just like new
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.”