The 1979 Repco Reliability Trial is now acknowledged as the toughest long-distance rally since the continent-to-continent epics of the early 1900s.
He may not have won, but Geoff Portman set the event alight in his 'Team Shepparton Datsun Stanza' as he led the factory teams on a merry dance across Australia. Bruce Keys tells the story of "The Sleepless Heroes".
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Like earlier round-Australia trials - and the London-to-Sydney epics of 1968 and 1977 - crews were expected to drive virtually non-stop for days at a time with limited rest breaks. Nowadays this would be considered irresponsibly dangerous.
The intensity of competition and the difficulty of the terrain covered in the Repco Reliability Trial was unprecedented and set it apart from earlier round-Australia events and the London-to-Sydney marathons.
It is now history that the event was won by the great Peter Brock in a landslide 1-2-3 result for Holden.
Much has been written about the heroics of the teams and the struggle that many had with the terrain; the sometimes less than appropriate road conditions and the relentless and gruelling running schedule presented by the Organisers, headed up by Stewart McLeod, Frank Kilfoyle, Ivar Stanelis and Tom Snooks.
On the road, the “Repco” quickly became a three-way tussle between the factory Holden Commodores, the Ford works team TE Cortinas and the lone private entry of a Datsun Stanza from Shepparton, Victoria.
As well as an extraordinary adventure for the brave competing crews in the Repco, the event was a momentous test of resolve and human endurance which stretched the intestinal fortitude and determination of the service crews, sometimes to beyond their breaking point.
Hour after hour, kilometre after kilometre, the sometimes ill-prepared and mostly massively fatigued service crews ploughed on into the unknown outback wilderness of Australia. In some cases in a vain attempt to meet their crew, who had already left the designated service point.
Keeping his sprits high, a very tired Geoff Portman smiles for the crowd in Sydney. Photographer: Unknown
One crew, in a Datsun Stanza, driven by soon-to-be multiple Australian Rally Champion Geoff Portman, and co-driven by Shepparton Auto Wreckers director Doug Thompson and his long-time friend John Hammond, had not only the support of many Shepparton businesses and individuals, but the benefit of a well-planned and co-ordinated service and back up effort.
With their starting number 22, by the time the event reached the West Australian Boarder, five days from the start, the incredible feat of actually leading the event outright was gaining immense publicity around the country and public support for the diminutive country Victorian team soared to unprecedented heights.
However, the saga of the 1979 Repco Reliability Trial may have been very different if Doug Thompson had run the car he had originally considered.
In the mid to late 70’s, Doug’s younger brother Peter, was having a ball in off road events in a Holden HR Ute and pulling some Sports and Touring class first places.
“It was basically an XU1 with three shockers on each front wheel and two on each rear,” enthused Peter during a very entertaining lunch recently.
“We had all the bugs ironed out and she was as strong as an ox. All we needed to do was to graft all the off road components into a HR Holden sedan body. It would have given the Commodores a good run for their money. Same engine, same gearbox and a stronger front end…”
But having seen the success of the factory Datsun Stanzas in sweeping all before them in the 1978 Southern Cross International Rally, Doug, Peter and their ace engineer, David “Red” Baillie, were having second thoughts.
Maybe a smaller and lighter car would be better suited to the rigorous conditions expected in the 2 week, 19,000 kilometre event?
Motorsport ran through the veins of the Thompson boys from Shepparton, Victoria, for many years before the Repco.
Drag racing, drag boats, off-roading and then rallying.
“Dougie got into rallying in a Mk 1 Cortina before building a Datsun 1600. The other activities we did were good fun, but at a drag meet you would spend all day standing around to get 4 runs of ten and a half seconds – so only 42 seconds of competition each day wore thin after a while,” Peter, or “Pud” as he is mostly known, told us.
“So Doug convinced me that we were spending too much money for not enough time and that you could rally all night for the same outlay, and that sealed the deal for us!”
