Profile: Ron Harrop

By: Steve Nally, Photography by: Stuart Grant, David Cook

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Back in 2009 we caught up with racing legend and engineering innovator Ron Harrop...

Originally published in Unique Cars #304, Oct/Nov 2009 

Ron Harrop

How do you pack a lifetime of racing and engineering into one article? You can’t really, so succinctly summing up Ron Harrop’s busy life to date is a big ask.

Drag racer, sports sedan and touring car driver, engineering innovator, Holden Racing Team chief engineer, successful businessman and V8 Supercar team owner are just some of the hats Harrop has worn, many simultaneously, during a career that has covered five decades and is still running at six-days-a-week pace.

Ron Harrop was quick on the strip and fast at Bathurst and still can’t slow down, although the recent merger of Harrop Engineering with radiator giant Adrad, looks likely to give him more time to relax, not that he’s good at it.

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A humble, shy man, Harrop was born in May 1946 and brought up in East Kew, Melbourne. His father Len was also an engineer and Harrop’s son Tim is the third generation to work under the company shingle, which has been hung out now for over 60 years.

Harrop’s was a normal suburban upbringing filled with activities any mechanically-minded kid would get up to.

"Life was good, we played football and cricket and played with model cars and pushbikes and flew model aeroplanes," he recalls. "I was always attracted to anything that had wheels whether it be billy karts, pushbikes, motorbikes; preferably something you didn’t have to exert a lot of effort with."

Len Harrop wasn’t a car man – vehicles were for transport – but Ron remembers a fleet of American cars before Holden became all the rage. "We had Chevs, a ‘37 followed by a ’48 Stylemaster, which was pretty flash for those days, all sixes. After that there was a succession of Holdens and he had a Benz at one stage."

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Len did, however, indulge his son’s burgeoning interest in car racing although Ron says he can’t remember having any driving heroes as a kid.

"The first experience I remember was Albert Park around 1956 and being at a corner where a car spun out; I think it was Bob Jane in a Maserati. Dad was interested in racing but I don’t know where I got the passion; it was far greater than what he had for it."

Naturally, Ron got behind a steering wheel at any opportunity and it didn’t matter what it was attached to.

"We had relatives who had a farm and I can remember at eight or 10 steering an Austin truck. The farmer used to set the hand throttle then get on the back and feed the cows and I used to steer it. I thought it was Christmas. Then I got to drive it and a Ferguson tractor."

Ron’s mechanical skills were soon evident under Len’s guidance.

"My father was a good teacher and was able to pass on so much; he still does. Having an engineering business, which consisted of a lathe that we’ve still got and not too much else, taught me how to do jobs with minimal equipment and laid good (engineering) foundations.

"Before I was 12, I’d built a go kart; welded it up and everything. It had a Jawa 250cc motorcycle engine and a four-speed gearbox. We used to take it to the beach at Ocean Grove and blaze up and down. It was fast in a straight line but when we took it to go kart tracks it was too cumbersome. It taught me a lot because it had clutches and gear changes and I had to make it work."

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Harrop qualified as a boilermaker but didn’t pursue a tertiary education; he was "more on the practical side". The new fangled Holdens were his favourites but it was a small British car that first got him mobile, not that it stayed stock for long.

"I had a Morris Minor two-door with one of those little overhead-valve A-series engines but that lasted about a week. I bought an MG engine off George Makin, bored it out and put new pistons and valves in it. The Morris used to fix up most of the early Holdens of the day."

Harrop coyly admits to the odd spot of street racing and having his collar fingered by constables.

"I guess I did a bit (of road racing), it was what you did in those days," he grins. "We used to exceed the speed limit by a bit down Kilby Road in Kew, which used to be a pretty flash road in those days. Once I moved away from stationary a bit too fast and caught the eye of the law. I had to go to the police auditorium where they showed you gory pictures of what happens when you get it wrong."

The Morris was superseded by an EH Holden with a 179, which also came in for go-faster mods. "I put HD discs and radial-ply tyres on it. I remember an insurance assessor looking at my car (after a crash) and saying, ‘What do you need them for?’"

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Harrop’s EH was front-page news in 1976

Harrop’s hot EH (triple SUs, extractors, bigger valves, high compression) inadvertently got him into drag racing after competition on the street started to heat up. "Calder Park had just opened and I used to blaze up and down the quarter mile with my EH." Then came the legendary Harrop’s Howler FJ.

"Moore’s Missile was an FJ with red motor that used to do 13.7s where my EH was doing 14 seconds dead," he explains. "The Moore brothers said, ‘If you put your engine in an FJ it’d be as fast’. So I bought an FJ off Norm Beechey for $29 – I’ve got no idea why it wasn’t $30 – and that car became the famous Harrop’s Howler. The first time out it did a 13.2sec quarter mile. This would have been in 1967-68."

