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Australian Muscle Car - - Blue-blooded Muscle -

The famed Tru-Blu XD Fal­con is now it­self true-blue – as in back in the ex­act liv­ery it wore when it com­pleted Dick John­son’s fairy­tale. Get­ting it right was no sim­ple task

Dick John­son's sec­ond Tru-Blu XD Fal­con holds a spe­cial place in Aus­tralian mo­tor rac­ing his­tory. While it's one of only a small hand­ful of chas­sis to win both the Bathurst 1000 (1981) and the Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship (1981 and 1982), its sig­nif­i­cance goes way be­yond a stel­lar list of race­track suc­cesses. For this was the car which breathed new life into lo­cal tour­ing car rac­ing in the early eight­ies. The boom in in­ter­est was in stark con­trast to the pe­riod 1978 to mid-1980, when com­pe­ti­tion to Holden was al­most non-ex­is­tent.

It was the ve­hi­cle, quite lit­er­ally, through which new Ford hero John­son rose to rac­ing su­per­star­dom as he made good on the prom­ise he showed at Bathurst in 1980 – be­fore dis­as­ter struck the short-lived Tru-Blu MkI. In short, the 1881 Tru-Blu Fal­con was the feel-good ma­chine at the cen­tre of Aussie tin-top rac­ing's great­est story. A big state­ment, we know.

Tru-Blu MkII was also the foun­da­tion stone upon which Dick John­son Rac­ing was built. DJR is by far the coun­try's long­est-es­tab­lished race team and is still com­pet­ing in the pre­mier di­vi­sion, V8 Su­per­cars, to­day. In short, this car helped cre­ate a leg­end and reignited Aussie mo­tor rac­ing’s tribal war­fare.

In­ter­est­ingly, the road-go­ing XD be­came Aus­tralia’s best sell­ing car in 1981 and con­trib­uted

to Ford be­com­ing num­ber one in the mar­ket­place in the early 1980s. It’s im­pos­si­ble to tell if the rac­ing ver­sion’s suc­cess made even a small con­tri­bu­tion to Ford’s mar­ket dom­i­nance, but Dick's deeds and the pos­i­tive PR it gen­er­ated cer­tainly didn't hurt.

To paint the full pic­ture of the car’s sig­nif­i­cance we need to rewind a lit­tle.

The Con­fed­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian Mo­tor­sport reached for the Packer-Whacker for sea­son 1980 in a bid to kick-start the scene af­ter the To­rana A9X won ev­ery race that sea­son. It nob­bled the all-con­quer­ing A9Xs and hap­less hard­tops to en­cour­age teams to up­grade to the newer VB Com­modores and XD Fords.

Any in­ter­est that Ford had in the new era evap­o­rated through fear of be­ing po­lit­i­cally out­ma­noeu­vred by Holden.

The story of how the XD Fal­con came to be ho­molo­gated – and its tech­ni­cal specs – was told at length in AMC #50, so we won't re­count it in de­tail. How­ever, John­son can thank pri­va­teers Garry Willm­ing­ton and Mur­ray Carter for tak­ing care of the XD's of­fi­cial pa­per­work. He can also slap CAMS on the back for a huge over­sight by the gov­ern­ing body which en­sured that the model was com­pet­i­tive.

Willm­ing­ton's and Carter's per­for­mances in early 1980 in­spired John­son to have a crack with an XD off his own bat – un­der the ban­ner of Dick John­son Rac­ing. Tru-Blu MkI was built from an ex-po­lice high­way pa­trol car that gained its run­ning gear from the Bryan Byrt Ford-owned XC hard­tops, his pre­vi­ous mounts. The Byrt team had been dis­banded at the end of '79, leav­ing ‘em­ployee’ John­son tem­po­rar­ily out of rac­ing.

It’s now rac­ing leg­end that John­son was streak­ing away with the 1980 Hardie Ferodo 1000 when he en­coun­tered a re­cov­ery ve­hi­cle and a bowl­ing ball-sized rock in his path ex­it­ing The Cut­ting. He hit the rock, which speared his Fal­con into the con­crete wall, his day, car and dream wrecked.

The rock in­ci­dent and the re­sult­ing im­promptu telethon not only gave John­son the budget he needed to build Tru-Blu MkII, it also opened up doors at Ford.

John­son now had the Blue Oval’s at­ten­tion. Ford sup­plied a brand new XD bodyshell which had been walked down the as­sem­bly line es­pe­cially for John­son. This was a far cry from us­ing an­other ex-po­lice car as a start­ing point.

This clean-skin shell was de­liv­ered to the Queens­land team mi­nus all the brack­ets and other fit­tings sur­plus to com­pe­ti­tion re­quire­ments. Skipped in the process were the ap­pli­ca­tion of seam sealants and sound-dead­en­ing com­pounds, while ex­tra spot welds were made for added strength and rigid­ity.

