Volvo Repco Rally survivor

By: Guy Allen - Words & Photos

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It's not every day you get to relive the experiences of one of your motorsport heroes, forty years down the track

To say Volvo owner Alan Chambers is a bit interested in the gruelling and often messy business of long-distance rallying is an understatement. Borderline obsession might be a more accurate description. And it was that fascination with the sport that led him down the path of buying his own rally car – a pretty famous former Ross Dunkerton car (or what’s left of it!) and entering it in last year’s Repco Rally Retrial.

"I’ve always been interested in long-distance rallying," he admits. "I think it’s one of those feats of human endeavour that brings in a whole lot of things in countryside which you see only fleetingly. It’s also a test of character with whoever your co-driver is to endure whatever the activity throws at you."

volvo-rally-car-2.jpgDespite many breakages the Volvo finished 4th in the '79 Repco Trial

Evidently, this is hardly a new thing for the man who imports and sells Woodford car transport trailers. "I’ve been interested in cars since I was three. My mother took me to my first car event when I was seven. It was the RAC Rally, which had a parc ferme in Bournemouth in the south of the UK. "When the first London to Sydney marathon came through in 1968, regrettably I wasn’t around to see any part of it because my father was away and we went up to Singapore.

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"I was living in Perth when the second event came through in 1977. I went out with a friend; we went to Menzies and saw the cars come through. I thought it was a real buzz and something I wanted to do. Two years later the Repco Reliability Trial ran and that was a phenomenal event. I had an interest and involvement with Narrogin (WA), which is where Ross Dunkerton had a Datsun dealership. He was running in this particular Volvo."

Little did Alan realise that some 40 years later he would end up owning the car.

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volvo-cartoon.jpgStonie captures Dunketon's Repco Rally tales

"When it came up for sale, I found it on the other side of Toowoomba and thought of my interest in Ross – I always felt he’d been hard done by Datsun and Nissan in the heydays of the seventies. The fact he drove this car, or bits of it, and it was still around was a real buzz." In case you were wondering, Alan admits there is an element of grand-dad’s axe going on with this car, like many others that have spent decades being used as rally then charity bash entries. It’s been rebodied over time, though there were still tell-tale signs that at least some of the original DNA was still in place.

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"When the car came up for sale, I flew up to Brisbane, caught a bus out to Toowoomba and the fella who owned it was going to pick me up, because he was an hour out of town. He was late and I thought this was going to end in tears. Then he revealed the car wasn’t where I thought, but another 40 minutes away. He said, ‘Here are the keys, have a look and drive it.’

"I had a look and wondered if this was really the car. Then I opened the boot and saw the fuel tank." Photos still exist of the car when it raced in 1979, when it was fitted with a distinctive 130 litre fuel tank, and this car matched the photos. So Alan continued probing and describes his thoughts at the time: "If nothing else the fuel tank is original; but I can’t see any pale blue paint on it. Then I pulled away a paint chip and the back door had some. I’ve come this far, how much does he want for it? I’ll buy it and drive it home to Melbourne."

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The Volvo was one of a handful of the Swedish cars entered for the 1979 event, and this example was prepared by a Gold Coast dealer at what was believed to be huge expense. Dunkerton meanwhile had expected to be running a factory-backed Peugeot 504, but the company pulled out at the last minute. That left him without a drive until he was offered the tiller of the Volvo, with experienced navigator Geoff Jones (another last-minute inclusion) and motoring journalist Peter McKay as crew.

It was common at the time for cars to travel three-up, with the third person often kept busy opening and shutting farm gates.

volvo-rally-car-10.jpgRepco Reliability Retrial was a hoot, says Alan

In the end, it was the exceptionally well-prepared three-car Holden Commodore team, with Peter Brock as lead driver, that took the first three places in the gruelling two-week, 18,000km event. Dunkerton and his team narrowly beat a Ford Cortina to place fourth, an incredible feat, given the ridiculous number of breakdowns and issues along the way.

Among other problems, the car was notorious for ‘eating’ dampers like popcorn. Alan explains the issue: "They boxed in all the suspension arms and cross members in an effort to strengthen the chassis, but Volvo had them as they were so they had some ‘give’. They didn’t realise at the time that the stresses would be transferred to other parts of the suspension, which is why they went through shockers, bearings, rear axles, really fast. That’s what gave this car some sort of reputation."


However, suspension was far from the only problem. It also ate its limited slip diff along the way, forcing the crew to fit a conventional unit. Then there were a host of other issues, which author Bob Watson describes in his very funny bio of Dunkerton, titled Dunko. Among them was the great fuel pump disaster, described by Dunkerton.

"We started the section, which was over 400km long and, after 30km, the fuel pump failed. We pulled up and I replaced the pump with a spare, which was not easy as the fuel tank had to be lifted, among other complications. I yelled to the boys that the car must have been built by British Leyland.


"We jumped back in and took off again only to have the replacement pump also fail. I dived under the bonnet, cut off one of the steel fuel pipes and bent it up so that it would reach the cabin. I then siphoned fuel from the tank into a jerry can, which Geoff held in his lap, feeding fuel to the engine… his road book was literally doused in petrol as we bounced along."

Perhaps the crowning glory was the winch incident, described by Bill Tuckey in his book on the Repco event, titled An Old Dog for a Hard Road. "They had winched the car out of sand bogs twice, and, in the next creek crossing, finally the winch gave up. Dunkerton threw it into the boot in disgust, where it short-circuited across the battery and started a fire." Dunkerton used McKay’s rally jacket to put it out.

volvo-rally-car-boot.jpg130lt fuel tank from the 1979 Repco Rally

By way of contrast, Alan and co-driver Ray Smith had a trouble-free run in the Retrial. That’s if you discount getting comprehensively lost and bogged on day two of the more leisurely four-week 2019 event.

What’s it like to drive? "It’s analogue. It’s got a reasonable turn of speed, it’s quite harsh with Bilstein suspension all round, and I run it on light truck tyres, which probably doesn’t help things. They have a very thick sidewall. I use it for rallycross with the Historic Rally Association.


"It’s got power steering, a four-speed gearbox and it’s very basic. It’s got a reasonable turn of speed – I don’t know what the 0-100 time is, but you get there in the end."

In any case, the chance to relive the great event in a period car 40 years down the track must have been worth every penny he spent on it.


From Unique Cars #438, April 2020


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