Proos of Chrysler's V8 Pacer ATCC racer plan
Debate has raged for decades whether Chrysler Australia intended to race a 340-engined Charger. But what if we told you it wasn’t the Charger that Tonsley Park originally considered for a V8-based racing program? With help from former Chrysler employees,
New evidence has come to light pointing to Chrysler’s eagerness to join the tin-top racing scene in 1970 and 1971 with a V8-powered model. Tied to this, was the decision by Chrysler Australia to import a small number of its potent 340 cubic inch V8 engines to this country to capitalise on the expected success of its V8 Pacer racer. That’s right, Pacer.
While the V8-powered racing program and a limited edition road-going V8 Pacer model never happened of course, Chrysler engineering correspondence from 1969 has emerged which provides new insights into the Pentastar brand’s enthusiasm to up the ante on Aussie racetracks and in showrooms.
Back in the US, Chrysler had developed the
340 as a small-block race engine to compete with Ford’s 289ci and Chevrolet’s 327ci small-block V8s that were cleaning up in NASCAR and TransAm racing over there.
Through the 1960s Chrysler Australia went from being a leader – witness the pandemonium surrounding the January 1962 release of the R series – to being a follower as seen by the Valiants that followed on from the S series in 1963. The R and S models were stunners in style and king of the road in terms of performance with near100mph available off the showroom floor from the 145bhp slant six. From AP5 onwards it seemed as if the company was designing and building cars for the cardigan set. By comparison they were boring even though Chrysler could sell every one they could build.
What was needed was a car to get the pulse of buyers moving and that car arrived in 1969 in the form of the VF Pacer sedan. It was a budget special in that it was developed in six months on a shoe-string budget. Nonetheless, it was amazingly successful with more than 10 per cent of all VFs built being Pacers.
It was with the Pacer that Chrysler dipped its corporate toe into the world of motorsports here in Australia. And management liked what they saw. Managing director David Brown and chief engineer Walt McPherson (a grassroots motorsport participant) okayed Sydney-based national service manager, Brian Butler, to go out and recruit some of the best drivers available. Butler began by signing one of our best, Leo Geoghegan. It was quite a coup. Others like Doug Chivas, Des West and Norm Beechey followed.
While Leo did not win any big races with the Pacer, there were some notable class wins in the second half of 1969. Off the back of this initial activity came the enthusiasm to push the boundaries. Pretty soon the idea of bringing in the potent 340 V8 was being discussed openly at Tonsley Park.
Before we detail the correspondence between Adelaide and Detroit, we need to paint a picture of the Australian motor racing scene at the dawn of the 1970s.
Chrysler Australia’s aforementioned Pacer forays were in events for Series Production cars, in showroom spec, with limited modifications permitted, essentially for safety equipment. Most events for these cars were quick sprints at jam-
packed multi-category race meetings. The most notable exception was the 500-mile endurance race at Mount Panorama each October, which was fast growing in status each year. There was also, from 1968, a September enduro at Sandown, in Melbourne.
While the Bathurst 500’s star was definitely on the rise by 1969, as factory or factory-supported efforts engaged in a fight for supremacy at Mount Panorama, Series Production was not the only game in town. Far from it.
In fact, the most popular touring cars of the era with trackside fans were the spectacular Improved Production machines that contested the Australian Touring Car Championship. For 1969, the ATCC had expanded from a single event to a seven-round series, with a host of other, non-championship races over the year.
The Improved Production tourers featured the biggest stars of the day: Ian Geoghegan, Allan Moffat, Bob Jane and Norm Beechey, among others. Although race fififields fields were not huge, the cars embodied the best of what America, Britain, Europe and Australia had to offer. Eligibility and technical rules were based on FIA regulations upon which the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport put their own twist. CAMS did so to encourage local cars to take on the mainstays of such illustrious foreign categories as the TransAmerican Sedan Championship and the British Saloon Car Championship.
The letters displayed on these pages show that Chrysler here in Australia coveted a piece of that pie, as well as success in the Hardie-Ferodo 500 at Bathurst. The correspondence suggests the company was keeping its options open as the 1970 season fast approached.