Harrop was almost unbeatable, winning numerous state, national and Mr Holden titles and the Howler lived up to its name. "I used to thrash it to death," he laughs. "In the end the engine was bored and stroked to 208 cubic inches and made 343 horsepower and I revved it to 8400rpm." At one stage it was the fastest production four-door sedan in world drag racing, setting a record 11.8 sec/118mph quarter mile.

| Read next: Harrop's Howler FJ Holden

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Famous Harrop’s Howler FJ dominated its drag racing class in the late-’60s and early-’70s, although Ron looks like he was a bit tardy on the tree in this shot (above)

By the early-’70s, Harrop Engineering was flat out with work for Beechey, Bob Jane, Harry Firth and Allan Moffat and this led Harrop to try his hand at circuit racing. He won the Under 3.0-litre Calder Park Six-Cylinder series and was asked to "audition", as he puts it, for the Holden Dealer Team at Calder Park.

"Peter (Brock) did some laps and then it was my turn and I was 0.3 seconds slower. I thought, ‘How did he do that?’ So I went for a ride with him and I found out. He was more in front of the car than I was; I was reacting to it where he was more pro-active. I adopted that and I was near-on identical in times."

Harrop, very much a part-time driver, passed his audition and raced an HDT A9X at Bathurst in 1977 with Charlie O’Brien, finishing fifth. Two years later he was back at Bathurst in an HDT A9X, paired with John Harvey, when he had a huge crash after the brakes failed at the end of Mountain Straight.

"John had said that the brakes weren’t too good. I got to just short of the braking area and pumped them but there was nothing there. I hit the barrier on the outside at a fair speed and it cart-wheeled over the barrier on the inside. It all went quiet for a second and I thought, ‘Is this heaven?’ Then BANG! It hit a lamp post in the gully and came to rest thinking, ‘Geez, I’m still alive’. I was fairly sore the next day and copped a bit of flack about it but John Sheppard later told me the master cylinders hadn’t been cleaned out properly and swarf had cut the cylinder."

Harrop continued has an enduro driver with Warren Cullen and also raced Bob Jane’s fearsome Monza in the 1984 1000km World Endurance Championship race at Sandown with Dick Johnson and Allan Grice but stopped racing at the end of 1985 to concentrate on his business, which was supplying components to most of the touring car grid.

"I just ceased to do more driving, I never actually retired," he says.

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Brakes for road and race cars have always been a cornerstone product

In 1993, the first season of V8 Supercar, Holden Racing Team manager and driver Tomas Mezera asked Harrop to cast his eye over the team’s operation. Formed in 1988, the factory Holden squad had had little success (apart from a Bathurst win in 1989) and Mezera was looking for a lifeline. With Harrop steering the technical side, HRT became the powerhouse it is today.

"I could see areas that I could address and I got involved. It’s all about laying the foundations, having a cohesive package, and I fixed up things that weren’t perhaps lasting as long as races did (chuckles). It was a monthly thing but Tom Walkinshaw came out, I told him what I thought I could do, and I was there for five years as chief engineer. It was good fun, by and large. I ended (the association) because the direction was changing and I couldn’t get clear direction on what was happening."

Harrop uses the word ‘challenge’ a lot and relishes putting his grey matter to problems, whether they’re technical or driver-based. "It’s interesting how you can get quite a lot out of a driver who might not be mechanically minded by just giving them confidence," he says, adding that tuning the driver can often net greater rewards.And who does he rate as the greatest driver?

"Michael Schumacher; the runs are on the board," he says, with an engineer’s eye for numbers. "I thought nobody would ever beat Jackie Stewart’s 27 grand prix wins but Schumacher’s obviously very good and able to think on many levels." And locally?

"I always admired Brock; he could get the job done. But Brock was good at driving around a problem, which could be frustrating because you’d make a change and he’d say, ‘That’s much better’. You’d say, ‘But you’re not faster’ and he’d say, ‘But it’s easier to drive’. If it’s easier to drive, why don’t you go faster!

"I have always admired Mark Skaife’s commitment, he’d be out of the pits and into it straight away. Skaife was technically better than Brock and one of the fairest drivers out there. In that way he’s up there with Peter for sure. And certainly Jim Richards. And speed-wise, I rate Jason Richards fairly highly."

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These days, with larger V8 Supercar teams bringing their engineering in-house or forging alliances with rivals, the touring car business is a lot smaller part of the broad Harrop Engineering portfolio, which includes secret defence and government work. He’s still involved in V8 Supercar as a part-owner of Tasman Motorsport but, to his dismay, is no longer closely involved in the engineering side.

After a career spanning five decades, Harrop has few regrets. "I can’t think of too many," he shrugs. "Some were experiences that I had to have so, in that way, you can’t regret them."

So, what does the future hold; will he slow down now? "That suggests I’m moving at a fast pace. I don’t work as many Sundays as I used to." He’s been thinking about writing his memoirs but wonders if his life would actually be of interest to anybody. We think it would.

Any goals left, Ron? "To keep doing the things I enjoy. The work I do is fun so why would I want to stop having fun?"

Snapshot

NAME: Ron Harrop
CLAIM TO FAME: Racer and innovative engineer
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Working with people that have similar values
CAREER LOWLIGHT: Working with people who don’t
INSPIRATION: simplicity of the Barnes Wallis altimeter as depicted in The Dam Busters
FAVOURITE QUOTE: "Whatever is fair and reasonable."

 

From Unique Cars #304, Oct/Nov 2009 

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