked you out of it’. It is of great credit to Malcolm that he was that sort of boss. He treated us all as equals and he got the most out of his employees that way. As he went to depart I called to him. Are you with me or against me Mal, he turned and said I will help you all I can. The matter was never discussed between us again.
During the following weeks I heard all kinds of stories about BT31. Several people wanted to buy it internally. BT31 was built in 1968, by then it was 1971, it had only raced twice by Sir Jack himself and was still setup as he raced it including all decals, accessories, gear ratios etc. It certainly was not an old car as some have suggested. There must have been many discussions and arguments about what was going to happen to the car within Repco until one night about 6 pm I was consigning some parcels, when Mal Preston came storming out of his office over to my desk.
RODWAY he shouted again, ‘I want you to get that F…..g car out of this f…..g workshop tonight, load it on a f……g trailer and I never ever want to see the f…….g car again ! As he stormed back to his office I called what about the money, as I had to get it. He shouted out he didn’t care at all about that just get it out of here now’.’
‘And so, BT31/1 was Mine…
BT31 spent the night on Jack Brabham’s old trailer in suburban Burke Road, Kew where I was living at the time with not much car parking. Anyway it was still there next morning! I rang up my good friend Peter Holinger who was now, after the Repco Brabham closure working in his own workshop in Warrandyte. He was happy to store the car in return for making a duplicate chassis for himself. He had decided to build another hillclimb car to replace the Vincent powered one that had brought him so much success.
Now that I had it I had to pay for it!, fortunately a wealthy uncle, who had a large, successful bakery business came to the party. It took a while for Repco to process my cheque, i firmly believe had i not paid for the car no-one would have asked for the money.
I left the car in Holingers’ care, it was in the safest of hands. He photographed the suspension and measured all the lengths of the components and duplicated the space frame so well that years later at Morwell Hillclimb he borrowed the shock absorbers and a few bits from BT31 and won the event with some of my suspension parts. He even used the fibreglass seat insert to make a pattern for another one.’
‘830 Series Engines, Paperwork and BT31’s Rarity…
BT31 was fitted with Repcos’ latest ‘830 Series’ Tasman V8. The engine was first used by Brabham in his BT23E in practice for the 1968 Sandown Tasman round, he raced with an ‘840 Series’, which failed, Jim Clark winning the race in his Lotus 49DFW.
The ‘830’ incorporated the shorter, more rigid ‘800 Series’ block developed for the 1968 F1 engines by Norm Wilson with the ’30 Series’ cross-flow SOHC heads. With a bore and stroke of 3.34X2.16 inches, the engine developed 295bhp @ 9000rpm and weighed 150Kg.
‘The 830 was such a good reliable engine Jack stated that had Repco developed a 3 litre version (despite what people may tell you, we never EVER built a 3 litre 830 but I think Don Halpin has since) we would have quite possibly have retained the World Champioship in 1968.
Jack said that the 830 was such a great engine in 2.5 form and was so much lighter than the oposition despite being down on horsepower by comparison. I remember Jack saying to us fellows in the engine assy area one day. ‘If Ferrari had the horsepower they claim to have they would be leaving me behind by a much bigger margin than they are leaving me behind’ !!! We will never know what the 830 would have produced at 3 litres capacity?’
At the time, two 2.5 Litre 830’s were built for the car. Other 830’s were subsequently built for other Tasman competitors.
‘Now as our commercial manager Bob Sippo had been moved on to the Repco Replex Company we had no-one really able to make any commercial decisions. One night the Bob Jane Racing fellas turned up and I was informed that we were lending them one of the 2.5 litre 830 engines. (for the Bob Britton built ‘Jane Repco’, a car constructed on Brittons BT23 Brabham jig at his Sydney, Rennmax facility)
What the various companies and individual teams were charged was up to the manager and the accountants, this applied to all customers including Jack Brabham, he was of course sponsored by Repco.
So I did as I was told. Later the Bob Jane Racing boys arrived again, their car was going to Tasmania for the next meeting and they needed a spare! Well that of course meant the spare BT31 engine went too. Now as this was while the car was in Japan on display with a mock up engine and I never of course dreamed of ever owning the car I just did as instructed. The person instructing me never really had the authority to lend either engine but the factory was in disarray and the Jane organisation had been great ambassadors of our engines, the decision made sense at the time.
