Pitstop had the opportunity to sit down with author Gavin Farmer, of Illinga Books to discuss how he got into automotive journalism and his passion for cars and the post war Australian automobile industry. We hope you enjoy reading this interview!
What made you decide to publish these amazing books?
Having been unceremoniously dumped out of the workforce at the age of 50, and not being able to get a job because I was 50, I sat back and I thought about how I had spent the better part of my life gathering information on motor cars and the motor industry. I thought that I should really do something about making use of it! I had already been writing magazine articles in a small way for a German classic car magazine, and I really pushed hard into that area to the point where I was a regular contributor to what is probably the most prestigious magazine ever published, which was Automobile Quarterly, and also Collectible Automobiles both from America. From there, I decided to write a book about the Tickford XR6 and XR8 Falcons which was published in 2000 and I followed it up with a book about the Subaru WRX. In January 2003, my wife and I flew to England with the idea of me broadening my writing horizons because England is a haven of motoring history. So I was doing a lot of work for Automobile Quarterly and Collectable Automobile and in one of these events, I interviewed a guy by the name of Chris Lawrence. Now he’s one of these crusty, old school Englishmen, who believed if it can’t be done on a slide rule, it can’t be done and he had no care for computers whatsoever. After I finished interviewing him about a particular car for Automobile Quarterly, he invited me out to his shed in the home that he had in a little village near the Welsh border. He opened the shed doors, and I looked at him and I said, “that’s a Morgan Aero 8” and in his true crusty British way, he turned and looked at me and barked the words “how the hell do you know that?” . I said “Well, Chris, I am a walking encyclopaedia”. In one of these epiphany moments, I said “Chris, I feel a book coming on here, can I stay a couple more nights and interview you about this car”
So when you saw the Morgan Aero 8 sitting there, you were pretty impressed?
Chris was gobsmacked that I knew what it was! Let’s face it, to him, I was just a colonial! I later drove a Series I car and it was a supercar with electrifying performance to go with that characteristic hard Morgan ride.
How come he had an Aero 8?
Well would you believe that is what the Morgan company gave him for his years of work with them? They apparently never paid him money, they gave him a car! At least, that’s what he said.
Probably a good investment!
Well you have to know a little bit about the Morgan company – which I later did and I become very good friends with Charles Morgan. Charles supported me all the way down the line with doing the Morgan: A Brave and Exciting New World book. When I got back to Australia, which was about September, 2006, I decided that I would a book about the history of the Leyland P76. After all, I had done all the research. Every man and his dog in the publishing world said to me, “don’t do it, you’ll lose your shirt because nobody knows what a P76 is, and besides, everybody knows they were the greatest heap of garbage that god put wheels under”. Now, I never agreed with any of that, I decided if anyone was going to lose their shirt, it was going to be me and I figured, it was my shirt to lose so I will do it anyway! Then when I said to them I was going to do it A4 landscape, and it’s going to be hardcover with glossy art paper – I was told I had lost my mind! Now I have sold hundred’s and hundreds and hundreds of copies of that book!
Do you think the people buying it felt it was a point of redemption, that this was proof that they did make a good decision?
Almost without exception, the various people who have bought the book have come back to me and said, “Gavin, that is a fantastic book! Where did you get all the information from?”. It was simple, I just picked up the phone and called several old ex-Leyland engineers and asked if I could interview them. The hard part of that was, that a lot of those old guys, many of whom sadly have now passed, were extremely reluctant to talk to me in the beginning. This was because that car was the high point of many of their careers and when the factory was closed, it was like they’d been cut off at the knees.
It was a very innovative car! It had the wipers underneath, the high back, a lot of innovation in that car!
It did! It showed GM, Ford and Chrysler for what they were. People have said to me that the P76 was a lemon! One Sydney journalist used that word and it spread all over the world from there. But if the P76 was a lemon, so too was the Holden Kingswood, the Ford Falcon and the Chrysler Valiant of that era! They weren’t terribly good cars by international standards. I am the only guy that has written a proper “warts and all” book on the P76.
Your book, Morgan: A Brave and Exciting New World! comes in three edition – leather, packaged in an Ash box, and brushed aluminium cover with the Morgan wings etched into its surface – this is not a normal book can you tell us a bit more about these different editions and what motivated you to create these variations?
I got the same company that who makes the aluminium frames for the Morgan to make an aluminium cover to be glued onto the leather of the book and it would have the aero 8 script of the car engraved into the aluminium. I actually sold a leather book with the aluminium cover glued on, in the wooden box made from ash.
Was that the same wood they used for the Morgan?
Yes that is the same wood.
Is there an era, or car, or manufacturer that you’ve focused on, or do you just love anything to do with cars?
Well I have very eclectic tastes where cars are concerned. Having decided to publish my own work, my primary aim now is to try and create a portfolio of books that reflect post war Australian automobile industry.
If you could buy any post war Australian car – and money is no object – what car would it be?
That’s a difficult question! I like German cars. One of my reasons for getting to Europe as often as I can is to get on the Autobahn and do 250km (or more!) I happen to disagree with the mantra “speed kills”. I’ve got a son who is a policeman, and I keep saying to him “mate, it is not speed that kills, it is the absolute stupidity of the person behind the wheel”. I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany, I’ve driven thousands of kilometres at very high speeds in BMW’s, Mercedes, Audi’s, Porsche’s, and Volkswagen’s. And I lived to write another book!
It’s a good feeling when you’re on those Autobahns!
I am in seventh heaven when the speedometer is past the 200 mark. I’m in the outside lane and just going for it! I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic. I am a huge fan of Tatra cars. Out of all the Japanese cars, I spent many years selling Mazda’s here in Adelaide, but I have become a Subaru man, I just love the technology they engineer into their cars—the four-wheel drive system and the superb boxer engine. For me, if you’re going to build a 4 cylinder engine, a flat 4 is the way to go because it so smooth and so quiet.
So you’ve published quite a number of books, could you tell us a little bit about one of your latest books, Dead Ends and Duffers?
Well Dead Ends and Duffers came about because I spent the entire 1970’s working in the automobile industry here in Adelaide – in both wholesale and retail, but primarily retail which was just a hoot. I sold Alfa Romeo’s, Volvo’s and Toyota’s, but I was primarily selling Mazda’s. I am a huge fan of the Wankel rotary engine. Just a gobsmacking, wonderful invention! I used to get around the trade, and I met a lot of people in the business. When you are buying and selling cars as I was doing, you get to know cars that are good cars that will sell easily, and you get other cars that you know are just dogs. They are just going to sit around for month after month and chew up money. It was one of those things – it was 2am I the morning, I couldn’t sleep, my brain wouldn’t’ shut down and ideas were flowing – and I decided to write a book about all these rotten old cars that wouldn’t sell. I have actually had that book done and dusted for a while. Various people suggested that I don’t publish the book, as they thought I’d upset Ford, Holden and everybody. I thought, bugger it, if they don’t know the XK Falcon is a prized heap of shit, they’ve got a problem. It was a dreadful motor car!
What books have you got in the pipeline?
I have got dozens of books in the pipeline. The first one is a book on the Ford Falcon GT’s, from 1967-76. The book is going to be called GT and GTHO the classic years. I might spin off out of that a total revamp of the original Tickford book that I did. I feel there is a lot of I could do to improve the presentation of the book! I’d then like to write a book on car’s made in Australia in the 1950’s, followed by the 60’s to be followed by the 70’s. So I am keeping myself well and truly off the streets!
Gavin, you have written some wonderful books and we look forward to seeing these forthcoming books come out as well and add to the legacy of the Australian motor industry.
You can view Gavin's range of publications here