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Author Interview: Joel Wakely

Pitstop recently had the pleasure of interviewing our newest author Joel Wakely. We enjoyed hearing about his new best-selling book, The Legends of the 48-215. Joel also tells us about his passion for early model Holden’s, and recounts for us what it was like to own a successful race car in the 50's - an exciting time in Australia's motosport history.

“Legends of the 48-215” is a book about the history of these unique Holden cars, what motivated you to write this book? 
I have always had a passion for early model Holden’s, because I grew up with them and I was lucky enough to be the owner of one of the best ones that raced in the 60’s in the Appendix J touring car series. That car did a lot for me personally and for my Service Station workshop business. This gave us accreditation as mechanics and it built my business, my life and helped others on our team in their career. In particular both drivers Spencer Martin and Barry Seton are recognized as true legends of the sport. So using this as a thread, and not wanting to say, “look at me, look at us and look at my car”, I then selected ten early model Holden’s to feature in my book that had prominence in the motor industry- like the first Holden to represent Australia internationally, in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally, 60 years later a replica car repeated the event, it is also featured. The Peter Brock, purpose built FX Holden he raced at Goodwood in 2006 I considered worthy. Unfortunately it was the last car Brock drove on a race track. Another aspect of my book is the several Legend drivers featured who all started out racing in a 48-215 Holden. So we have the three Geoghegan’s, father Tom sons Leo and Ian [Pete]. Spencer Martin Drove a few other cars before my car but my Holden bought him prominence. Barry also started out racing in a 48-215.Among others Brian Muir and Des West, all my choice. So we have a combination of early model Holden’s and Legend drivers. One exception is the FJ model Holden featured because I west getting too much stick from my mates who are FJ freaks. The FJ Holden was an upgrade model so I selected a fully restored example to feature in my book. I have photos with the car taken a few weeks ago when we drove it to Tweed Heads and back.

That’s a good point for the second question – one of the things we’ve noticed since the books has been out, is that we are getting feedback from people saying “there was no FX”. There seems to be a bit of controversy about the FX. What is the background to that? 
Early days – first the significance is the “48 “the first of manufacture; the “215” was derived from the motor capacity 2150cc = 48-215 .Initially they did not have a name or a series letter chosen. As for the name they considered four including “boomerang “but finally settled on “HOLDEN” in honour of Sir Edward Holden the company’s Chairman. The letters FX denote the series – FX / FJ / FB then EJ/ EH etc.

Now you had a car yourself, and you actually raced with a team of people. You were telling me a fascinating story earlier about how you actually started with that, and how the team of three got together. I’d love to hear that recounted again, because I think that is a fascinating story. 
Well we were all mates. It really goes back to my MGTC days. I used to work at a Caltex service station when I was 18, and I had a black MGTC. You’re talking about a 5 year old car that every kid wanted; it was a dream to own a MGTC. Spencer Martin used to ride his bike down to the garage where I worked and just look at this car, and tell himself “I am going to buy one of these one day”. We became mates, and he did buy one of those cars one day. Then I went and opened my own garage and he came and worked for me part time as a bowser boy. So we grew up as kids, and mates, and work mates. I opened the garage, and of course, I needed a mechanic, so I put an advertisement in the paper and this guy turned up, a guy called Bob Gray. He had impeccable recommendations. Back in the 50’s, he was the NSW apprentice mechanic of the year, two years running, out of five years. I mean, that is a pretty good accreditation! He worked for the NRMA at the smash repair section at Pyrmont and was mainly repairing smashed cars and the mechanics of them. But that is not what Bob wanted, he wanted more. Anyway, he came out and I interviewed him and all the rest of it, and I employed him. He was a brilliant mechanic. He was what you would refer to as an engineer, developer, a thinker. He didn’t go and replace anything, he fixed it. He knew how to fix things! He was an innovating engineer. Spencer Martin was an innovative pre fabricator for Clive Adams. Clive had a very good reputation as a body prefabricator. Back then people would get a chassis and they would build a sports car body like aluminium and they’d pre-fabricate it. Spencer worked for him, and he had a car called the Prad Holden, which Spencer pre-fabricated the body for to look identical to the 300S Maserati. So Spencer had really good skills. Bob had good skills. I probably had a cash register and I was funding it! (laughs) I was funding a passion that three guys developed together. Now if you look at the history of the early model Holden racing, the thing that happened back in the 50’s, like you had Tom Geoghegan, Leo Geoghegan, you had Repco with cross flow heads. Now, they were putting out 150 horsepower back then, but it wasn’t legal under the new regulations that they introduced in 1959. It was all getting out of hand. The Geoghegan’s Holden, that looked like a Holden, had a Repco cross flow head on it. It had disc breaks, and MGTC gear box, all the things that would make the car go faster. But when the new regulations came in, you had to run the standard block, the standard cylinder head, the standard gear box, the standard diff, and you could only modify breaks in the interest of safety, you couldn’t put disc breaks on. 

