The remarkable transformation of post-WWII Japan, from a nation shattered into surrender by atomic bombs in the 1940s to a burgeoning industrial powerhouse by the 1960s, was never better demonstrated than Toyota’s first appearance at Bathurst with a trio of Coronas in the 1965 Armstrong 500.
Ken Hougham, the visionary UK-born boss of Toyota’s local assembly operation AMI (Australian Motor Industries), could see the benefits of subjecting these little known Japanese cars to the toughest test of performance and durability in full public view at Mount Panorama, Bathurst.
In those days, the annual 500 mile (800 km) race for showroom stock, series production cars had quickly established itself as the event by which automotive brands were judged. And if a car could do well in such a gruelling torture test, in front a live national TV audience of millions, the boost in brand image was immeasurable.
And public acceptance was the key to these new cars from Japan succeeding here, at a time when anti-Japanese sentiment was still running strong in some quarters. Australia had been at war with Japan only two decades before and many ex-servicemen were still only middle-aged. Their injuries were real, their memories vivid.
Any product from Japan looking to get a foothold on Australia soil was, understandably, strongly resented by some. Products made in Japan also carried a stigma of cheapness and poor quality as a result of its early post-war export efforts. The term ‘Jap Crap’ was often heard.
However ‘Jap Crap’ no longer applied because these cars were well-built, reliable, affordable and fun to own. All that was needed to prompt Australians to visit their local Toyota dealer was to build the right image.
And motor racing was seen as the best way to do it. Particularly the Bathurst 500, when ‘Race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ really meant something because the cars on the track were exactly the same as the cars you could buy for the road.
Although AMI had been assembling the Toyota Tiara at its factory in Port Melbourne since 1963, It was not considered suitable for competition use. The arrival of the new locally-assembled Corona in 1965, though, was a game-changer.
With sharp modern styling highlighted by a distinctive forward-sloping grille, the well-appointed Japanese sedan was powered by a 1.5 litre (1490cc) pushrod four cylinder engine with a class competitive 55kW (74 bhp) and the ability to rev safely to a remarkable 7,000 rpm.
With a four-speed column shift manual gearbox, leaf-sprung live rear axle and four wheel drum brakes all wrapped up in a tidy kerb weight of 920 kgs, AMI figured it would be competitive against its showroom competition on the Mountain.
1965 Armstrong 500
This was the first appearance of Japanese-made cars at Bathurst. AMI was not alone with its three-car Toyota Corona attack either. David McKay’s Scuderia Veloce team was to represent arch rival Datsun with a trio of new Bluebird sedans in Class A, but the cars had to be withdrawn and did not start the race after severe wheel cracking emerged during Saturday’s practice sessions.
Although not an official factory entry, Japanese brand Isuzu was also represented by a well-used Bellett club rally car shared by Arthur Treloar and future race/rally champion and Bathurst winner Colin Bond, in his first appearance at the Mountain.
The 1965 race was split into four competing classes from A to D based on retail prices, with the new Corona in Class B for cars £921 - £1020. This brought it into direct conflict with the reigning two-times class champion 998cc Mini Cooper and a lone works-entered Cortina 240 shared by Queensland hot shoes Max Volkers and Glyn Scott.
The Mini Cooper’s Class B success in 1963-64 was not hard to understand, given it combined a race-tuned twin-carb engine, close-ratio ‘box, front disc brakes and sub-700 kgs kerb weight in a chassis that handled like a go kart. Nothing could touch it. The Coopers finished 1-2-3-4 the previous year in a BMC clean-sweep.
The Ford-entered Cortina 240 was considered the only serious threat to the Coopers, given that the new Japanese cars were yet to prove themselves. The Cortina and Corona shared the same 1.5 litre engine capacity, but the Ford was almost 100 kgs lighter than the Toyota (826 kg vs 920 kgs) and it was also equipped with more powerful and efficient 9.5-inch front disc brakes.
Outright speed, though, was not the greatest concern for the AMI Racing Team. The top priority was to get all three cars across the finish line in good shape after 500 miles (800 kms) of racing, to prove their durability and reliability and erase the ‘Jap Crap’ tag once and for all.
The three-car Corona squad featured a fast and experienced driver line-up comprising Brian Sampson/Ern Abbott (36B), Des Kelly/Brian ‘Brique’ Reed (39B) and Bill Buckle/Neil McKay (41B). Although it was decades ago, Brian Reed retains vivid memories of his first Bathurst drive for AMI.