The boys from Shepparton Auto Wreckers were quite taken by the idea of the 1979 Repco Reliability Trial, as they believed it represented a great opportunity to enhance their name and to spark up the profile of the town of Shepparton with some local support.
Doug Thompson ready for the long and sad drive down the Hume Highway to the final stage near Beechworth. Photographer: Unknown
Doug and John Hammond were always down for the gig, even though John’s previous experience in co-driving was restricted to club level rallies. He had the benefit of some tutoring from Ross Runnalls, however the length of the event and the expected tight schedule meant that it would have been wise to include a third crew member.
That spot was to be filled by Shepparton psychologist and rally competitor, Martin Grigg. While Martin was involved in some of the early planning, business pressures proved too difficult to overcome and the search for another crew member began.
Meanwhile, the choice of a car was made. A trip to the local Shepparton Datsun dealer, R. S. and A. R. Trevaskis Pty Ltd and a few in-depth discussions about price soon saw a brand new Datsun Stanza GL in the garage at Shepparton Auto Wreckers. But time was running out and the event was getting close…
The car was totally stripped out, all removable panels taken off and anything not essential for the rally was removed.
Then the panel beaters moved in!
Pud recalls it was a frantic period, but the build of the Stanza had to be planned carefully and carried out meticulously.
“We got to know the Nissan Rally Team boys at Braeside (Victoria) pretty well and they were able to give us some good information on the Stanza’s weaknesses, so we knew we had lots of work to do in a finite time”.
First item on the agenda was to strengthen up the front end.
All the inner front wheel arch structures were double skinned and the chassis rails foam filled and double plated. A 1 ¾ inch tube was attached along the top of the wheel arches to tie the strut towers to the fire wall and also to the substantial roll cage.
At the rear, much work was undertaken on the wheel arches and the floor pan to fit in a larger rear axle unit and while all the standard suspension mounting points were used, they were subject to significant strengthening and reinforcing.
There was no way that the standard Datsun rear axle housing would stand up to the expected punishment, so the fix was to use a Holden Torana A9X rear end and differential as it was similar length to a works Stanza rear end. The axle housing was massively strengthened and fitted with attachments for the Stanza lower and upper trailing arms and also for Datsun 240Z drum brakes.
Geoff Portman storms to stage victory and gains first on the road position in the Tooborac Seeding Stage. Photo: Ian Smith/Autopix
“We fitted a 4.4:1 ratio diff and Detroit Locker centre for the start of the event and had a LSD as a spare,” said Pud. “We also had some unbreakable axles which John Sheppard (ex HDT Manager) arranged for us, so all we had to do was get them machined to fit the tapered wheel bearings in the Salisbury housing (standard for A9X).”
The 4.4 diff gave a top speed of 126 mph, or so said the nice policeman on the side of the road between Perth and Cue!
Once the expected weaknesses were overcome, the power train specifications needed to be planned and built.
Grunt was supplied by a Dave Baillie built engine, utilising a Datsun L series 2 litre block, Mahle pistons and an FIA homologated cylinder head, which was purchased from Rex Muldoon, at that stage the Policeman at Maldon, Victoria. A ubiquitous pair of Weber carburettors and a set of 2 inch exhaust extractors combined to offer an honest and very reliable 180 bhp.
Coupled to the engine was a Datsun 240K overdrive five speed gearbox. “We had to change the gearbox a few times as the nut that holds fifth gear on kept on coming loose,” Pud recalled.
Geoff Portman agreed: “The 240K ‘box was famous for spinning the big mainshaft holding nut off unless double nutted and Locktite was used.”
After a few annoying “loose nut” occurrences en route, an arc welder was usefully employed to ensure the end of such issues!
The gearbox issue was eventually permanently overcome when the team were able to get hold of a Datsun Option 1 ‘box, “and we forgot about it after that,” Pud commented.
Front suspension was Safari spec Datsun “works” struts and heavy duty “works” gas shockers were used at the rear.
