Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing
A Hustler that you couldn’t buy from a truck stop’s magazine rack and a ZZ/Z that was more like zzzz. Just two of a second batch of racy looking cars that were all show and no go.
Twice now AMC has featured Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing – cars in plain-wrappers that go like the clappers. Each time we’ve profiled a flock of Aussie-built or assembled cars that go faster than their looks suggest, we’ve followed up with the exact opposite: a group of flashy cars that were slower than their appearances suggest. Or Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing. In this instalment we turn our attention to small to medium cars that were produced in Australia.
The criteria for Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing? Built or assembled in Australia, factory spec, able to be purchased by the public and built in sufficient numbers to be widely available in their day. Above all else, they needed to look like Bathurst specials even though, to borrow a phrase from Dicky Johnson, they’d struggle to pull the skin off a rice pudding.
Five out of our six ‘slower than they look’ candidates come from the early 1980s. This was an era where ADR27A emission standards had really hobbled performance. The manufacturers simply served up so-called sporty models to unsuspecting punters. Often it was just a case of adding spoilers, stripes, trick alloy wheels and a sporty interior.
No one really cared if they went no harder than the cooking model. As long as these ‘wolves’ looked like they would light up their tyres, the hope was that enthusiastic customers would follow – like sheep.
We’ve narrowed our selection down to the Ford KB Laser Sport, Holden TG Gemini ZZ/Z, Nissan Bluebird TR-X, Mitsubishi GK Sigma GSR and HSV Astra SV1800.
The interloper is the Hillman, nee Chrysler, Hunter Hustler that surfaced in 1970. Here was a psychedelic, brightly hued sports sedan riding on the coat-tails of its bigger brother, the VG Valiant Pacer, but seriously lacking the Pacer’s, well, pace.
Chrysler’s VG Valiant Pacer was the family racer then the Hillman Hustler was its equally flamboyant ‘hippie’ son. Both the VG Pacer and Hustler were born in 1970 and they shared a common philosophy of vibrant colours and bold graphics and being, well, far out, man!
However, it is too simplistic to regard the Hustler and its Hunter brethren as being baby Valiants. They were in fact the last in a line of sporty compact Hillmans, which were in turn the remnants of the British Rootes Group. It was the unique-to-Australia Hillman Gazelle of 1966 that showcased the potent 1725cc alloy header four-cylinder engine. Its successor, the twin-carb Hillman Hunter GT with 95bhp (70kW) performed well, but with its hubcaps and vinyl roof it didn’t look the part, even if insurance companies thought otherwise.
The answer was to invest in a two-pronged approach similar to that of the VG Valiant with its lairy Pacer and luxurious Regal 770. With the release of the HE Hunter, now badged Chrysler but still built at the old Rootes plant at Port Melbourne, there would be the Hunter Royal 660 and the Hustler.
The Royal 660 with its woodgrain dash, full instrumentation, Rostyle steel wheels and vinyl roof looked like an executive express in the idiom of the Ford Cortina 1600E that was never sold here. In contrast, the Hustler may have had the Pacer colour chart, blacked out bonnet and prominent stripes, but it was underdone in other areas. The black steel wheels had no embellishments, the floor coverings were rubber and it had the base model’s strip speedo with no tachometer. In short, it was more poverty pack than track pack.
Motor Manual tested the mechanically similar Royal 660 in January 1971, recording a 0-60mph of 12.2 seconds and quarter-mile of 18.2, and found it to be better overall than the spartan Hustler. While those times were respectable for its class, the compact performance market had moved on by 1971, with the LC Torana GTR and V6 Capri GT3000 being significantly quicker.
The advertising copy said; ‘nobody out-hustles the new Hunter Hustler’, but sadly that isn’t so today. Only a handful of Hustlers have survived and most of them are restoration projects. Hopefully some will return to the road one day, as probably the ultimate sheep in wolves’ clothing.
We nominate a second batch of racy looking cars that were all show and no go.
Ford KB Laser Sport
hot hatch market really began to emerge in Europe in the early 1980s. Think Volkswagen Golf GTi and the Ford Escort XR3i, cars we only ever saw in the pages of British car mags. For most of the 1980s the only VW you could buy was a Kombi or its derivative.
The Ford Laser in its original KA designation was introduced in 1981. Built at Ford’s Homebush Sydney plant it was developed concurrently with Mazda’s BD Series 323, the firm’s first frontwheel- drive model. A sporty three-door 1.5-litre hatch was part of the model range, designated SS (323) and Sport (Laser). While the 323 had fancy hubcaps, the Sport had black alloys and plenty of stripes both inside and out!
The KB Laser Sport of 1983 upped the ante. Under the bonnet was a twin-carb 1.5 engine that had been introduced midway through the KA Series. There were more stripes along the side with a ‘Laser’ motif and underneath the windows frames, which had been blacked out. The door mirrors and grille were colour coded. Cloverleaf 13-inch alloys (made by Ford NZ) mimicked those of the Escort XR3i as did the front and rear black spoilers. To cap it off there were ‘Twin Carb’ and ‘S’ badges on the front guards and an ‘S’ on the rear hatch. It really screamed ‘hot hatch’.