John­son ap­plied all that he had learned in 1980 with MkI to this nice new plat­form and the re­sult was an ab­so­lute rock­et­ship. He won the open­ing round at Sym­mons Plains, Tas­ma­nia, and again at Oran Park, Sandown and Surfers Par­adise. The ti­tle-fight came down to a win­ner-take-all fi­nal round on June 21 at Lake­side Race­way, where John­son with­stood mas­sive pres­sure from Brock for 35 nail-bit­ing laps to win by less than a sec­ond.

The oc­ca­sion left quite an im­pres­sion on two young boys who, along with their fa­ther, were among the throng at Lake­side that day, as we will soon learn.

The ATCC ti­tle was fol­lowed by vic­tory in the crash-short­ened James Hardie 1000, with John­son ably backed up by John French. Dick's demons from twelve months ear­lier were well-andtruly ex­or­cised.

The Tru-Blu XD ended its ca­reer as John­son’s front­line fighter in fine style, tak­ing a sec­ond ATCC in 1982, on the back of three wins and two sec­ond places. All up, in two cham­pi­onship cam­paigns, Tru-Blu de­liv­ered Ford’s new hero with 13 podium fin­ishes in 16 rounds, an 81 per­cent strike rate. Tellingly, no other Ford driver – bar John­son’s Bathurst co-driver John French – won a race in an XD model Fal­con.

It didn’t mat­ter, as DJ’s abil­ity to make the XD sing and dance re­sus­ci­tated the scene.

“It did [breathe life in the Ford vs Holden] bat­tle,” John­son af­firms. [The XD] gave the Fords a fight­ing chance of win­ning races. It was the start of a new era.”

So what made the boxy mo­bile a bet­ter weapon than the model it re­placed?

“Even though it had leaf-spring sus­pen­sion in the back, ev­ery­thing was trans­fer­able from the pre­vi­ous model, so there had been a fair bit of de­vel­op­ment over the pe­riod of time the hard­tops raced. Whereas the Com­modore was all new with its Macpher­son struts and things like that. They had more sort­ing out to do. We had more flex­i­bil­ity in the sus­pen­sion.

“There was the weight of it,” John­son ex­plains, “with it be­ing, from mem­ory, about 200kg lighter than the XC. And the rules changed to al­low us to be more com­pet­i­tive with the Com­modores. Also, the Com­modore [was larger than the To­rana and it] still only had the 5.0-litre en­gine, while we had al­most 6.0 litres, or 5.8-litres.” Ah yes, weight. De­spite John­son's her­culean ef­forts, the new XD would still have strug­gled if not for an over­sight on be­half of CAMS in ap­prov­ing the model’s min­i­mum rac­ing weight for sea­son 1980.

At 1496kg, even the base 351ci (5.8 litre) V8 man­ual ver­sion of the XD Fal­con road car would have been un­com­pet­i­tive against Holden’s new smaller and con­sid­er­ably lighter 308ci (5.0 litre) VB Com­modore at just 1232kg – a sig­inif­i­cant 264kg dif­fer­ence in kerb weight.

What turned the XD into a gen­uine con­tender was CAMS’ ac­cep­tance of the car’s min­i­mum rac­ing weight of 1367kg. This was based on the light­est model in the XD range – the 3.3 litre six­cylin­der man­ual with col­umn shift and vinyl trim!

Now wouldn't con­tes­tants on The Big­gest

Loser love to shed 129kg as the re­sult of an ad­min er­ror?! The loss brought the rac­ing XD, with al­most one litre more en­gine ca­pac­ity, to within 135kg of the Com­modore. Thanks to the over­sight, the XD sud­denly pos­sessed a very com­pet­i­tive power-to-weight ra­tio.

The fight­ing weight ad­van­tage was ironic given that Ford did not want to race the XD in the first place, be­liev­ing Holden was hatch­ing a plan for a 5.7-litre rac­ing Com­modore. In truth, GM-H was dis­in­ter­ested in rac­ing and com­pany chiefs put the brakes on con­tin­u­ing to fund the HDT. John­son says the car had few weak­nesses. “It won two cham­pi­onships and Bathurst. So it’s a pretty spe­cial car, re­ally. And it was in that car that I won my first ti­tle and my first Bathurst.”

For the 1982 en­duro sea­son John­son moved to the re­cal­ci­trant XE model, with its new Wattslink­age coil-over rear-end. Tru-Blu was sold to Bris­bane real es­tate agent Alf Grant who raced it in a re­vised white and blue liv­ery. De­spite be­ing a vir­tual rac­ing novice, Grant twice cracked the top 10 at Bathurst in the famed Fal­con, in ’83 (sev­enth) and ’84 (10th).