The 14 x 6 inch Hotwire wheels were fitted with Dunlop SP 52 tyres (Enkei wheels were fitted in Perth after a helpful and greatly appreciated delivery from Nissan, in support of the Shepparton Team’s massive efforts in leading the event).
Up to three spare wheels and tyres were carried, two in the rear passenger compartment and one in the boot, keeping company with the 45 gallon (200 litre!) petrol tank. Depending on the length of the stages, the spare wheel contingent varied to save weight, where possible.
An early event report from Albury's Border Morning Mail newspaper. Photo: RallySport Mag archives
Geoff Portman recalls: “A Datsun of that era didn’t usually ‘turn in’ very well but, to be truthful, I don’t remember that being a specific problem with the Shepparton Stanza.
“Factors affecting ‘lack of turn in’ would have been necessarily built in to the Stanza as it was specifically built for this marathon event. Features such as the high clearance front end with heavy works front shocks and springs, combined with the overall unusually heavy body weight, generated ample rear traction but somewhat reduced throttle control thanks to a 4.4 final drive ratio and a standard ratio 240K overdrive gearbox.
“Let me take a guess at the competitive overall weight on the start line: a reinforced body shell including integrated roll cage and bull bar cannot have been less than 1,350kg.
“Add the larger fuel tank at capacity, the heavy duty GM 10 bolt rear axle assembly, the remote area rations and extra water, the spare wheels and various other minor spare parts and tools we carried, add the three goons wearing Shepparton t-shirts, (Doug, John and Geoff) and these combined to produce a starting grid weight which must have been at least 1,800kg.
“Don’t forget to add, after the fourth competitive stage, some 150kg of sticky mud!
“Considering the above combination of ‘steering turn-in inhibitors’ I might suggest that the rear drum brakes can only share in the blame for understeer. However, Pud is correct, if most of the braking is left to the front brakes and wheels then this significantly induces more understeer,” Portman said.
“That being said then, it is astonishing to think that we finished at all!”
The front ‘roo bar was designed and built by Ray Aumann , and it was rather strange in appearance, but ultimately very effective in maintaining the integrity of the front bodywork after the two rollovers.
It was an ingenious arrangement for the rear bumper bar, where two aluminium channels neatly fitted inside one other, which could act as ramps for assisting de-bogging operations should they be required.
The standard 5 ¾ inch headlights were replaced with 7 inch Halogen units and supplemented by four SEV Marchal Rallye 702 driving lights. These would also be protected by Ray’s design of the front ‘roo bar.
The driving lights were adjustable for height from the driver’s seat via a Bowden cable and turn knob.
Inside the cockpit saw a pair of Recaro seats fitted in the front as well as a bespoke rear seat, padded more on the passenger side to allow the rear “gunner” to rest his head against it in an attempt to get some sleep where possible.
Clean and straight, the Shepparton Stanza on an early stage of the Round Australia Trial. Photo: Gavin Moore
Geoff again: “Initially, resting was difficult as my rear dicky seat spot had me thrown around like a pendulum – I didn’t know I had the discipline to sleep, being so frightened, but I kept my head down and shut my eyes – soon after I realised that Doug actually was a very good driver, so I slept.”
An electronic Terra Trip, with a Halda Twinmaster as back up, provided the co-driver with his tools of trade.
The all-important electrics were completed by Shepparton’s Adrian Allen, who designed a double back up system for each of the essential components.
Ironically, spares carried in the car on the event were few. Supplies for the crew, such as drinking water, snacks, rally jackets and the like were kept in the rear with the third crew member, but spare parts were generally limited to tie rods for the steering arms, a known weakness.
In his trail blazing run through the forest surrounding Tooborac (Victoria) in that first seeding stage, Geoff bent a tie rod, so some spares were a wise choice, considering what was envisaged to come.
The Geoff Portman involvement came to fruition quite late in the piece.
