IFK250: Just another Datsun 1600? – Part 2

Having progressed from an FB Holden to a very mild Datsun 1600, Geoff, Ross and IFK 250 are moving up the seeding order and adding to their reputation for being fast and collecting a few trophies along the way.

During the hot months of the 1976/1977 Victorian summer Geoff made contact with Hugh Venables (one of his mates from Eltham High) and asked if Hugh could, with his mate Joe Basset-Smith, “freshen up” IFK 250’s 1800cc engine.

Hugh remembers: “The engine was a stock 180B with a single Weber and was in good condition, requiring only a set of rings and bearings and valve re-seating.

Geoff Portman won two Australian Rally Championship titles.

“Geoff organised a mild cam grind and that well known fellow ‘Somebody’ mandated a very special set of strong valve springs which we duly fitted.  This rebuild cost $380 for parts.  There was no labour cost.  Those who completed against Geoff and Ross (in those days) will no doubt be disappointed to know that there was certainly nothing clever about this engine, although it was assembled with great care and scrupulous cleanliness!”

Geoff later told Hugh that those special super-strong valve springs which ‘Somebody’ provided had caused serious recession into the seats, gradually eroding the engine’s performance over time.

The status of events in which IFK 250 would be entered were ratcheted up in 1977 and while the total number of events entered had decreased, the intensity of those events had conversely increased and there was to be some serious competition ahead for IFK 250.

The speed that the car travelled over the competitive sections had increased significantly due to Geoff’s ever developing steering skills and, as a consequence, even in 1977 the bodyshell of IFK 250 was starting to show typical battle scars that rally cars do when they are pounded mercilessly.

1977 saw 10 events contested – a pretty amazing statistic when you consider the financial commitment to doing that number of high level events versus the significant lack of financial resources available to Geoff, particularly for most of the year.

The 1977 campaign began with the North Eastern Rally – again a round of the Australian Rally Championship, held around Wangaratta and the Beechworth and Stanley pine plantations.  This was a big event for many Victorians, none more so than the pair of young foresters in Car 33, IFK 250.

Things started off in spectacularly good fashion with Geoff and Ross showing a clean pair of heals to the whole field, which included Ross Dunkerton (works Datsun 260Z), Greg Carr (works Ford Escort RS2000), Dave Morrow (works Holden Gemini), as well as Clive Slater, David Jones and a heap of other hot shot Victorians.  Those few daylight stages were held in the Killawarra Forest near Wangaratta.  Geoff and Ross would go on to finish a splendid third outright behind Morrow and Dunkerton.

Success in the 1977 North Eastern Rally

Remembering the previous year’s drama with the Champagne section prize, Ross commented in characteristic style: “In the 1977 North Eastern, again an ARC as round 1, we got third, again in a very basic 1600, but with a new shell. We were fastest on the long Stanley stage (again) – and they believed it this time!”

It was an excellent start for the year.

Next event was the Castrol International in Canberra.  After just a few short years this event was becoming the one to compete in if you wanted to get yourself known.  But first you had to beat Greg Carr in the ACT forests he knew so well.

The Castrol, held only one week after the North Eastern, saw Geoff put on a great showing in IFK 250 in front of lots of spectators around an autocross track, before a gentle rollover put paid to much more forward progress.

Geoff recalls that the car needed a replacement front MacPherson strut, of which the team had none.  Fortunately, the goodness and kindness of another competitor prevailed and a loan unit was procured and fitted to the left side.  The car repaired, the boys returned to the field.

Geoff recalled: “For some reason the car felt faster and more controllable and rode bumps better around right hand corners, and we reckoned it must have had something to do with the borrowed strut, so Ross made some enquiries with our service crew and they talked to the strut donor and it turned out that the borrowed strut had a gas filled insert fitted.  I said: ‘We should try and get some of them!’”

Later in the event an alternator failure ultimately caused their retirement.

Chasing prizemoney

Ross was particularly disappointed with the car rolling over and the resultant damage, as in a few weeks’ time he wanted to compete with Geoff in the Riverland Rally in Victoria. A big plus for winning the Riverland was that not only would it be an event which would show off Ross’s considerable skills in the navigator’s seat, but also for the promoted prizemoney for the winning crew.  One thousand dollars, which would come in handy to keep things afloat.

Tom Kaitler noted that after the Castrol rollover the car needed some quick panel beating and yet again fronted the start of a rally in various colours, including that of undercoat grey.

The result of the event?  Let’s just say the promised $1000 for the winner was safely in the hands of Geoff and Ross come the end of the three-day Riverland.

Victory was made even sweeter considering there was a particularly bad petrol strike on in Victoria at the time. Ross had arranged for a forester mate, Robert Russell, to ‘camp out’ all night to get fuel in the jerry cans so the boys could run the event.

The Riverland win, coming on the back of a few good early event performances, was a huge psychological boost to both Geoff and Ross and the burgeoning team.  It provided hope and a new confidence.