So you had this dream team! What happened next? 
We bought a car, and as I say in the book, we purpose-built a race car. Now a lot of the guys we were racing against, they’d stick a number on the door on Saturday, go and race Sunday, and then drive it to work on Monday. So we were the serious guys, we had purpose-built race car. And that is one of the reasons we blew everyone away – well, not everyone, but we were serious and there were a lot of kids out there that weren’t. People like Max Stahl and Warren Weldon, they were serious. They had mechanical engineers that were doing what we were doing. You know, they were up there with us. We were winning all the races, but not always by that much. The hardest thing was to stay in front. Once you get on top, in any sport that is competitive, to stay in front of the opposition is the thing, and that is what I talk about in the book. Spencer’s ability, he could feel a car. He knew what a car was doing and what it should be doing. The things we did, you got to read the book,  were quite unique and they were very well advanced. We took the whole suspension out of the car, and we took the big, heavy cast iron shock absorbers that were mounted on the diff housing and that represents weight. So the idea is that the less unsprung weights you’ve got, the better the car will sit on the road. So we’ve taken that cast iron shocks, we’ve turned them upside down, we’ve plated and mounted them on the body, and we’ve reversed the pistons inside the shocks so they work backwards or upside down, and we then developed how they dropped. We were very, very closely aligned with Lovells Springs (Bobby Lovell and his father), they were around the corner and we were in and out of there all the time with springs and everything. They’d make up special springs for us…heavier springs. Most guys wanted to lower their Holden, which you did when you raced it, just cut the spring down whereas we had purpose built special tension springs made by Lovells.

So Joel, how did you decide who was going to be the driver? There were three guys there, I am sure you all wanted to drive – how did that work out? 
Well we purpose built the car and we took it out to Warwick farm on the short circuit. Of course, Spencer had a licence, but you didn’t have to have a licence to have a drive on the short circuit as it was closed off. Spencer went around, and we timed it. And he sorted the car out a little bit and changed a few minor things. Plan A was that Bob drove, the mechanic, and then I’d drive. If you went to race meetings that were three races, we’d all drive a lap. Anyway, Spencer has gone around on the clock, and we knew how good he was. Then Bob and I went around, and as Spencer described it “Bob and Joel were having a leisurely drive”. There was quite a significant amount of time laps in our laps compared to his, so we decided then and there that Spencer would be the driver. 

You really were serious about creating a winning car, you had great mechanics, you had everything together and you seemed like you were a leap ahead. Would you say you were a leap ahead of everyone? 
Not necessarily ahead. People like Max Stahl, Bruce McPhee, Des West, were all probably ahead of us. They’d been racing in the other series, and they’d been developing their car suspension wise probably over 4 or 5 years. They had a reputation and they were winning races. They were excellent drivers and good sportsmen. We were the new boys on the block. When we turned up at Katoomba, the first race meeting we ever entered, on the fifth lap of official practice on the Saturday, Spencer broke the lap record for Appendix J cars on his fifth lap of driving of driving that car on a competitive circuit and blew Bruce McPhee’s record away. No one could believe it. We couldn’t believe how good it was! And the other upside of that was, when you got pole position in a race meeting, you’re up and away  if you’re lucky and you’re not back with the flock. So that was a big advantage to get pole. So it was a foregone conclusion. 