“I was the odd-bod in the group actually,” he told Shannons Club. “When you had Brian Sampson, Bill Buckle, Neil McKay and people like that, all recognised drivers with mechanical backgrounds or Toyota dealership backgrounds, there was me the humble music teacher from Ballarat!
“I got that drive largely due to the late (motoring writer) Paul Higgins. Paul was my mentor when I first came into racing and he got me a few ‘ins’ like that, which I was most grateful for because I ended up driving with the AMI Racing Team at Bathurst for about five years.
“My co-driver in the Corona days was Des Kelly. He was a Queenslander, a speedway driver actually, and I think he might have had a Toyota dealership too. He was a very competent operator, a terrific fellow and I drove two years with Des. Sadly he was killed in a speedway accident later on.”
AMI had previous Bathurst experience with Triumph 2000s and like major players Ford and BMC took its factory support seriously. The three Coronas were carefully prepared by mechanics at Port Melbourne under team manager Bert Rydberg, with pit crew drills and track testing taking place in the lead-up to the race.
“We used to practice at the Port Melbourne plant on Saturdays,” Brian Reed said. “We’d drive a lap around the buildings then stop in a mock pit area and the pit crew would leap into action, up on the jacks to change wheels and refuel using the steel drums with plastic hoses that we had to use in those days. Then they’d drain out most of the fuel, we’d do another lap, stop to refill again and so on.
“Occasionally during a lap around the back of the sheds you’d stop and take off a plug lead or something like that, come in and report there was a problem and the mechanics would have to quickly find what was wrong and fix it. It was good training.
“Those guys, the pit crew, were actually the apprentices from AMI. Management put their names up on a list asking for expressions of interest, then they put them through various challenges to see who were the quickest fellows (at refuelling, wheel-changing etc) and on that basis they would pick their Bathurst pit crew members.
“We did some track testing out at Calder Park and I also drove one of the cars up to Bathurst for a test about mid-year, just to drive around the Mountain and get a bit of an idea of where to change gears and things like that.
“I don’t know how much was done to those cars at AMI. I imagine they would have fitted better brake linings like everyone else to cope with the higher temperatures and that sort of thing, but nothing major because under those rules you weren’t allowed to do much to them at all.
“I do remember they’d matt-blacked the chrome around the windscreen and windscreen wipers (to reduce driver glare) and things like that. There was a lot of attention to detail.
“In those days we also drove the cars up to Bathurst from Port Melbourne. We’d run them in on the way there and carried all the wheels and tyres and tools and whatever with us in the cars.”
The Mini Coopers and Cortina 240 were faster than the new Toyotas in practice, but of most importance to AMI was that the three Japanese cars were displaying no mechanical problems.
And it was that reliability that would prove decisive in the race, when the fastest of the Coopers struck trouble. The highly fancied Don Holland/Peter Cray car dropped a valve and lost many laps while a replacement head was fitted.
As expected the works-entered Cortina 240, with two quick drivers in Volkers and Scott, had all the right ingredients required to fill the shoes of the missing Mini to win Class B.
However, the three AMI Coronas were most impressive, claiming second, third and fourth with the highest-placed Kelly/Reed Corona finishing on the same lap as the class-winning Cortina.
“They (Toyota/AMI) were keen to make their mark on the Australian market and to get that result at their first attempt was very commendable,” Reed said. “We finished less than a minute behind the Cortina after almost seven and a half hours’ of racing, our car averaged 15 mpg and reached a top speed of 105.8 mph (168 km/h) down Conrod Straight.
“I shudder to think what it would be like now driving one of those cars at 170 km/h, but for their time they were very good cars. They handled reasonably well but like everyone else you did tend to slide around a fair bit on those (bench) vinyl seats.
“And with the four-on-the-tree column shift you were kept fairly busy changing gears each lap, too, but the shift was light and smooth as you would expect.
“The most impressive thing was that we didn’t have to spare those cars at all. You didn’t have to baby the brakes or any of that; you just drove them as fast as you could and they literally never missed a beat.”
