Bathurst – the automotive Melbourne Cup

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The UK has its Grand National, the US has the Superbowl 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. At 2 p.m. in Australia when the Melbourne Cup horse race commences in November, the roads are deserted as everyone huddles around a TV set somewhere. 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 Superbowl of auto racing in Australia.

Vauxhall.

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, Bathurst is the Holy Grail, and pilgrimages to the sleepy New South Wales country town are a right of passage.

Going back to the 1960 event, which was for showroom stock vehicles, it was won by a Vauxhall Cresta, the first time a Vauxhall had won anything since around 1924, so it was something to celebrate. The car that came second was a Peugeot 403 followed by even less of a racing car – a Simca Aronde.

By 1963 there were 41 finishers at Bathurst, and by 1966 Bathurst had attracted an international flavour with the three works Morris Cooper S giant killers coming in 1-2-3.

But in 1962, with everyone talking about Bathurst, I decided that I should go too.

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 that I could buy it without having to sell my grandmother to a Turkish trader. However, by the time I got the money together it was the Thursday before the race weekend. This was cutting it fine, but all I had to do next was get some tyres.

Les, one of the enthusiasts, worked for a tyre company, and said he would supply the tyres if he could have a free ride with us. Agreed. Mind you, it was a trifle worrying that he insisted we bring the Customline around after hours with the lights extinguished.

But by Thursday night I had a car which (hopefully) would make Bathurst, sitting on four secondhand tyres which had cost me nothing. About the same price that Les had paid for them, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Now the old side-valve V8 Customlines were not known as being thrifty, and 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 canvassing for another 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 the Customline was headed towards Bathurst from my 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 and the vacuum was at its maximum, 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, and no use at all as a device to clear water off the windscreen.

And so we made it to Bathurst by the Saturday night, but naturally, had no place to stay, and Bathurst, on the top of the Blue Mountains is bitterly cold at night. We tried staying in a café until the owner threw us out as he wanted some sleep too. Six in the Customline was too much of a squeeze, so I ended up sleeping on the ‘welcome’ mat of the Bathurst City Hall. I don’t think the city fathers probably meant that kind of welcome.

We saw the races and left on the Sunday afternoon for the 1000 km drive back, powering through the night, taking turns at the wheel. One of the great adventures that a young lad could have, and still fun on which to reminisce.