When you looked around at all the racing drivers that you were competing with in those days, you do mention a couple of people in the book, and the book has sold extremely well, you mention Warren Weldon, Spencer Martin, Barry Seeton, if you thought of all of the people who were in the race, other than those in your own team, which drivers really stood out?
In the book I name what I think. I am not being biased. But I think with all the accolades that Spencer got; all the write ups – and there are a lot of quotes in the book by journalists about Spencer’s ability, Barry Seeton’s ability and the other prominent driver, and gentleman driver in my books, was Des West. I think they were the three. Now I don’t take anything away from Bruce McPhee or Max Stahl or even, Norm Beechey. Beechey was the king of Holden racing, recognised in Australia. Beechey never beat us in a road circuit. We raced him at Katoomba, we raced him at Warwick Farm and we raced him on his home ground at Sandown Park and we beat him every time. It was marginal, but we beat him. One race down at Warwick Farm, Spencer and Beechey passed each other about 6 or 7 times in the one race. At Sandown the same scenario. But we had the track record, and we had the track record at every circuit we raced at with that car, except Lowood in Queensland. So the facts were there. The prize money that we achieved was more than anyone else did. It was hard to win money racing cars back then. There were three significant meetings – the Neptune Series in Katoomba which was run over four race meetings every year, so that was 8 races. We won seven of them, and we failed to finish in one as we blew a clutch. Spencer won 3 out of 4, Barry won 4 out of 4 the following year. The biggest race – and it was like the Armstrong 500 – it was a 25 lap race in Sandown in 1963. There was 500 pounds prize money for the 25 lap winner, and there was 25 pounds paid for the leader of each lap. Bruce McPhee jumped the start and led for four laps. He was penalised a minute, we scooped the pool. We got the 25 pounds for 25 laps and the 500 pound prize money. That race was by invitation only, to the best 25 Holden’s around Australia. The last race that did anything significant with, was at Lakeside in late 1964. It was the Australian Touring car championship race at Lakeside. It was won by Ian Geoghegan in a GT Cortina followed by Brian Muir in a S4 Holden with Bob Jane third in a Jaguar. Barry Seton In my Holden finished 9th in this 25 lap championship race. This was the last time an early model Holden would finish in the top 10 in a championship race in Australia. This was a game change time the Cooper S mines, Lotus Cortina’s together with the S4 Holden’s, Mustangs and others had arrived. The Appendix J series was replaced with the group E series for touring cars. 
There is a tremendous amount of nostalgia for these cars, and the price is going up all the time. I think a Ford GTO Phase III has sold for over a million. What do you think would be the most valuable Holden out there now?   
I talk about the values of Holden in the book. Unique Cars did a survey in about 2012, and that was a survey of not necessarily race cars, but general Holden’s – restored cars. The FX holden came in at 25,000 dollars. The FC’s came in about 3000 or 4000 under that. The EH’s were around about the same. The FB’s and some of those other models just didn’t appear. So it is still significant, what those early models are worth. The most expensive Holdens that were ever sold are in the National Museum in Canberra. There is a protype 1 car that was built in Detroit in 1946 which sold to the National Museum, it’s on show now, for $650, 000.  The car that Peter Briggs had in his museum was also an Australian prototype car, one of two that were built in Australia in 1947, went at auction for $635,000. So keep your old Holden’s in your garage and give them to your grandchildren! 

This is the vegemite vs marmite, Liberal vs Labour question – have you ever owned a Ford? 
Yes! I used to tame a Holden race car with a bloody star model Ford and a Mainline Ute. I was fortunate to own an XG GT Falcon brand new, zircon green in 1969. I traded that for a 350 Monaro – so I went back to Holden. In my career I have owned a lot of cars. You know, you go through periods! I did the Alfa Romeo thing. I actually owned an Alfa Montreal, which I still think I should have owned today. And I pole between Holden’s. I have had 4 Mustangs. The last one I owned was a 2001 Cobra, which was a gas of a motorcar. Cars are my passion I had too many to list but currently I drive A Ford Fairlane - XR8 - 5.4- V8.

Read more about Joel Wakely's book, "The Legends of the 48-215" here

September 02, 2016
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