Studebakers and The Great Race: Potential Unfulfilled
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Studebakers and The Great Race: Potential Unfulfilled

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By MarkOastler - 05 February 2013
Where it all began. The David McKay/Brian Foley Lark won its class and finished second outright in the 1961 Armstrong 500 at Phillip Island. Note the large rear mudflaps to stop stones flicking up from the crumbling bitumen track surface. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

Ill-fated American car brand Studebaker is well known among classic car enthusiasts for its eye-catching designs of the 1950s and ‘60s that included the stunning Hawk coupe and fiberglass-bodied Avanti sports car.


However, the marque’s more conservative-looking Lark sedan boasts a colourful motor sport heritage in Australia unmatched by any other model in the Studebaker stable, built around the annual 500 mile (800 km) race for production cars held at Victoria’s Phillip Island circuit and later at Mount Panorama, Bathurst.

Studebaker Larks competed in ‘The Great Race’ for most of the 1960s, commencing in 1961 and maintaining an unbroken string of appearances until 1968. And even though they came close on occasions, the Larks never cracked it for an outright win.


With its powerful V8 engine, the American sedan was not only a favourite with local Highway Patrol officers in the early to mid-1960s. It was also the fastest thing down Conrod Straight at Bathurst for many years, reaching top speeds approaching 200 km/h which was considered ‘super car’ performance at the time.

However, it should not be forgotten that the annual 500 mile race was conceived primarily to test the durability of the latest showroom models under the strain of competition.


And in that sense the event succeeded in exposing fundamental flaws in the Lark’s engineering, as its chances of victory were derailed each year by brake problems, collapsed wheels or a combination of both.

Today, Studebaker’s failure to win remains one of Bathurst’s most tantalising ‘what if?’ propositions.

Had someone with the rat-like cunning of Harry Firth, with his renowned expertise in ‘massaging’ Series Production cars into Bathurst winners, the Bathurst result sheet could have looked very different today.

 

1961 Armstrong 500

Studebaker’s Great Race roots can be traced back to the second running of the iconic event at Phillip Island in 1961, when two of the latest model V8 Larks with their lusty 259 cid (4.2 litre) V8s were entered in Class A for cars over 2600cc in engine capacity.


One Lark for Brian Foley and Sydney motoring writer David McKay was entered by then NSW distributor for Studebaker cars, York Motors. A second Lark entry was lodged by Victorian Studebaker distributor, Canada Cycle and Motor Company, shared by Victoria Police Motor Sports Club (VPMSC) team members Fred Sutherland and Bill Graetz who were both serving police constables. They were backed by other colleagues that formed a very efficient and enthusiast pit crew.


Canada Cycle and Motor agreed to loan a four-door Lark for the Club’s motor sport use. Studebaker mechanics Enzo and Rino Dozzi were enthusiastic supporters of the VPMSC’s racing efforts and assisted greatly in the preparation of the car.


As expected the two Studebakers were fast and reliable throughout the gruelling event, displaying none of the crippling brake and wheel problems that would afflict them in later years at Bathurst as the competition increased and speeds rose dramatically. The American cars finished first and third in Class A and second and fourth outright.


They missed out on the cash prize awarded to the first car to complete the 500-mile distance though, largely due to high tyre wear caused by their high top speeds and prodigious V8 power on the abrasive track surface. This went to the Class B-winning Mercedes Benz 220SE driven by Bob Jane and Harry Firth.

The one that got away. The Lark entered by Canada Cycle and Motor Company for the Victorian Police Motor Sports Club was declared the outright winner in 1962 - until a post-race lap recount. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

 

1962 Armstrong 500

This was the closest Studebaker came to winning The Great Race outright. There are many today who still think they won it but were robbed of the correct result due to the clumsy manual lap-scoring procedures at the time which were prone to human error.


After such a great run in the 1961 race, Canada Cycle and Motor Company again backed the Victorian Police team by loaning them an ex-police Mobile Traffic Section four-door Lark sedan for Sutherland and Graetz to drive.


These were fast cars built specially for police pursuit duties, powered by the larger 289 cid (4.7 litre) V8 from the Hawk which produced 225 bhp (168 kW). With a three-speed manual gearbox, heavy duty drivetrain and larger finned brake drums all round, the police-spec Lark was well suited to race duties.


