This is arguably the greatest Holden muscle racer ever built. It was not only the first Holden to win the Australian Touring Car Championship (ATCC) but also the first Aussie car to do so, against the best imports from the US and Europe. Norm Beechey’s immortal HT GTS 350 Monaro was, indeed, a world beater.
Since its inception in 1960, the ATCC title had been dominated by imported makes – firstly by Jaguar, before the mid-’60s onslaught of imported V8 Mustangs. For 1970, the challenge of building an Aussie car to the standards of the latest US Trans-Am factory racers intrigued Norm Beechey.
With the enthusiastic support of Holden and Shell, Beechey and his small local team broke new ground which typified the ‘can do’ Aussie approach. They designed and constructed an HT GTS 350 Monaro Improved Production car which not only proved a match for the mega-dollar US imports but was built with a fraction of the development budgets that the Ford and GM Trans-Am factory teams enjoyed.
The amount of local content in the Monaro went much further than the ‘Made in Australia’ body shell. The car incorporated a multitude of clever engineering ideas and quality workmanship gleaned from the fertile minds and skilled hands of a small team of talented Aussies.
Norm Beechey was not shy in telling the world that winning the 1970 title with this car was his greatest racing achievement. Today, every Aussie muscle car fan can share in that pride.
A STAR IS BORN
Norm Beechey was no stranger to big V8 grunt or breaking new ground with his choice of racing machinery. In the mid-1950s, he quickly made a name for himself as fast and spectacular with his pedal to the metal, tail-out driving of a new Ford Customline. He then displayed great courage and tenacity taming both a 409ci big block Chevrolet Impala and Holman-Moody 406ci Ford Galaxie in the early 1960s with great success. Norm was also the first Aussie racer to import the then-new 289ci Ford Mustang from the US, becoming not only the first driver on the planet to win a road race in Ford’s hot new pony car but also claiming his first ATCC title in 1965.
After campaigning a 327ci Chevy Nova in 1966 and 1967, Norm knew Holden’s stunning new HK GTS 327 Monaro was on the drawing boards at Fisherman’s Bend and that both GM-H and his sponsor Shell were keen for Norm to race it in the ATCC against the dominant US imports. After all, GM-H manufactured Holdens in Australia – not Chevrolets. However, he still needed an interim car for 1968 and chose a 350ci Camaro, which was built into a potent racer by Graham Moore (who went on to build Bob Jane’s 7.0 litre ZL-1).
In the second half of 1968, he got his hands on one of the new HK GTS 327s, but faced a rushed development program to get the new car race-ready and competitive to face the Mustangs (and highly competitive 911 Porsches) in the 1969 ATCC. In 1969, for the first time the national touring car title was to be fought out over a series of races in 1969, rather than the single event it had been since 1960.
Norm’s victory in the HK over arch rival Pete Geoghegan and his Mustang at a Calder meeting in late 1968 caused great excitement among the gathered Holden and Shell heavies, who predicted a strong season for Norm’s new Holden the following year. However, over the course of the 1969 championship, the HK failed to deliver on its initial promise. Its wet-sumped 475bhp (354kW) Chev V8 engines proved fragile on occasions. And, against Geoghegan’s well-developed Mustang and state-of-the-art Trans-Am Fords of Allan Moffat and Bob Jane, Norm battled with mediocre brakes and the narrow tyres he was forced to use because of the restrictive dimensions of the Monaro’s stock wheel wells.
Despite these handicaps, Beechey still won the final two rounds of the 1969 ATCC which proved there was enough potential to keep the Monaro project alive. No doubt boosting Holden’s enthusiasm for being involved was the fact that its new Monaro had won the 1968 Hardie-Ferodo 500 Series Production race at Bathurst on debut and backed up with another win in 1969. The only thing missing was an ATCC title with Holden’s name on it.
For Aussie race fans and manufacturers, the ATCC had become something of a national embarrassment by 1970. Our most prestigious tin-top title had been dominated by imported cars since its inception. Despite Beechey’s gallant efforts to break that strangle-hold with the HK Monaro in 1969, it was clear that the local cars would need a helping hand from the rule makers if they were to have a decent shot at the title.
For 1970, governing body CAMS loosened up the technical regulations to effectively allow a local car to be built along the same lines as the imported Trans-Am cars, with new freedoms in the key areas of suspension, brakes, weight distribution, body modifications, seating etc. With these new freedoms, Norm knew that Holden’s latest HT Monaro with 350ci Chev power could theoretically take the fight right up to the imports. In effect, the 327ci HK had served as something of a mobile ‘test bed’ for the HT, because many of the modifications and lessons learned from that car were transferred across to the HT.
