London to Sydney Marathon part 2 - Bruce Hodgson

By: Ben Dillon, Photography by: Ben Dillon, Ford Australia

Presented by

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From the London to Sydney Marathon in 1968 to rallying the rarest Ford Australia Racing product ever, Bruce Hodgson forged a reputation that few Australian drivers could claim to equal. Now at 88-years of age, we catch up with the only person ever to race a Phase 4

Bruce Hodgson is not a name many outside the Ford faithful will recognise, but besides his sixth outright in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon (issue 447) in an XT GT Falcon, it was his efforts in rallying which permitted the stillborn XA Phase 4 to turn a wheel in racing and allowed a glimpse into the potential greatness of this ‘could’ve been’ champion.

Going back to 1972 any chance to punt Ford Australia’s most ambitious race car around a track was demolished thanks to motoring journalist Evan Green’s article which started the Supercar scare and overnight scuppered The Big Three’s plans to produce and homologate the next generation of race cars. Given that Bruce, along with Allan Moffat and Fred Gibson were to be Ford works drivers in the Phase 4, when it comes to Evan Green, Bruce is less than complimentary.

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Battered and bruised and still going strong

"I couldn’t stand him," Bruce says. "After he wrote the story I told him exactly what I thought of him and his story and didn’t speak to him again until 1993 when the re-run of the London to Sydney was on and he was going around saying that he was going to beat Ian Vaughn and myself easily," Bruce recalls. "I called him up and told him he was never any good as a driver and that he didn’t stand a chance."

But while the Phase 4 was Ford’s, and Bruce’s, last hurrah the beginning of Bruce Hodgson’s automotive journey started when as a 13-year-old he decided to build his own car – a formative experience which gave him the rallying bug.

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The XT GT as it is today

"I was trained in nothing, I was all self-taught but I made it work. It had a Peugeot chassis, a Vauxhall engine and a Calcott gearbox from Europe that I’d never heard of, and I think from memory the whole thing cost me £5," Bruce laughs.

"My uncle was a manager at Austin in South Melbourne and gave me used parts that had been replaced under warranty and I took all of that and by the time I was 18 I’d finished it. She was a little bit dodgy you might say, so I didn’t try to register it in Melbourne and drove it down to Mornington and registered it there. The only problem I had with the car was the handbrake, so I bought a Singer fly-off handbrake, put a spring on the front and one going back, all hidden, so when you pulled on it there was pressure and it would release when you pressed the button. The policemen were very impressed with the handbrake but they didn’t test it of course," Bruce smiles.

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Many miles and many tales under KAG 003

"I eventually sold the vehicle to a guy in Sydney but had a lot of fun driving it on dirt roads and that got me hooked on rallying. I then met a very famous rally driver named Bob Watson through the Light Car Club in Victoria and he would explain as many things as I’d like to know about rallying. So I entered a few rallies and I was no good at it, but I’d stay to the end and people like Colin Bond had a great influence on me as they would very happily stand around and tell me about how rallies worked and that’s when I started to get serious."

Bruce then met John Gowland and it was during these rallies that the Ford man asked Bruce to pilot one of the cars in the upcoming London to Sydney Marathon that was going to show the world the performance of the local XT GT Falcon, but both Bruce and Gowland had conditions that needed to be met first.

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"My first question to John was which seat I’d have in the car and luckily he said the driver’s seat and then as the planning went ahead I said I wanted a two-man team because I wanted to be able to sleep well without someone in the back seat to worry about, and that’s why I also said I wanted the Recaro seats"

But what John Gowland wanted from Bruce was a little more immediate.

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"My co-driver ran a Ford dealership in Goulburn, his name was Ron Laughton, so I came down from Griffith and pulled the rally car off in Goulburn and left the trailer there, picked up Ron and away we went to start of the rally. At the end of it Gowland came to me and said we’d be having a couple of meetings about the marathon. The usual thing but then asked, would I mind getting my trailer from Goulburn and going into the forest in Canberra? Ian Vaughn had destroyed his car by running into a tree that was laying down on the side of the road, and bent it so it wasn’t drivable, and they (Ford) had no way of retrieving it. It would have been pretty stupid to say no, after being invited to join the marathon cars, wouldn’t it!" exclaims Bruce.

Gowland’s interesting approaches to team leadership also included his motivation methods for the drivers, one of which Bruce recalls was a great way of teaching self-control.

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"We were allowed a certain rpm limit when we first started but then each day in a rally we could go another 500rpm if we could tell Gowland what place we’d be in by the end of the day and achieve that place or better. I thought it was a very interesting method of teaching you to behave yourself and I usually got my extra rpms," laughs Bruce.

In the planning of the marathon, Bruce would go and visit Harry Firth in his Melbourne workshop to discuss what the cars needed and also compete in local rallies in the months before the marathon. During this preparation Bruce was asked to drive one of the Ford works cars in the Southern Cross Rally where he earned a respectable fifth place which also helped him settle into the Ford team. Bruce was also driving an XR GT at the time as a tow car and on a return trip from a rally discovered a problem with the gearbox.