Like 1961, a second Lark was entered by a NSW team, this time a private entry from Wollongong for Don Algie and Kingsley Hibbard which had recently finished third outright in the 1962 Bathurst Six Hour race at Mount Panorama.


As expected, the two Studebakers with their power advantage and rugged construction set the pace for most of the race, on a crumbling bitumen circuit which had disintegrated into what resembled a rallycross course by the end of the day.


In the closing stages of the race, the VPMSC crew were confident in the knowledge that even though the Firth/Jane XL Falcon had rapidly caught and passed their Lark, they were comfortably leading Class A and still almost a lap ahead of the Ford in outright terms according to the official lap charts.


However, even though they were shown the chequered flag and named as the outright winners on the day, a lap re-count demanded by the Ford team resulted in the Lark drivers being classified as finishing on the same lap as the Firth/Jane Falcon - but 21 seconds behind! They still won their class, but missing out on the outright win was a bitter pill to swallow.

Weldon/Needham Lark being hounded by the winning Firth/Jane Cortina GT across the top of The Mountain in 1963. Note the huge gumtree that once resided right next to the track as the cars thundered through McPhillamy Park. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

 

1963 Armstrong 500

This was when the Armstrong 500 shifted from the dilapidated Phillip Island circuit to what would become the Great Race’s permanent home at Mount Panorama, Bathurst in regional NSW.


With two super long straights that climbed up and down The Mountain each lap, the circuit seemed tailor-made for the power advantage that the V8 Studebaker enjoyed. However, such high straight line speeds would also prove to be the Studebaker’s downfall, as its feeble four wheel drum brakes would prove totally inadequate.


In 1963 a new Studebaker campaigner emerged in the form of NSW dealer Bert Needham Junior. A Studebaker man to the core, Needham had earlier spotted the talents of a young and ferociously fast Humpy Holden racer called Warren Weldon who he invited to join him in a dealer-backed ‘semi-works’ Lark for the inaugural Bathurst 500.


The Victoria Police crew chose not to enter a Studebaker in the first Bathurst enduro, although a second Lark entry was lodged for privateers Jim Wright and Ian Ferguson (which was sidelined by an accident early in the race).


As expected, in practice the Weldon/Needham car set the fastest top speed down Conrod Straight at a “blistering” 182 km/h to be amongst the fastest cars on the track, which included Holden’s new EH S4 sedan and the eventual race winning Ford Cortina GT.


Weldon also won the drag race to the first corner and will forever hold the distinction of leading the first lap of the first Bathurst 500. He led the first seven laps in fact - until he put his foot on the brake pedal at Skyline and it thumped straight to the floor and stayed there!


Somehow Weldon managed to wash off enough speed to avoid disaster by spinning the brakeless Lark in The Esses without hitting anything, before limping back to the pits to see what went wrong. Removing the red hot brake drums, the pit crew discovered to their shock and horror that the brake linings and their steel backing shoes had worn right through - after just seven laps. It was a problem that would continue to haunt the big American car at Bathurst.


With new brake shoes fitted, Weldon and Needham limped home to 27th outright and fourth in Class D, with outright victory going to Jane and Firth again in a well-sorted Cortina GT.

If not for a collapsed wheel late in the race, the Weldon/Needham ’64 model Lark was on course for outright victory. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

 

1964 Armstrong 500

They came oh-so-close in 1962, but two years later Studebaker supporters saw another golden opportunity to win The Great Race slip through their fingers. Weldon was in another four-door 4.2 litre V8 Lark with Needham, this time the latest 1964 model Cruiser with a noticeable styling facelift that produced one of the best-looking Larks.

 

And after discovering that the self-adjusters on the drum brakes had been the cause of such chronic brake wear the previous year, the mechanisms were effectively disabled so that the pit crew could manually adjust the shoes at each stop.


After a year’s absence, the VPMSC were back in the Studebaker ranks, this time with Constables Fred Sutherland and Allan Mottram in an earlier model ex-police pursuit Lark V8.


As expected the two Studebakers set the top speeds down Conrod Straight again at around 116 mph (185 km/h) in practice and leapt into the race lead, with the Sutherland/Mottram car leading the Weldon/Needham entry for the first two laps.