The lat­ter event marked the end of Tru-Blu's rac­ing ca­reer, with the Group C class wound up at year's end. John­son bought the car back from Grant in the 1980s and at some stage re­turned it to its all-blue liv­ery. Valvo­line's brand­ing made way, how­ever, for Shell sig­nage, in def­er­ence to DJR’s long-time ti­tle spon­sor. This 'nearly right' look was re­tained for the next two decades, in­clud­ing for the car's star­ring role in the first ever edi­tion of AMC, in late 2001.

For many years Tru-Blu resided at DJR’s Aca­cia Ridge team base, be­fore be­ing moved to the squad's cur­rent Sta­ple­ton fa­cil­ity, which in­cludes a mu­seum, in the early noughties.

DJR fell on hard times af­ter Shell pulled its sub­stan­tial fund­ing at the end of 2004. The West­point property and fi­nance group took over as ti­tle spon­sor, but soon went belly-up, fail­ing to make pay­ments to the team. This took DJR to the brink of fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter. Thus, John­son sold Tru-Blu – and sev­eral of his other famed cars – to fel­low Queens­lan­der David Bow­den in 2006.

While the renowned tour­ing car col­lec­tor and his sons, Dan and Chris, are stick­lers for ac­cu­rate pre­sen­ta­tion, they re­tained the 'nearly right' liv­ery for five years. This was due to the num­ber of restora­tion projects the Bow­den’s Own crew had on the go and be­cause much re­search was needed to nail an au­then­tic ap­pear­ance.

“When you get a car as sig­nif­i­cant as this,” Dan Bow­den ex­plains, “the last thing you want to do is rush into things. You’ve re­ally got to step back and re­search things heav­ily. You’ve got to find out how much of the car is orig­i­nal, how much of it has changed and when was it changed. They are all im­por­tant to the in­tegrity of the car. Ev­ery time you change some­thing you lose a lit­tle bit of its his­tory. You have to be care­ful with what you touch.

“When we got it, me­chan­i­cally it wasn’t run­ning,” Dan ex­plains, high­light­ing that un­der the skin it was vir­tu­ally as it last raced at Bathurst in ’84. “Dick’s guys, in­clud­ing [DJR's first crew mem­ber and Tru-Blu orig­i­nal me­chanic] Roy

McDon­ald, would come in and get it run­ning again for us. Which they did for the Gold Coast [Leg­ends of Mo­tor­sport] event in 2009.”

While the car was well re­ceived wher­ever it went, its 'nearly right' liv­ery al­ways drew com­ment from ea­gle-eyed pun­ters.

“[The pre­vi­ous paint scheme] wasn’t done to any spe­cific point in time – or more to the point, any par­tic­u­lar race meet­ing,” Dan continues.

“To the un­trained eye it looked pretty close to the mark, but there were the likes of the Shell stick­ers on it.”

Bow­den also says the de­ci­sion to re­turn the Tru-Blu Fal­con to its Bathurst 1981 look was no fore­gone con­clu­sion.

“Lake­side 1981 was huge for us, as we were there that day Dick held out Brock to win the tour­ing car cham­pi­onship. Re­ally, that was the big­gest ever race in Queens­land. But, ul­ti­mately, Bathurst is re­ally the one, as he wanted to ‘re­pay’

those who got him back on the track. The other thing was that Dick won Bathurst with John French and we wanted to give Frenchy that ac­knowl­edge­ment.

“Frenchy is a leg­end, so it was im­por­tant to us that the car paid trib­ute to these two great quin­tes­sen­tial Queens­lan­ders.”

Thus be­gan an­other round of re­search, pri­mar­ily to iden­tify the smaller stick­ers that the car wore on Oc­to­ber 4, 1981.

“We went through it all and gath­ered as many pics as we could of the car. We got David Blanch of Au­topics to go through his ar­chive and find pho­tos of ev­ery pos­si­ble an­gle of the car at Mount Panorama in 1981.

“We gath­ered up all the ma­te­rial and passed it onto our sign­writer. He found a lot of the orig­i­nal stick­ers and recre­ated lo­gos – Bank of Queens­land, CRC, for in­stance – us­ing all the orig­i­nal typefaces.

“We al­ways thought the car was sign­writ­ten, but we spoke to Dick and the guys and they told us the sig­nage was all vinyl. The Greens-Tuf XE was a com­bi­na­tion of hand sign­writ­ing and vinyl. But if you look closely at pho­tos of Tru-Blu’s later races, you can see where the vinyl is start­ing to peel off. So it showed it was vinyl.