Neither engine ever came back of course as many others did not either. I knew about stock control and the hazards of stuff being squirreled away, the amount of stock of RB parts and even engines that were removed from my store illegally is staggering. No names, no packdrill!
I was not the least concerned about obtaining an engine, i had a good mock-up engine anyway and their were still enough bits around to build an engine.
I was not ambitious enough to buy the car to drive it as at the time I believed it was ultra valuable as an historic car, totally original as described above.
To me it is as collectible as BT19, Jacks 1966 World Championship car now in the Victorian Historic Racing Register, Melbourne, museum in Box Hill. One of the BT31 engines lay under a work bench at Bob Jane Racing for quite a time so was available to any collector.
In contrast I went to Sydney and called at Jack Brabham Ford to see BT19 when it arrived from the UK. A salesman showed me what was left of an F1 car. There was not too much of the car there, no engine and lots of parts missing. I am not sure if the wheels were there. Later BT19 was totally restored by Jim Shepherd to as new condition, Don Halpin built an original ‘620 Series’ Oldsmobile engine for it.
What I am saying is that BT 19 did not have an original engine or body and was mostly built up to original, BT31 in contrast even had the Bathurst tyres still on it and was totally original with an original engine available.’
‘Working on the Repco F5000 Engine and home to Gippsland…
With the BT31 safely stored with Peter Holinger I continued at REDCO assisting with the new Repco Holden F5000 engine. We were all busy with only 5 of us to do everything, Mal Preston had a big job to do. Don Halpin was in charge of the workshop, he was exactly the right choice to work with Malcolm. Malcolm was always thinking, I mean always! so he would expect problems before they had a chance to happen in an uncanny sort of way and Don was seemingly unruffled at any problem so the combination worked very well with some very amusing conversations between them at times.
I had a variety of duties as I did stuff including porting cylinder heads and all the consignment of RBE parts and acquisition of F5000 bits. I enjoyed working with all my mates from the RB project and despite our regular ‘innings’ on various subjects I admired Mal Preston very much and learnt a lot from his rather unusual management style. He did tell me once after one of our sparring matches that out of all the boys I was the one most likely to end up working for myself eventually! I never worked out if it was a compliment or not.
Mal Preston was the right man for that F5000 project, his passing recently was very sad.
As I was not that happy with the situation, it was not a personal reason but a Repco political situation, eventually I resigned to go home to Gippsland. I ended up at Peter Holinger’s working with Pete and his wife Bev, after a period with them I departed Melbourne and towed BT31 behind to Gippsland. The car was a bit out of place on a farm in the country and various articles were appearing in motor magazines about it.
In my spare time I used to fully dismantle it and got to know every nut and bolt. My small son was toddler size and I used to make up a bed for him in the cockpit where he slept until the early hours of the morning and loved it. I am sorry to inform subsequent owners that my son holds the record for most hours in the cockpit!
I had the chassis gently sand cleaned and repainted by a good friend. You have to be very gentle with a space frame as you can upset the tension of the various tubes if it is sandblasted too severely. It was a satisfying pastime getting to know exactly what went into a Repco Brabham design.
I was a Kawasaki motorcycle dealer for a time and used BT31 as a display feature in the country showroom, it enabled me to meet lots of interesting people.
I would have loved to convert the BT31 to a hill climb car for myself as I had hill climbed a Cooper Mini and usually won my class at Morwell Hill Climb and loved it but I really believed to break that magic of Jack Brabham being the only driver and all original condition I would be a fool. One of my aims was to get recognition of Repco Brabham in Australia, even Phil Irving told me how Repco had totally missed the boat when it came to claiming the fame that they should have been recognised for.
I wrote to Ampol (Australian oil company) first giving them all the details and informing them of their association with the car. The car still had the Ampol decals on the nose cone too. A little secret here, we never did use Ampol oil, it was Shell ‘Super M’ in Ampol drums but that’s normal in advertising, only because Ampol did not make a racing oil. But even at director level they were not really interested. I have a file of old letters from various Australian Companies and museums. There was just no real interest.