This year, however, the Weldon/Needham car seemed to have cured the brake problems of the previous year. It remained well in contention for not only a class victory but also outright honours and was leading the field with an hour to go.


Then, powering out of The Cutting, its right front wheel suddenly collapsed when the rim just ripped away from the wheel centre. The Lark’s crippling 1625 kgs kerb weight combined with the merciless pounding the heavily loaded right front was subjected to each lap - particularly through the notorious ‘Dipper’ - had proven too much for the skinny (130mm-wide) steel wheel to withstand.


Weldon made it back to the pits, only to suffer the further agony of a farcical pit-stop to change the damaged wheel due to major problems assembling and using the car’s standard jack, as demanded by the race rules of the day. All up the wheel failure cost the team more than 14 minutes in pit lane – or the equivalent of four race laps.


Even so, Weldon and Needham had been so far ahead they still won Class D and salvaged fourth outright finishing two laps behind the winning Bob Jane/George Reynolds Cortina GT.


And in a repeat of the Needham team’s misfortunes of the previous year, the Sutherland/Mottram Lark suffered severe brake wear which required too many stops for replacements throughout the day to remain in contention. The Victorian Police team finished second in Class D and eighth outright.

The VPMSC’s last crack at the Bathurst 500 in a Studebaker in 1965 was hobbled by the marque’s usual brake and wheel problems. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

 

1965 Armstrong 500

By now the American marque’s relevance was starting to wane in a motor race that was geared towards showcasing the latest showroom models each year.


After all, vehicle production had ceased at the company’s Indiana plant in the US and moved to Canada in 1964, but Studebaker’s failure to invest in new model development had resulted in falling sales and a bleak future.


In Australia, the supply contracts for police pursuit vehicles were also drying up and local distributors and dealerships were concentrating on clearing unsold stock of older models against competition from rival brands with nice new models.


Perhaps this explains why Bert Needham went back to the future for the 1965 Bathurst battle by fielding a 1963 model two door Lark for Weldon and new co-driver Bill Slattery. The Victorian Police constables were back, too, this time in a newer 1964 model ex-police pursuit two door.


The V8 Studebakers could still cut some fast lap times for as long as their brakes and wheels would last, but they had no choice but to drive them flat-out now as the quality of competition and lap speeds were increasing each year. And with that, Weldon’s relatively trouble-free run with brakes in 1964 returned to haunt him.


A good example of the hot competition was Ford’s new GT 500 Cortina, which had been built in small numbers specifically to win at Bathurst. It was a superior race package; much lighter than the heavyweight American car with better handling, fuel mileage and none of the braking and wheel strength issues.


Once again the two Studebakers led the early running, with Weldon hitting 198 km/h as he put pedal to the metal stretching his early lead to around 12 seconds. However, by now the competition had become so used to the Larks heading for the pits for new brakes or wheels that they seemed happy to sit back and let them have their fun!


Both Larks duly obliged, with Weldon pitting after only 17 laps for a fresh set of front brake shoes. Both cars made numerous time-consuming visits to the pits during the race with worn-out brakes, cracked brake drums or broken wheels which dropped them way down the order despite their straight line speed advantage.


Mottram and Sutherland were the higher placed of the two Larks after 500 miles, finishing sixth in Class D and 13th outright. Weldon/Slattery had a difficult day, finishing eighth in Class D and 27th outright. As expected. Victory went to the Cortina GT 500.

More than 1.6 tonnes of Studebaker proved too much for the Lark’s skinny rims to withstand, particularly the right front wheel which copped a merciless pounding like this through The Dipper each lap. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

 

1966 Gallaher 500

They had V8 power to burn and nothing could touch them in a straight line, but without homologation of better brakes and stronger wheels (impossible given the US parent company’s woes) many were now wondering why they continued to compete.


Needham’s 1964 model Commander four-door was the sole Studebaker entered this year, as the Victorian Police team had decided to abandon the Studebaker cause in favour of a switch to the latest Datsun 1300 and Toyota Crown class contenders from Japan.


