HTC Competitor Profile: Gary Chick and the Craven Mild Commodore

Heritage Touring Car & Driver Profiles

HTC Competitor Profile: Gary Chick and the Craven Mild Commodore

The Craven Mild Commodore is one of the first two Commodores to race in an Australian Touring Car Championship event. Competing throughout the 1980s, it contested fifteen rounds of the ATCC and eleven rounds of the Australian Endurance Championship, amongst many others. It was also driven by three Bathurst-winning drivers – Allan Grice, Bob Morris and John Smith, who won the 1980 Oran Park round of the ATCC in the car. In the hands of Gary Chick, it joined the Heritage Touring Cars series at the Phillip Island Classic earlier this year, and we couldn’t be happier.

In 1979 Craven Mild Racing ordered two Holden VB Commodore shells for Allan Grice and Bob Morris to drive in the 1980 ATCC season. Gary’s car was picked up in the last week of December, 1979, and the team just barely had it together in time for its debut in the opening round of the 1980 season at Symmons Plains in early March. It was Bob Morris’ ride for the year, but the car struggled to find its feet, sufferring with engine reliability throughout the season.

Grice was racing his Torana at the time, but that car was written off in the eighth round of the year at Oran Park. Morris had just left Craven Mild Racing to drive an XD Falcon, so Grice was able to take over the Commodore in time for the Amaroo CRC 300 and the Sandown Hangten 400.

For Bathurst, Grice teamed up with John Smith, qualifying next to the XD Falcon of his old teammate Morris. The team led for nearly an hour before Smith ended up in the Murray’s Corner sand trap. The car was pulled out, only for a dash fire to develop on the way up the mountain. Grice stopped at a flag point where a marshal extinguished the fire, and was able to carry on. Despite all of this and fuel pick-up problems which developed afterwards, they still managed seventh outright.

For the 1981 season, an 18 year old Neil Cunningham would buy the car. Having just been awarded his full race license at the first round of the Queensland Touring Series, he would go on to an impressive season best of fifth outright at his home track – Surfers Paradise. Sadly the pair would miss out on the fun at Bathurst, qualifying first reserve.

Cunningham sold the car in 1982, with former state Formula Vee champion Bernie Stack becoming its next custodian and running it in AMSCAR, ATCC and AEC rounds. His best effort was a 6th outright in the 1982 Adelaide 300. Stack qualified for the 1982 Bathurst 1000, but ended up in the Armco at Murray’s, which the car had barely avoided two years prior.

Stack was back at Bathurst again the following year for the car’s third appearance in the great race. This one would be a struggle, with the team plagued by mechanical maladys and forced into retirement after 68 laps.

Stack sold the car in 1984, and it continued to compete throughout the ‘80s running as a Sports Sedan. After passing through several hands and contesting many more events, even contributing to Camp Quality under the custodianship of Geoff Searl, the Craven Mild Commodore finally made its way to Gary Chick in 2012.

Craven Mild Commodore

Discovering and Restoring the Craven Mild Commodore

Gary Chick

I grew up on the Central Coast of NSW. Living 200 meters from the beach, my family had very little interest in motorsport and life was centered around the sea – fishing, surfing and diving.

At the age of seven I saw my first ever Bathurst race. At that time of year we were often away on holiday, taking the caravan to Port Stephens with family friends. One of the families we travelled with brought a little black and white TV along that year, which we set up in the annex and crowded around to watch the great race. The spark was lit, and a tradition born.

In my teenage years I managed to get to Amaroo Park a few times, as well as Oran Park. I was hooked, and yearned to be more involved with motorsport. However, in those same teenage years I met my future wife. We eventually started a family together, so my priorities shifted to putting a roof over our heads before I could venture into motorsport.

Upon completion of my carpentry apprenticeship, I started my own building business. By my 20s I was married with children and had built my first house. It was then that I went on a go kart challenge day with some mates and found an avenue to pursue motorsport which suited my family life.

Fast forward a year and my wife and I got into go kart racing. When our son turned seven he was racing as well, which became quite hectic as we had three of us in three different races on race days.

One day I was visiting my neighbour, fellow racer Ben Tebbutt, who showed me a picture of a Commodore for sale. He’d recently flown down to Melbourne to look at the car, which he thought was the Craven Mild Commodore. However, as there wasn’t a CofD on it, he was head down and arse up tracking its chain of ownership to verify it its history before he purchased it.

I said to him there and then to let me know if something happened and he didn’t plan to buy it. About a month later, the sister car to one he owned already, the OXO Ford Sierra, came up for sale. So, he channeled his funds into that car and offered me the reins to continue piecing together the Craven Mild history.

Four months and lots of hours spent looking through Auto Action and Race Car News as well phone calls to old owners and internet hunting, I headed to Melbourne to possibly purchase the car. Ben’s words to me as I left were, “If you can’t scratch back to gold paint, don’t buy it!” So when I got down to the car, I started scratching and found the gold paint. It was then that the owner told me that the car wasn’t for sale unless there was an extra $5K on the table! In the end, I ponied up and bought the car.

Craven Mild Commodore

As the proud custodian of an important and living relic of Australian motorsport history, I set to work bringing it back to original, race-ready condition.

A very good family friend, Billy Johnson, got his start working on FC Holdens and has spent his life working on cars. He was the mastermind behind all the repairs and bodywork on the car.

With Billy’s work done, I called on my cousin, Peter Hammond, to apply the perfectionist touch to the fitment and remoulding of the fibreglass flares and spoilers. Paint work and stripes were all completed by myself, with colour matching done from the paintwork exposed on the timeline discovered by sanding off the back door.

With the panel and paint complete, I set about getting the mechanicals rebuilt or restored to match photographs of the car from 1980. I even went to the extremities of getting the tradesmen who built the parts back in the day to build new parts for me. For example, Rod Stevens built the ally drop tank for the car in 1980 and was able to rebuild me one for the restoration. Ron Harrop built new brake calipers.

The job of replicating parts for the car became massively easier when we purchased the very original Paul Gulson/Pete Geoghegan 1980 3rd place Bathurst VC Commodore. A his and hers car!

We commissioned Terry and Dave Bozinjak replicate the diffs and suspension components from the Stockton Gold Bullion Commodore for the Craven Mild Commodore. I then had David McLean, who worked on Allan Grice’s Cessnock Motors Torana back in the day, build the motor.

From purchase date to its first day back on the track this was an eight year on and off again build. The 2020 Phillip Island Classic was held on the 5th of March, marking 40 years and two days from the date of the car’s first race at Symmons Plains. That race at Symmons Plains was the first round of the 1980 ATCC season, and hosted the first two Commodores to race in the ATCC, of which our Craven Mild car is the only one still going. So, the pressure was on to get the car ready and out on the track for the event.

The Craven Mild Commodore’s first outing met with mechanical failure, so the motor is back out. However, it should only be another month or so before it’s back in the the car and we can start testing and I can start familiarising myself with it.

I feel very privileged to be the custodian of not only one, but two of Australia’s first motorsport Commodores and believe it’s very important to restore these cars to how they were in 1980, rather than the modified permissible version that they could be built to today.

I believe that with Heritage Touring Cars I’ll have as much enjoyment displaying the cars and being involved in the community as I will driving them around the track to their and my best abilities. So, hopefully by the time the motor is back in the Commy I’ll get some test days in to sort the car out a bit so that it’s ready to go when racing might be something we can do again.

Craven Mild Commodore