Part 3 continued | The GM Dealer Teams | 15 Minute read

Part 3 continued – The GM Dealer Teams

Holden Dealer Team

HDT – Holden Dealer Team Australia

Unlike the later start-up of the European Dealer Teams, Holden themselves were the prime motivators for getting involved in front line motorsport.

Harry Firth Joined Holden from Ford motorsport to start the Holden Dealer Team in 1969. Harry was an experienced race engineer, developer and race team manager and had been the instigator of Ford victories at Bathurst in 1965/66…. and brought with him the necessary knowledge and experience to get the ball rolling. He became a G Man very quickly and soon had Holden winning regularly with the 350 Chevy engined GTS Monaro….. the prize that first year… a win at Mount Panorama in the Bathurst 500 against the Ford Falcon GT’s. He soon learnt that a fair portion of his time was going to require answering questions on how GM was not in motor sport but was nevertheless in the racing game. In an interview with the three motorsport managers from Holden, Ford and Chrysler at Mount Panorama previewing the 1969 race, the discussion with the Ford and Chrysler men centred around the cars and race strategy. Firth’s interview consisted of defending the fort on issues surrounding who was funding the Holden race programme!

His first development move was an interesting one….Holden took on Ford’s potent Cleveland 351 V8 GTHO Falcons with the six cylinder Torana….. Something not very well known is that one of the very best production based racing chassis… the humble Vauxhall Viva, helped get this done. That basic frame turned racing fortunes on three continents. The Torana in Oz, the Blydenstein Firenza “Old Nail” in the UK, and the Can Am Firenza in South Africa. The combination of a smartly designed A arm wishbone front end with clever roll centres and the Four link, 45° upper arm location did the job.. one of the better solid rear axle locations on a production car.

For 1970 Harry opted to create and develop the straight six Torana XU 1. This was a slightly stretched version of an HB Vauxhall Viva fitted with a 3300cc Holden straight six (the Holden 202 engine is a reduced size copy of Chevy’s 194/230/250) This was the car that brought Peter Brock fame, set him up as the No 1 driver for Holden for many years and sorted Ford straight up in the manufactures championship 1971 and 73. This package was able to beat the Fords on most tracks in Oz except for Bathurst where Mountain straight and Con Rod gave the legs to the Falcons.

Holden 202 straight six with triple Webers and pretty close to 280 Bhp…Miniature Chevy six.

Holden 202 straight six with triple Webers and pretty close to 280 Bhp…Miniature Chevy six.

Peter Brock in the 202 Six Cylinder GTR Torana XU 1. Running the same chassis as the Can Am Firenza V8

Peter Brock in the 202 Six Cylinder GTR Torana XU 1. Running the same chassis as the Can Am Firenza V8

Just how aggressive were Holden about this racing thing?……We as South Africans know all about the Firenza Can Am built on an HC Viva platform but you may not know that at the same time as Basil van Rooyen was building the Can Am prototype, a version of a V8 Viva was built by Harry and his team on the HB Viva/Torana platform fitted with a 308 Holden engine. This too was to be a homologation special but fell foul of public opinion in the oz Supercar scare of 1972….Holden felt that discretion was the better part of valour and stuck with the six cylinder XU1…..Until 1974 when they moved to the Ascona (Opel) based Torana L34 V8

The Firth built Holden Torana XU1 308 V8. One of three V8 versions on the Vauxhall HB/HC with the Torana Six wheelbase extended 3 inches… the V8 a more relaxed fit in the engine bay.

The Firth built Holden Torana XU1 308 V8. One of three V8 versions on the Vauxhall HB/HC with the Torana Six wheelbase extended 3 inches… the V8 a more relaxed fit in the engine bay.

As noted in earlier stories I will be covering the Holden story in detail separately….because it deserves some focus.

From the early days, Holden has simply gone from strength to strength with motorsport activity having massive success over the last 48 years. Even better…. sense eventually prevailed and HDT became HRT, when the Holden Racing Team became directly linked to the mothership in 1987 (via Tom Walkinshaw racing)….as it should have been from the beginning. Holden, since entry in 1969 have won the saloon car championship in Australia 20 times and Ford 18* and have contributed immeasurably to the best saloon car racing in the world…. the V8 Supercar series. The secret ingredient for success, however, was the simple fact that the critical mass of folk inside Holden supporting the performance car and racing activity, kept things cooking……this is part of the Holden culture and singularly the only GM subsidiary in the world to have performance DNA in their bones.