Reed recalls reading motoring editor David McKay’s post-race report in The Sunday Telegraph newspaper in which he described the Corona’s performance as a fine demonstration of Toyota’s reliability, which was pure gold for AMI and really the whole point of the exercise. It certainly put Toyota on the map in this country and changed a lot of attitudes overnight.
“The other day I was looking through the contract I signed to drive for AMI that year,” Reed said. “We had personal accident insurance to cover us for £15,000 and the prize money was to be pooled and divided equally amongst the six drivers.
“From that Bathurst prize pool I was given a cheque for 62 pounds and 10 shillings, which was a fair bit of money back then and very acceptable payment for my efforts.
“I also received a gift from Toyota Motor Sales in Japan. When I opened this elaborate box with a purple ribbon around it, which I’ve still got, inside was a traditional Japanese warrior’s helmet, all nicely mounted and engraved. That Bathurst result meant a lot to them.”
1966 Gallaher 500
Buoyed by a strong debut in 1965, the AMI Racing Team returned with its three-car Corona squad and a chance of going one better this time and winning Class B, which with Australia’s recent switch to decimal currency now catered for cars $1801-$2040.
Notably absent from the driving squad this year was Sydney Toyota dealer Bill Buckle, who instead would team with Alan Mottram driving an AMI-backed Toyota Crown in Class C.
The three Coronas were headed by the top-placed driver pairing from the previous year in Brian Reed and Des Kelly (37B). The second car featured a fresh pairing in new Sydney Toyota dealer Peter Williamson with Alex Macarthur (34B). And Brian Sampson was back, with speedway ace Lew Marshall replacing Ern Abbott (32B).
Class B attracted a variety of price-based showroom rivals including a new Japanese contender in the form of a Prince 1500, plus Isuzu Bellett 1500, Hillman Minx, Renault R8 and a non-works Cortina 1500.
The absence of a works-backed Ford this year was a bonus for AMI, but the Corona drivers would still have to contend with the formidable speed of four Mini Coopers. The 998cc British cars proved quicker than all Class B contenders in practice and would start as race favourites.
Although the trio of AMI Coronas again showed impressive reliability with all three cars finishing the race without any mechanical failures, they could not match the relentless speed of the Mini Coopers, which claimed the top three places in Class B.
The runaway winners were Don Holland/Peter Cray in a masterful display which saw them not only win the class by more than a lap but also finish 12th outright.
Brian Reed and Des Kelly were again the top-placed AMI Corona pairing, finishing fourth but three laps behind the class-winning Mini. Sampson/Marshall recovered from earlier delays to finish seventh with the Williamson/Macarthur Corona coming home ninth in class.
“Lew Marshall blotted his copybook that year,” Reed recalled. “On the Saturday night after practice he drove back to Sydney to race at the Sydney Showgrounds (speedway) and he had a big accident there with three other cars in the Speed Car handicap final.
“When he turned up at Bathurst on the Sunday morning he was a bit sore and shell-shocked; a bit concussed I think. When he went out for his stint in the race he was way off the pace, so in the end Burt Ryberg pulled him in and put Brian Sampson back in the car. That was Lew’s last drive for the AMI Racing Team.
“The Mini Coopers were very quick and really showed us the way around. After that I think AMI felt they’d done their bit in Class B with the Coronas; they’d made a strong statement about the car’s strength and reliability and its sales were excellent so it was time to move on.”
1967 Gallaher 500
The AMI Racing Team shifted its factory backing to Class A (cars up to $1800) with a multi-car entry of Toyota’s new Corolla model to tackle its Datsun 1000 nemesis.
The Corona was again in Class B for cars $1801-2100. The mighty Mini Cooper was still the car to beat in terms of performance and entry numbers. Other contenders for 1967 included the Hillman Arrow, Morris 1100S, Renault R8 and Cortina 1500.
Despite AMI’s absence as an official entrant in Class B, one dealer-backed Corona would still fly the Toyota flag shared by one of the factory team’s 1966 driver pairings in Peter Williamson and Alex Macarthur.
True to the form guide, Don Holland and Peter Cray proved their victory the previous year was no fluke as they raced to another convincing win in their mighty 998cc Mini Cooper.
The lone Corona, though, gave them a run for their money. According to race reports, it was “amazingly fast” in practice and during the race, finishing second in class and on the same lap as the winning Mini.