Geoff – at that time a young, very quick and confident 24 year old - recalls that it may have been a direct phone call from Doug, or perhaps via John Armitage, with whom Geoff had a very close connection through John’s Autosport sponsorship of his rally exploits.
“My not having an entered or secured a drive in the Repco Reliability Trial had left me as one of the few available drivers with any real rally credentials.”
Geoff’s initial reaction to the Thompson’s offer was simply, “Why would I not agree?”
Shepparton got great publicity from the Round Australia Trial. Photo: RallySport Mag archives
So, with only a few short weeks left before the start, Team Shepparton had their gun driver locked in!
“Our big win in the Alpine International Rally towards the end of 1978 likely drew a lot of attention – one can only imagine that this win was noticed by the Thompson brothers of Shepparton. Whatever the reason for asking me to come along, it would have been impossible to predict the story of our shared two weeks together and the events that unfolded.”
One potential problem with Geoff’s involvement was that Lisa, his wife, was heavily pregnant at the time with their daughter.How did that affect plans, we asked?
Geoff’s reply was that of a true rally devotee: “Our wedding was postponed by a week due to a clash with rally dates, so this was no different…”
There is no doubt that the performance of the team with Geoff behind the wheel was the stuff legends are made from.
All the more impressive as Geoff had not driven the car in anger before the start of the first special stage.
He recalls: “I don’t remember ever driving the Stanza prior to the first competitive stage near Tooborac – maybe I drove part of the transport from the Showgrounds.”
There are those who have covered the event in detail far better than we can achieve in this article, notably Ian Richards story of the event http://repcoroundaustralia.blogspot.com/. Probably the best recollection and dissection of any long distance rally, ever.
Suffice to say the Team Shepparton Stanza, starting in 22nd position with Portman at the wheel, took over the prestigious “first car on the road” mantle after the seeding stage around Tooborac, 80 kilometres north of Melbourne.
Doug’s wife, Lorelle recalls” “Before the start of the first special stage around Tooborac, Geoff asked Doug where he would like to be in the field, to which Doug, being conservative by nature, replied that he would like to be as far to the front as possible.
“Geoff said would you like to be first on the road, because we can do that!” And he did.
They won the 48.34km stage by one minute and 7 seconds to Greg Carr, with Peter Brock a further 25 seconds in arrears.
Now first on the road, the Stanza was not headed until the nightmare “Maralinga Sump Crusher Trial Stage”, some five days later.
This photo, taken at the finish of the event, shows the cramped living quarters in the back of the Datsun Stanza. Photographer: Unknown
Nightmare is probably not the word. Horrendous may be a more apt description.
Our chargers from Victoria went into the stage leading and managed to puncture seven tyres on the sharp flint rocks which peppered the roads for most of the 260km Trial Stage. Two wheels were borrowed from Daryl “Revs” Rowney mid-stage, with the caveat that Daryl was to stay in front of the Stanza for the remainder of the stage and he would repossess one or both of the tyres back if he had a puncture.
Geoff’s comment? “That sounded like a ‘fair deal’ to us at the time!”
The finish control was adjacent to the Nullarbor Roadhouse, where a service break was provided.
Pud chips in: “We could hear the Stanza arriving, ting, ting, ting along the road as they had driven the final part of the stage on some rims with the tyres having flayed to pieces. The boys were an hour and 40 minutes late and we were heartbroken.”
Geoff agreed with the sentiment: “We felt ecstatic before, but deflated after those punctures!
“Knowing what I now know about speed, car weight, tyre pressures and the rocks of the Nullarbor, we certainly would have given that section more respect.”
Geoff has a special note to himself: “NULL (no) ARBOR (trees)”.
“Two of the punctures on that long remote rocky stage were incurred on the same protruding rock simultaneously – that dreadful sound of ‘bang’ front flat followed by ‘bang’ rear flat. Other than that spate of punctures, we didn’t generally have a problem with flat tyres. If only...”
