Photos courtesy Lloyds Auctioneers.
A crash and fire might have taken the first Holden Dealer Team-prepped car out of its very first race, but that front-page event also provided the key to the team’s win at Bathurst less than a month later, and the 1969 Monaro GTS survived to sell at auction last month for half a million dollars.
Even with Ford making official entries into Australian Touring Car races with its Falcon GTHO – and with a privateer Holden team showing that the Monaro could beat the Falcon at Bathurst in 1968 – General Motors wouldn’t officially provide funding to Holden for racing activities in the late 1960s.
Which is not to say that Holden executives were ready to leave all the winning to Ford. Instead, John Bagshaw in 1969 created the Holden Dealer Team – see, it was run by dealers, not by Holden itself! – figured out how to channel GM funding to it, and hired ex-Ford team manager Harry Firth to run the new team. Firth’s primary task: win Bathurst.
To do so, he not only added a couple untested but promising drivers – Colin Bond and Peter Brock – to a stable of veteran drivers, he also had his colleagues at Chevrolet send over a few blueprinted 350-cu.in. V-8s to drop into the Monaro sport coupe and to counter the 351 Windsors Ford was installing in the GTHO Phase I.
The first Monaro GTS 350 the team prepared (chassis number HT/13681/M) then went out for a shakedown run at that year’s Sandown Three-Hour Race, a precursor to Bathurst. Firth tapped Kevin Bartlett and Spencer Martin to drive the car, one of five GTS 350s in the running at the race. Martin appeared to be holding his own among the Falcons until about 45 minutes into the race when he lost all brakes and decided to send the Monaro into a skid to slow it down. The Monaro slowed, but as it skidded backwards off the course, the fuel tank split and caused a fire from which Martin narrowly escaped.
Martin, 30, reportedly retired from racing immediately after, but Firth wanted the Monaro stripped down to nuts and bolts to determine the cause of Martin’s off-road excursion. The team’s mechanics discovered that somebody had accidentally swapped the road brake pads for the race brake pads, leading to the terminal overheating of the brakes, but they also discovered premature ring wear in the engine, something easily corrected after GM engineers in Detroit recommended the use of chromemoly rings.
Firth entered three other GTS 350s in that year’s Bathurst, all equipped with better brake cooling, chromemoly rings, and drivers confident that nobody mixed up their brakes. Bond and Tony Roberts took first while the other two Monaros finished third and sixth. (One of Ford’s GTHOs DNF’d while the other two factory team cars finished fourth and fifth.)
Meanwhile, Holden rebuilt the Sandown Monaro and offered it for sale with just 700 miles on its 350. A Holden district sales manager and amateur racer named Tony Connolly bought it and proceeded to race it in hillclimbs and other local events, proudly showing off the scars that the fire left on the car and that Holden didn’t quite repair.
Since then, Connolly had Holden mechanically restore the Monaro and returned it to its Sandown livery. The subject of plenty of media attention prior to the August 19 Lloyds auction at Sandown, the GTS 350 was expected to sell for more than AUS $1 million to become the most expensive Holden sold at auction, besting the first Australian-built Holden, which sold in 2013 for AUS$672,000. Instead, the Monaro sold for AUS$500,000, or about US$395,000.
For more information on the Sandown auction, visit LloydsAuctions.com.au.