Unfortunately the Toyota crew’s celebrations only lasted until post-race scrutineering, when the Corona was disqualified due to “irregularities” found in its cylinder head and inlet manifold.
It must be said that such rulings occurred often at Bathurst during this volatile period. Particularly in the smaller car classes where teams would bend the rules as far as they dared in trying to find the smallest advantage, in what were always ferocious fights between the Japanese brands.
1969 Hardie-Ferodo 500
AMI’s strategy of backing the new Toyota Corolla in Class A at Bathurst proved successful, having toppled the works-backed Datsun 1000s in 1968 (which were also disqualified post-race) before doing it again in 1969.
However, with no competitive vehicle to tackle either the new Datsun 1600 in Class B or 1275cc Mini Cooper S in Class C, AMI seemed to defy all logic by entering a Toyota Corona Mk II 1900 Hardtop in Class D ($3101-4500).
This put it in direct conflict with Holden’s new HT Monaro GTS 350 and Ford’s XW Falcon GT-HO, which with their tremendous V8 power and 230 km/h-plus top speeds would be fighting for not only Class D honours but the all-important outright victory.
Toyota’s Corona 1900 Hardtop was a stylish and well-equipped two-door coupe, powered by a humble SOHC 1.9 litre four cylinder engine with a claimed maximum top speed of only 109 mph (175 km/h).
Against the ferocious Ford and Holden muscle cars it seemed to have virtually no chance of class success, even though it was a works-prepared entry with two top-class drivers in Brian Reed (who missed the 1967 race but drove an AMI Corolla in 1968) and regional AMI dealer Max Stewart.
“That was an interesting situation and typical of Ken Hougham’s confidence in his Toyotas,” Reed recalled. “I’ve heard that he actually placed some bets with his counterparts at Ford and Holden that the Corona 1900 would finish in the outright top 10 against all those GT-HOs and Monaros.
“It was a brave call. He based that on the car’s reliability and that it would need fewer pit stops than the big cars. He figured those two factors would ensure it was pretty handily placed by the late afternoon if everything went to plan.”
This performance imbalance was confirmed after qualifying with Pete Geoghegan claiming outright pole in his works GT-HO with a record-shattering time of 2 min 48.9 seconds.
28 places further back, behind a wall of Falcons, Monaros and Alfa Romeos, sat the lone Corona Hardtop with a best time of 3 mins 11.5 seconds. Or almost 23 seconds slower. At that rate, big Pete’s GT-HO would have been lapping the Corona about every seven laps!
Hougham’s bet that his little Corona could outlast many of the big V8s certainly looked like a sharp punt on his part when Bill Brown, running amongst the leaders on the opening lap, got squeezed by another car and rolled his GT-HO at Skyline.
This triggered a massive and unprecedented pile-up on top of the Mountain that snared about a quarter of the huge 63-car field. Unfortunately one of those cars was the AMI Corona with Max Stewart at the wheel.
Amazingly, track marshalls had cleared a narrow path between the wreckage by the time the leaders came roaring around again about three minutes later, which allowed the race to continue while the clean-up was completed under waving yellow flags.
Fortunately for the AMI team, Stewart was uninjured and able to drive the Corona back to the pits for a check of the damage and some hasty repairs (if towed or trucked back it would have been disqualified).
“It seemed like an eternity until the first few cars came trickling past the pits,” Reed recalled. “Max brought the Corona in and it was bent all over; I don’t think it had one straight panel on it.
“I remember one of the mechanics grabbed a screwdriver and punched a hole through the bonnet to wire it shut, so it was never going to be opened again that day. It looked like a prize fighter’s nose yet when Max re-joined the race it was slightly quicker on Conrod Straight, which we put down to improved aerodynamics!
“I then did my first stint before Max went out again, but it was during his second stint that they decided to withdraw it (lap 78 of 130) when the engine started to rattle, which was most unlike a Toyota (race reports blamed radiator damage).
“In the pile-up at Skyline the cooling fan could have nudged into the radiator or whatever. It probably sprung a leak somewhere which would have led to the engine trouble. They decided they’d pull it before it died, so unfortunately we weren’t able to win that bet for Ken Hougham.”
1969 was the last time a Corona would compete in The Great Race. And although it may not be remembered as one of Toyota’s iconic competition cars, the Corona will always hold a very important place in Bathurst history because of its ground-breaking achievements in the 1960s.