Pud concurred: “The virtually indestructible Dunlop SP52 tyres had previously been faultless and we were surprised that they suffered so many punctures in this stage with not another flat for the whole event.”
Geoff Portman storms to a stage victory on the Tooborac stage of the 1979 Round Australia Trial.
“Things got a lot more difficult after that.”
“We knew that the servicing would be difficult and the schedule for the whole event would be tight. But like so many others, we underestimated the effect that time, distance and sleeplessness would have on us all.
“We had six guys who helped build the car nearly full time, and with the help our all our Shepparton supporters, at one stage I am sure there was nearly 30 people in the workshop, including most of the Shepparton District Car Club members, all doing something essential to help get us to the start line,” Pud said.
“Look, we even had a group who would go out to the take away shops and get dinner for us. It was their way of assisting the Shepparton effort and we were all very grateful. They were just happy being involved.”
Team Shepparton planned the servicing for the Repco Reliability Trail like a military operation. Pud and Red knew that they could not match the dollar spending of the works teams, but even so, and without aerial support, they were determined to have a red hot go.
The Shepparton crew’s service arrangements included 11 people, two Holden panel vans (a HQ 6-cylinder and a HJ 308 V8) and a large Ford F350 truck. The panel vans were to be used for field servicing, having the usual equipment, including wheels, fuel, oil, water, air filters, frequently used spares and the like, while the F350 acted as the supply barge and carried not only additional spares and equipment for the Stanza, but for the vans as well.
A compliment of 30 wheels and tyres, three spare gearboxes, a spare engine – provided by Geoff Portman, from “the Grunter” – as the Grunter engine was a full FIA spec unit as well and generally compatible with the Stanza engine – spare diff centres, front struts, suspensions arms, who knows how many rear shock absorbers, 200 gallons of fuel, 50 litres of oil, oxy welding equipment, generators, grinders, you name it, the boys from Shepparton had thought of it.
Then on top of all the supplies for the cars, there needed to be enough food and water and portable shelter, sleeping gear and clothes for 13 people for two weeks!
The stories of the dedication of service crews in rallying are legendary. Even for this one event, far too many to tell here.
Some which do evoke some great memories go like this…
On the way to the first service point of the event, which was to be at the Tooborac Football Ground after the seeding stage, Pud and his service team soon found out that they had so much weight in the Ford F350 that the rear floor of the tray was rubbing on the rear tyres and creating immense amounts of smoke behind the truck.
John Hammond inspects the repairs to the Stanza at the Sydney Showgrounds after the second rollover. Massive damage to the rear of the car is obvious. Peter “Pud” Thompson (in brown jacket) looks on. Photographer: Unknown
“There was smoke and bits of rubber everywhere, we were going to be pulled up by the coppers, for sure, and we could not risk that,” Pud recalled.
Answer? Start the 240V generator and Dave Griffiths manned the jigsaw (no battery powered hand tools then!) and cut the top off the left wheel arch – while they were on the highway from Shepparton! The other side wasn’t done until Cue in West Australia.
Then at Tooborac, a few lengths of 2x4 inch timber were apportioned and a vertical extension to the left wheel arch was fashioned at the service point. Some wooden covers were fitted (the Tooborac Footy Club’s spectator stand was a bit draughty for a while after that!) and away the boys went on time.
The engine proved to be bullet proof throughout the event.
“I don’t believe we used any components from the spare engine. Somewhere in the haze (of 41 plus years) I believe we needed to adjust the valve clearances several times to compensate for the ‘mushrooming’ of valves as they settled into the seats, due to prolonged high engine revs (probably more on the very long high speed transport stages),” added Geoff.
No story about the Shepparton/Thompson/Portman/Hammond Stanza effort would be complete without mentioning the infamous roll overs, which effectively stymied all hope our heroes had of finishing the Repco with all event time controls being visited, let alone winning the 19,000 kilometre marathon.