Inside, things were just as lairy, with ‘Stuttgart’ cloth sports seats that were a rip-off of the Porsche 928’s interior.
In 1983 there wasn’t another hot hatch like it on the Australian market. Only it wasn’t hot in performance.
The twin-carb engine looked promising, but only delivered 59kW, barely four more than the single carb. Not only that, but the Hitachi twin-venturi carburettors were of the compound variety. That is, the second venturi only kicked in at 3800 rpm in fourth and 3500 rpm in fifth. It wasn’t conducive to fast acceleration, with 0-100km/h in 12.7 seconds and 0-400 metres in 18.2 seconds according to Wheels May 1983. By comparison, a 1.5 Meteor (Laser with a boot) recorded a 0-100 of 13.8 and 0-400 metres of 18.5. Bizarrely, the twin-carb Sport was more economical than the cooking model.
Still, the Laser Sport looked ‘sporty’ and somehow that was all that mattered to young enthusiasts like this writer who snaffled a French Blue example in 1984. It was a great ride, only spoilt by the less than robust body, which consigned many a hard-driven example to an early
grave, resulting in a meagre survival rate.
Holden TG Gemini ZZ/Z
BBy 1983 the Holden Gemini was starting to look pretty well past it in a sea of front-wheel -drive competitors. Designed by Japanese GM outpost Isuzu, the Gemini was launched in 1975 and carved out a reputation as a rugged little runabout. It was never marketed as a ‘sports’ model until the final TG series appeared in 1983.
The Gemini ZZ/Z stole its name from the stove-hot Isuzu Gemini ZZ/R, but instead of the Japanese car’s potent twin-carb 1.8-twincam engine, the ZZ/Z made do with the standard single-carb 1.6 engine. All 49kW of it. Indeed mechanically, the ZZ/Z was all plain-Jane Gemini.
Yet the exterior was anything but plain-Jane. Multi-spoke white ‘SLE’ wheels, that had last graced a TD Gemini SLE, were sourced. Front and rear spoilers were tacked on and there were blue ZZ/Z badges to contrast with the silver-only exterior finish. The piece-de-resistance was the black ‘wind-splitters’ atop the front guards, cribbed from the Group 3 Commodore SS no less. These wind splitters had first seen the light of day on BMW’s 1970’s CSL ‘Batmobile’, where you expect they may have had an aerodynamic benefit. On the Gemini the benefit would have been negligible.
The only highlight of the interior was the diagonal stripe cloth upholstery, which was straight out of the Commodore SS. A new dashboard had been introduced on the TF and there was a full set of instruments plus a ‘sports’ steering wheel to get the heart racing.
In the performance stakes the Gemini was a real paper tiger; more ZZZzzz than ZZ/Z! Modern Motor tested the ZZ/Z in August 1983 and got 0-100 in 16.7 seconds and 0-400 metres in just under 20 seconds. Top speed on the day was a snoozy 152 km/h.
The TG Gemini soldiered on until 1985, when it was replaced by the underwhelming and shortlived front-wheel-drive RB Gemini.
The Gemini ZZ/Z wasn’t a common sight in its day, but due to its rugged nature a few survive today. They make an interesting curio, but while the ZZ badge has really cache in Japan, in Australia the ZZ/Z really is a bit of a yawn...
Mitsubishi GK Sigma GSR
the word ‘Evo’ became a byword for hot Mitsubishis, there was ‘GSR’. First used on the first generation (A70) Lancer and then later on Galants, GSR was synonymous for Mitsubishi’s hot rally weapons.
These early GSRs never made it to Oz as factory road cars. We had to wait until 1982 when the local Mitsubishi factory introduced the GSR name plate on the front-drive Colt and the GJ Sigma 2.6. In truth these GSRs offered little more than a set of four-spoke alloy wheels and some subtle pinstripes over the cooking models.
The GK Sigma of 1984 didn’t move the game forward. Refinement was improved but it was really holding fort until the important front-wheeldrive Magna was introduced the following year. However, the GSR in GK form was a more convincing attempt than its predecessor.
For starters it had a deep front spoiler, similar to its contemporary Cordia Turbo GSR and a subtle rear spoiler. The window frames were blacked out and then there were the distinctive 15-inch wheels with 60-profile tyres, which really defined the GSR. The ‘pepper-pot’ design consisted of 26 holes and were inspired by a similar design used on the 1982 Jaguar XJ6 Series III. Inside there was a sporty four-spoke steering wheel, but otherwise the interior was similar to the upmarket SE.
The ‘Astron’ 2.6 four cylinder engine put out a modest 76kW, though torque was a more impressive 192Nm. The Mitsubishi KM132 fivespeed gearbox was new to the GK (replacing a Borg Warner unit) and was the only transmission available on the GK. Wheels tested the GK Sigma GSR in April 1984 and found it to perform similarly to its predecessor. That meant 0-100km/h in 13.2 seconds and 0-400 metres in 18.4.