“From one end of the car to the other, pretty much ev­ery­thing needed to be re­done. The at­ten­tion to de­tail now is amaz­ing. When you com­pare it to­day to shots at Bathurst ’81, you can't pick any­thing up. It’s been a big job, but an im­por­tant one as it is so revered by Ford fans.”

That at­ten­tion to de­tail in­cludes copy­ing all of Tru-Blu’s im­per­fec­tions.

“You can see with the James Hardie 1000 stick­ers, that on one side the strip goes un­der the gold pin-strip­ing and on the other, the pin-strip­ing goes over it. That’s how it was. And that’s just one ex­am­ple.”

Dan says that ev­ery sin­gle sticker on the car has a story and pre­sented its own chal­lenge. Each in­volved re­search­ing into what it looked like in 1981 and get­ting the font right.

“This was a chal­lenge as a lot of com­pa­nies have changed their lo­gos, brand­ing and styles. And, of course, sev­eral are not around to­day.”

One of the big­gest chal­lenges was iden­ti­fy­ing and repli­cat­ing the lit­tle cir­cu­lar logo be­low the Dun­lop sign on the rear fen­der.

“We had plenty of rear shots of the car at Bathurst, but none close-up and de­tailed enough to show what that was. We put it out on the Bow­den’s Own Pre­mium Car Care page on Face­book and asked pun­ters to help us work it out. One guy iden­ti­fied it for us.”

It turns out that Wynns of­fered prize money for the leader of each lap, con­tin­gent on the car bear­ing the com­pany’s logo.

“What threw us was that Wynns wasn’t a spon­sor of Dick’s as such. It was a one-off ‘con­tin­gency’ deal that was pop­u­lar at the time.”

Suc­cess­fully iden­ti­fy­ing it was one thing, sourc­ing a mint re­place­ment ex­am­ple 30 years down the track quite an­other.

“In­cred­i­bly, we found a mob in the UK that still had the orig­i­nal stick­ers!”

The job was com­pleted ahead of the 2012 Long­ford Re­vival, where the car was driven by the great man him­self. As good as the Tassie event was, the Bow­dens longed to re­unite the car and DJ at the site of the 1981 ATCC tri­umph.

That op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self, al­beit last minute, as part of Dick John­son Rac­ing’s 2014 V8 Su­per­car sea­son launch. De­spite lit­tle no­tice, the oc­ca­sion proved a ma­jor draw­card for hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors at the cor­po­rate ride day.

The youngest of the Bow­den fam­ily, Chris Bow­den said it was a great op­por­tu­nity that DJR ex­tended to them.

“In one word it was 'fan­tas­tic'. Dick was cer­tainly ea­ger to get back in it at his favourite race­track and by all ac­counts it was very well re­ceived,” Chris said.

What about the five-time ATCC champ and three-time Bathurst-win­ning team owner him­self?

“I’ve got a lot weaker over the years and it hasn’t got power steer­ing so it is very heavy on the steer­ing, but it is still a good car to drive. We had a lot of suc­cess here in that car and not only here, but just about ev­ery track in Aus­tralia,” John­son said. That he did.

John­son, Tru-Blu, Lake­side: the trio was re­cently re­united. Can you make out the sticker be­low Dun­lop on the car’s rear? The orig­i­nal’s iden­tity had the Bow­den’s Own crew stumped for a while.

Top left: Garry Willm­ing­ton and Mur­ray Carter laid the foun­da­tions in early 1980 and in­spired John­son to take the plunge that changed Aussie rac­ing his­tory. In­set: It was the worst of times; it was the best of times. Bathurst 1980 was all of that and more. Be­low: Fe­bru­ary 17, 1981 and Tru-Blu MkII is re­vealed. From left, Bryan Byrt Ford’s John Har­ris, DJ and Ross Palmer.

Lake­side 1981 saw Dick hold Brock at bay de­spite a bro­ken sway bar. Be­low: Here’s to Dicky, he’s Tru-Blu, he’s a rock star through and through.

Above: Bathurst 1981, and the fairy­tale’s last chap­ter is about to play out. Left: John French adds ex­tra feel-good value to TruBlu’s life story. Top right: AMC put Tru-Blu (in its ‘in­terim’ look) into a stu­dio for the mag­a­zine’s very first edi­tion. Now, 13 years later, we’re fin­ish­ing the job. Right: Lake­side 1982 and #17 fin­ished sec­ond to Mof­fat’s RX7. A lot changed in one year.




Above: Own­ers David (cen­tre) and Dan Bow­den with Dick at DJR’s 2014 sea­son launch at Lake­side. Left: Iden­ti­fy­ing the Wynn’s sticker was one thing, find­ing a re­place­ment quite an­other. Be­low: Dick: “Re­ally, it was al­most a se­ries pro­duc­tion car with a bit more hot rod stuff on it.”

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