Recounting Bill Brown’s horrifying 1971 Bathurst crash

The incredible story of how racer Bill Brown destroyed an XY GTHO Phase III – and drove himself home that night


Aussie motorsport legend Bill Brown has passed away at the age of 81. He is best-known for surviving one of the most-horrific accidents in the history of the Great Race, retold below.

Ford only made 300 Phase III Falcons, but there is so much folklore around them that you could write a book about them. And someone has! Namely, The 1971 Ford Falcon XY GTHO Phase III Register, produced by Ross Vasse and previewed here.

One of our favourite tales in The Register is the story of how racer Bill Brown survived one of the worst crashes ever seen on Mount Panorama, behind the wheel of a Phase III in 1971. Bill had some experience in this kind of thing, having rolled a Phase II in 1969.

The ’69 crash ended with a pile-up involving 14 cars, but the ’71 accident was much worse, as Register contributor SL Hughes relates here, having recently interviewed Brown and witness Trevor Roth:

Bathurst race car veteran Bill Brown aimed his car down the track. One and half tonnes of GTHO Phase III roared like a wild animal along Conrod Straight. “That’s it, that’s it!” Bill wrestled his yellow Falcon around Murray’s Corner. His grip tightened as he exited with surgical precision. “Yes!”

The Phase III sling-shotted down Pit Straight. He glanced at his pit crew at a hundred miles per hour – lap 43 and destiny had commenced. “Two more laps and I’ll get that front tyre checked.” He shook his thoughts clear, slammed the toploader into second and took Hell Corner like he owned it.

The one-week-old car revved in a high-octane demonic chorus. The Phase III had only been delivered on the Monday, the blue-printed engine sent back to Ford for a check then delivered back the next day. Any concerns of engine failure had been blasted away at 150mph.

Race marshal Trevor Roth stood at his post behind a steel-posted timber guard rail at McPhillamy Park. The welder-turned-flag-marshal for Bathurst took his job seriously. “They’re coming quick today.” He rubbed his forehead as car after car rocketed past at over 100 hundred miles an hour. “Bloody hell…Moffat’s giving it some stick!” He glanced over his shoulder at the crowd on the hill behind him cheering at the spectacle risking life and death.

Bill pushed his car hard around Quarry Bend. “I’m in third! Just gotta keep it tight!”

The Phase III driver’s-side tyre secretly rubbed impatiently against the top ball joint. Bill and Howard Marsden’s conversation the day before was now just an echo from the past. “Listen, Bill, we’ll just chamfer the top of the ball joint just enough to prevent contact.”

The strategy had worked on every corner except for one… and for one man… he was about to risk life and limb.

Trevor Roth’s eyes narrowed at the onslaught of vehicles hurtling past him. “Jeez, they’re loud this year,” he thought. Each car that shot around the corner seemed to be getting more courageous, more dangerous.

Bill wrestled then powered his big yellow beast around the blind corner. “That’s it! That’s it!” He punched the toploader into top and planted the pedal flat to the floor.

Trevor squinted as a glimpse of yellow reflected through the gum trees. “That’s Bill Brown.” He swallowed hard.

Bill catapulted towards the corner. His production GTHO Phase III was pushing the envelope at over 100mph. He began a powerslide at mind-boggling speed. The downward forces and sideways inertia had thrown out the physics rulebook.

His hands gripped the wheel, his focus forward and intense. “Yes! Yes! I just — SHIT!”

The Achilles’ heel of Bill’s beast exploded. The ball joint and race tyre couldn’t take it any longer. Fate had played its hand.

“What!” Trevor started running but it felt like slow motion. His legs pumped hard knowing that death had come around the corner.

Bill’s mind went blank. There was no time for last thoughts. In an instant he could suddenly see the faces in the crowd. What had been blurs of colour for the past 43 laps were now young men, brothers and fathers. “I’m going to hit them!”

The right front side of Bill’s Phase III hit the fence at 100mph. His seat snapped, sending him flat on his back. Trevor Roth could feel the dirt and steel at his neck. Only inches separated him from this world and the next.

The world couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The steel posts that protected the crowd punched through the Phase III like it wasn’t there. The incredible G-forces had Bill at their peril. His head, protected only by an open helmet, smashed against steel, timber and glass. His face smashed against the crumpling roof of his car. The cabin had become a whirlwind of death.

The car began to poleaxe, the rear getting higher with every turn. The seven-day-old car was now being stripped of its every pedigree panel by panel. Everyone’s heart stopped at the only possible outcome… how could anyone survive this nightmare?!

Its shiny back was now broken. It laid crumpled and smoking… fuel everywhere as race cars sped passed inches from the destroyed car.

“What?” Bill looked around his chaotic cabin. Nothing was where it was meant to be. “My leg? My—Petrol!”

Voices broke the sudden silence, some giving orders, others just wanting to help.

“Wait!” Bill yelled. “WAIT! Don’t move it! I said don’t move the car. There’s petrol and oil everywhere!” He swallowed hard and tried to free himself but his leg was trapped. “Don’t smoke here! Put your smokes out.” He pulled at his leg again but it was hopeless. “Shit! Shit!”

The screech of a heavy vehicle signalled that help was here. “My leg’s jammed!”

“Coming mate!” A race marshal appeared in the cab and looked at the madness inside the crumpled mess. He carefully moved Bill’s scratched leg sideways and out.

Adrenalin flooded every fibre of Bill’s body. He scrambled from the car. “Lay down mate. We’ll take it from here.”

Bill stared at the ambulance officer. “Out of my way. I have to know. I” He pushed past and got to the front right tyre. It was blown. “It’s not my fault… it’s not my fault!”

“Listen, sir!” The ambulance officer grabbed Bill’s arm. “We’ve got to get you to hospital. You’re bloody lucky to be alive.”

Bill looked back at the car then at the officer. “On one condition. I’m not getting on the stretcher. I’ll ride up front in the passenger seat!”

The officer shook his head then nodded. “Well, let’s go then.”

Bill suffered no broken bones. His leg was grazed and he suffered a cut above his eye. Miraculously, Bill drove himself home to Sydney that night. He had to be at work the next day.