The GK Sigma GSR certainly looked the part and with its rear wheel drive and 60-profile tyres it handled neatly for its time. But it was no wolf in the performance stakes and is all but forgotten today. A few, mainly modified, cars survive today.
HSV Astra SV1800
Special Vehicles’ days as a V8-engineonly car company appear numbered. A brave new world of high-performance four-cylinder and V6 power beckons… again. Some readers may recall the rapid Astra VXR Turbo that HSV dabbled with, with limited success, back in 2009, but there is also a not-so-hot four banger in the marque’s distance past. To understand how it came to be, we need to delve into the challenges that HSV faced in its first year of operation.
The iconic ‘Walkinshaw’ or SS Group A SV of 1988 was based on the outgoing VL Commodore. Whilst it was a great success, with 750 built, HSV struggled to follow up with cars to excite their 50-plus dealers across the country. Holden didn’t release their fuel-injected V8 engine until April 1989. So to fill the gap HSV released the SV3800, based in the V6 VN Commodore and the SV 1800 based on the LD Astra, which in reality was a N13 series Nissan Pulsar.
The Astra/Pulsar had been released as a fivedoor hatch and four-door sedan in 1987 and was powered by Holden’s locally produced Family Two 1.8 engine putting out a respectable 79kW. There were no ‘sports’ model in the line-up, which left the door open for HSV to weave its magic. Only it didn’t quite end up that way.
Released in late 1988, the SV1800 claimed to have a body kit (front and rear spoilers and side skirts) that had been tested in the wind tunnel at the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) in Britain. The revised aerodynamics were claimed to provide improved top-end acceleration and a top speed of 180+km/h. The engine remained stock but there were specially developed gas front-struts plus 6” ROH ‘Star’ alloy wheels and Dunlop SP Sport D8 185/60 x 14 tyres to improve the grip.
Apart from the body kit there were subtle SV1800 decals. Inside there were special grey velour sports seats with red piping and an Italian sports steering wheel.
Car Australia conducted a brief test in January 1989 and came away underwhelmed. Performance was below par with a 0-100km/h time of 11.7 and 400 metres covered in 17.5
seconds. These figures were slower than the standard Astra and miles away from HSV’s claim of nine seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint. The gas struts marginally improved the handling but braking was average – the Astra still being fitted with rear drum brakes whereas the Pulsar had four-wheel discs.
In all, 65 hatches and sedans of the ‘Baby Walky’ were made in red, white or silver before production ceased in early 1989. The SV1800 may be an obscure footnote in HSV’s history, but chances are history may be repeating itself, and soon.
Nissan Bluebird TR-X
Nissan issan (and Datsun) has a long history of trying to align its road cars with the cars that it raced and rallied. The only model that really lived up to the factory racer was the original Godzilla – the R32 Skyline GT-R.
There have been plenty of pretenders: think Stanza SSS, the current Altima and, of course, the Bluebird TR-X – a car remembered more for its risqué advertising than anything else.
The Series 910 Bluebird replaced the unloved 200B in mid-1981. It was a conventional rear-wheel drive 70kW 2.0-litre four launched via the forgettable catchphrase of ‘The First Four Cylinder Limousine’.
Nissan, as it transitioned from the Datsun brand, embarked on a mega-buck racing campaign with the fire-breathing Bluebird Turbo to help get its new range and name into the public consciousness.
Not that Nissan Australia had a racy Bluebird model in the range...
However, from mid-1982 it did have the Bluebird TR-X. Unlike previous attempts using the respected ‘SSS’ name, TR-X had no obvious meaning in the Nissan lexicon. It did end with the letter ‘X’ which allowed advertising copywriters to lay on the innuendo. We’re not sure that owning a Bluebird TR-X made you irresistible to the opposite sex, but Nissan were hoping that it would bring some much needed excitement to the range.
So what did the Bluebird TR-X offer? Well, it was the usual front and rear spoilers, black-out window trim, some fancy stripes and a trick set of wheels – in this case some striking latticestyle 15” wheels and 60-profile tyres. There were four-wheel disc brakes and an imported five-speed gearbox lifted from the luxurious LX. Inside there was full instrumentation and sports-style seats.
Mechanically it was identical to the cooking GL/GX/LX models, which meant acceleration times were glacial – Wheels (July 1981) managed a 0-100km/h time of 13.3 seconds and covered 400 metres in 19.0 seconds.
What was little known at the time was that Nissan had six turbo prototypes in development, which were slated for release in 1983, but nothing came of it.
The Bluebird TR-X soldiered on through three series with the last iteration from 1985-86 using the 78 kW twin-plug 2.0-litre engine from the imported Gazelle coupe. Performance was improved, but then so had its competitors. The TR-X never lived up to its racy looks.
The TR-X name would live on in the Bluebird’s replacement the R31 Pintara, but the formula would remain the same – it was still a sheep!