Fast That’s Past – Milano GT2 Holden
Built to prove a concept, these cars put their owners ahead of most in the fields and won enough prize money to pay their own way.
JWF Fibreglass Industries built a lot of kit-car bodies through the late fifties and early sixties. Most popular were the Milanos, which initially came as open cars, but were joined later by the Milano GT model as well.
These bodies found their way onto a whole range of chassis, were powered by many different engines, were used on both road and track. But JWF changed course and no longer built sports car bodies as other business proved more profitable.
The partners in JWF were Ian ‘Sam’ Johnson, Geoff Williams and Grant Furzer. The others had all gone their separate way by 1962, so Sam continued with a team of workers building the bodies and making other fiberglass products.
In time, work of a more industrial type took over. Engine covers for concrete mixers, underground power boxes and liferaft boxes for ships became much more common around the factory than car bodies.
But the bug wasn’t gone yet. Sam had been racing in a kind of partnership with earthmoving contractor Bruce Leer for years, they still went out to the race meetings and they still thought about going racing again. In fact, they still had some parts left over from when they ran their 179-engined Milano GTs.
These cars were built on a simple twin-tube chassis, a better option than some others that carried the Milano bodies were mounted, but hardly state of the art.
Not that ‘state of the art’ was a part of their musing. In fact, as their friend Moss Angliss raced his Lotus Super 7 at the Sydney circuits, they recognised how effective it was and how the fundamentals of this car and its ilk could be used with the more powerful Holden red motor.
Around this period Sam had a bit to do with Frank Matich. The SR3 program was well in hand and as Sam looked over the chassis of this car he saw the basic simplicity of it. So another component of the musings added to the final layout that would ultimately become the GT2.
Two cars were ultimately laid down. Bruce did the chassis work, Sam did the body, which entailed making almost twenty separate pieces, with some bonded to the chassis for additional strength.
Body styling started out ‘something like the Lola GT’, according to Sam, but with the major difference that they were to have a long nose and the driver sat right back in the same position he would in a Clubman car.
With modeling coming from the precursor to the Ford GT40, it’s easy to understand why some of that car’s lines are present too, but by and large the cars came out looking quite unique. Both of them were painted black, which possibly accentuated their appearance.
The one styling‘cue’ that might have been a departure from the ‘purely purposeful’ look was the dual headlights tucked in underneath Perspex covers at the front. The ubiquitous EJ Holden stop/tail/blinker lights at the rear were exactly what one would expect on a car of such a heritage.
Though it was right in keeping with the Lola GT theme – that car using the equivalent cluster from a 1963 Ford just as Johnson used his from the 1963 Holden.
The cars were completed by late 1970 and made their race debut at Oran Park on September 20. But the game plan had changed a little before that first race meeting was achieved.
“My wife didn’t want me driving any more,” he recalls, “and when we went testing we took young Mossy along with us.” Moss Angliss had been in England for 12 months, but on his return helped Bruce Leer with the second chassis.
The cars were very raw at this stage, needing some preliminary sorting. “I thought it handled like a pig!” was Sam’s feeling about the car. “Bruce got used to it but Moss was quick!”
Having come out of a very quick Lotus Super 7, Angliss was right at home with the car and revelled in the extra torque and power. Leer and Johnson had set out to build a ‘glorified Clubman’ with plenty of reliable power and had achieved that aim with good looks to match.
The balance was well addressed with the engine being fitted well back and the car was light despite the somewhat heavier hardware that it carried.
Behind the Holden 179 engine came a BMC gearbox. “We used the MG Magnette housing,” Leer recalls, “because it had the clutch slave cylinder up on top rather than down the bottom ready to drag on the road.” No doubt it also gave clearance in an area where space was precious.
The round tube chassis used wide outer beams to provide strength in the cockpit area. These were to be tested a couple of times in race use, standing up well both times, and were basically copied from the SR3 chassis.
It was in this area that the body was bonded to the tubing, but forward of the firewall the triangulated tubing carried all the loads.
The front suspension used HR Holden uprights and brake components, with fabricated wishbones linking them to the chassis. Spax adjustable shocks, just new on the market at the time, were used with home made ‘coilover’ fittings.
At the rear there was a simple Holden axle housing with a lower A-frame trailing from the chassis beneath the centre and a trailing arm at each end to brackets on top of the axle housings. Koni dampers and coil springs provided the suspension media.
Again, simple HR Holden brakes were used, the drums being complete with the handbrake mechanism unlike many sports cars of the period.
“Even the handbrake was standard Holden parts,” says Leer. “They used to have short cables out of the backing plates that linked up to a longer cable that went to the handle under the dash. We just used the standard rear cable setup.”
While the engines had some serious head work and were fitted with triple inch and three quarter SU carbies, very little else was done to them. They weren’t balanced, they didn’t have baffling in the sumps, there were no forged pistons or aftermarket rods. These latter items were very rare at that time.
The gearbox carried close ratio MGA competition gears, so first was good for a very high speed when combined with the revvy free-breathing 179 and the tall-ish standard Holden rear axle ratio.
Adjustable anti-roll bars were fitted, though Johnson doesn’t recall them every being adjusted. The brake balance was achieved by boosting the front discs and leaving the rear drums unboosted, the tandem master cylinders also having a balance bar.
