FAMILY, friends and former workmates gathered in the Cavil Room at the Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club recently to celebrate the life of Les Milkins, who passed away on May 15 in The Alfred Hospital.
Les was born in Wonthaggi in 1944, the fifth of six children born to George and Hilda Milkins (both dec’d) of Wonthaggi. His brother Cliff and sisters Lois (McRae), Yvonne (McRae) Janice (Coldebella) and Coral (Di Domenico) live in Wonthaggi.
After completing his fifth year at the Wonthaggi Technical School, Les secured an apprenticeship with Sam Huther at South Gippsland Motors. This was the local Ford garage, selling not only Ford cars, but tractors also.
Les loved cars and mechanics, and weekends were often spent with a group of his mates working on his car and theirs in the backyard of his parents Hunter Street home.
His father’s car, however, was off limits. Les was not “to tinker” with the revered Vanguard Spacemaster, although by now Les was an A-grade mechanic.
Later, though, Les turned his skill and attention to his youngest sister’s first car. This Morris Minor was the pride and joy of her life once Les and lifelong friend Phil ‘Flip’ Curtin transformed it with Neptune Racing Blue duco and white drag stripes.
This was accomplished at Phil’s father’s garage (The Chrysler garage) on a Saturday afternoon, probably without the knowledge of Mr Curtin. The interior was fashioned in leopard-skin and, of course, the motor was finely tuned.
Thanks to Les, his sister drove “the fastest Minor in the West”.
Later, Les was given the opportunity to go into business for himself. He took over the Esso Service Station in Leongatha. Meanwhile, he had met his future wife Ann (nee Whitford) whose parents had moved to Wonthaggi, and opened a sports store in McBride Avenue. Les and Ann were married in 1969 and set up home in Leongatha South.
Their eldest son Phillip was born in Leongatha in 1971.
1972 saw Les and his family living in Cowes, where Les had taken over the BP garage there. His other three sons: Karl, John and Allan were all born in Cowes. As the boys grew, they were infected with their father’s love of motorsports, and often accompanied Les to Bathurst for the weekend that culminated in the Bathurst 1000 on Mt. Panorama. It was a much-anticipated event for Les and his boys. They often camped on-site, and later other nephews and friends were included in the trip.
Les was also a community-minded person. During his time on Phillip Island, he was a member of the Jaycees Service Club and also a member of the Phillip Island Football Club for many years; he was secretary of the club from 1986–1988.
The club showed its respect for Les’ work by wearing black arm bands across all codes on the Saturday after Les’ death. On a lighter note, Les often volunteered at the Phillip Island racetrack when the V8 Supercars raced. When no other ‘victim’ was available, Les donned the Michelin Man rubber suit and accosted various racegoers while in disguise.
Growing family responsibilities and the long hours spent at the garage finally influenced Les to find other work.
Phil Curtin encouraged Les to apply for a job at the Holden Proving Ground at Lang Lang where Phil was already working.
Les’ application was successful, and he worked for GMH at Lang Lang for more than 35 years.
During this time, Les had various responsibilities: from test-driving the cars, to eventually being part of the Research and Development team.
Management decided rigorous testing of vehicle motors and parts was best done in the heat and dust of the Northern Territory. Les was one of the team drivers to demonstrate what the vehicles were capable of on horrendous roads and the desert sand hills of the outback. They were often towing a caravan or other vehicle, which also tested to the limit the manoeuvrability of the vehicle.
The Holden Proving Ground was where Les became acquainted with his idol Peter Brock, Australia’s champion racing driver who drove for Holden on Mt. Panorama in a VK Commodore.
Peter was aware of the pride Les took in his work at GMH and his skills at test-driving the Holdens at the Proving Ground.
On one of Peter’s visits, he asked Les would he like to ride with him during a test drive of the circuit. When asked about that drive, Les, who was a speed demon, only used many expletives in reply and said, “I thought I was going to die.”
With the importation of Holden vehicles into the Arab Emirates, experienced Holden mechanics were needed.
Les was among a select group of Holden employees sent on a paid holiday for a month teaching motor maintenance at the plant in Dubai.
Having never left Australia, he was hesitant to accept the invitation because of the language and cultural differences.
His sisters ‘leaned’ on him to accept the opportunity of a lifetime.
Once there, however, Les quickly became accustomed to being chauffeur-driven to and from the plant each day, plied with great food and staying in palatial accommodation.
Les retired from Holden in 2016.
With the end of Holden car manufacturing in Australia, several academics from Monash University in Adelaide were given the task of interviewing personnel who had been employed at the Lang Lang Proving Ground (Les had said he didn’t believe he would ever see the day when Holdens were not being manufactured in Australia).
Memoirs were to be recorded and housed in the National Archives, Canberra. Les’ personal history and experiences were considered valuable, so a time to interview Les was set. Sadly, due to COVID-19, the interview was postponed, but unfortunately Les passed away before the interview could be rescheduled. His sister Janice plans to contact the university with all the notes she and Les compiled for the interview.