88 Can­berra Speed­way

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

Fraser Park, Can­berra: the most fun you could have with your pants on. The short-lived paved speed­way saw lots of ac­tion. Theme song: ‘Speed­way’ by Elvis Pres­ley.

Don’t be­lieve Split Enz, as his­tory does re­peat. Just ask the Tour­ing Car Masters’ To­rana V8 com­peti­tors, who have worked hard to solve the re­born SL/R 5000’s chronic un­re­li­a­bil­ity

When Tony Ed­wards rolled out his Caribbean Blue 1974 LH Holden To­rana SL/R 5000 onto the streets of Ade­laide in 2011, he was cre­at­ing a bit of Tour­ing Car Masters his­tory. Not since 1974 had a ‘brand new’ SL/R 5000 To­rana been built for com­pe­ti­tion at a na­tion­al­level in Aus­tralian mo­tor­sport and the Vic­to­ri­an­based per­for­mance shop pro­pri­etor had in­deed turned back the clock nearly 36 years – in more ways than one.

It turned out to be a story of his­tory re­peat­ing it­self, such was the long list of me­chan­i­cal and devel­op­men­tal is­sues Ed­wards and his team en­coun­tered in their cars’ early de­vel­op­ment.

Those dra­mas mir­rored some­what the strug­gles en­coun­tered by teams pre­par­ing the orig­i­nal LH To­rana SL/R 5000s when they first raced in the clos­ing stages of the 1974 Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship, and later that year at the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 at Bathurst.

Rewind 40 years

At Oran Park in 1974, a pri­va­teer from the NSW Hunter Val­ley made the Aus­tralian de­but of Holden’s lat­est weapon in the on­go­ing fight against Ford’s mighty Fal­con GT: the LH model SL/R 5000 To­rana. With the tal­ented Al­lan Grice be­hind the wheel, the Les Small-built car ran strongly be­fore is­sues dropped it down the or­der as the race pro­gressed, ul­ti­mately fin­ish­ing 14th.

One round later, and the Harry Firth-led Holden Dealer Team rolled out their first SL/R at the su­per quick Surfers Par­adise cir­cuit and it was an in­stant suc­cess; driver Peter Brock win­ning com­fort­ably from Bob Mor­ris. (Iron­i­cally, a lit­tle-known, To­rana XU-1-driv­ing Queens­land pri­va­teer named Richard John­son fin­ished third.)

When Brock claimed the race and ATCC ti­tle vic­tory a few weeks later at Ade­laide In­ter­na­tional Race­way, it looked as though Holden’s new­est Fal­con fighter would eas­ily be up to the task of build­ing on the XU-1’s early suc­cess.

Then came the 1974 Hardie-Ferodo 1000, and the now well-doc­u­mented story of the leading Peter Brock/Brian Samp­son HDT To­rana re­tir­ing with en­gine fail­ure while hold­ing a six-lap lead at half-race dis­tance.

HDT boss Harry Firth ex­plained the trou­bles. “In Peter Brock’s car, the cor­ner­ing forces were so high when go­ing across the moun­tain that it started to suf­fer ex­treme surge in one side of the car­bu­ret­tor and this made four cylin­ders run lean, with the re­sult that holes were burnt in the tops of the pis­tons,” the late Firth said.

Firth and his me­chan­ics then set about over­com­ing the model’s short­com­ings, leading to an up­dated oil sys­tem be­ing ap­proved by CAMS ahead of the 1975 sea­son. That same year, the V8 To­rana would win both the ATCC for Colin Bond and Bathurst for Brock and co-driver Brian Samp­son. The lat­ter pair had changed over to a pri­va­teer To­rana for that sea­son.

Fast for­ward 36 years

Thirty-six years later Tony Ed­wards would not be­lieve how his­tory would re­peat dur­ing the early stages of de­vel­op­ing a vis­ually sim­i­lar, yet ul­ti­mately com­pletely dif­fer­ent, SL/R 5000 for the Tour­ing Car Masters se­ries.

TCM man­age­ment al­lowed cars from 1974-76 to join their ranks at the be­gin­ning of the 2010 sea­son. Holden’s SL/R 5000 was listed as a key ex­am­ple of what the se­ries wanted: a clas­sic Aussie mus­cle car that would of­fer a com­pet­i­tive pack­age for some­one look­ing for some­thing that wasn’t a Mus­tang or Ca­maro.