*If you add the Two Chevrolet wins in ’71 and ’72  its   GM 22…Ford 18

Chevy AD

Look familiar?This one has the feel of that Ford Advertising

Brock working that Viva chassis in overtime

Brock working that Viva chassis in overtime

 

Holden A9X and Peter Brock

Holden A9X and Peter Brock…inseperable. This one based on the Opel Ascona

The First of the Iconic Commodores – again this is an Opel…..The Rekord/Commodore

Commodores

Commodores still winning  –  48 Years of Holden Racing  – Champion GM brand in competition.

DTV

DTV – Dealer Team Vauxhall UK

The pressure from the Dealers in this case was severe and one particular Dealer, Shaw and Kilburne had become involved quite some time before the Dealer Team activity was formalised by Vauxhall dealers, namely Bill Blydenstein.  Bill had initially been racing a VX 4/90 as a privateer in national saloon car racing in ’63 &’64 and opened a tuning firm in Shepreth specialising in Vauxhall product.

With the dealer pressure building to get going in motorsport, Bill had run an HB Viva (1300cc) with reasonable success for a short period in 1968 with the help of this very active dealer. The launch of the Viva GT the same year broke the stalemate and a call to Bill from Vauxhall was pretty specific….asking him to drop the work being done on the 1300 OHV and commit to a racing programme for the big engined 2 litre GT. By the time this happened, the Dealer body had already appointed Bill as the boss man of a dealer team they were prepared to fund…it sounds trite I know but Vauxhall were dragged kicking and screaming to the racing breakfast table by their dealer body. No matter…they soon got into the swing of things and, like some other GM operations, had numbers of good engineers in the system supportive of the activity.

The 1300 Blydenstein Viva racer which won first time out at Snetterton in 1968.

Bill’s first task was to get that 2 litre Viva GT engine lump to produce proper power…he had already appointed a young driver who was to go into history as probably the finest saloon car wheel-man in UK history…Gerry Marshall. The other ace in the pack was the fact that that HB/HC viva chassis was an excellent handler on track.  It was a slow start but by 1970, Gerry was giving the established saloon car racers a hard time.  In 1971 the Vauxhall Dealer Team was formalised and between 1971 and 1976 winning every week end. The Firenza became the weapon of choice and very soon ‘Old Nail’ the 2.3 engined Firenza coupe was unbeatable in Gerry’s hands. “Baby Bertha” the Repco Holden V8 engined Firenza took over.  Anyone who watched this driver/car combination will tell you that you are unlikely to see a package quite as spectacular….Gerry was a sideways master and that, combined with the bellowing V8, had the crowds cheering for years. Take a peek at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFTBgnCanJo…. Bill Blydenstein’s very aristocratic commentary plus the in-car view of Gerry in Baby Bertha with Gerry’s commentary at Oulton Park…….

Old Nail - the 2.3 Firenza with over 70 wins and again…

Old Nail – the 2.3 Firenza with over 60 wins and again…the same chassis as the Torana and Can Am

Baby Bertha The Repco Holden V8 Vauxhall Supersaloon

Baby Bertha The Repco Holden V8 Vauxhall Supersaloon

DTV Moved its racing focus to rallying in 1978 and eventually incorporated D.O.T. The operation went on to be superceded by General Motors Dealersport in 1981.

Bill Blydenstein goes down as the definitive G-Man for GM Europe, without him I doubt whether VM could have found anyone in the UK go-faster community to deliver the same commitment to the brand….because as we will see in the South African effort it was not about how competent individuals were…it was about how committed they were. So let’s get to the real reason all those involved did this go faster thing…..it’s a passion for cars and racing. We have finally learned that there is no direct correlation between winning races and selling cars but….there is a direct link between racing, brand image and street-cred….by the late 1970’s Vauxhall had matched Ford in the eyes of their respective gang of petrolheads . Since then, however, we have had to watch this proud brand being diluted by badge engineering, a lack of direction by GM, become a clone of the bigger brother Opel operation and finally be sold to the French.

Vauxhall and Holden did the Job….. and re-established pride in their respective brands amongst their enthusiast base…..

Dealer Team Opel Logo

D.O.T. Dealer Opel Team

First-off, Opel is without question the most disappointing of the group because this was the one operation that, had they had the same commitment as the Vauxhall dealers with some factory support, their product could have matched anything Ford or for that matter BMW could have chucked at them. A three way scrap between BMW, Ford and Opel would have been a tantalising proposition in the saloon car fights of the 70’s. A six cylinder Manta ‘A’ could have seen to that quite well ……..

