Clem’s Charger

Australian Muscle Car - - Muscle Man -

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.

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