Irving… engineer extraordinary

Classic

PETER ROBINSON’S

EPIC TALES FROM OUR ARCHIVES

FIRST PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 1974

THE FIRST TIME WHEELS FOUNDING EDITOR ATHOL YEOMANS CRACKED THE MAGIC TON – 100 MILES PER HOUR (160KM/H) – HE WAS DRIVING A MODIFIED FJ HOLDEN. THE SECRET TO ITS WILDLY INCREASED PERFORMANCE WAS A CYLINDER HEAD MODIFIED BY PHIL IRVING THAT UPPED THE POWER TO 90BHP (67KW), A 50 PERCENT INCREASE OVER THE STANDARD ‘GREY’ HOLDEN ENGINE.

Repco produced about 100 of these completely rebuilt engines and they quickly became compulsory for anyone wanting a truly hot Holden.

Irving is best remembered in motor racing circles as the designer of the 1966 and 1967 world championship Repco- Brabham V8 engines. He could, as Rab Cook pointed out in his 1974 profile of Irving, just as easily be known as the designer of British Vincent motorcycles, the prolific author of a number of significant automotive books – the best known probably Tuning for Speed and his autobiography – and as the writer of hundreds of articles for car and motorbike magazines.

As deputy editor of The Motor (one of the UK’s then automotive weeklies), Cook shared a London office with Irving. They were good friends, but in 1964 Cook had no idea that Irving was at the time working on transforming a 3.5-litre Oldsmobile V8 block into a 3.0-litre F1 engine for Jack Brabham. Cook wrote: “I’d overhear a conversation in which special valves or something like that were being ordered. Just ‘something for Repco’ was the response from Irving. I missed a considerable journalistic scoop.”

When Cook moved to Australia in the early 1970s (and began writing freelance for Wheels), Irving provided him with a car for the first few weeks after his arrival. Irving was that sort of bloke.

In his later years, Phil’s Warrandyte (Vic) home, Owl’s Nest, housed an old Land Rover and at least two ‘aunty’ Rovers from the 1950s, plus sheds containing dozens of old motorbikes in various stages of repair.

In 1969, I asked Irving to drive an NSU Ro80 test car, as a precursor to a pro-and-con article on the rotary engine.

Sceptical as he was about the German car’s rotary engine, he greatly enjoyed the NSU’s refinement, though he never came to terms with the clutch being activated whenever you touched the gearlever. Initially our progress was a series of jerks as Phil, obviously accustomed to resting his left hand on a Rover’s gearlever, engaged and disengaged drive to the front wheels.

Irving, a great Australian, deserves wider recognition for his many achievements.

“HE HAS ALWAYS PUT IN FANTASTIC HOURS AT THE DRAWING BOARD. HIS HOME WAS NAMED OWL’S NEST BY HIS SON BECAUSE OF THE LATE HOURS THAT WERE KEPT” – RAB COOK, FEBRUARY 1974