The first rollover occurred at Perth’s Wanneroo Raceway (now Barbagallo Raceway), a 2.4 kilometre bitumen race circuit 40 clicks north of the West Australian capital, Perth.
The circuit – like most of Perth – is built on sand, which provides very effective and deep natural sand traps for race cars on the outside of corners to stop them hitting the concrete barriers.
Geoff Portman was a young Victorian forestry officer with an incredible turn of speed. Photo: Ian Smith/Autopix
After the Nullarbor puncture debacle, the Stanza crew drove into Perth in 8th place, 1 hour and 42 minutes behind leaders Colin Bond, John Dawson-Damer and Bob Riley in the works Ford Cortina 250.
Pud recalls the team had always planned to rebuild the Stanza back to effectively new condition in Perth to give the boys the best possible chance of again blitzing the field on the run to Darwin.
After all, they had the driver who could perform the business and the car had proven itself to be the fastest sprinter of the field in the trial stages.
The crew was confident that the horrors of the Nullarbor were well behind them and the subsequent gap to the leaders which they suffered in that nightmare was well within their capacity to negate.
After all, there were still 12,000 kilometres left!
Prior to the Waneroo stage, teams had the benefit of a longish service period in Perth.
“We replaced as many components as we could. Gearbox, brakes, tyres(!), the works. She was Mickey Mouse on wheels when she left the Perth service break,” Pud says.
“Can’t say the same for the service crew! We were all pretty mentally and physically stuffed after the disappointment of all those punctures. We had a motel booked and decided it was time to get some sleep.”
Taken sometime after the first rollover at Wanneroo Park. Geoff (right) and Doug are showing obvious signs of too much dust and tiredness. Photographer: Unknown
There was, however, a bit more to do to the Stanza than the crew had time for and Geoff, Doug and John lost 11 minutes on the way to Wanneroo while the car was being prepared back to tip top condition.
As legend has it, as most crews were tight on service time, the 40.2 kilometre transport north through the Perth suburbs to the stage start at Wanneroo was traversed at an astonishingly quick pace by most of the top crews.
“After all that I still got some sleep,” said Pud, “But hey! 15 minutes is better than none at all!”
Determined to get back to the pointy end of the field, Geoff, who drove most of the special and trial stages, while Doug did most of the transports, was giving a command performance on the mixed gravel, sand and bitumen stage around the access roads and on the racetrack itself at Wanneroo.
That was until a fast downhill run into the 180 degree right hand Kolb Corner (now known as Turn 6) where Geoff overcooked it and slid sideways into the aforementioned deep sand on the outside of the corner.
Now, being one who is a keen observer of race track safety, the huge sand traps at Wanneroo Raceway are very effective at halting forward progress of errant cars – as long as the cars enter the sand traps going forward.
The Stanza entered the sand very, very sideways. The Dunlops dug into the deep and soft sand and over she went.
At a time control well after the Wanneroo roll over. The cardboard window covers have now been replaced by glass, thanks to the Datsun dealer network along the route! Photographer: Unknown
And there were no friendly spectators to help right the car or solid trees to winch from, so our Shepparton heroes had to spend precious time digging and pushing to eventually right the car onto its wheels, before getting it back onto the bitumen.
Recalling the incident brought back some fond memories for Peter Thompson. “A good deal of panel damage occurred at Wanneroo and the Nissan dealers in each town we came to were of fabulous assistance.
“Including taking four door windows out of new cars to replace the cardboard that was hurriedly fitted at Wanneroo, and supplying any part we needed.”
The force of the rollover also took its toll on the rear axle housing, but it was not to become apparent for a few more thousand kilometres…
The visit to the sand trap saw 11 minutes lost on the stage, plus another 52 precious minutes were to go by the wayside on the next transport, while the service crew were stitching the car back together.
The poor Stanza became more and more battered the further it went around Australia. Photographer: Unknown
The task of finishing the event, let alone winning, was all of a sudden starting to look doubtful.
