Idle Torque: Wild about Harry
Harry Firth, centre, with Norm Beechey, right, and their early Holdens at the Templestowe Hillclimb in Victoria in 1962.

Most people who read this column will have read the obituaries over the past fortnight for the late and legendary racecar tuner and motorsport team manager, Harry Firth.

Firth died on April 27, aged 96, after a long battle with cancer.

This week, I was able to speak exclusively to one of the mechanics who worked for

Firth when his Holden Dealer Team were enjoying their first Bathurst successes in the early 1970s.

Ernest Litera was one of the general mechanics on the Holden Dealer Team from 1972-74, having joined shortly after Peter Brock's first win at Bathurst in a Holden Torana XU-1.

Mr Litera said Firth was an army dispatch rider during World War II.

"Harry had to keep motorcycles going, and he did this by raiding wrecking yards and dumps to get the bits he needed," he said. "When he came back, he had developed what I call a fearless approach to engineering."

In the years after the war, Firth gained a reputation for building very fast and competitive sports cars in his spare time.

Through this tuning work and his success in club-level motorsport, Firth eventually became head of Ford's motorsport division.

"He created the Ford Cortina 500," Mr Litera said.

"For the race versions, Harry would strip the engines down and properly match all the parts to get as little as two horsepower.

"That meant five miles per hour (8km/h) extra on Conrod Straight or something like that. He had that kind of approach; everything was finely honed and tuned.

"He specified that he wanted only one coat of paint on the race cars, and this was where he became very clever with the rules."

It was about this time, the wily Firth became known as "The Fox".

"For racing, the air cleaners for example, they were carried in the boot," Mr Litera said.

"They had to be with the car but they didn't have to be fitted to it."

Of course, Firth is best known for establishing and then leading the Holden Dealer Team to a string of early victories. Mr Litera worked at HDT during the transition from the last of the Torana XU-1s to the first of the Torana SL/R 5000s.

"The SL/R 5000s had so much torque, they used to rip the suspension out of the floor. But because they were production cars, you weren't allowed to strengthen the mounting points," Mr Litera said.

"So we got around that by bolting the roll cage through the spring hanger at the mount, so you'd have to pull the whole roll cage through the floor to rip it out.

"This was the whole thing with Harry.

"On the day I started, Harry came down with a Confederation of Australian Motorsport logbook and said 'Read that from cover to cover because you'll need it one day'."

"By knowing the rules, you knew how to walk a fine line between them."

Firth also is credited with discovering and mentoring the late racing great Brock.

"Peter was like the son Harry never had," Mr Litera said.

"He could see something of himself in Peter and that's much of the reason Brocky became the icon he is - he had a lot of raw talent and so much of that was shaped by Harry."

Arthur Grady Day at Fremantle Heritage Festival. Classic motorcycle displays from 10am. Phone 9432 9786.

May 18
British Car Day, Gingin. From 10am, Granville Civic Centre surrounds. Phone 9575 2280 or 0439 752 280. Email

May 24-25
Carnival of Karts, Cockburn International Raceway, Henderson. Racing from 9am both days. See

May 25
Triumph Sports Owners Association of WA 40th anniversary celebration. Houghtons Winery. Phone 0419 271 609 or email

May 31-June 1
Albany Classic. Mt Clarence Hillclimb and Round-the- Houses. See

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