Retrospective – 15 years ago – May 2000
Murray Coote was one of Australian rallying’s great drivers of the 1980s and 1990s, winning the Australian Rally Championship in a factory-backed Mazda 323 GTX. Coote also won four Queensland Rally Championship titles.
In May 2000, Queensland columnist Tom Smith wrote this feature on Murray Coote, the man who is now the boss of MCA Suspension.
To enthusiasts who’ve been around for many years and similarly, for some of the young guns in the sport today, there are celebrities recognised in rallying who have been around, in some cases, for decades.
Take Ross Dunkerton, for example – a multi-time Australian Rally Champion (amongst other achievements) and for about 25 years, to many Australians a household name.
With Rossco now retired, his long-standing record of ARC titles is being challenged by Possum Bourne.
In the present list of active competitors Ed Ordynski is still one of the ‘top three’ as a ‘factory’ driver- but he is not an ‘overnight success’ having been active as a driver since the late seventies and early eighties.
‘North of the border’, although the frequency of celebrity is somewhat lesser, Queensland still has its legends and one of those is Murray Coote.
The name conjures up a picture of a laid-back, laconic country boy from Gympie but the image hides a superb competition record and high-level technical involvement in motorsport.
With four Queensland Rally Championships to his name (1980, 1981, 1985 and 1987) and one Australian Rally Championship in 1988, he has also won the PNG Safari Rally four times and has competed in Group C circuit racing in the rally-bred Mazda 323GTS.
He was also the only officially recognized ‘factory’ rally driver for Mazda (Australia).
Murray Coote is also, at fifty years of age this year, still able to jump into a good Datsun 1600 rally car and be competitive outright against 4wd machinery at state level.
His occasional outings in Dave Feron’s 1600 are viewed by fellow competitors as something to worry about, and by spectators as something to look forward to!
With regular competition a thing of the past, however, Murray’s time these days is taken up in the complex world of suspension and shock-absorber design.
As the Australian agent for ‘Proflex’ shock-absorbers, he has a long list of very satisfied customers and another list of orders he works long hours to fill.
On the bushy outskirts of the township of Landsborough, one hour north of Brisbane, Murray and Linda Coote’s timber house sits in a rural atmosphere, with the quietness regularly disturbed by the screams of grinders and crackle of welders from the innocuous-looking galvanised shed.
‘Far from the maddening crowd’, the shed hides Murray’s office, computer, shock-dyno and workshop, along with a stock of Pro-Flex shocks and special components. Sitting in various baskets on the floor are customers’ jobs – both new and existing.
Murray was born in 1950 in Gympie – still a popular rallying location – and grew up with one brother and four sisters.
With his Mum running ‘Coote’s Sports Store’ in town, he spent his days riding horses and driving tractors before heading off to Gatton College where he achieved a Diploma in Agriculture.
With an early interest in cars, his first ‘rally’ event was a ‘Miss Australia’ treasure hunt with brother John in a GT Cortina – a pretty serious car of the day!
He seemed to adapt well to the job of ‘navigator’ in the beginning and the rallying ‘bug’ took hold.
An early job at the Wheat Research Institute in Toowoomba was unfortunately sacrificed when, as a probationary employee, he wasn’t really supposed to have time off to attend the Southern Cross Rally.
“I asked for time off, and took it,” said Murray, with a shrug. “But because I hadn’t worked there for twelve months at that time I wasn’t really supposed to go!”
More navigating roles followed for the next four years until, like many sitting in the left-hand seat, he picked up the urge to have a drive.
He had been working for Mazda dealer and rally enthusiast Charlie Lund at Moura and appeared to finally find his niche. Keeping a large property going, working with the Mazda dealership and working on Charlie’s rally car seemed like heaven to the young Murray.
“It was great. I was working on the land, working on cars and helping prepare Charlie’s rally car!” explained Murray.
Other than settling down with Linda in 1974, 1975 was the changing point when Coote acquired a Datsun 1200 sedan (coloured stock ‘orange’) from Datsun dealer Ian Stewart (no, not the co-driver!).
Back then, modifications were limited to the installations of some safety equipment, Holden shock-absorbers in the rear and some Castrol GTX in the front struts to beef up the suspension.
Long-time friend Brian Marsden was the co-driver, and would remain with Murray as navigator for some years.
After the first 1200, a second 1200 sedan came along from Stewart’s Datsun yard, but this car was ‘hotted up’ with twin SU’s and disc brakes on the front.
Murray Coote started being noticed, and as a regular entrant in the Southern Cross events of the time, won Class A in Group 1 on two occasions.
Fellow competitor and rally exponent Rod Browning was one of those along to help service in the late seventies.
Following the popular formula of the Group G cars of the era, Murray built his own ‘big-engined’ 120Y and contested many national events, gaining some notoriety from a set of photos at “Murray’s Corner’ in Canberra when a clevis pin on the brake pedal fell out.