A new key word of the day was introduced. “Determination”.
The heavy service schedule played havoc on all the service crews, with thousands of kilometres of travel each day to meet their competing crews. Many competing teams simply had to push on without the benefit of meeting their service crews at some locations.
Vast distances meant lots of petrol, by competitors and service crews alike. Conservation of this precious resource was but one more problem to overcome.
Heavy loads, punishing roads and the ever present tight service schedule did little to assist fuel consumption figures. The massive distances between fuel supplies were, in some cases, heartbreakingly long.
At one stage, somewhere between Darwin and the east coast, the Ford works service crews were literally out of petrol and the tired mechanics begged for mercy from other passing service crews.
“We came across the Ford team service crew on the side of the road. They were all chip-dry and pleaded for a few gallons to get things going again,” Pud recalled.
“We were not flush with fuel, either, but what could you do? What if the roles were reversed?
John Hammond and Doug Thompson shift rocks to enable Portman to drive the Stanza through a dry creek bed in northern Australia.
“So, following a conversation with Ford’s Peter Ryan, who was looking after the Bond Cortina, a couple of jerry cans worth of Super changed hands and all was well again.
“Must have been pretty tough all that way from nowhere and with no juice…
“If we had been leading, things may have been different, but we did what we did and got on with it.”
After Darwin, the damage to the rear axle housing was starting to get serious and cause handling problems. The boys desperately needed an arc welder. At Burketown one was found and the rear end was soon welded back together.
In the meantime, Portman just kept on doing what he did best – driving faster than all the others on most stages.
Another rebuild for the Stanza was scheduled for Townsville, where the spare diff was fitted.
Townsville simply meant another 4000 kilometres and still very little sleep. Such massive distances being travelled and the incredible sleep deprivation experienced by competitors, service crews and officials would simply not be tolerated these days – but 41 years ago, things were different!
It’s probably another reason why the likes of the Repco Reliability Trial will never be seen again.
By the time they reached Brisbane, Geoff had plied his craft and excelled on each trial stage, regularly being in the top three fastest times to be back in eighth spot, but a depressing 8 hours behind leader Barry Fergurson in the HDT Commodore.
The service crew had forgotten what a night’s sleep felt like. The new key word for the event was “Relentless”
In an attempt to further reduce the time gap to the leaders, on the run down from Brisbane, via several trial stages in the areas used by the Total Oil Southern Cross International Rallies, a corner on the special stage in the Collombatti Forest caught out Brock, Barry Fergurson (as the winch used to get Brock out was across the road), perhaps Shekhar Mehta, and unfortunately, Geoff Portman.
Geoff recalls: “At least I was in good company – it’s easy to avoid calamity if you drive slow!”
With more damage evident, Portman pushes on through the night near Kempsey in NSW. Photographer: Unknown
When Portman arrived at the corner (interestingly, the same corner that George Fury rolled his Datsun 710 on the 1977 Southern Cross), obviously pushing hard, he got out of shape and rolled the Stanza several times, so far off the road that neither Carr nor Wes Nalder (who were behind him) saw it! Geoff claimed that the warning triangle left by the Commodores had distracted him.
Amazingly, the crew got the car out and results show they dropped only 15 minutes to the quickest time of Greg Carr, but to Geoff, “That’s optimistic… it felt more like an hour!”
This time, the damage to the car was significant, not only to the body, but also to the suspension.
The car was very, very badly damaged.
“After working hard for a long time to get all those places back, we were all pretty devastated,” said Portman.
But worse was to come.
On the way out of the Sydney Showgrounds, in a very sad and sorry looking state after quick work from Red and the boys to get the Stanza into some sort of order to continue the event, a member of the New South Wales constabulary decided that Car 22 was not quite in a road worthy condition and required more work.
"That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Pud. “So we dispatched one of the boys down to the local Repco store to buy some trailer tail lights and patched her up as best we could.