Norm’s new Monaro – J190814 – was completed at General Motors-Holden’s (GM-H) Dandenong vehicle assembly plant in the last week of September 1969.
PSN (Production Sequence Number) J190814 order specification was as follows:
Holden HT 81837 Monaro GTS 350 with build configuration – Coupe body: 350 cubic inch 300hp engine: M21 Heavy-Duty 4-speed manual transmission; conventional (non power assisted) fast-ratio steering; front wheel power disc brakes; Special Purpose 12 bolt Salisbury, 30 spline rear axle with Positraction LSD; non-fitment of air conditioning.
From its fresh factory-delivered condition, the car would undergo many modifications prior to embarking on its historic 1970 ATCC campaign. Under Beechey’s direction, the building of the car involved a small but immensely talented team of Aussies including 24 year old chief mechanic Lou Mallia, 19 year old apprentice Adrian Dalton, machinist/metallurgist Ken Box and fabricator/ engineer Ron Harrop.
From a succession of Traco Engineering ( Jim Travis and Frank Coon – US ) engines used in Chevrolets campaigned by Beechey from 1966 to 1968 came a proven combination, that would form the basis of the new Aussie-built 350 engine in the HT Monaro for 1970. This engine was progressively modified through the 1971 and 1972 seasons with upgrades like Repco-modified Lucas fuel injection and dry sump lubrication. However, as the car has been restored to the specification in which it won the 1970 ATCC, we’ll stick with that engine detail here to avoid confusion.
Each of Norm’s previous Chev engines had enjoyed noticeably improvement, from around 475bhp in the 1966 327ci Nova and the 1968 Camaro. According to Beechey, the HT’s new 350 was rated at just over 500bhp (372kW) at 7700rpm – a staggering figure at the time. The torque was equally shattering, churning out an estimated 500ft/lbs (675Nm) at 5500-6000rpm.
The rugged cast-iron cylinder block was over-bored 30-thou as part of the blue-printing process, raising its capacity from 5.7 to 6.0 litres. Its forged steel billet crankshaft was held in place by four-bolt main bearing caps, which were locally machined steel units in place of the weaker factory cast-iron items. This stout bottom end swam in a lagoon-like 26-pint baffled wet sump, designed to aid oil cooling and help reduce oil surge under high cornering loads.
Forged Warren con-rods were matched with specially machined big-end caps. Forge-True 12.5:1 domed pistons used Dykes L-shaped stainless steel piston rings and the big breathing roller cam ran a maximum 600-thou lift, with 292 @ 20-thou duration.
Because much of the 350’s development was based on lessons learned from its 327 Traco predecessor, it carried across the same induction system. This was a sight to behold, with four sand-cast 58mm DCOE side-draught Weber carburettors. This quartet of Italian carbs was mounted on a magnesium Moon cross-over manifold similar to that used in the formative years of the US Can-Am sports car series. Considerable effort went into fabrication of aluminium shields around the inlet trumpets on each side of the engine. These were designed to insulate the inlet charge from excessive under-bonnet heat and feed cooling air directly to the carbs from the bonnet scoops for maximum power.
The heavily modified cylinder heads flowed 550hp and were modelled on the proven Traco units, with aluminium needle roller rockers and extensive port-matching work carried out to suit the Moon manifold.
Booming 1 3/4-inch diameter exhaust headers consisted of 36-inch (91cm)- long four-into-one primaries which dumped into 14-inch (355mm) – long megaphones which exited just below the trailing edge of the front mudguards on each side. You can imagine the sound! In fact, Norm used special ear plugs with valves that would shut when the decibels reached a painful limit, yet allowed him to conduct a normal conversation out of the car.
To keep the coolant temperatures under control, the big 350 was equipped with a Corvette aluminium cross-flow radiator fitted with two Ford Galaxie header tanks welded together to maximise coolant capacity.
A familiar sight in 1970, the Monaro with Pete’s Mustang hot on his tail
All the grunt was harnessed by a Schiefer forged alloy flywheel and pressure plate assembly. Norm used two gearboxes. One was a normal close ratio Muncie M-22 ‘Rockcrusher’ based on that used in the Chevrolet Corvette. The other was a stock Holden Saginaw casing, with a beautifully machined straight-cut gear set made by transmission guru Peter Hollinger. The Saginaw ‘box had a taller 3rd gear and was used to avoid extra shifts on some tracks.