The D.O.T. activity had firstly to be put together by an Englishman, Tony Fall, that tells a story in itself…. The operation also only happened in 1974 and was restricted mainly to Rallying. How in the world does a company clearly operated by traditionalists and selling basic transport think it is going to change its image by rallying a few cars reasonably well?….Tony was just another of those talented G-men trying to get GM to think properly about motorsport and despite heroic efforts and a win in the 80’s ……DOT died through lack of interest……this was a disease affecting the South African operation as well. While we are into this…. google ‘Opel motorsport history’ and apart from articles patting themselves on the back for more recent lukewarm successes, the cupboard is absolutely bare in that critical 1960-’75 era. Sadly the only recognised racer from that time was put together in 1968 by a team in Sweden helped by enthusiasts at Opel. The black 1900 Opel Rekord,  a privateer entry, was dubbed ‘the taxi’ …..that about encapsulates the brand image the company had at the time.

Before you read on, take a short peek at this video:

Those RWD drive Opels are 70’s cars running engines based on the old 1900 Opel CIH. Sure they are running the later Four valve heads but the point is, this is what Opel had at their disposal in the early 70’s. That ’73 C- Kadett is a hill climb Barnstormer and a match, spec for spec, for any Escort, with one huge advantage…and this goes for the Vauxhall Viva equivalent… both Four cylinder engines were based on big strong blocks and could run to capacities up to 2.5 and some over that with max power on the Opel of up to 340 bhp.

Given that the period 1969 thru 1973 were the years most important in the GM recovery, I am saddened to say that Opel did not contribute much. In fact as already noted, operations in Holland, Belgium and Scandinavia were relatively more productive than Opel themselves and settled into racing Group two versions of Opel product.

Chev Dealer Team logo

CDT – Chevrolet South Africa  – With a little help from our friends.

This one happened differently again but best to say that it was serendipitous….two needs coming together fortuitously in early 1972 and just for a snapshot in time showing the first class capability again of the GM engineering team and what could be done in motorsport with the equally brilliant product…. and the help of our friends.

I mentioned the fact that CEO’s in the GM world operating on stints outside of the USA, did not exactly have a reputation for taking on the real local issues and preferred, in my opinion, to do what was necessary to get through the time before heading back to the USA…..or the next posting in the GMOO* world. Very few were real troubleshooters….except for the finest CEO to grace our shores, Bob Price. Bob arrived in SA in 1971 and immediately stopped the rot. GM had lost massive chunks of market share and he was sent in to get things back on track. There were mountains of issues to be dealt with but let’s contain this to brand image and street-cred. Brand image was good but old fashioned and appealed to the traditional market…. the market had changed…..GMSA had not. As far as street-cred was concerned in the go-faster business GMSA were just beginning to register on the wheelspin scale….but only because we sold performance cars….Viva GT, Holden Monaro, Chev SS (badge engineered Monaro) and the Ranger SS (badge engineered Opel Rekord). The real problem was that the culture was mismatched…..There were not many enthusiasts in key positions at the General, certainly nothing approaching a critical mass of any sort….

*General Motors Overseas Operations

Bob realised he needed to modernise proceedings and he too was being pushed by the Dealer council to get involved in motor sport.

Fast forward to March 1972 and a phone call from Basil van Rooyen to Bob Price in which the idea of a V8 Firenza race car and dealer Team were discussed. Basil, a professional in the field of racing (everything from saloons to F1)….a race engineer, driver and businessman who was at that time running a V8 Capri Perana in national saloon car racing. With Ford wanting to reduce involvement, he was looking for an alternative. This was the sort of person carrying the credentials to do the job properly and very quickly the project was put together. Two plans…Firstly the build of a V8 Firenza to test proof of concept and if that turned out OK, the development of a production then race car and, Secondly, starting a dealer team activity to cover the programme.

The concept Firenza V8 built by Basil and his team arrived at GM engineering in April of 1972. To cut a long story short, that 307 truck engined Firenza was built beautifully and did the Job of convincing the Engineers that the project could go ahead. Bob did not delay proceedings and the project started immediately.

I will cover the development of the production Can Am and Race/Rally cars in a separate piece but suffice to say that two things then happened:

  1. Jonny Pittaway, a wiry in-house test engineer was appointed project manager for the design, build and test of the road car, with Basil as the advising race engineer and:
  2. Geoff Mortimer, an external appointment and very experienced race/rally car engineer with successful a Renault and Toyota affiliation appointed as Dealer Team manager to set up the operation..

In retrospect this was a perfect start and from a technical perspective proved to be absolutely on the money……but …..hidden in the woodwork was an aspect to the Chev Dealer Team that got up my nose from the beginning….a PR activity….we’ll get back to that.

