Hugh Bell was a star of Australian rallying in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a driver who had an uncompromising style that made him a crowd favourite, and a real contender for the Australian Rally Championship.
Hugh Bell – or ‘Huge Balls’ as he was often affectionately known as – never did win that coveted national title, but in Datsun 1600s and Mazda RX7s he quickly became a driver that the factory stars sat up and took notice of.
35 years later, we look back at what made him such a star.
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Hugh Bell (left) was one of Australia's most popular rally drivers. He is pictured with co-driver Steve Ellis.
In the days before the letters P, R & C dealt their sweeping changes to the sport in Australia, rallying was brought to the vast majority by the letter G.
Group G was almost the “Claytons” of regulations, a thin collection of minimalist rules, epitomised by the expression “run what ya brung”.
It was the era of the rock-throwing sports sedan, when hybrid creations like “Dazdas”, big-engined 120Ys and V8 Stanzas roamed the forests, when fibreglass was a second skin and drill bits left solid body parts looking like Swiss cheese.
It was the era when one of these highly modified forest racers, in the hands of the right privateer rocket-ship pilot with sufficient backing and service support, could take it to the factory drivers and at times beat them.
Such a pilot was Victorian Hugh Bell.
Hugh Bell and Simon Brown in his first Datsun 1600 - note the driving lights mounted on a tow bar!
Hugh Bell was once described as “the country’s greatest exponent of spirited rally driving”, and amassed a rallying CV that many drivers could only dream of.
He and Damien O’Reilly, in their Datsun 1600, set fastest times ahead of the works Fords and Datsuns on the opening stage of the 1979 Endrust Rally in South Australia, their Australian Rally Championship debut. They went on to set two more fastest times, but retired later with ball joint failure.
In the 1980 Castrol International Rally, the same pairing took fourth outright behind three works Escort RS1800 BDAs, while Bell and Steve Ellis bettered that the following year by taking second outright behind George Fury’s works Stanza.
By the end of their Datsun 1600 era of rallying, the team had the distinction of setting fastest times in every ARC round they had entered.
Hugh Bell negotiates a corner in a Begonia Rally.
Bell’s commitment to the sport was total. At one stage he worked at his profession [surveying] only three days a week, thereby maximising the time to prepare his car, and topped up the bank balance with part-time jobs as required. He gained valuable support from Pedders Suspension, along with Marsh Seats and Hella.
Like any sport though, it took time for Bell to climb the ranks, although his progress was more rapid than some.
“I stuffed around in motorkhanas and autocross first because I wasn’t earning any money, since I was still going to RMIT (University) at the time. We did several events on a student allowance, sponsored by the government!” he recalled.
But his early cars were a far cry from the machinery that followed.
“When I started out with my first car, I might have run twin SUs or something like that, or taken the standard air filter off and put a different element in so it sounded better,” laughed Bell.
“We even had a tow-bar mounted on the front to bolt the driving lights to.
Pushing the 1600 to the limit around the Bright Speedway in the 1981 Alpine Rally.
“From that I bought a single Dellorto carburettor with a nice long inlet manifold, and a SSS cam, but still a standard gearbox, standard diff and drum brakes.
“Then you might put aluminium 240Z drums on the back, and a 240K gearbox which had huge gaps between the gears, and maybe upgrade your suspension with some Pedders inserts and grey Tokicos on the rear, stuff like that. You did it as you could afford it.”
Even though the sport was vastly different in the mid-seventies, the difficulties facing newcomers then sound familiar nowadays.
“We were young and we didn’t have the contacts and even if we did they would have charged money, and we couldn’t afford that.
“So it was a natural evolution where you basically ran an old sh-t box that would be lucky to get through scrutineering, and then as you got better equipment and more professional you obviously wanted to be in a winning position. Even though you always wanted to win in the old car, it wasn’t quite practical.”
Because the young charger had a strong will to win, Bell decided early on that he didn’t want to have all his effort in the workshop and behind the wheel undone by a navigational mistake. A move up to state level route-charted rallies was not far off.
Great cars, questionable fashion –rallying has changed a lot since the 1980s.
“I hated navigational events, I just didn’t enjoy them because there was so much reliance on a navigator.
“I figured why the hell should I have to put up with getting lost or wrong-slotted because of my navigator? Why drive your tits off when you’re on the wrong road?”
Fortunately for Bell, his navigator wasn’t too keen on fumbling about with maps either, and they scored numerous victories at state level, including three consecutive wins in the Begonia Rally. With his machinery improving and the trophy cabinet filling, Bell started to consider upgrading his Datsun.
“I was looking to buy Rex Muldoon’s 1600 at that stage. He serviced for the Nissan team at the Southern Cross Rally and instead of being paid he got all these good bits like Option 1 boxes, works suspension and good diffs.
“He had a 1600 that was really schmick, although it didn’t have a fantastic motor, it was pretty good for those days.”
A deal was done with a buyer in Darwin and Bell actually drove his old 1600 rally car up there, and the new owner paid for his airfare back. He then bought Rex’s car and after its ARC debut in the Endrust, ran it in the Alpine and 1980 Castrol in Canberra.
Bell in typical pose on the 1981 Begonia Rally.