I eventually moved to Metung on the Gippsland Lakes in the late ’70s and began a new sort of engineering with boats and became a Volvo Penta service agent.
BT31 gave me a huge insight into motor racing and motor sport generally. Many people were attracted to the car and i got to know them as a consequence. The legendary race car engineer John Sheppard spent holidays at Metung, we had many hours talking about his times including managing the Holden Dealer Team after Harry Firth.
The great Peter Brock and his engineer at the time, Bruce Nowacki spent hours leaning on the cars rear wing, Pete was a fantastic source of driving and handling technique so I was in another world. He and Bev even came and stayed at our holiday accommodation in Metung.
One day a guy showed up wanting to see BT31. He introduced himself as Austin Miller, or Aussie Miller. He was a fantastic character, he owned a crop dusting and spraying company in Northern Victoria. On looking up his past I realised just who he was. The fastest man on wheels in Australia prior to the Bluebird of Donald Campbell. A legend of Australia’s Motor Sports’ past and in the Guinness Book of Records.
I also featured the car on display at various race meetings. One Sandown meeting was very special. I met and talked for an hour or more with the great John Surtees. He was so down to earth and discussed the Italian Grand Prix between he and Jack Brabham at Monza in 1967. I also met and talked to Tom Wheatcroft, he told me all about Donington Park, his race circuit in the UK.
All these people could see my dedication to the Repco Brabham engines and they responded by letting go on their own particular Motor Sport interests.’
‘Time To Sell…
Finally as the salt air beside the lake at Metung was getting to the car, I was disappointed with the lack of interest in preservation of BT31.
So I sent the car to auction prior to the 1980 Grand Prix at Calder. I set a reserve price, there was lots of hype and Alan Jones and Tracy Wallace (Miss Penthouse of the year) and other Australian motoring greats.I passed it in after a very good bid but slightly under my reserve. So I returned to Metung and kept the car for another term.
One day I received an offer from a museum owner who wanted the car for his collection. At last I thought I was on to something to keep me happy with the RB history. I believed this guy had the resources to purchase a going engine from Bob Jane. The guy purchased the car and forwarded a deposit and made several payments but never the full amount so the sale fell through.
I decided if Australia didn’t want the car I would advertise it in ‘Road and Track’. There were problems in placing the ad as they decided the car was a replica and didn’t want to run the advertisement! In the meantime a guy showed up in a Rolls Royce asking about it. He was a Sydney specialist Doctor. He specialised in repairing people after bombs had exploded, especially facial damage. He made up new jawbones from other body parts etc. It was a gruesome job, he had worked for many years in Ireland for experience. He never smiled and actually reminded me a bit of the film star Jack Palance. The Rolls Royce was filthy, covered in mud and he explained it had been in a motorkhana the weekend before!
He wanted BT31 and as I was browned off generally as all my attempts to preserve it for Australia had flown out the window. I had the advantage of already obtaining most of the required funds due to the museums closure and failure of the previous sale. So I agreed to sell the car, it was 1984. We did a deal and Don Halpin arranged to construct an engine for him.
Finally the ‘R&T’ ad bore fruit as Bib Stillwell contacted me. He was President of the LearJet Corporation in America at the time and wanted to buy BT31. Of course being a mate of Jack Brabham’s he knew all about the car. I explained that I had received a deposit and had sold it to the Sydney doctor subject to his final cheque arriving. Much to Bibs’ frustration, he tried hard to convince me to sell the car to him but i had committed to Dr William Marshall. Bib got his wish and did buy the car later, he won a lot of races ‘in period’ with Brabhams and was keen to own it.
Marshall put a team together and did race the car for a time and had a fairly serious crash during his term of ownership.’
‘Bib Stillwell and BT31…
Some time later I was invited to an historic Sandown meeting and sure enough there was Bib Stillwell with BT31 looking great in the Stillwell green colours, he bought the car from Marshall in 1987. I was looking at the car in the pits and had not made myself known and said in my typical fashion. ‘Hey what’s with this green’ a big guy stood up and said and why shouldn’t it be green. I piped up that it was built red, raced red and Bib hearing all this came over and said hello.
