Bathurst – Australia’s automotive Melbourne Cup

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The UK has its Grand National, the US has the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby and Australia has the Melbourne Cup.  These countries stop for those national events, which take precedence over anything else, be that work or play.  It may as well be a national holiday.

However, in the great sunburned land Down Under there is another national event and it is just known as “Bathurst”, but spoken with a reverence, as it is the Super Bowl of auto racing in Australia.

Customline in Sydney on the way to Bathurst. Customline in Sydney on the way to Bathurst.

The Bathurst race began as a 500 mile event in 1960, but these days, with metrification, is now 1,000 km around the longest and most demanding circuit in Australia, which for almost 12 months is public roads, but closed for the weekend in October.  For Australian motor racing enthusiasts today, Bathurst is the Holy Grail.

But way back in the early 60’s was my first sojourn the Bathurst mountain.  There were only two major problems, firstly I was a starving medical student at that time and had no money, and secondly the only car I had was a very tired 1949 MGTC, which certainly would not make the 1000 km trip to Bathurst, let alone get home again.  But I wanted to go, so I hatched a plan.

I knew of a 1953 Ford Customline for sale for 50 Aussie pounds.  A bit run down, in need of some tyres, but it was cheap enough.  Les, one of my friends worked for a tyre company, said he would supply the tyres if he could have a free ride with us.  Mind you, it was a trifle worrying that he insisted we bring the Customline around after hours with the lights off.

Now I could see that fuel was going to be our next problem.  But Customlines were huge and would easily take six people, so Les and I began looking for four financially secure souls, who would bear the cost of the fuel there and back.

As “Bathurst” was on everyone’s lips, it turned out fairly easy to get the four financials and after work on Friday night, the Customline headed towards Bathurst via Sydney from our home in Brisbane.

The weather did not smile on us as we came to the first mountain range and it was necessary to turn on the windscreen wipers.  It was then we discovered a slight design fault in 1953 Ford Customlines.  They had a vacuum operated system for the wipers.  When on a trailing throttle the vacuum was at its maximum and the wipers would go ten to the dozen, but when you depressed the accelerator the vacuum would decrease and wipers would just sit there, stuck to the screen.  Remember them?

Any uphill gradient was done by keeping the throttle on until you could no longer see through the screen, and then lifting the foot to get a couple of swish-swishes and planting the foot again.  Hazardous at best, downright dangerous at worst.

We got there, saw the races and left on the Sunday afternoon for the 1000 km drive back, as we all had to be at work Monday morning.  Powering through the night, taking turns at the wheel and we made it.  One of the great adventures that a young lad could have, and still fun on which to reminisce.