The custom-made tailshaft, with much fatter diameter tubing, transferred power to the live rear axle assembly, which was another beautiful piece of engineering from the skilled hands of Ken Box. It incorporated a full-floating design (similar to the Trans-Am Mustangs) which ensured that an axle breakage wouldn’t result in the loss of a wheel. The diff centre was a rugged 12-bolt GM Positraction unit, with extra GM clutch plates and the factory’s heavy-duty spring pack. Box also supplied the superbly machined 31-spline steel billet axles and hubs, fitted with fat 1/2-inch wheel studs for maximum strength and durability.
The new rule freedoms for 1970 allowed Beechey to incorporate many innovations in an effort to improve the overall performance of the HT Monaro, but he faced a formidable engineering challenge. The Trans-Am Mustangs had been designed, constructed and developed in the US with virtually unlimited budgets and technical resources, so the concept of making a ‘Trans-Aus’ racer was not a task to be taken lightly.
The US Trans-Am builders were obsessed with minimising weight, to the extent that acid-dipping of bodies and components had became so extreme in the US series as to pose a threat to durability and safety. As a result, Beechey got very serious about weight reduction. For instance, the Holden single-point distributor had a special alloy body that saved one kilogram. Aluminium battery cables saved three kilos. Braided plastic fuel lines – another three kilos. Lightweight fiberglass seats saved 18 kilos. Alloy bolts were used in place of steel where possible.
Another Trans-Am engineering obsession was altering the height and location of major heavy components, to lower a car’s centre of gravity and minimise its polar moment of inertia (ie mounting heavy components as close as possible to the car’s centre of gravity can greatly improve agility and handling response). As a result, the big 350 V8 engine was moved back a full 100mm and dropped 75mm to try and match the improved balance of the Trans-Am cars. Even so, the Monaro’s handling dynamics were still considered inferior to the factory cars, which made such radical surgery into something an art form.
The Monaro also utilised a special fuel tank set-up which optimised weight distribution to improve traction. The fuel tank was divided into two, so that one side or the other could be filled to transfer 56 kilograms of fuel weight over the
rear wheel that needed it the most. For instance, Calder Raceway has a majority of right-hand corners so only the right side tank (over the unweighted inside rear wheel) was filled. Oran Park’s majority of left handers meant only the left tank was used for the same reason. In long distance races, both were filled. There were also two locating brackets for the boot-mounted battery, so that it too could also be mounted either left or right to maximise that weight effect.
Serious thought was also given to the concept of Norm being able to switch the car’s cockpit configuration from right-hand drive to left-hand drive, so that his personal 90kg ballast could also do its fair share! However, the idea never went further than the discussion stage.
Trans-Am cars utilised welded full-length roll cages which undoubtedly provided substantial crash protection for drivers. More importantly for the engineers, though, the intricate tube steel structures formed a stressed ‘space frame’ which contributed to massive gains in chassis stiffness from front to rear. This not only provided a very rigid platform for accurate suspension tuning and consistent performance, but also made for an extremely robust chassis that could withstand the punishment of a hard racing season.
To provide maximum torsional stiffness, the Monaro was fitted with a welded roll cage which fully extended into the engine bay and boot area. The front cross-member was also solidly mounted to the body’s frame rails and braced to the roll cage tubing. Additionally, all the internal front sheet metal was welded together to further increase chassis rigidity.
The front suspension’s upper and lower control arms pivoted from extremely rigid mounting plates which were also tied to both the cross-member and the engine bay roll cage tubing. The suspension arms were adjustable by way of alternative mounting points to easily adjust the front roll centre. Three positions for the top arms and two for the bottom arms were provided.
The static front ride height was a full 100mm lower than stock, to drastically lower the car’s centre of gravity and reduce bump steer. Heavier front coil springs and Koni shocks with adjustable bump and rebound settings – as used on the Trans-Am Camaros – were specially imported. The front wheels were feather-weight 15 x 8-inch magnesium Minilites from the UK, which were all the rage at the time.
The live rear axle was located in leaf springs as stipulated by the regulations, with ultra strong billet bronze front bushings and lighter solid alloy units in the back. Beechey experimented with both specially tapered single leaf and multi-leaf units, with the single leaf set-up saving another 20 kilos in weight.