It was in this form, on 8” front and 10” rear steel 13” wheels and wearing standard (for the day) Dunlop racing tyres that the cars arrived at their first race meeting. That was at Oran Park on September 20, 1970.
They looked stunning, a pair of shining black GT cars with a high standard of finish (which extended into the car, with proper dashboard and console covering), and they showed up well in the racing.
Well, except for Leer’s spin that is.
In their class of racing at the time, John Goss had been doing very well with his self-built Tornado, which was a rear engined car using a Falcon six. It was only at the first couple of meetings at which the Milanos ran that Goss still had this car, otherwise they might well have developed into serious competitors for each other.
The racing wasn’t top level, of course. It was the kind of racing that attracted the now-aging Lotus 23s, Clubman cars and things like the Chevron B8 BMW. It was the racing that happened in support of almost every major race held at the time.
The Bruce Leer car was generally better equipped that the Sam Johnson/Moss Angliss car. It had a little more power, it seemed, and was first with add-ons like the Detroit Locker fitted to the diff at one point.
“Without that, coming out of a corner was like driving through a torque converter,” Leer remembers. “The inside wheel would be spinning, but with just enough traction to put some drive into the car until finally it would get grip to put all the power to the road.”
It has to be remembered, of course, that these were cars built for the purpose of giving a couple of old mates a chance to go racing. They weren’t aiming at championships or major race wins, just a bit of fun beating some of their other mates out there on the local circuits around Sydney.
That they did it so well is a tribute to their design and execution. Their power to weight ratio and gearing helped them get off the line ahead of most cars, certainly the cars against which they generally raced. Then their tactics kept them ahead through the first corner and enabled them to win more races than they lost.
“We made them hard to pass,” says Angliss. “We’d go into the first corner with one of us ahead, and then the leader would give enough room on the inside for the other car to come through and we’d go side by side into the corner. Anyone who wanted to pass us would have to go right around the outside!”
With lap times around 50-point something at Oran Park in those early outings, they were to be challenged by Ross Bond’s Austin Healey 3000 – and beaten a couple of times. But mostly it was the faster Clubmans which provided the competition.
The racing was fun, sometimes furious, never expensive. They became somewhat iconic, standing out at meetings at Amaroo, Oran Park and Warwick Farm. They were always at the front of the field or nibbling at the leaders, except when Sports Car Championship races came around and they became mid-fielders.
They were always driven hard. Despite that lack of sump baffling, it seems.
“The oil light would come on as soon as you entered a corner,” all three of them agree. And it would stay on until the car settled onto the next straight. Yet only one engine failures ever punctuated their progress.
They did have a deal with a local wrecker which provided them with cheap parts, but they didn’t consume so many that the deal would become too onerous.
There were requests from others to build more of the cars, but that wasn’t going to happen. “They were just too much work,” says Sam. “There was a lot of fiberglass parts and then so many of them were bonded to the chassis, it wasn’t going to be viable.”
They made just one exception. A cousin of Frank Matich wanted one and they built it for him. This car was later completed and raced by Mike Morris and today is in the hands of Scott Whittaker.
The ‘works’ cars, however, both went in one direction. Johnson sold his first, it going to Western Australia. Bruce Leer raced on in his, sometimes giving Moss a drive, until the word came through that Russell Lamborn had written off the Johnson car and wanted to buy the second car.
It was sold and the Milano GT2 presence in NSW sports cars came to an end. It was around the end of 1973 that this happened, so they had been there for three full years making their presence felt.
Today Bruce Leer looks back and remembers the ‘terrific torque’ that the cars had, torque that enabled them to run around Amaroo in just third gear with the exception of up the straight. The cars were constantly revved to 7,500 or 8,000 and the engines lapped it up.
Moss Angliss attributes the good handling to Bruce’s chassis design. He also recalls that they tried a 202 engine, but it wouldn’t rev and so they went back to a 179. “The best thing we ever did, though, was fit a wing,” he says.
This was an aluminium fabrication that sat up on struts over the rear of the car. “At first we had too much angle on it, but that made the car understeer and we adjusted it back. From then on we could go through that fast sweeper coming down the hill at Amaroo without lifting off. It improved our lap time there by 1.2 seconds!”
Another change in the latter period of the cars’ lives was the fitting of 15” wheels. This era was one of constant change in tyres, and with ever-lower profiles becoming the norm and slicks arriving on the scene, it was necessary to take this step.
Bruce Leer, again, did the work. He made up patterns and had alloy wheels cast up for the job.
His workmanship was most severely tested, however, on two occasions when the cars were crashed. One was at Warwick Farm, and there the front of the chassis was damaged while the cockpit and rear were untouched, the additional strength from the bonded panels doing a good job.
A new front was welded on and the car was quickly repaired. But this wasn’t so when Lamborn hit the Armco in front of the old control tower at Wanneroo. He broke the front of the car clean off, with that strong cockpit section saving him from personal damage.
So it was that a very simple car came to be a front runner in a class of racing where virtually anything goes. Angliss kept the accounts as they raced the cars, banking the prizemoney (such as it was) and paying out the expenses.
When the second car was sold, the three of them pocketed the money that hadn’t been spent.
That was something one rarely saw in those days, and never sees today. Just as three enthusiasts getting together with a pile of tubing, Holden parts and some fibreglassing skills would never make an impact on racing as these cars did.
They were, certainly, a car for their time.