This was the year when the Mini Cooper S ran riot at Mount Panorama. As Weldon fought a lone hand leading the early running, the big V8 sedan was soon under attack from a swarm of Minis that would whistle past him under brakes before he’d re-pass them on the straights. It was a thrilling spectacle while it lasted, but Weldon soon had to surrender as the usual brake and wheel fragilities started to bite.


On this occasion, Weldon’s front right wheel rim suddenly tore away from its centre as he powered through the dauntingly fast McPhillamy Park. The sudden failure give him a hell of a fright as he fought to bring the big brute back under control, before three-wheeling his way back to pit lane for yet another replacement wheel. Weldon and Slattery finished sixth in Class D and a lowly 38th outright.

Bert Needham’ s hotter 1964 Lark Daytona model with front disc brakes and four-on-the-floor had a big appetite for front brake pads and could not match the pace of Ford’s new XR Falcon GT in 1967. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

 

1967 Gallaher 500

After four years of trying, the Studebaker’s failure to convert its speed and power advantage into an outright win had many thinking that V8 power on Mount Panorama was actually more of a handicap than a help when racing production cars at Bathurst.


That all changed in 1967, though, with the much heralded arrival of Ford’s first Falcon GT. Based on the all-new XR model, the four-door GT was powered by Ford’s ‘Mustang bred’ 289 cid (4.7 litre) small block V8 backed by a four-speed manual transmission and front disc brakes.


By 1967, the Studebaker brand was all but dead with Canadian production having ceased in 1966 and the Australian dealers still trying to clear the few unsold examples that remained.


Therefore, in direct response to Ford’s V8 threat and with no showroom incentive, Needham entered one of the hottest Lark models produced - a 1964 two door Daytona complete with hot engine, front disc brakes and a Borg Warner T10 four-speed manual with floor-shift.


Quite how Needham managed to get this car accepted for the race is a mystery, given that the rules demanded that at least 250 identical examples had to be sold and registered in Australia before the race to be eligible!


Perhaps given his heartbreak over the years, the race organisers loosened the eligibility rules a notch or two, given that the heavyweight three-year old American car would be no match for the latest muscle car breed.


As predicted, the Daytona was outgunned in qualifying, with Weldon claiming the tenth grid position behind numerous XR Falcon GTs and Alfa Romeo GTVs. The lone Studebaker’s fortunes did not improve in the race either, as the front disc brakes displayed an appetite for brake pads that was every bit as insatiable as the drums they had replaced.


After numerous time-consuming pit stops to replace front disc pads, Weldon and co-driver John Hall finished one spot behind where they had qualified in eleventh outright and third in Class D, behind the Harry Firth/Fred Gibson and Ian Geoghegan/Leo Geoghegan Falcon GTs, which also finished first and second outright.

Sign of the times. The Studebaker’s eight-year run in The Great Race came to an end in 1968, the same year the Ford vs Holden muscle car war erupted on Mount Panorama. Note the Geoghegan’s new XT Falcon GT ranging up behind. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

 

1968 Hardie-Ferodo 500

The Studebaker’s last stand at Bathurst was a dismal end to the marque’s eight-year campaign to win Australia’s greatest motor race.


In reality, it had become an exercise in futility as Needham was now entering cars that had ceased production years before and were now way beyond their use-by dates, so there was nothing to be gained other than some lost pride by continuing.


Not only that, the simmering muscle car war between the local Ford and GM-H factories erupted at Mount Panorama in 1968, as Ford’s new XT Falcon GT with larger 302 cid (5.0 litre) V8 went head-to-head with Holden’s new 5.3 litre Chevrolet V8-powered Monaro GTS 327.


By then the pace of the race had risen dramatically. The Studebaker’s long-held straight line speed advantage was a distant memory and it was still hobbled by brake and wheel strength issues which had never been cured.


After qualifying only thirteenth fastest behind a pack of Falcon GTs, Monaro GTSs and Alfa GTVs, a punctured right front tyre early in the race was followed by yet another embarrassing wheel failure.

Weldon and co-driver John Hall finished where they had qualified in thirteenth outright – seven laps behind the winning Bruce McPhee Monaro. The Studebaker had fired its last shot in anger in the Bathurst 500. With better brakes and stronger wheels, it could have been so different.

All images sourced from autopics.com.au