The axle housing was also accurately located in fore and aft movement by using upper and lower trailing arms fitted with spherical rod ends. Ron Harrop’s superb Watts Linkage device provided accurate lateral location and also allowed for rear roll centre adjustment. The rear anti-roll bar, one of many components hand-made by Ken Box, was hinged from the roll cage, located about 300mm above the boot floor, with drop links to the suspension pick-ups.
One of the finest examples of Beechey’s wonderfully simple and effective engineering solutions was the car’s differential oil cooler. No electric pumps needed here. The oil was pumped through a remote-mounted VW oil cooler by means of a shock absorber mounted to the rear axle. The up and down movement of the suspension made the shock absorber work as a simple pump, continuously moving the oil through the cooling circuit. Rear wheels were also magnesium Minilites, in the largest allowable 15 x 10-inch dimensions.
The driver’s compartment was another area that displayed some clever thinking, gleaned from Norm’s many years of racing experience. Lightweight fiberglass bucket seats not only saved a lot of weight but got Norm sitting down nice and low in the car.
A much stronger accelerator pedal set-up was also fabricated, to cope with the mashing from his size 10 1/2 right foot. The gear stick was extended in height by some 300mm, so that in the heat of battle Norm only had to move his hand across to the left rather than left and down to change gears. This wheel-to-gear-stick relationship is now standard practice in the construction of many race and rally cars.
Mounted on top of the gear stick, within easy finger reach of the gear knob, was an intriguing hand-throttle device that utilised a throttle trigger and cable. This set-up enabled Norm to blip the throttle on down changes by simply pulling the trigger on the gear stick, rather than the traditional ‘heel and toe’ foot shuffling technique between brake and throttle pedals.
Norm felt that to heel and toe was not sensitive enough when juggling that much power, weight and speed, as well as not allowing him to get enough foot pressure on the brake pedal. It was system first trialled by Beechey several years before and proved so effective he retained it for the HT Monaro.
Mounted on top of the steering column was a Jones tell-tale cable-driven marine tacho (originally fitted to Len Lukey’s Galaxie) accompanied by Stewart-Warner gauges each side for oil pressure and water temperature readings. If engine oil pressure dropped below 30psi, a big red warning light mounted above the tacho would come on to warn Norm of imminent destruction.
Another clever cockpit feature was the ‘fail-safe’ ignition system, which featured both a transistorised ignition and a conventional coil/condenser arrangement. The two systems were linked via two fuse holders mounted on the console. If one circuit failed, Norm simply had to move the fuse to the other holder to bring the back-up circuit into operation. Considerable attention was also given to the ducting of cooling air into cabin, which included a large alloy duct that protruded from the base of the dash.
Among new technical freedoms allowed under the revised 1970 ATCC rules (Improved Production) was that any type of brakes could be used, provided they were of the same configuration as originally specified (ie disc or drum) and were produced by the same parent manufacturer.
The fact that Holden was a subsidiary of General Motors allowed Norm to use powerful Chev Corvette four-spot callipers and 260mm ventilated front discs, fed plenty of cooling air via some neat aluminium ducting fabricated by Alan Standfield.
In addition to a substantial increase in braking performance, this set-up also eliminated the need for a brake booster which resulted in more room being available in the engine bay for the carb ducting on the right hand side of the engine. The extra room also allowed for the use of two EH Holden brake master cylinders – one for the front hydraulic circuit and one for the rear – providing a simple means of adjusting front to rear brake bias. This was done via an adjustable bar on the brake pedal stalk which controlled the amount of pedal pressure distributed to each master cylinder. The rear also benefitted from the GM parts bin, with Camaro rear drums fitted with GM sintered metallic brake shoes.
BUILDING THE BEAST
Lou Mallia served as Norm Beechey’s chief mechanic in 1970 and 1971. He was deeply involved not only in the construction of the HT 350, but his dedication and mechanical skills throughout the 1970 season played a crucial role in Beechey’s historic ATCC win. More than three decades later, his larger than life former boss and the mighty Shell Monaro still hold a special place in Mallia’s memory.
AMC: When did you start working for Norm?
LOU MALLIA: When I finished my mechanical apprenticeship, I started working as a truck mechanic for Norm when he had the Nova. Then in 1968 Graham Moore was running the Camaro for him, before John Sheppard came down from Sydney and took over. Sheppo wasn’t there for that long but I used to help him if he needed a hand.