A highlight of the Castrol was catching Peter Brock on the bitumen stage in one of the ex-Repco Commodores.
“It was a great thing to drive,” remembered Bell.
“It didn’t have much torque but it revved its tits off, it was fantastic. The box [Option 1] was strong, the diff was strong, it had a counter-weighted crank, but apart from that it was modified to give 165hp, which was nothing compared to what they used to run up to later.
“With a 5.1 diff it ran out of revs at about 7500rpm, but that still gave you a good top speed. In those days we were running 13” wheels and tyres which were pretty ordinary.”
A sixth outright in the 1980 Akademos ARC round showed signs of things to come while development of the car continued. With weight reduction being a cheaper way of improving the power/weigh ratio, the Datsun was put on a diet by Dickeson Fibreglass, and in time was fitted with ‘glass bonnet, front guards, front door skins and bootlid.
While the rear doors retained their metal outers, the insides were completely gutted and Perspex replaced the windows.
On the tarmac at the old Hume Weir race circuit near Albury in the Alpine Rally.
Development of the chassis also led to an increase in front track to aid turn-in, and as a consequence various shapes of fibreglass flares were fitted to accommodate the wider stance.
The Lutwyche Shopping Centre Rally in Queensland, the second round of the 1981 ARC, saw Bell and Ellis matching times with the works Stanzas, until a crash put them out of the event while third outright.
At Bega the Datsun met a bank, another crash followed at the Akademos, while the pair led the works cars of Fury and Dunkerton at one point until brake problems, caused by a bent trailing arm, put an end to a good Alpine run.
“Even though I had a reputation for crashing a bit,” explained Bell, “other people crashed a lot more. It was just that I would run off the road rather than crash into something. I didn’t have any panel beating expertise at all, so after we nerfed a bank at Bega one year we just went out and got another shell.
“We had the wiring loom all numbered and lettered and we just disconnected it at the firewall and put it into the new shell. We didn’t even bother seam welding the bodies in the end because they’d only last six months.
“We’d foam-fill the sills and rails for rigidity and pretty much transfer everything over, including the roll bars and number plates. You didn’t worry about stamps on the body or any of this crap about the rules now.”
The evolution of the car continued through 1982, the engine had now grown to 2.1 litres and was producing in the region of 210bhp. A season best of third outright at the Dunlop 2GO Rally was the only compensation for clutch failure on the second day while leading in WA, and a sure second being snatched away by fuel problems at the Alpine.
To increase their competitiveness the team had decided to replace the Datsun with an RX-7, and as an interim measure for the 1983 season the car that Bell is perhaps most remembered for was created; the Dazda.
“We had decided we wanted to go to the Mazda, and we thought as an interim thing we would put a Mazda Rotary motor into the Datsun, and that just turned out to be an absolute weapon.
“With the independent rear end there was just so much traction, and because it was a monster bridge-port it had a fair bit of torque, it was an awesome thing as far as the way it accelerated away from the line.”
After consultation with Mazsport, the team went to Rod Millen in New Zealand to source the engine, a 13B producing around 280bhp.
More Alpine Rally action. Bell's flamboyant style made him a crowd favourite.
Bell had sold his Datsun engine for $3500 and shipped the ready-to-run rotary, complete with 52mm downdraught Weber, to Australia for the same amount. With an instant power increase of around 80 horsepower, the Dazda was an awesome package, although it brought some additional challenges.
“We first took it down to Tassie for a bit of a shakedown run, and in those days they were really onto the noise and it was 115dB (the legal limit was 96dB).
“It literally hurt your ears on idle. We had to stuff steel wool up the exhaust pipes and stuff like that; it was funny,” recalled Bell.
“We had to run cast iron pipes coming out of the engine because we were blowing holes in the extractors, they would glow white then you’d get a bit of a leak in the exhaust system and it would backfire and shoot flames out, which looks impressive, but blew holes in the exhaust system.”
The Dazda made its ARC debut at the ’83 2GO Rally where Bell was the only Aussie to get ahead of hot-shot import Malcolm Wilson in a BDA Escort, however, a high-speed off-road excursion put paid to any sort of result.
A new shell later, he and Paul Paterson kept it all together until the last stage of the Alpine, when they damaged a steering arm and handed victory to Ian Hill in his ex-works Escort BDA.
Hugh Bell throws his Datsun 1600 around during the 1981 Begonia Rally. Photo: Mark Baldock
For 1984 the even more successful RX-7 replaced the Dazda and the Datsun chapter of Bell’s rallying career was closed. In the coming years PRC and Group A came to dominate the sport, and the era of the competitive privateer versus the factory teams also passed.
“There was just so much more freedom in what you could do,” reminisced one of Australia’s greatest exponents of spirited rally driving.
“And that’s why with a bit of imagination you could have a competitive car. Not like now.”
“We had Fred Gocentas (Greg Carr’s navigator) come up to us once - they’d had a problem with the BDA on one stage and they were behind us at the start of the next, and he said to me, ‘Can we [he and Greg Carr] come through, can we go out before you?’
“I said ‘no, but if you can beat me on this stage you can go through’.
“Well, they didn’t; he never asked me again.”
It’s a fair indication of the respect Hugh Bell had gained as a rally driver, and why he still evokes such great memories in those old enough to remember watching him in action.
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