We ended up very good friends. At one stage he said ‘You should have sold it to me first Roddy’. I was impressed with his driving that day. He really put in. I also suspect a little extra effort because I was there in his pit, when he came back he was covered in perspiration and all red in the face. He walked over and put his arm around my shoulder and said ‘How was that Roddy did I do a good enough job?’. I was pleased that he cared what that I had kept the car in original shape for so long. He was a born racer as Bob Jane was as well. They were not just collectors they were users and drivers.
We Repco boys were invited to Geelong on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay for a special sprint meeting on the waterfront. The Geelong sprints are a wonderful spectacle on a good day. During the afternoon Don Halpin came in to the RB tent and said to me ‘Bibs gone in’ of course meaning an accident. We did not all rush down there of course and later I became aware that somehow it had been a very bad accident and Bib had multiple fractures of his legs. He had an extensive stay in Geelong hospital and sadly I think that he never recovered fully from that accident.
It was a long and tough call on Bib and he was no spring chicken. He also had lots of problems as the bottom had dropped out of new car sales in Australia. Sometime later he tragically collapsed and died of a heart attack in his Kew showroom. I don’t think that the BT31 had added much to his fine racing career.
The car was rebuilt and sold overseas and has since changed hands numerous times, but is back in Australia.
Nowadays I have the great pleasure of occasionally seeing BT31 in flight under various owners and I was impressed to see the car looking so good at Phillip Island in 2014. It gives me a lot of satisfaction in my older age and the reception I get from the younger owners is pleasing to say the least.
Long live BT31, the only one built and built specially as a works car for Sir Jack Brabham to race in Australia. You cannot get a car much more historic than that’.’
Etcetera…Track Test of BT31/1 by Kevin Bartlett in 1987…
Australian Gold Star Champion in 1968 and 1969, Bathurst Winner and ex-Brabham racer Kevin Bartlett track tested the car for ‘Wheels’ magazine, the article written by Graham Howard was published in August 1987. These are excerpts from that article;
‘…The car fires up and Bartlett hops right into it, giving it three hard bootfuls of throttle on the way to the first corner. Just so the car knows whos’ boss right? To the onlookers there is no doubt. All the gearchanges go in, the throttle work is smooth and confident. Progressively he is getting faster everywhere, braking later-tho still a bit early, it seeems, and now after a few laps starting to find the outside of the kerbs on the way out of corners’. Then he comes in.
KB, ‘It doesn’t like getting its power to the ground, does it. And the brakes are a worry. The front to rear balance is not right. The throttle needs heavier return springs’. He removes the seat and goes again. ‘Its a good torquey little engine from 3100-3200’. He suggests shock and tyre pressure changes. Present day Australian Historic Regs don’t allow a wing which Bartlett concludes it needs.
‘You can see the understeer into the corner but his exits are clean, decisive much steadier as he steers the car with its own noise, vanishing away with successive upward shrieks of acceeleration, gearchange, more acceleration. He is fast and accurate and the impressive thing is how, with a very peaky engine and a car with a willingness to break into wheelspin, Bartlett is stringing together lap after lap without a slip. No extravagant wheelspin, no attitude on the car, this mate, this is car control.’
Says KB, ‘Its understeering, just, which is the way they used to be. A bit, thats all on turn in, but you fix that with the throttle. It is better with the lower tyre pressures and stiffer rear shocks, not perfect but better. The engine starts to work at 5000 and at 6000 the cams come in, so you’ve got to drive it between 6000-7500. Any engine like this you have to work it right thru its range. No point having your gears too close. Its a good engine though, a good car.’
Graham Howard asked KB how his 1968 Gold Star winning Brabham BT23D Alfa (2.5 litre T33 V8 engine) would go up against BT31…’It would be very even, it would depend on the driver. I feel the chassis we had, with the Alfa V8, might have got the power to the ground better. But with the right tyres and a wing this car could be fantastic. The actual driving position is full of memories. I did my championship years in cars like this. It feels like home again.’
Rodway Wolfe, Dale Harvey, Rod MacKenzie, Dick Simpson, Mildren Films,The Nostalgia Forum
sergent.com, ‘Maybach to Holden’ Malcolm Preston, ‘Historic RacingCars in Australia’ John Blanden, Wheels magazine, Rodway Wolfe Collection, Racing Car News