Sheep in Wolves’ Cloth­ing

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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.

Hill­man Hus­tler


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!

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