ALTHOUGH THE MARCH of progress is inevitable and generally beneficial, it can be a two-edged sword that exacts quite a steep price along the way.
Living in Melbourne’s innereast for years now, I’ve adjusted to its changing streetscapes as handsome homes become landfill to make way for highrise developments. But history and heritage are lost and the boxy new structures, hastily bolted together from pre-cast tilt-slabs, are no match in craftsmanship or style terms for homes that had stood the test of time as testament to the skills of old-school architects and tradies. But hey, as they say, that’s progress...
However some things are sacred. Or should be.
Harry Firth’s former garage and workshop premises at 35 Queens Avenue in Hawthorn came on the market recently with much made of its highrise development potential.
The otherwise unremarkable late-Victorian-era factory was actually hallowed ground as home to Firth Motors from the early 1960s until 1978.
Under its roof Firth applied his mechanical Midas-touch to create and build many of our finest race and rally cars. Giant-killer GT500 Cortinas and flying XR GT Bathurst track weapons rolled off its little production line and out the door into Queens Avenue when Firth ran Ford’s competition department. They were followed by the remarkable trio of XT GT Falcons – KAG 001, KAG 002 and KAG 003 – that won the teams prize in the 1968 London to Sydney Rally.
His move to GMH changed the humble Hawthorn factory’s identity to Holden Dealer Team HQ with the Bathurst winning GTS350 Monaro its first project, soon followed by the succession of hot Toranas – the XU-1 sixes (and the stillborn XU-1 V8) and the L34 and A9X V8s. During those days Peter Brock, Colin Bond and John Harvey were some of the luminary regulars at 35 Queens Avenue. Legendary race-engine builder Ian Tate and mechanic Frank Lowndes, father of Craig, were key employees. Tate went on to run his own business in the factory for some years after Harry’s retirement in 1978.
As a junior peabody in my first proper job at GMH I got to visit Harry’s place a few times. It was on my way from GMH at Fishermans Bend to my then-home in the Dandenongs and because I hung around anything to do with motorsport at work I was offered the errand-boy job to drop off drawings and parts at Queens Avenue. I had met Harry Firth at racetracks previously, but doing something useful, however minor, for the ‘Silver Fox’ personally, was pretty special.
The last contact I had with him was about 30 years ago, surprisingly at another Hawthorn location within about 200m of 35 Queens Avenue. Reg Harris, a local entrepreneur, former mayor of Hawthorn and car enthusiast, regularly hosted lunches for his classic-car mates in a nearby factory that housed his own cars. Retired motorsport-identity/restaurateur Lou Molina was appropriately in charge of the barbecue – older readers may remember his larger-than-life presence on the racetrack in his potent Monza sportscar and his host role at his wonderful motorsport-themed pub in Richmond, the Anchor & Hope. Reg, Lou and Harry, now no longer with us, were all in great reminiscing form at that memorable lunch.
I wasn’t able to be at 35 Queens Avenue when it went under the hammer in March, and my requests to the agent for details about the sale including the buyer’s intentions have gone unanswered. I rest my hopes on a conversation with a Regan Motors mechanic prior to the sale (Regan’s, a Peugeot dealer, currently leases the place as its service centre). He believed that one interested party was a nondeveloper who wanted to buy it to provide a home for a classic-car collection.