“It was actually my own fault,” confesses a smiling Coote, “and it WAS scary!” “We’d been working on the car and I was trying to get the right pedal length. I put the pin in but forgot the (retaining) clip.”
Even today, in Murray’s role as ‘suspension consultant’ to Glenn Seton’s V8 Supercar Team, he is often reminded of the occasion (and the photos) by Glenn’s team!
After the 120Y, Murray decided to get one of the then-popular Mark 2 Ford Escorts in 2.0 litre form.
Due to some connections with the ‘factory’ Ford team, Murray ended up with ‘hand-me-down’ components from Colin Bond and Greg Carr’s ‘works’ cars.
The car only did four events in Murray’s hands before being sold to the North Queensland team of Peter Roggenkamp and Alan Baldy.
During this time, the opportunity of joining the Holden Precision Driving Team arose and employment was divided between ‘stunt’ driving with Lloyd Robertson and contract work with good mate Alan Cutts at ‘Redcliffe Steering’.
Either way, it kept the wolves from the door and enabled Murray to drive fast cars on dirt – what more could anyone ask??
The rally preparation business side of things also picked up, thanks initially to a bloke from Moree named Peter Glennie who wanted a Datsun 200B SX built for the 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial.
“There were just not many people around to fully prepare cars back then,” said Murray. “You’d go to someone to get one thing made or fitted, but people also didn’t have the money for a full build.”
It was in the leadup to 1980 that an approach was made to Joe Camilleri, the principal of ‘Grand Prix Mazda’ on Brisbane’s northside, and a long and successful relationship was initiated.
One of the most unlikely rally cars was transformed gradually by Murray into a winner – the Mazda 626 sedan.
“It had slow steering – about 41/2 turns lock-to-lock – and a huge overhang at the back,” recalled Coote.
“At the time, Henk Kabel was fairly well known in the sport and his dealership was in the southern suburbs – so Joe took up the challenge.”
The budget allowed for a good supply of the Dunlop tyres of the day, and with Murray’s fettling the car was turned into a QRC winner.
The little front-wheel drive 323GTS followed, but this car was initially thrown together to run in Group C Touring.
With it’s flares accommodating pretty wide racing rubber, the rules changed and Murray ended up competing on the circuit against 2.0 litre cars – usually at the dull end of the grid.
After changing to Group A rally spec, Murray shattered the illusions of many owners of more-powerful cars with dominant drives in the 1500cc hatchback.
The highlight of the venture was undoubtedly the outright win in the Queensland ARC round in 1984, against the likes of Gregg Hansford in a semi-official RX7 run by Ian Boettcher.
In quagmire conditions, the light little car on skinny rubber vaulted to a popular victory.
At about the same time, and facing the introduction of Group A/Group N, Murray embarked on a now-legendary project to build a cheap, but effective rally car which would be competitive against the likes of Greg Carr’s Fiat 131 Abarth.
The result was the Datsun 1200 Coupe, a mid-engined ‘sports-sedan’ which took full advantage of the rules of the day.
“I wanted to build something that didn’t rely on factory competition parts,” he recalled, “but used easily available bits.”
“In the end I had to get a Nissan competition headgasket, though!”
In a super-lightweight 1200 Coupe shell, with a strong 2.0 litre (or thereabouts) engine and a Mazda live rear end, the car had power, brakes and handling thanks to a very even distribution of mass. Most noticeably, it still had the skinny Bakelite steering wheel!
It was also extremely hot inside, being nicknamed ‘the Microwave’ by some-time co-driver Dave Kortlang.
In fact, Iain Stewart, Murray’s long standing partner ‘in crime’ suffered persistent blistering and sores on his right leg from resting against the engine/gearbox tunnel inside the car.
After the ban on Group G and over the next couple of years the ‘Grand Prix’ Mazda team competed semi-regularly in the face of the onslaught of 4wd Group A cars like the newly-dominant Subaru RX-Turbo.
With the continued support of Joe Camilleri and ‘Grand Prix Mazda’, the team took delivery of one of the first batch of BFMR Mazdas.
Unlike some of the opposition who immediately went looking for huge increases in horsepower, Murray kept the BFMR basically standard and as a result, super-reliable.
“We just kept the parts up to the gearbox, basically replacing gears and things about every second rally,” explained Coote.
In the 1988 season, the team contested ARC rounds in nearly every state on a total budget of about $15,000!!
With a Mazda Ute as a towcar and service rig Geoff Krause and Dave Feron clocked up some very long miles including trips across the Nullabor to Perth.
That season ended in a great battle with Greg Carr (in his Starion) at Canberra when Murray and Iain Stewart clinched the title.
Murray revealed that George Kahler, then a customer with his own well-known Mazda 323 4wd, made available his factory close-ratio gearbox to help the Coote/Stewart team to victory.
