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A Sporting Life

by Digital Mayne Media

Lead mechanic for the 1969 Bathurst-winning Holden Monaro and father to racing legend Craig, Frank Lowndes is a key figure in Australian motorsport history.

It’s the first time I’ve met Frank Lowndes, but his smile is so familiar it’s like seeing an old friend. The charming grin of his superstar son Craig has been enjoyed by we motorsport fans for decades, and it’s clear Dad’s the genetic origin of this distinctive feature. Lowndes junior can also thank the Old Man for passing on hard-earned knowledge about how to make a racing car go quickly – if a driver understands the mechanical side of things it’s a mighty advantage.

Back in 1969 Frank was lead mechanic for the Colin Bond/Tony Roberts Holden Monaro GT350 that won that year’s Bathurst 500. He was working for Harry Firth’s just-formed Holden Dealer Team (HDT) and this was the team’s debut at the Great Race. HDT took along three Monaros – Frank on the Bond car while the team’s lead mechanic Ian Tate juggling the other two, including one for a young Peter Brock.

“I finished up on the winning car, which was good in one way but not the other,” Frank said. “We worked as a team so it LEGENDSwas a bit uncomfortable being given the prize, but that’s just the way it panned out.”

We look back on this racing period as a golden age. Alongside the HDT Monaro GTS350s at Bathurst that year were no less than 14 XW Ford Falcon GTHO Phase 1s – just think of the modern value of that little lot.

From a mechanic’s perspective, it really was another time. “Early Monaros had solid disc brakes with small pads, and drums on the back,” explained Frank. “We changed the brakes twice on each car during the race. There were no rattle guns, we just used a wheel brace, and there was one mechanic for each side of the car. No on-board jacks of course, but we’d probably get the brakes changed in a bit over two minutes.”

Frank’s first mechanical steps began many years before, growing up on a dairy farm in rural Victoria. “Anything that broke, you had to fix yourself,” he recalled. “You couldn’t rely on parts coming from somewhere else so you had to repair, and it needed done in a tight timeframe.” That especially meant the all-important stationary engine for milking, but Frank also fixed generators, would recondition water pumps and said he even got an old Bren Gun Carrier running.

His apprenticeship was served in Timboon in the late 1950s, before moving to a Ford garage in Deniliquin, NSW. “In those days you were lucky to get 40,000 miles out of a motor,” said Frank. “Quite often we’d be pulling the head off to de-coke them, and the rings wore out a lot more. There’s be lots of engine rebuilding and brake and suspension work.”

He’d spend his days at the Ford garage working on passenger cars and Fordson tractors, heading to Broadmeadows for training when needed. Change came in 1965 when a fellow car club member took his Falcon to Harry Firth in Melbourne for modifications. He learnt Firth was looking for a mechanic, told Frank he should apply and he duly got the gig.

Harry and his brother Norm Firth had scored a contract with Ford to build GT500 Cortinas from two-door Mk1 Cortina GT models. Frank helped hot them up the Kent engines with new cams, carburettors and higher compression ratios, while adding long range fuel tanks and upgrading suspension and cooling. Frank had owned a Mk1 Cortina for three years so found the work quite straightforward. He, Ian Tate and the Firths built seven GT500s per week, with a total of 110 being sent to Ford Australia for sale to aspiring racers.

By 1969 Ford had started its own competition department, so Firth signed up with Holden to start HDT. “The Monaros were a great car, and a privateer GTS327 won Bathrust the year before,” said Frank. “Then they brought out the 350s with the competition block. It was about April when the Ford involvement ended, so it was aphenomenal effort to get the HDT team up and running, prepare three cars for Bathurst (in October) and finish first, third and sixth.”

Frank also helped with a busy rally program, the team’s transition to Torana XU-1s and running the customer workshop. “We worked long hours and weekends,” he said. “In 1973 we had 48 weekends of rally or circuit racing and I’d go to most of them. There were no transporters, just a service van and we’d drive the competition cars there. If they broke down at a race, we’d have to fix them before driving home again.”

Needing a break, Frank began working for himself and didn’t attend a motor race for 18 months. Preparing a Ford Escort RS2000 got him back in the game – it ended up with a Bathurst class win and held every sub-2.0-litre lap record in Australia – before Ford pulled the motorsport pin for the start of the 1980s. He did preparation work for privateers, offered aftermarket turbocharging and became a CAMS scrutineer, including for Formula One when it came to Adelaide from 1985.

He also guided son Craig’s career through go karts and single seaters, watching as the prodigy’s skills developed along with his mechanical knowledge. “Craig did his mechanic’s apprenticeship with me and he was good; he fully understood everything,” Frank said. “In my small workshop you got to do everything on all different cars. As with every apprentice,I make sure they understand not just what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. A lot of mechanics these days just bolt things on or are told what to do, rather than understand the reasons.”

Franks said any mechanic hoping to get into motorsport has plenty of opportunity, with TAFEs running motorsport sections. “The race teams tap into that,” he said. “Some will give work experience at race meetings and if you shine there’s a good chance they’ll pick you up. I’d advise them to listen well and do exactly as you’re asked.”

Frank also acknowledged motorsport is a young man’s game, especially if you’re doing all the travel to races nationally or even internationally. That’s one aspect that’s remained throughout his long career, even if the cars, mechanical work and driver salaries have changed beyond measure since his 1969 Bathurst triumph. And, as with all characters from motorsport, there are always some wonderful stories to tell.