Even today, the thunder of top-notch Sports Sedans delights racing purists around Australia. The cars remain spectacular and significantly fast, too; at most tracks the fastest cars are anywhere between two and six seconds quicker than current-specification V8 Supercars.
Each year at Mallala one of Australia’s favourite Sports Sedans takes to the track for its one and only lap of the racing season. The car in question is the original Chrysler Charger built and raced by Clem Smith in the 1970s. It still lives in a shed at Mallala, in original condition and still runs.
Clem tips in prize and travel money each year that the National Kerrick-sponsored Sports Sedan Series travels to Mallala, such is the close affinity the man and the class have established. In return, the series named their marquee race after him and have that special car leading them around, Clem behind the wheel.
“I guess it was a pretty special car for a Charger,” Clem explains. “Sports Sedans were my life for a fair while, when we stopped racing the production cars. We’d run Pacers as production cars, including the Sandown Three-Hour and things like that. When the Charger came along we ran a new one in production cars for quite a while and then I thought we should build a Sports Sedan using a Charger as a base.
Today, Sports Sedans remain the last real bastion for engineers to truly innovate within a set of remarkably open rules, given the current shift to ‘spec’ racing; with the latest cars featuring Formula 1-style suspension, space-frame chassis and fully carbon-fibre bodies.
From a similar era that would ultimately spawn famous cars like the Bob Jane Chev Monza, Clem Smith’s Charger came from more humble origins.
“I bought a wreck, and built a sports sedan,” he smiles. “I used that for quite a lot of years, developed that and got the V8 motor with fuel injection and got that going pretty well. Later on, I decided to get the proper chassis made. We put the fuel-injected V8 into that, and went from there. It was a pretty good thing.
“The other Chargers racing at the time, like the more prominent one built and raced by John McCormack, had a Repco V8 engine – so it wasn’t really a Charger! My car was still a Chrysler, with a space frame and it was a very high-tech car for its day. At that stage, you couldn’t use the lightweight stuff they’ve got now so it was an all steel body. It was actually built in the same place as John McCormack’s car [ED: in Adelaide, with Elfin and Chrysler engineers moonlighting on the project], project] on the same jig. Made a pretty good car, actually.”
Clem and the Charger were staples of Sports Sedan races at Adelaide International Raceway (and later Mallala), and often nipped at the heels of national competitors at SA’s annual round.
However, it was the often-fumbled handling of Sports Sedans ‘regulations’ – for what they were – that ultimately turned Clem off the class. Changes to the series in the early 1980s saw Sports Sedan racing essentially disappear from the national landscape for several years when CAMS morphed it into the GT category. Costs rose and traditional cars became uncompetitive.
Smith is frank when it comes to his feelings of the challenges the early 1980s faced for Sports Sedan competitors.
“Sports Sedan racing has always been badly handled, like when the Porsche 935s came in with Rusty French and Alan Jones in the early 1980s. To help us compete with them, they said you can put 15-inch wheels on the back and you can go 12 inches on the front because that is what they (the Porsches) got.
“So right, you can go and buy another 12 or more wheels from Germany from BBS and spend a fortune there... only two years later the Porsches got put out and they dropped Sports Sedans all together! If you didn’t put the big wheels on, you weren’t going to get anywhere, were you? So you went along with it but it was ridiculously expensive at the time. I have heaps of BBS rims in the workshop somewhere!”
Above: AIR’s 1983 Australian GT Championship round (the day of the big startline crash) and Clem’s time racing his Charger is drawing to a close. Below: He wheels the old girl out at Mallala’s Sports Sedan round each year and presents the trophy.