Prov­ing ground fun po­lice

Australian Muscle Car - - Classified pg -

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’.

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