To summarise from there, the Dealer team blossomed immediately and Geoff pulled the disorganised rally programme together (this had been cobbled up before his time and run very disjointedly by GM engineering). In a surprisingly short period he garnered excellent results from a disparate group of people. By September of 1972 the Can Am road car development had reached a point where the first production trial car was shipped to the Dealer Team to be built into the first race car by Geoff and his team. It took just six weeks to build a first-off racer that went straight into the ’72 springbok endurance racing series in November…and did extremely well…..underlining the brilliant engineering both in the production car and racing programmes. This machine went from concept, through to production and successful race car…missing out on the sensible choice of first doing some sprint racing….. and straight into a four race endurance racing series, in just seven months…..spectacular.

This is the Job 1 Production trial build car – Built into the race car by the Dealer Team before production got underway at the plant in PE. Entered in the 1972 9- Hour in the prototype class. That Viva chassis had a job to do.

 

1972 9 Hour Geoff pedalling out of Leeukop and down that incredible old Kyalami main straight.

In 1973, Ford pulled out of racing and V8 Peranas were passed to privateers. A second Can Am Race Car was put together to be run by guest drivers, Basil driving ‘1A’ the original ’72 prototype, the cars now approved by the FIA as racing saloons within the rules. The two cars were then ‘raced’ at regional race meetings around the country, the privately entered V8 Peranas were no real opposition…..our CDT PR machine went ballistic. For eight months the two Firenzas stalked the tracks and won easily. The V8 Firenza rally car was equally successful but this time against serious opposition and being driven by Jan Hettema…. the PR machine was in top gear and told the world we were better than rice crispies…..However…..sometime in Sept 1973 we lost the rudder…. Geoff Mortimer, a naturally gifted engineer of immense talent, huge integrity and in my opinion the biggest contributor to the technical success of the race/rally cars, left the team due to …wait for it…irreconcilable differences with the manner in which the activity was being required to run. We will follow up on this story……and Geoff having a second shot at building some very successful cars for a more conservatively run Dealer Team in the late ‘70’s.

The situation after that became really difficult because with no replacement for Geoff, it required that Basil add to the responsibility of his own business and run the Dealer Team…. just at a time when GM had decided to run three cars in the Springbok endurance series. The third car having to be built from scratch to meet the November deadline, again in 6 weeks….All this in addition to operational maintenance of the rest of the race/rally cars. What happened next is a story on its own…suffice to say that the attempt failed, no cars finished the nine hour and the international Fuel crisis which hit the same week-end stopped motor sport in SA for a short while.

With this disaster at front and centre, GMSA pulled the plug on motorsport the following January after just 18 months of frenzied activity. If we are honest, the reason that happened was simply because GMSA did not carry the fundamental culture and internal critical mass of opinion required in the performance/racing game. To make matters worse for the longer term, the sterling work done by Bob Price in the business proper, by rebranding the Chevrolet product which included sales of the Opel-based Chevy engined 38/4100 ‘taking off’ off in 1972, gave the General a false sense of security…..it all faded quickly…..

It affected thinking at the factory as well…..GM ‘Canned’ a second performance car project, way more significant to the image build of the company….a ready to go, 5speed 240 BHP six cylinder 3800 Commodore Coupe.  Yes 0-100 in 6.9 secs and 228Km/h from a locally developed Chevy straight six.

Bob left GMSA in 1974, ironically leaving SA to rescue Vauxhall from the unions……

Throwing a stone into a pond disturbs the surface for a while…..but…..I need to repeat the point noted earlier…. “Brand image was good, old fashioned and appealed to the traditional market….but the market had changed…..GMSA had not”. There was….after all….a consequence to not getting involved properly and we will cover a story called The Lost Diamond and how GMSA could have recaptured the Go faster business and sat on top of the pile effortlessly in the period from 1974.

See you next week

– Paul.

About the Author:

I have been in the motor industry all my life and despite spending 20 odd years with Datsun/Nissan, remain a GM man at heart.

3 Comments

  1. Bruce Meaker May 2, 2017 at 5:32 pm - Reply

    Great story, nice photos 🙂

  2. Rupert Culwick May 6, 2017 at 5:40 am - Reply

    Love these articles. Having been there at CDT almost from the beginning and then carried on working with Geoff for many years, the memories are bitter sweet. So much achieved and huge missed opportunities.

  3. Johann Wilhelm Grobler May 6, 2017 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    Paul I envy your experiences and participation! Unfortunately as you rightly state, 1962-1965 was not the best of times! It was the time of Standardardisation! All Copy and Paste!!

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