The Great Race’s first winner harks back to a tough track and the tough car that took him to victory

The Bathurst 1000 is arguably Australia’s most famous race, the equivalent of the footy grand final for rev heads.

Key points:

  • Frank Coad and John Roxburgh were the first winners of the 1960 Armstrong 500, the original Great Race
  • The original Bathurst 1000 was held at Phillip Island and was moved in 1963 due to track issues
  • The race was won in a Vauxhall Cresta, a British six-cylinder sedan owned by parent company General Motors

The smell of high octane fuel, burning rubber, and the sound of the supercars screaming past continues to draw thousands of spectators back to the Mount Panorama Circuit in Bathurst, NSW, every year.

But the epic supercar race Australians have come to know and love looked very different when the first cars crossed the start line back in 1960.

For the first two years, not only did the race have a different name, but it was held in a different state.

Frank Coad and his co-driver John Roxburgh were the first winners of The Great Race, then named the Armstrong 500 and held on Phillip Island in Victoria.

While Mr Roxburgh sadly passed in 1993, Mr Coad is 90 years old and living in a retirement home in Bendigo, Victoria, with his wife Zena.

An older man wearing a hat and glasses standing in between two women.

1960 Armstrong 500 winner Frank Coad with his two daughters Susan Owen, left, and Julie Tyrrell.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

Preparation was key

He remembers the race as clearly now as it happened, 60 years ago.

“We felt pretty confident,” he said.

“John Roxburgh was my co-driver, he started off the race, he did 40 something laps, then I took over and did 40 odd laps, then he took over another 40, then I finished off the race.

“A fortnight beforehand we’d done a full 500 mile under race conditions.”

The car they won the race in was a Vauxhall Cresta, a six-cylinder sedan.

It certainly was not the race favourite.

But as Mr Coad will attest, it was all about preparation.

“We’d put in about three or four months of work getting ready for it,” he said.

“We had the car so finely tuned.”

He said the car clocked 98 miles an hour at race day, the equivalent of about 157kph.

“We had it sewn up pretty much after the first pit stop,” he said.

A black and white photo of the Vauxhall Cresta during the race at the 1960 Armstrong 500.

Frank Coad’s Vauxhall Cresta at Phillip Island during the 1960 Armstrong 500.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

Mr Coad said the drivers, brothers David and John Youl, brought the car over from Tasmania and did not know enough about the Phillip Island grand prix circuit — hand-laid using buckets of cold mix bitumen.

“We’d done all our preparation, we knew how far we could go on our front tyres without any troubles, and they didn’t.

“They went through the first pit stop and they carried on with the original tyres hoping they’d get another run out of them.

“But it didn’t happen.

“A tyre blew, they turned it over and wrecked it.”

The rough track was the reason the race was moved, as the bridge access to Phillip Island made it difficult to get the right equipment in to fix it.

Five men stand in front of cars.

Phillip Island legends Craig Lowndes, Peter Brock, Frank Coad, Russell Ingall and Mark Skaife meet in 2002.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

Mr Coad said he tuned in to watch Bathurst every year, but it was not the same race he remembered.

“That disappeared by about 1964.

“It’s all changed, it has done over the years — as everything does.”

Racing was ‘bad business’

Mr Coad said General Motors, the parent company of the Vauxhall brand, considered racing “bad business” and didn’t want the Melbourne Vauxhall dealership to be involved in the race.

“They weren’t into motor racing in those days,” he said.

A man and a woman stand wearing sunglasses in front of a car in a black and white photo from the 1960s

Frank Coad said his wife Zena Coad was a great supporter of his career and a fantastic passenger.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

He said when the Melbourne Vauxhall dealership opened after the race, the demand for the Cresta model went through the roof.

“They didn’t want to buy a Velox, they wanted to buy a Cresta and they couldn’t get enough Crestas to sell,” Mr Coad said.

He said the prize money for first place was a far cry from the amount the Bathurst 1000 winner would take home today.

“I was married with three little children. My wife was nursing a six-week-old baby when I won it,” he said.

Reviving history

Mr Coad’s daughter Susan Owen lives in Kalgoorlie-Boulder in WA’s Goldfields region.

She reached out to the ABC after hearing an off-the-cuff comment about the upcoming Bathurst 1000 race on local radio.

Ms Owen said she wanted Australia to hear her father’s story.

“A lot of people don’t know The Great Race started in Phillip Island and that’s the sad part, I suppose,” she said.

Since being stuck in lockdown, Mr Coad has not been able to get behind the wheel, but he still loves to drive.

“I drive around in a 1995 Holden ute today, but it’s done 430,000 kilometres,” he said.

He said he had always driven fast, and racing is in his blood.

He said there was only one thing holding him back.

“There’s too many police around,” he said.

Watch Brock: Over The Top at 8:30pm on Tuesday, November 3, on ABC TV+iview

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