The next event was the Marchal Rallye in May, a round of the Victorian Rally Championship.  With little time to make pristine repairs to the body of the car after a punishing Riverland, only the normal between-event maintenance items were attended to.

During the Marchal, Geoff and Ross were leading the event on time penalties when they collided with a stump while trying to pass John Armitage’s Datsun 180B in heavy dust.  As Tom Kaitler recalls, it was, in an ironic twist of fate – another “sliding doors” moment – which may just have been the best thing that ever happened to Geoff’s rally career!

Portman and Runnalls race through the night in the 1977 Marchal Rally.

“While in the lead of the event on points, Geoff’s starting position was such that he commenced a competitive section behind John’s rather well prepared and even better presented Datsun 180B SSS,” Tom said.

“After some few kilometres Geoff and Ross had caught John and were well and truly ‘in his dust’.

“John was a pretty fierce competitor behind the wheel and he was determined he was not going to be passed by whoever was in the car behind without a fight, and consequently he held up Geoff for several frustrating kilometres.”

While pushing on, waiting for a spot with less dust hanging around and/or a place to pass, Geoff was close behind JRA, ‘driving on John’s brake lights’ as he put it,  when a rare miscue and a corner cut by Geoff resulted in a fair bit of damage to the front end of IFK 250.

A very messy left hand front suspension, with severe displacement of the left hand chassis rail, would be a better description.  And naturally a DNF.

On hearing about the incident at the event finish, John apparently felt pretty bad about his bout of rare and rather unsportsmanlike behaviour, especially towards a clearly under financed and young, yet obviously talented, pair of hopefuls.  He approached them at the end of the event to give his apologies and suggested there might be a few things he could do to make up for his selfishness.

Thus started one of the longest and best known sponsorship arrangements in Australian rallying …  Autosport Box Hill and Geoff Portman.

After the Marchal some significant work was carried out on the chassis, repairing the damage caused by the iron bark infarction.

This was carried out in the back of Campbell Motors at Corowa. At the same time the “environmental green” colour was ditched and the Datsun was painted to become a ‘light’ blue Datsun.  In appreciation for the use of the garage and to acknowledge the input of Rob Neilson, who looked after IFK 250 at  the time, the blue Datsun carried ‘CAMPBELL MOTORS’ signage.

The next 1977 event was the Experts Trial, held partly in daylight in the Puckapunyal Army Range and later at night, which included hard navigation in the surrounding forests in nearby Costerfield and Graytown.

Prior to this event IFK 250 received a suspension upgrade via a pair of front  “East African Safari struts”.  These were not ‘Dinky-Di’ works units with adjustable height spring platforms, but the competition parts available to the public, through Bruce Wilkinson’s Datsunsport outlet.

Around this time Rob Neilson was experimenting with a rear disc brake set up, which was later fitted to IFK 250. Using standard 1600 front callipers and discs, this set up was first used for the Experts Trial.

The mechanical process of fitting the new rear brakes was relatively easy, but Tom Kaitler recalls there were all sorts of problems with bleeding the air from the rear lines.  Later in the year, the 1600 disc rotors would be replaced with Volvo units, as the top hat section was larger in diameter and sat nicely over the standard Datsun axle flanges, but required the stud holes in the disc rotors to be re-drilled to suit the Datsun wheel studs.

It was easier to take this approach rather than having to remove the axles from the trailing arms by a press, machining the flanges down to fit the top hat of the Datsun discs and then reassembling the whole shebang.

IFK 250 was still only a mildly modified rally car, unlike that of many of the opposition, which were rocket ships in comparison.

Club car or not, Geoff and Ross blitzed the field in the Experts, further adding to the fast growing trophy cabinet and the legend of Portman being an extremely fast driver, and Runnalls being a wizard at navigation.

It was around this time that Robert Neilson moved to the United Kingdom.  IFK 250 was without a mechanic and had no where to live!

A week after the North Eastern it was off to Canberra for the Castrol International Rally.

Photos in this feature have been contributed by: Bruce Keys, Dallas Dogger, John Lemm, Ken Cusack, David Balfour, Ray Berghouse/Chevron Publishing, Peter Whitten, Ian Long, Tom Kaitler, B Team Rally Media.

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Bruce Keys

Bruce has been involved in rallying for over 40 years. Although a senior administrator with CAMS (Motorsport Australia) for 35 years, he is probably best known for exploits as a motor sport photographer in the 1970s. He was awarded Life Membership of CAMS (Motorsport Australia) in 2011. Bruce is currently semi-retired and lives in Melbourne.
Bruce has been involved in rallying for over 40 years. Although a senior administrator with CAMS (Motorsport Australia) for 35 years, he is probably best known for exploits as a motor sport photographer in the 1970s. He was awarded Life Membership of CAMS (Motorsport Australia) in 2011. Bruce is currently semi-retired and lives in Melbourne.