Proving ground fun police
The arrival of the new-age Ford Mustang has triggered memories of my first handson experience, in the USA, with genuine American muscle. Surprisingly, considering that I was an Allan Moffat fan from the early 1970s and a drive of the famous Coca-Cola Mustang still tops my personal bucket list, it took General Motors to get me really fired up about roadgoing Detroit iron.
It happened in May of 1985, when General Motors-Holden decided it was time to host a large group of Australian media on a study trip to the USA. The visionary Senator John Button had just completed work on his Post-1984 Motor Industry Plan, which would progressively eliminate the protective wall that had shielded the five local carmakers – Holden, Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan – and eventually led to the disastrous short-term shotgun marriage between Holden and Toyota that produced such classics as the Holden Apollo (the rebadged Camry) and Toyota Lexcen (nee Commodore).
At the time, management at Fishermans Bend was keen to show that its Detroit parent was still committed to Holden and a future in local carmaking. Which shows how things have change over 30-plus years.
I have many great memories from that trip, including a parking lot shooting that triggered an overnight change of hotel and the bragging comment by Roger B. Smith – the man in the top office at that time, although since discredited in so many ways – that the Japanese car industry would never seriously threaten the Big Three from the USA.
“What have they ever invented, apart from the coin holder?” Smith said, in a comment that was to be proved comprehensively wrong.
That same trip also included a visit to the Indianapolis 500, in the year when Danny Sullivan scored his famous ‘spin and win’ victory over Mario Andretti while driving for Roger Penske. But the highlight was time at the famous Milford Proving Ground, in Michigan, which has a history stretching back deep into the 1920s, and driving time in the Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette.
The Milford time began, predictably, with a history lesson and a safety briefing and I can clearly remember watching crash-test footage comparing a then-current Chevrolet with a car from the 1920s. When the old-timer hit the wall in a full-frontal impact the first result was that the spare tyre flew off the tail as shock forces fired straight through the chassis.
Then the body snapped its ties to the chassis and slid forward, over the top of the engine, into the concrete wall…
The driving course for the day was laid out partly on the ‘Black Lake’ section of Milford, so called because ducks sometimes – disastrously for them – tried to land on the giant bitumen test pad at the centre of the facility because it looked like a lake. There was a set of motorkhana cones to test cornering and a longer high-speed loop into a wooded hillside.
But – and it’s a gigantic BUT – there was a 55mph speed limit and Milford had its own inhouse police force, complete with black-and-white squad cars.
Still, I can clearly remember the hit in the back as I dropped the hammer in a Camaro and the special feeling of sliding into a Corvette for the first time. The ‘Vette felt so futuristic and special after our Commodore. Then the trouble began. My colleague Wayne Webster of the Daily Telegraph in Sydney first spun a giant Chevy Suburban through a double lane-change, scattering cones in all directions, and was then parked by the cops after exceeding the speed limit in a Camaro. Then I got a severe warning on the motorkhana course, despite running well below the ‘double nickel’.
We argued that other drivers, across the lake, were clearly exceeding the speed limit. “Those are professional drivers,” we were told. So I headed out again in a Camaro, romping through the coned-off corners and thoroughly enjoying the wide-tyre grip. Until I heard a siren.
“You were driving dangerously. You were squealing the tyres,” said the female ‘cop’, in a confrontation I can recall as clearly as if it happened yesterday. But that was not the end of things for me, as the head of the GM PR team – a giant man called David Bodkin – asked me to show him why we were complaining about the tight driving limits. So I strapped him into a Corvette and took off. My overriding memory of that lap is a giant sideways slide on a long right-hander as the Corvette’s speedo wound around to better than 100. And that’s miles-an-hour.
I can still picture the off-camber exit, and the grassy run-off into giant trees, but I held my nerve as we fired down to the Black Lake with ‘The Bod’ unaware that anything unusual had occurred. “Now I get it,” he told me after the run. And I got it too as I fully appreciated what a ‘Vette was, and what it could do, and why it was – and still is – the icon of American motoring.
When we returned to Milford, some years later, there was no speed limit for the Australian press and we were welcomed with giant smiles – and no police – onto the then-new handling course created to ensure GM products were world-class and not just muscle cars with giant engines. It was named after GM’s product guru and one-time fighter pilot Bob Lutz, but also also reflected the new global thinking at GM. It’s name? The Lutzring. But that’s another story for another column, just like my memories of driving coast-to-coast in a Corvette convertible in 1986. It was a payback drive, organised by Bodkin for my help at Milford, although I can recall even tougher real-world policing and the mental torture as I was battered by Whitney Houston’s The greatest love of all on dozens of radio stations from Los Angeles to New York City.
Paul Gover, chief reporter Carsguide and our own newshound, recalls the time he incurred the wrath of GM’s in-house ‘cops’.