Racing raised an industry - Blackbourn 454

By: Rob Blackbourn

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maybach racer Maybach stylishly doing its thing maybach racer

Motorsport's backyard-special builders once had an important role in stimulating the rise of local performance-engineering businesses

The excellent turn out of classics at the recent Historic Winton meeting reminded me how motorsport during the 1950s and 60s was a perfect showcase for the skills of amateur builders whose so-called ‘specials’ took the fight right up to the Coopers, Lotuses and Maseratis. I was in awe as a kid of the ‘sound and fury’ shows the specials put on at Victorian tracks. I’m thinking Stan Jones – Maybach, Ted Gray – Tornado, Keith Rilstone – Zephyr Special, Lou Molina – Monza and Jack French – Faux Pas.

Compared to the exotica, the factory cars from faraway places that I never expected to visit, the specials seemed more authentic, including components from familiar cars like those parked in driveways everywhere. A personal connection to specials came from turning up on my push-bike at a local service station to ‘help’ Frank Presser prepare his Dodge Bugatti for race meetings. While the Bugatti part was a bit rich for me I was quite familiar with Dodge flatheads.

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Recently while digging a little deeper into the history of those impressive specials from that time, I came to understand that their increasing complexity could no longer be supported by simply trawling through wrecking yards for parts. The growing popularity of motorsport with the greater prosperity of the 1950s had amateur constructors looking for businesses willing to branch out into this new field, ready to provide the specialist parts to satisfy their ambitions. Small businesses, often in service stations, began to come to the party, often fairly anonymously. The opening of the Eddie Thomas Speed Shop in Melbourne’s Caulfield was more exciting – enough for me to pedal my ‘pushie’ the 16 or more kilometres just to see it. What my recent digging has also uncovered is the standout importance of the Repco company’s response at the time.

Two aspects of Repco’s operation – then a local manufacturer of an extensive range of automotive spares for everyday vehicles – enabled it to become motorsport-friendly. First, Repco was made up of divisions, often in separate locations that produced quite distinct components. While the managers of each operation reported to the head-office board, divisions ran autonomously within a decentralised structure. Provided individual profit-centres met performance targets, their managers were free to exercise more discretion about pet projects than would have been possible in more monolithic businesses. The other was that Managing Director Charles McGrath had motorcycle-racing history and experimental-engineer Charlie Dean was active in racing, to the point that he was building his own open-wheeler racer, the iconic Maybach special, at the time.

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The upshot of this unusual corporate environment was that it set the stage for Repco to give the ‘amateur’ constructors among its engineering staff a decent leg up, along with the general motorsport community. Charlie Dean’s Maybach was the star of the show – built with help from his Repco workmates, it lived under Repco’s roof. With increasing success it became a marketing tool for Repco supported by company sponsorship. The support arrangement continued after Dean sold the car to Stan Jones who made it a front-runner in Australia and New Zealand into the mid1950s. When distinguished engineer Phil Irving came into the Repco fold he assisted Dean with developing a fuel-injection system for the Maybach.

Another engineer, Paul England (yes, that Paul England), built a successful sportscar, the AUSCA, which became a test-bed as well as a promotional vehicle for Repco products, particularly the Irving-designed Repco Hi-Power head that, combined with other upgrades, could double the power-output of the ubiquitous ‘Grey’ Holden six. Camshaft design was no doubt ably assisted by staff-engineer George Wade (yes, that George Wade). These resources also made a contribution to the success of customer specials like the Monza and Faux Pas I mentioned earlier – both being equipped with Repco Hi-Power heads. Without labouring the point about the number of engineers honing their skills at Repco, before subsequently providing direct support to numerous race-car builders via their own businesses, I must also mention that Peter Hollinger and Nigel Tait were on the Repco payroll, with Frank Hallam presiding over the show.

It’s hardly surprising then that this group under the Repco-Brabham banner went on to design and produce the racing engines that powered the Brabham Formula One cars in which Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme won the 1966 and 1967 World Drivers Championships. Well done folks.

 

From Unique Cars #454, June 2021

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