Doug Thompson clanks not-so-slowly past the early morning spectator fires through the Stanley Plantation to a 11th fastest time on the very final Special Stage. Photo: Bruce Keys
“We were so far down the running order and with a car which was just about to have the rear suspension fall out, that after a quick discussion we decided that it would be best to cut and run down the main highway to Beechworth, Victoria, and for Doug to drive the last stage through the Stanley Forest plantation.”
Geoff: “Doug drove the very last Beechworth/Stanley competitive stage and I sat in the back waving to the spectators.”
The writer recalls being one of those spectators in the Stanley Plantation, 10km south of Beechworth, with 200 or so other keen rally enthusiasts.
It was a cold, foggy and still September morning, with some smoke rising from small fires lit by the groups of spectators. Dust mingled with the smoke, and the gaps between the cars were considerable.
Then, all of a sudden a massive cheer emanated through the forest and through the morning mist, valiantly clanking and wobbling along through the pines was Doug, John and Geoff, in the battered Stanza.
At the end of the Beechworth control, with the car in somewhat compromised mechanical condition, they still somehow managed 11th fastest time over the 30km of that final stage. Well done, Doug!
The Team Shepparton Datsun Stanza kept going, despite multiple rolls on the route around Australia.
After reaching the Albury Showgrounds and after a decent night’s sleep – for once – cars departed at minute intervals from 7am on Sunday morning for the smooth and relatively quiet transport along the Hume Highway down to Melbourne, and to the ceremonial finish at the Melbourne Showgrounds.
Police were out and about along the route and this gave some concern to the Stanza crew as the car looked ready to go straight to the wreckers!
A courageous effort, which started two weeks before and finished back where it started at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds, eventually netted Geoff Portman, Doug Thompson and John Hammond an ironical 22nd place – 22 being the starting number they were allocated by the organisers before the rally – with a loss of 7 missed controls, and a penalty time of 12 hours, 2 minutes and 5 seconds.
And a place in the history books of the last of the great Round Australia Trials.
Geoff Portman’s wife Lisa, soon to give birth to their first child, is all smiles at the start at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds. Photographer: Unknown.
So where is the car today?
Well that's a bit of a sad and sorry story…
One day, some months after the finish of the event and after the welcome home parties had finished and the functions in thanks of the support provided by the towns folk and businesses in Shepparton were completed – and after some well-earned rest by the loyal and sleepless service crew – it was time for Doug, Lorelle and their boys to go on a well earned holiday.
But for David “Red” Baillie, never being one to stand on tradition and cry over spilt milk, the sight of seeing the, by now, totally stripped out and horrendously damaged Stanza shell in “his” workshop was just too much, so he dealt with it in the best way he knew how.
“Send the car to the crusher and let’s make room for the next project!” he said.
As things turned out, it was one of the few occasions where David had regretted his actions.
When Doug returned from holidays, his first reaction was, “Ah… who shifted my car?”
Geoff and Lisa Portman are reunited in Melbourne after the 1979 Round Australia Trial.
Crew, Car 22:
Doug Thompson (Dec.)
John Hammond (Dec.)
Rohan Glenn (Radio 3SR reporter)
And Michael Fitzgerald and Richard Goodfellow, who made the trip to Townsville to assist the service crew make it home.
The author would like to thank Dr. Ian Richards for allowing information from his recollections of the Repco to be used; Ian D. Smith and all the other photographers for the use of their images; Lorelle Thompson for her recollections of her much loved late husband, Doug; Peter Thompson for his animated recollections of the event; Peter Corkran for his prompting of Peters memory, and Peter Russell for his idea of a get together to hear all of Peter’s lies! Ross Runnalls for his insight of the Wanneroo incident and, of course, Geoff Portman for his unique insight to the team from Shepparton and their “Excellent Adventure” in 1979.
A newspaper clipping showing the Stanza in all its 'glory' after the final stage of the Round Australia Trial.
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