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"There was an incredible screeching coming from under the car, so on the way home I experimented and worked out we had a problem with that gear," Bruce recalls. "I told Gowland about it and he said to strip the gearbox down and investigate and fix the problem, all at Ford’s cost, which is what I did.

"After it was done I let Harry Firth know that he had to pull the gearboxes out of the marathon cars which were getting nearly ready to go and that was assumed to have been done."

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Bruce and a book of memories

But come the big race from London to Sydney the gearbox issue raised its head early on. After crossing the English Channel, Bruce came across Ian Vaughn’s stricken car on the side of the road.

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Almost standard interior

"That was when the arguments started," Bruce explains. "I told them what I’d found with third gear and that it was supposed to have been rectified before we left, but because two out of three in Vaughn’s car were Ford employees, therefore I wouldn’t know anything because I lived in the bush," Bruce says. "This went on for half an hour while they waited for the French mechanics and I got jack of it and said they could either take my advice and leave in third and drive with me to Italy by which time I thought the problem would have fixed itself, or they could go it alone. They decided to follow my advice and by the time we got to Italy the gearbox was good and went all the way to the ship in Bombay."

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But the gearbox saga wasn’t over with Bruce’s car suffering the same issue while driving through then Czechoslovakia much to Bruce’s growing anger with the Ford mechanics and Firth in particular.

"I couldn’t believe that they did their own car but not mine or Vaughn’s.

"I knew if I wanted his job as a Ford driver I had to beat Firth, and that’s what I did."

Bruce says he was then gagged by Ford management from speaking about the gearbox issue and it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of the marathon that John Gowland let Bruce finally tell the story.

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In the old dart and ready to go

"I was disgusted back then, but you follow team orders even if they were ridiculous. I tell you what, looking back 50 years I should have left Vaughn at the side of the road. It would have been a very different result," Bruce says.

Coming to Australia for the final leg of the marathon the action didn’t let up and, while the leading Citroen’s accident with a local Mini has gone down in history, Bruce had a narrow escape also.

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"On the special stage from Marvel Loch to Lake King, we’d been held up by a BMC service crew who drove down the stage in front of us trying to slow us down. It was absolutely ridiculous, it was scrub and the dust was that fine I could only get occasional glances of the service crew’s tail lights because it was the middle of the night," Bruce explains. "We were leading the team’s prize so being the first car out of there they thought they could slow me down and get the team prize back but it didn’t work. After I finally got past them I was sitting on 125mph down a two-wheel dirt track and it jumped out of the wheel tracks and smote a bit of local scrub, I never even backed off and we copped a dent in the rear door for it but my co-driver said ’Gee that was beautiful!’, but I wasn’t even trying!"

So with the marathon over Bruce continued rallying in Australia and New Zealand. He didn’t receive a particularly warm welcome in NZ, with the rally director advising Bruce to ‘watch his back’ as the locals didn’t want an Aussie to win and would try and block the stages and transport sections to slow him down.

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"Their top boy Mike Marshall, who was very, very good I might add; he was world class, they wanted him to win. Well he was second and I was told on the last night that they (the locals) were going to get me," recalls Hodgson. "There were 18 nationalities in that rally and they said any one of them could win as long as it’s not an Aussie, and I said ‘that’s nice’, and nothing gave me greater pleasure than winning it," Bruce smiles. "I won by four or five minutes but even after they announced the provisional results they kept me waiting for three hours, and Andrew Cowan said to me ‘you feel like getting a gun and shooting them,’" laughs Bruce.

From there the story of the Phase 4 and Hodgson’s time racing it was short-lived as Bruce couldn’t afford to enter the car in every event that he wanted to. This, combined with lacklustre support from Ford which was moving to the XA coupe for its racing platform, meant that Bruce’s days with this unsung hero were numbered.

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"It was the most beautiful car the Phase 4, so much faster than the XY and with a Detroit Locker. Ahh, if you ever want to speak to a true lover of a Detroit Locker you’re talking to him," Bruce sighs. "It was a beautiful car but the preparation by Ford was nothing short of disappointing. The mechanics were race car mechanics and weren’t interested in the car because it used to come back bashed up underneath," Bruce recalls. "Howard Marsden kept lowering the bloody thing and you’d hit the sump and it would crush the oil pickup and you’d be down to 25psi oil pressure and have to retire. This is when I told Marsden I was taking the car home to prepare it myself. The next result was we won the special stage and fourth outright in Round Six of the Australian Rally Championship against the best drivers in the country and in the big monster," Bruce laughs. "At the end of it they asked my co-driver Fred Gocentas how I kept it on the road. Fred replied ‘the only time it was on the road was when we were crossing it!’"

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Bruce with car owner Parry

Going out on a high with sixth place at the end of the 1973 Australian Rally Championship was a massive achievement for Bruce, especially in a car that other drivers derided for being ‘too big and overpowered’ but it goes to show the mettle of the man and the quality, speed and pure of capability of Australia greatest racing product that (almost) never was.

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