In America the corporation had the Plymouth Barracuda that was built off the Valiant floorpan, so it appeared a reasonable thing to bolt the US bits into a local Valiant – the Pacer – and go out and headbutt the Mustangs and Monaro. During 1969, numerous communications took place between Tonsley Park and Highland Park regarding sourcing components to build a Valiant Pacer powered by the company’s 340 V8. While the letters contain no specific references to events, championships or racing categories, the fact Chrysler Australia was tapping into HQ’s Trans-Am series experience and parts bin points to the fact Improved Production competition was under consideration. That’s because Trans-Am cars were modified well beyond the showroom spec required under Series Production rules.
Several letters were exchanged between Walt McPherson, Ned Clymer, Don Ehr, ‘Buck’ Rodgers and Jack Kerby about the components which had been developed for the Chrysler-backed Team Starfish Barracudas that contested the earliest years of Trans-Am competition, albeit with little success. We must highlight that Team Starfish was no ‘boots-and-all’ works team. It was headed
With the available data, we calculated that at Bathurst a VF Pacer equipped with the 340 engine and four-speed manual transmission should be capable of 2:50 minute laps. - Jack Kerby
by Chrysler product planning engineer Scott Harvey, who secured the necessary permission and funding for an ‘after hours’ operation. Chrysler engineers and employees donated their time on nights and weekends in order to prepare, develop and race the Barracudas.
Correspondence culminated with McPherson placing an order for 200 examples of a 275bhp version (likely to have been more than 275bhp, but downplayed publicly for reasons including minimising insurance premiums) of the 340 engine used in the Barracuda road car (the Trans-Am racing versions were restricted to the category’s 5.0-litre capacity limit). In his specifications he wanted the dual-plane intake manifold, big-port cylinder heads with huge 2.02-inch intake valves, special valve springs, forged steel crankshaft with shot-peened radii either side of the journals, heavier forged conrods, a windage tray bolted up to the main bearing cap bolts, special tall main bearing caps to prevent distortion at high revs (the 340 would rev to 7000rpm) and a Carter AVS 4-barrel carburettor (later a Thermoquad 4-barrel unit) and a viscous cooling fan. The order was placed in October 1969.
What is important to note here is that these 200 engines were not despatched to Tonsley Park as fully built-up units. As former Chrysler engineer Bob Burke commented, “Those engines arrived around May 1970 as components to be assembled upon their arrival at [the] Lonsdale [engine plant] and it was my responsibility to look at what we could source locally before assembling them. I was lucky because we were already assembling the 318ci V8 using many locally sourced parts and I found that many of these would bolt straight on.”
Locally sourced components included the engine sump and rocker covers that were pressed in-house, pushrods, rocker arms and shafts, water pump, timing case cover, harmonic balancer and a quick-advance distributor. As Burke added, “The company was always very conscious of the local content requirements, unlike Ford and Holden apparently, and so I had to use as much as I could from local suppliers.”
Burke continued, “This initial batch of engines were the high performance engines. A further order for around 130 (some sources say 135, others 138) engines of a softer specification was placed a few weeks later. What needs to be understood quite clearly is that these engines were never ‘dumped’ here by Chrysler, they were never ‘left-over’ engines and they were not detuned for emission reasons because that did not come into effect until the 1972 US model year.”
Having assembled a total of 338 engines, they were placed on pallets and stored in the basement of the Lonsdale foundry.
In a letter dated November 7, 1969, Jack Kerby wrote to McPherson saying, “With the available data, we calculated that at Bathurst a VF Pacer equipped with the 340 engine and fourspeed manual transmission should be capable of 2:50 minute laps. Improvements in the engine to 375bhp should cut another five seconds off the lap times, considering no handling improvements.”
He went on to say, “Based on the above conclusions we can say ‘yes, Chrysler Australia can build a competitive racecar. Now, what exactly does it take to do the job?”
As we mentioned before,
Top left: Chrysler, via its Plymouth brand, dipped a toe in the fledgling Trans-Am Series via Team Starfish. This is Riverside, California. Chrysler correspondence from 1969 reveals that an ex-TransAm Barracuda was offered to Chrysler Australia to help prepare its local V8 challenger, the Pacer.