Australian History: Derek McLaughlan's Flathead Powered Edelbrock Special

Words: Karlee Sangster Photography: Luke Ray

The Australian Grand Prix was first run in the late 1920s at Phillip Island. For eight years the races continued on the rectangular dirt road circuit. This unpredictable and unstable surface called for creative mechanics and thus, the ‘Australian Special’ was born.

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These mechanical Frankenstein’s monsters consisted of disparate chassis and engines that were just as track worthy as the Grand Prix machines imported from Europe. They often began life as Bugattis, MGs, Vauxhalls, but they soon received a distinctly Australian treatment. These cars were highly modified for racing, often fitted with different engines, gearboxes or drivetrains and in some cases, as in the famous Maybach, were built from scratch.

The cars not only pushed the boundaries in terms of mechanical engineering, but also fostered the developing skills of their drivers, who later became household names. Stan Jones, Lex Davison, Curly Bryden, Les Murray. These early Australian racing legends all cut their teeth driving Australian Specials.

Specials were built for and raced at the AGP, an event that initially travelled from state to state until the war hit. Immediately after the war, racing was sparse with competitors using pre-war cars with supplies cobbled together around the rationing of fuel and tyres. These limitations only forced competitors and builders to work harder. Mount Panorama held the first post-war Grand Prix in 1947, and the race travelled between temporary converted airfield circuits and street circuits like Point Cook, Leyburn, Nuriootpa and Narrogin before returning to Mount Panorama in 1952.

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Hedley Thompson had made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most skilled car builders in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Racing cars were his specialty, and despite building his fair share for others, he never owned one himself. That all changed in 1956, when, after spending time with Reg Hunt and his Maserati 250F, Thompson decided to build something he could keep. Looking to Hunt’s car for inspiration, Hedley put his engineering background to good use, designing and building a car that embodied the resourcefulness and individuality that Aussie Specials have become known for.

Hedley built his racer around a V8 Ford flathead, which needed serious cooling assistance. A large capacity header tank and large core radiator helped, and the weight distribution amidships allowed not only for superior handling, but left room in the bay for a supercharger. Weight was a key consideration, and Thompson found creative ways to reduce the overall bulk, including machining the original 37 pound flywheel down to 18 pounds. Brakes were Delange finned drums with Holden cylinders and racing linings, and the steering came courtesy of a worm and roller Holden box.

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Thompson’s very own Aussie Special made its debut at the Hepburn Springs hillclimb track. The car was equipped with the latest and greatest hotrod gear for the Ford V8 from Vic Edelbrock in the States, but Australian racing rules prohibited advertising on the cars. Hedley skirted around the ruling by naming the car itself after his unofficial sponsor and the Edelbrock Special was born. Sans bodywork, the car was raced in an unfinished state, and still managed to perform well enough to convince Thompson to take it on the circuit. An aircraft engineer by trade, Hedley was a good driver, but not great, and the car spent the next two years doing the rounds with mixed success.

Its next owner was a Victorian country boy named Barry Stilo, who really knew how to drive. He chalked up numerous records in the car at various country tracks and the Edelbrock Special became a household name. After Stilo, the car went through five different owners and swapped its flathead for a Ford Y block. It was clocked at Benella Airfield doing 145mph and went on to appear at country tracks and speedway events. It was at Mt Beauty speedway in 1969 that disaster struck. Running a seven litre Dodge V8 at the time, the Edelbrock Special careened into a fence, ending its racing career. It was put out the back of an earthmoving storage yard to quietly fade away.

The years went by and historic racing gained popularity. The car was found and brought to Melbourne, however it would wait another 10 years until the next owner began the long process of restoration. “Les was a guy that I knew who lived in Mt Evelyn and he worked slowly, rebuilding the chassis and collecting all the necessary good bits for the car but after eleven years he got the stitch!” recalls Derek McLaughlan, the car’s current owner. “It was now my turn and I picked up the project at about 30-40% and then proceeded to spend the next twenty years finishing the car to what we see today.”

Born in 1956, the same year that the Edelbrock Special made its debut, Derek has been around cars in one shape or form for most of his life. “My first car was a 1965 Cortina GT which cost $390 when I was 16. I repainted it and did a basic restoration and it was a fun road driving car. From that I moved on and had a great interest in rallying. After eight years of competitive rally driving, my interest swayed as four wheel drives were coming out and it was not fair competition at the time. Enter my love for old cars and I decided to go historic racing. My first car was an Australian Special single seater monoposto with a Ford Flathead V8, which is where my love of flathead engines started. There have been a number of historic cars bought, raced and sold over the last thirty years but there has always been one special car that has stayed around.”

Derek bought the Edelbrock Special in 1991. He’s taken his time perfecting every detail, and it wasn’t until 2011 that the car had bodywork. Derek remembers: “With the chassis all done and some of the suspension, it was time to spend the real money and form the one-off handmade aluminium skin. Because of all of the high performance flathead gear, the engine underwent a complete and thorough rebuild, along with the close ratio Ford gearbox and a brand new quick change Halibrand rear end. The original bodywork is still with the car but after being battered and crunched up, it was beyond help - however it did make excellent patterns to replicate.”

He continues: “The flathead block was dipped, cleaned and bored out 60 thou and a new steel stroker crank 4 1/8 inches gives it 295 cubic inches capacity and an Edelbrock 400 junior camshaft sucks the air into the V8 through triple Stromberg 97s. Side valve V8s are not renowned for big revs, however they deliver enormous torque from 1500 to 5000 rpm and an estimate of power around 230 hp. Wheels for the car were totally renewed, (16 by 5 inch triple laced spokes) sporting Dunlop racing 550 tyres.”

Derek has no plans to ever sell the Special. “The car has a combination of two things that I love most,” he explains. “I’ve always been a fan of front engined Formula One pre 1960 racing cars in the old style of Stirling Moss, Fangio and others where the cars are fast in straight line but are harder to drive as they slide around in their cornering. As I could never afford a real Grand Prix car at a million dollars plus, the Edelbrock is a homegrown special that has the same looks style and appeal. The other attraction for me is the Ford sidevalve flathead V8 engine. Nothing sounds better than a good Flathead hotted up.”


This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 20.