“That was really good of him,” said Murray. “The only problem was his was the Australian-released Mazda and the gearbox casing and housing were different. In the end we used the gearset and not much else. Then after the event we had to put it all back where it came from!”
A new BFMR fronted for the ’89 season, with further support from Yokohama Tyres and Coote was still very competitive as the ante was upped and more power was obviously needed.
1990 was a quiet year but behind the scenes, Mazda Rally Team (Australia) was gestating and after a press release at Brisbane’s Mount Coot-tha Quarry, the newly built (by Murray and his team) Mazda 323GTX was revealed.
It had more power and a new (and sometimes fragile) gearbox from Ivan Albins but the car was resplendent in it’s new livery and immediately very fast.
Coral Taylor was the new co-driver for the team, with Iain Stewart having made other commitments for the season.
“Coral was a good co-driver, and a good organiser,” explained Murray.
“That enthusiasm really rubbed off on the rest of the team, and we had a good season.”
Despite winning three rounds of the series outright, the pair were unable to overhaul eventual champions Rob Herridge/Steve Vanderbyl in their Subaru Legacy.
A minor hiccup with the gearbox caused it to lock up at crucial moments a couple of times during the season and an engine problem caused further loss of important points.
After the demise of the MRT(A), and with no further funding in sight, Murray Coote effectively retired from competition driving having achieved nearly everything he had set out to do.
With two children (Josh – 13 and Charlotte – 10) and getting very tired of working 12 hours days and 6 day weeks, Murray and Linda moved to Landsborough to set up home – and shop.
“If I was working all day, and all night – then I figured I might as well do it all at home!” said Coote.
Murray started as the Australian link to Dutch company ‘Pro-Flex’, at a time when for the majority of rally competitors the only serious options were Bilstein products or some of Jamie Drummond’s suspension (which Murray had used in the 323GTX for a time).
With the focus in rallying now much more on speed and timing to the second, aspects like suspension-tuning have taken on a whole new perspective.
Coote found that if adjustment or repairs were needed on the Bilstein products, for example, the shocks would have to be sent away and he and the customer would sit back and wait.
Now he can do it all in the ‘shed’.
It’s not just rally competitors who are using the product either with a number of top V8 Supercar Teams fitted with Pro-Flex. Glen Seton won his last Championship on Pro-Flex and Queenslanders Cameron McLean and Paul Weel have them fitted under their AU Fords.
Murray also works with Neal Bates’ Toyota team assisting with the suspension work on the Ohlins-shod Corolla WRC car.
With the higher profile of the ARC Super Series and the standard of cars having increased, along with budgets, the Coote operation has almost too much work.
“We’re getting new customers all the time,” said Murray pointing to a whiteboard listed with orders.
It seems one of the only sports that hasn’t warmed to Pro-Flex is speedway.
When asked about a possible return to competition, Murray confesses he wouldn’t want to do the ARC Super Series with it’s high PR profile and need for marketing and publicity.
“If all I had to do was turn up and drive,” he says, “I could handle that!”
On the subject of the current ARC Super Series and the WRC Cars, he has firm opinions.
“It’s like getting a polar bear and sitting it out there in my yard in 30 degree heat,” he reflects.
“Australia is a totally different environment and it’s not sustainable to have these 2 WRC cars – the gap is so huge at the moment. The current priority is PR and access to money, not necessarily skill behind the wheel.”
Despite the fact he makes a good living from the current crop of 4wd turbo cars, Murray sees the answer to a level playing field as being something typically ‘Australian’.
“With a 2.0 litre normally aspirated, 2wd formula, everyone would be in the same game,” suggests Murray.
“I could build a car that’s competitive right here in my shed. Of course Possum or Neal, with their infrastructure, could build a car with, say 225 horsepower, but I or someone else could build a good thing with 200!!”
Acknowledging that there is a place for Rally Australia, but pointing out the distances involved, Coote also suggests Rally Oz could stand alone and the ARC Super Series could possibly be based on a 5 or 6 round series on the east coast.
A question on what he thinks of the new Proton one-make series elicits a typical Coote smile and twinkle in his eye, before a shake of the head…
Well, after a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon with one of the most knowledgeable men in the sport (still), he looks at the disassembled shock on the bench and then the watch on his wrist.
He’s got work still to do before catching a plane to Perth the next morning.
Typically, his hand-luggage will carry some very important, and very valuable suspension to be installed in a leading car for the next weekend’s ARC opener.
Murray Coote, despite being one of the most-relied upon men in the country by rally competitors, is still down-to-earth and content living the Landsborough lifestyle.
He’s ‘been there’ and ‘done that’ but still lives life to the full, fitting in everything possible in the limited hours of a day.
Recreation time is not in abundance, but you get the feeling that he really does like those occasions when he’s tossed the key to that Dave Feron 1600 and told to go and have fun.
Just turn up and drive……
– Tom Smith