Later, it was my job to convert that Camaro to right-hand drive so it could be sold as a used car! I wasn’t involved in the initial development of the HK (327) Monaro, Sheppo was involved in all that, but I can remember going to Bathurst with that car and that was the first race meeting I ever went to. That’s really how I got involved.
AMC: Were you and Adrian Dalton involved with the building of the HT 350 Monaro from start to finish?
LM: Yes, right from the word go. That car arrived at work (a workshop at the back of Norm’s Nissan dealership on Sydney Road, Brunswick in Melbourne) as a brand new road-going car that we completely stripped and built into a race car.
AMC: How much involvement did Norm have in the building of the HT?
LM: He really was 99-percent of that motor car. Most of the design and engineering ideas came from Norm. He was a very, very clever man. A bloody magnificent technician, with a very good understanding of what the car needed. He had most of the say. Take a simple thing like his seat. I reckon we spent a week just getting him positioned properly in the car. We were also fortunate to have blokes like Ron Harrop involved because he was a very clever bloke and so was his father. Ken Box was also involved and he was a brilliant engineer. Whatever we gave him to do he did brilliantly and the best example of that was the fully-floating rear end in the Monaro. We nearly lost that 1970 championship at Warwick Farm because of a broken axle, but Ken’s full-floater meant we didn’t lose the wheel.
AMC: How long did it take to build the car?
LM: It didn’t take very long because the HK 327 model was phased out at the end of 1969 and we started the 1970 season with the new car, so we built it over the Christmas and New Year period.
AMC: In your opinion, was Norm’s HT the equal of, say, Moffat’s Trans-Am in terms of its overall engineering quality?
LM: No, I think it was certainly lacking in the handling department. I used to go to Spicer Springs in North Melbourne and I spent nearly a month down there stuffing around with rear springs trying to get the car to handle right. The first time we took the car to Oran Park it was an absolute pig. For some reason or another we had the original Monaro (road car) leaf springs in the truck and out of desperation I put them in and it virtually transformed the car. I remember Peter Lewis-Williams from Holden saying ‘Lou, we do spend millions of dollars developing these things you know!’ I’ll never forget that.
AMC: Did it have any weaknesses as a race car when you won the championship in 1970?
LM: Yeah, the engine, without a doubt. The major problem was sump surge, running the bearings dry and things like that. That was even with a very big, deep sump with lots of gates in it. That sump was all Norm’s design as well. Once we dry-sumped the car the following year, that was the end of all those problems. We really should have done that much earlier but we hadn’t, because that was still pretty new technology in those days.
AMC: What about that 350 V8 you ran in 1970. Was it a Traco engine?
LM: No, we built the 350 at our workshop in Brunswick. Norm used a lot of Traco stuff in the early days, but that 350 was pretty much an Australian engine. Ken Box dry-decked the block for us and we went from head gaskets to cooper rings and all that sort of thing. Ken did all the machining on it, Duggan’s at Coburg did all the balancing work for us and I put it together at work and that’s where it all happened. Barry Seton came down from Sydney to make the extractors for it.
AMC: Winning that 1970 title in an Australian car against the Trans-Am cars must have given you enormous satisfaction?
LM: Look, I was no motor racing hero. Until I got involved, car racing used to bore me to tears, but (winning the ATCC) was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I couldn’t believe it. Probably the thing that we were most proud of with that motor car in 1970 was the fact that Ford were trying to build two super cars at the time (Improved Production XW Falcon GT-HOs for Moffat and Geoghegan). They were spending mega dollars as you can imagine and they still couldn’t get them on the track. Moffat turned up in one at the final round in Tassie but blew it up in practice and didn’t race. We beat the best that year. That’s why we painted the name ‘Trans-Aus’ on the back of the car, because everyone was talking Trans-Am this and Trans-Am that, so we put that across the back which really wound a few people up!”
NORM BEECHEY QUOTES
“You know there are lots of people who believe it’s just a hotted-up Holden…that they could do the same thing to their’s. Well, they couldn’t. It’s a 100-percent racing car and we’ve achieved it all here in Australia in one season, with a budget only a fraction of the size the Yanks had to play with. It’s a magnificent effort, my greatest motor racing achievement.” Norm Beechey, Sports Car World, 1970
“The Holden project was immense. Somebody claimed in print it cost us a six-figure sum to develop the car. Well, it wasn’t that high. We could have run a team of cars for that amount. But it did take up a hell of a lot of time and money.”