John Armitage had a pretty close relationship, both personal and business wise, with Howard Marsden. Marsden was, amongst other duties he performed for Datsun, managing the factory Datsun Rally Team, run out of a large workshop at the side of the Nissan/Datsun spare parts warehouse complex in Cheltenham Road, Braeside.
John had, through his contacts at Datsun, for some time been able to kit out his immaculate 180B SSS rally car with some (otherwise unobtainable!) parts courtesy of the Datsun boys.
After the ‘stump in the dust’ incident in the Marchal Rallye, John had been diligently working on ways and means to assist Geoff and his promising future rally endeavours. That assistance not only included the loan of some go-faster parts (the Dellortos, cam and the diff) and SEV Marchal Driving lights provided through his Autosport motor sport component supply business in Box Hill, but John had been working on Howard to also assist Geoff.
At the time, Nissan had some ex-Southern Cross Rally Violet 710 SSS cars sitting in what was affectionately called “the bone yard” at the Braeside Nissan/Datsun complex, and on occasions some parts had mysteriously gone missing, only to end up in the hands of spurious Datsun drivers all over Australia.
John’s sprinkling of “Armitage fairy dust” over Howard would soon pay dividends.
Les continues with the story: “I got a call from Geoff to tell me to go and grab a car from ‘Uncle’ John Armitage at Autosport and get down to Datsun at Braeside and pick up some parts for the 1600. That sounded like a bright opening for a young man, so off I went. I really did not know the guys at Datsun at that time, so it was to be a learning experience. I had no idea of what to expect.
“John Armitage had an ex-Wormald Security 4-door Datsun 120Y which he used for shop deliveries. And it was buggered! The fellows at Datsun were used to seeing this car and John thought that it would make entry to the complex a bit less complicated for me. So we used this poor car to go backwards and forward to Braeside to collect bits.
“I don’t know how many trips we did in that 120Y to pick up parts, but it was more than a few.
“Out the back was a big bitumen area and there were huge dump-masters which were full of unwanted stock. Books, catalogues, advertising material and lots of spare parts – all dead stock which would just get thrown out, and the 710s were parked next the dump-masters in the bone yard. The 710s came in on a carnet, so Nissan were not going to send them back or sell them, so they had to be destroyed, which was by taking them to the crusher.
“I was allowed to pick anything off one of the 710s, so I did! I even got a 710 tacho – a 10,000 rpm one –and now it’s in Neil Taylor’s 710! (Neil Taylor has reconstructed a replica of the 1977 Rauno Aaltonen/Jeff Beaumont Southern Cross Rally winning 710 SSS, which has been universally acknowledged to be the most faithful replica of a “works rally” 710 anywhere in the world). So it was time spent in a very worthwhile fashion. I took out every nut and bolt and anything which I thought we could use from those cars.”
The 710s came into Australia for competition on a Customs import carnet, so as such Datsun had to send them back to Japan as complete “original as imported” vehicles when the carnet expired, or pay the exorbitant import tax to retain them in Australia. Or perhaps allow a badly damaged immobile vehicle that’s largely complete “original as imported” vehicle to be totally destroyed under customs supervision in an automotive crusher.
After a thorough stripping, in order to have the 710 ready to pass a Customs inspection, it required some imaginative thinking to have it (at the very least) look somewhat like they did upon arrival in Australia, but with reasonable allowance for “rally usage”.
As things turned out, not long before the invitation to rape the 710, one of Geoff’s mates had bought a “New Guinea” Datsun 1600, imported by an expatriate, which came as standard with no heater and front drum brakes (!) and which was intended to be converted into a rally car.
Les again, this time with a big grin: “So we removed all that stuff from the PNG car and bolted it back into the 710. We replaced the stuff we took out with 240K stuff which at least looked as if was more suitable for competition. There was nothing worthwhile left on the 710 in the end – it was just a mobile body shell – equipped with standard 1600 seats and running gear with front drum brakes and 13 inch steel rims!
“We got a complete front and rear end suspension, Option 1 gearbox, a 5.1:1 LSD, half shafts, rear shocks, works brakes, works struts, cross members, radiators, oil coolers, hydraulic handbrakes, brake lines, gear stick knob – the whole lot!” And later on, a very special engine!
Geoff and IFK 250 were most certainly going to get some big improvements for the Alpine Rally. And lots of work for Les and the faithful crew.
IFK 250 was duly upgraded courtesy of the Datsun 710 parts, including front struts (now the height adjustable works Nissan Tokico units, with hub drives for the Halda), and associated components such as fully-adjustable for camber and caster aluminium tops; the gearbox was now a direct fifth Option 1 unit; the differential ratio was now 5.1:1 and with a limited slip centre.
A 710 rear cross member and trailing arms added some additional strength to the suspension (and width to the track, requiring wheel arch panel beating to clear the rear tyres (proper flaring would come later) and the brakes were now ventilated discs with 4-spot calipers all round.
Tyres were still Semperits (rather than the far superior Dunlop SP52 tyres that the works team were using), and the car still sat on 240Z 14 inch steel rims, painted gold to emulate the colour of the Datsun works Enkei alloy wheels.
Geoff’s result (second outright) in the Endrust Rally earlier in the year had pleased Howard Marsden. Datsun had chosen not to enter any of its cars in the Alpine that year, but the wily Marsden was keen to do whatever he could to prevent a Ford/Alpine victory.
The special present was just what IFK needed and with it, Geoff and IFK really hit the big time, with champagne popping everywhere. But all this hard driving and consequent success has some detriments to the car’s body and chassis. IFK is still shod with Semperit tyres, its garage area is an open-air concrete pad in the laneway at the back of an Optometrist’s Shop in Moonee Ponds.
A few days later, and no doubt with an extra dose of that (by now) well used fairy dust sprinkled by John Armitage, the final part of the “Alpine Presents” landed in Geoff’s lap.
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.