It’s a simple fact that the most popular form of motor racing in Australia today is sedan racing. Of course, this is much to the chagrin of the purist who would walk over hot coals to watch open-wheelers or sports racing cars. It was quite the opposite during the 1960s when the cream of the Northern Hemisphere’s drivers would travel south to escape the northern winter for the Tasman Series. Spectators in the thousands would flock to circuits to watch such names as Clark, Hill, Brabham and McLaren behind the wheel of almost new Grand Prix cars from the likes of Ferrari, Brabham, Cooper and BRM.
However, 1960 brought the start of an event that has grown substantially over the years and would come to dominate Australian motor racing through to the present day.
Phillip Island, in the Australian state of Victoria, is almost as far south as you can go on mainland Australia before you reach the ocean. Then and now it is famed for its Fairy Penguins, holiday atmosphere, sheltered beaches, swimming, surfing and, of course, the picturesque Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit where motor racing has been held continuously since 1928. It is a track that from its front straight, drivers probably have a better panoramic view of the coastline and ocean than anywhere else on the island.
Motor racing now and in the 1960s, is an excellent way of showing off your products to prospective customers. That was certainly on the mind of the managing director of shock absorber manufacturer Armstrong York Engineering when he agreed to sponsor a 500-mile endurance race for Australian-built or assembled production sedans at Phillip Island. Called the Armstrong 500 it consisted of five separate classes divided according to engine capacity. Class A was up to 750-cc with such cars as the Renault 750. From there to 1300-cc was Class B, which included the Simca Aronde and Volkswagen Beetle. The Peugeot 403 fit into Class C for 1301-cc to 2000-cc. Class D (2001-cc to 3500-cc) included the Ford Falcon and Mercedes-Benz 220SE. The final class (E, over 3500-cc) attracted a single entry, an Australian-assembled Ford Customline.
There was no outright winner, as the laurel wreaths went to winners of each class. However, as happens, history does record that the first car to reach 500-miles was a Vauxhall Cresta driven by John Roxburgh and Frank Coad.
The Armstrong 500 returned to the Island the following year, but there was a change to the structure of the classes. Instead of five classes there were now four, but still tied to cubic capacity and slightly reshuffled. In Class A, or cars with an engine capacity over 2,600-cc, were the Vauxhall Velux, Ford Customline and a new kid on the block—a Studebaker Lark entered by the Canada Cycle and Motor Company, the assemblers of Studebakers in Australia.
Despite being powered by a smaller capacity engine, the first to 500-miles was a Mercedes-Benz 200SE driven by Bob Jane and Harry Firth.
The classes changed again for 1962, but instead of being tied to engine capacity they were now based on the retail price on the showroom floor! This meant that Class A were those cars that sold between £1251 and £2000 and included the Citroen ID19, Chrysler Valiant and Studebaker Lark, but as happens, history records the first car across the line as the Ford Falcon, again driven by Jane and Firth. The Ford was in Class B (£1,051 to £1,250) with the Studebaker of Fred Sutherland and Bill Graetz finishing on the same lap.
Three years of sedan racing was hard on the surface of the Phillip Island circuit, so much so that it was breaking up in places. So, after a considerable amount of lobbying by the Australian Racing Drivers Club, in conjunction with the Bathurst local council, the Armstrong 500 moved 575-miles north to the Mount Panorama circuit, which is in the Australian state of New South Wales.
By 1963, the stature of the Armstrong 500 had risen considerably with the race being the first Holden vs. Ford confrontation—an ongoing battle, even today. Not only were there factory entries from Ford, BMC and Chrysler, but also a myriad of other entries from private competitors and also from the likes of the Canada Cycle and Motor Company. A works Ford Cortina 500 led across the line, which was the first of the cars built with one aim in mind—to win at Bathurst.