88 Canberra Speedway
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.
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.