Harry Firth’s little engine that won Bathurst!

They didn’t call Harry Firth the Old Fox for nothing.

When he turned up for the inaugural Bathurst 1000 in 1963 some of his competitors thought he had taken leave of his senses.

Not for him the great, growling V8 that has since become synonymous with the Mt Panorama circuit, where the race had moved from its previous incarnation as the Armstrong 500 (miles) at Phillip Island, Victoria.

Firth and co-driver Bob Jane arrived at Bathurst with a 1498cc Ford Cortina GT.

Firth and Jane had won at Phillip Island in a Falcon XL the previous year and in a Mercedes 220SE the year before that, so no one was about to take them for mugs.

But their competitors were puzzled why the defending champions would put their trust in this little four-cylinder sedan that, improbably enough, had an estate version being used as a police car in Kenya.

Firth had two Cortinas imported in kit form, and, ever the perfectionist, had stood on the factory floor overseeing every aspect of their construction.

He knew that there was more to winning these races than straight line power.

“Everyone was saying you’ve got to have V8s,” recalled Firth, now 89.

“And I said: ‘No, this new little car with disc brakes will go just as fast round a track as what a V8 will, and it won’t wear itself out. It weighs nothing and you’ll never have brake trouble with it.”‘

Jane took a bit of convincing, but he was won over after taking one of the Cortinas for a spin at Sandown.

“Geez, you can stop this on a threepenny bit,” he told Firth. “We’ll kill them.”

Now it was time for some classic Firth subterfuge.

Even 44-years later the Old Fox can’t stop laughing at the thought of how they hoodwinked everybody during the practice days at Mt Panorama.

“We did half laps. Quick on one half, then slow. Then slow on the first half, and quick on the second, so no one would actually know how fast we could go.”

Come race day it panned out just as the two had plotted.

After starting from No 20 on the grid, the Cortina took the lead on the fifth lap.

“Bob just pulled out down the end of the straight and passed them, and off he went into the distance,” Firth recalled.

“At the first pit stop I get in the car and we are 28 seconds in front.

“When we finished up we were a lap and a half in front of them, and they were livid.”

The Cortina GT ran the entire race without a hint of trouble, just as Firth had predicted, hitting a top speed of 105.88mph (170.4kph). It needed no oil, water or a tyre change and easily beat cars with double its horsepower and price tag.

Cortinas won the next two Bathursts in 1964 and 1965 before rule changes in 1966 made them ineligible.

Firth was by then well on his way to becoming a legend of Australian motor racing, as a driver, designer and team manager.

Behind the wheel he won an Australian rally championship and four Bathursts (Armstrongs).

As a team manager for both Ford and Holden he won five Bathursts, five Australian manufacturers’ championships and four Australian rally championships.

He is credited with co-designing and race-developing some of the great cars of the industry – the Cortina GT 500, the Falcon GT and GTHO, the Torana XU1, L34 and A9X.

They all carried the Firth stamp of individuality.

He would do his calculations in chalk on the floor of his workshop, then oversee every aspect of development and preparation, even down to hand-cutting tyre treads on the morning of the race so they would exactly suit the conditions.

“You made your own toys, and because you had made the cars and helped design them, it meant that you had a very big advantage over anyone else,” he said.

“Sitting there seeing the winner’s flag drop on you in your own car in the great race – that is something very few people experience,” he said.

Firth believes he and Bob Jane took Australian motor racing into a new era.

“We were very efficient and very professional. We brought, Bob and I, a whole new professional outlook into motor sport.”

Jane was also blessed with a business brain and Firth recalls how he would be downstairs getting his hands dirty on the cars while Jane was upstairs studying company law, skills he later used to found the Bob Jane T-Mart empire.

Firth was born with an oily rag in his hands in Snowy River country in East Gippsland, Victoria in April 1918, when the Great War still had some months to run.

He remembers building himself a billy-cart when he was seven or eight and racing it down the hills near his home in Orbost.

He learnt about engines from his uncle George Winchester, who had a garage, and devoured all the reading material he could lay his hands on.

When he was old enough Firth graduated from billy-carts to motor cycles, and was soon zooming around on a Velocette 350.

When the World War 2 came he joined the army and was posted to the Middle East and New Guinea, always working with engines.

He ran a dispatch riders section in the Middle East and spent his spare time tinkering with desert buggies. In New Guinea he spent much of the time with his head under the bonnet of a Jeep.

It gave him a great breadth of experience that he later put to good use in his racing career.

“In the war you had to have the skill to improvise, and make things or you were in heaps of trouble – or you were dead.

“There were no spare parts, no tools, so you improvised with every mortal bloody thing.

“When you came back you looked at every book and everything you learned in war time you applied those in competition.”

Firth used some of his deferred war pay to buy himself a P-type MG sports car, which he began racing.

Later on he got hold of an MG TC and made a supercharged lightweight version in which he set a national record for the standing quarter-mile.

His career was under way. He helped design wheel mountings, mufflers, brake linings and spark plugs. He tested lubricants and tyres, including the early steel belt radials.

“We worked from 7am till 2am every day,” he said.

More than 80 years after he built his first billy-cart, Harry Firth is still scratching away designing things to make cars go faster.

He can’t help himself. It’s in his blood.