Long-time racer Ed­wards, com­pet­ing in the se­ries in a 350 Chev-pow­ered HQ Monaro at the time, jumped at the chance. The Monaro had proven to be a spas­modic front-run­ner, whereas, on paper at least, the V8 To­rana promised to be a reg­u­lar race win­ner.

The Vic­to­rian en­gaged Les Small, who had built Grice’s first SL/R 5000 all those years ago, to as­sist in the con­struc­tion of the na­tion’s new­est To­rana. But it was poor re­li­a­bil­ity that would prove to be the pri­mary chal­lenge in get­ting the car up to the front of the pack.

“The big­gest is­sue was parts sup­ply,” Ed­wards re­mem­bers. “No one had played with them for 25 or 30 years, re­ally, other than in Group C and the TCM cars of to­day are far re­moved from what the Group C car was.”

On its first test out­ing, how­ever, the car bent sus­pen­sion com­po­nents un­der the sheer force of its per­for­mance. And then came the big­gest is­sue of all: power. Specif­i­cally, too much of it.

“The (Holden) 308 was cer­tainly the largest chal­lenge. It was never de­signed to sup­port any more than 500bhp and that’s where most of the re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues came from. We went through nine en­gines in to­tal and it bloody well nearly broke the bank.”

An in-depth fea­ture pro­duced for Holden’s own Gi­ant Killers ’75 pub­li­ca­tion, de­tail­ing the build of the orig­i­nal SL/Rs, partly ex­plains why en­gine re­li­a­bil­ity had sud­denly be­come an is­sue for the To­rana teams.

“[We have] a max­i­mum power out­put of 350bhp at the fly­wheel – and a us­able rpm range from 4000 to 6000 rpm,” wrote Peter Jan­son’s then-me­chanic, one Phil Brock, in the To­rana an­nual. “This puts us ahead of the dealer team cars on torque out­put but be­hind them in out­right power, but our flex­i­bil­ity gives us re­li­a­bil­ity which we hope to use if the faster cars run into trou­ble,” he con­cluded at the time.

Thanks to the evo­lu­tion in tech­nol­ogy, Ed­wards was in the unique po­si­tion of pro­duc­ing more power than the HDT, Small, Jan­son or any­one could have dreamed of 36 years prior.

“We talked to Larry Perkins early in the piece of build­ing the car and he ran 308s up to 1997 (in V8 Su­per­cars) and when they started to make that 540-550bhp they were hav­ing is­sues with the block. Larry said if ‘you start mak­ing more power than that they’re go­ing to break’,” Ed­wards says.

“We ac­tu­ally de-tuned it for the last cou­ple of years to get some re­li­a­bil­ity out of it – and it still failed! We used a Repco F5000 block for a while, but it ac­tu­ally lasted the least amount of time out of them all. We had a Larry Perkins-made Group A block, which he went to the foundry and mod­i­fied him­self; we had the F5000 block; there was an L34 block; a late model VT block and we tried the VN Group A block. Ev­ery de­riv­a­tive of the Holden 308 we had a crack at it [with].”

TCM or­gan­is­ers were not in­sen­si­tive to the is­sues at hand. Reg­u­la­tions were changed to al­low To­rana run­ners to switch to a Chevro­let-

base en­gine, re­mov­ing the re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues in the in­ter­ests of cost con­tain­ment and im­prov­ing the show.

“The block is just too light. When we did the Chev we found the 308 was still 10kg lighter than that! So it was mas­sively lack­ing in core strength in the cast­ing it­self.”

With en­gine is­sues sorted, Ed­wards notes that mak­ing the en­tire car re­li­able proved an on­go­ing process of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and con­sis­tent de­vel­op­ment. Just like the old days!

“With Les (Small) be­ing old-school and build­ing them back in the day, his in­for­ma­tion from back then was use­ful, but there was only so much we could use. It was just a dif­fer­ent era. The is­sues we started to get chas­sis-wise were just due to mod­ern ma­te­ri­als like brakes and tyres. The (grooved semi-slick Hoosier tyres) we used to­day prob­a­bly have more grip than the slicks they used in those days.

“We also had a few strength is­sues,” Ed­wards re­mem­bers. “The front steer­ing arms usu­ally have 7/16ths bolts in them. Well, we went to halfinch bolts and still broke them! It was the lit­tle things like that we had the is­sues in try­ing to get it work.”

Ed­wards’ woes were com­pounded by a rollover at the 2012 sea­son­fi­nale at Sandown. By this time the car was pre­sented in an HDT-in­spired white, red and black liv­ery.

Beast tamed

Holden’s mar­ket­ing slo­gan for the To­rana in its early days was ‘when you’re hot, you’re hot’ and like so much of the TCM To­rana story, that

trans­fers to the present day. When it was made re­li­able, it rapidly be­came a po­tent lit­tle pack­age.

Ed­wards lights up at the mem­ory of dic­ing with dual TCM cham­pion John Bowe, driv­ing his 351ci Ford Mus­tang Trans-Am, at the fi­nal round of the 2013 sea­son at Phillip Is­land.

“It was just in­cred­i­ble, and so much fun. The chas­sis was very, very good,” Ed­wards ex­plains. “We were just lack­ing in horse­power. Bowe’s prob­a­bly got an­other 100 horse­power but I could get onto the straight 20km/h quicker than him and hav­ing that run through the mid­dle of the cor­ner was enough to get him at the line.

“The car it­self could be very snappy. If it got out of con­trol, it got out of con­trol fast be­cause they’re so short and nar­row but it was just a joy to drive. They stopped well and you could get on the throt­tle ear­lier than any­one else so the lack of power did have its ad­van­tages, es­pe­cially in the rain.

“At low-grip tracks, es­pe­cially, it shone; it was very, very good. With the Chev en­gine, they’ll be 100 per­cent re­li­able now and they’re about 70bhp bet­ter off. I’d have liked to have had that at Phillip Is­land that weekend, they’d not have seen which way I went!”

In Tony Ed­wards’ hands the SL/R 5000 was, ul­ti­mately, knock­ing on the door for race wins, but a vic­tory proved elu­sive. A hand­ful of sec­ond­place fin­ishes re­main the V8 To­rana’s high-wa­ter mark in three years of TCM com­pe­ti­tion.

With budget ex­pended from the lengthy and chal­leng­ing de­vel­op­ment process, Ed­wards sold his car, per­haps the best-de­vel­oped SL/R 5000 in Aus­tralian mo­tor­sport his­tory, in late 2013. The new owner is Carey McMa­hon, who hails from the Her­itage Tour­ing Car (Group C and A) ranks.

McMa­hon continues to pedal the car in the 2014 Enzed TCM se­ries with solid top-10 pace at the two rounds held to date. The next event is at Dar­win’s Hid­den Val­ley Race­way over the weekend of June 20-22.

For­mer V8 Ute racer Ja­son Gom­er­sall has a sim­i­lar car rac­ing in his iSeek Rac­ing liv­ery.

Mean­while, Garry O’Brien is in the process of fin­ish­ing his SL/R for a po­ten­tial de­but later this sea­son. Like Ed­wards, the Bendigo Retro Mus­cle Cars pro­pri­etor up­grades from a 350-pow­ered HQ. O’Brien’s crew has al­ready put over 1200 hours into the build. This runs to “body­work and sys­tem de­sign, re­search and de­vel­op­ment, cus­tom fab­ri­ca­tion and panel work, en­gine de­vel­op­ment and test­ing, and cus­tom light­weight fit-out. The Bendigo Retro Rac­ing To­rana cov­ered all the one per­cent mar­gins to en­sure it hit the track as an out­right race win­ning ma­chine,” the team says.

So, in the very least there will be strength in num­bers. Af­ter their early is­sues, it looks like the V8 To­ranas will be a reg­u­lar front-run­ning can­di­date in the TCM field for years to come, just like they were in the sec­ond half of the 1970s af­ter their early ob­sta­cles.

Who says his­tory never re­peats?

Top of page: Don’t be fooled by the mul­ti­tude of liv­er­ies, as just two TCM SL/R 5000 To­ranas have hit the track so far. Tony Ed­wards’ trail­blaz­ing ex­am­ple started off blue, be­fore he switched to an HDT look. His car is now in the hands of Carey McMa­hon (car #50 on page 100). Bot­tom of page: The TCM’s sec­ond SL/R has been cam­paigned by Ja­son Gom­er­sall, first in a road car look, now in iSeek colours.

Top: Ja­son Gom­er­sall (#35) and Carey McMa­hon (#50) have been in the thick of the ac­tion in 2014. Why #50? It’s the re­verse of Brock’s #05 and also sig­ni­fies its 5.0-litre pow­er­plant. Right: Bendigo Retro Mus­cle Cars will de­but the cat­e­gory’s third LH To­rana later this year for Garry O’Brien.

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