The so-called Su­per­car

Paul Gover, chief re­porter, Cars­guide re­calls the time he ripped the gear link­age from the top of a Holden Camira’s gear­box – on the press launch

Australian Muscle Car - - Muscle Mail -

The Holden Camira was a good car. There, I said it. And I mean it, to this day. But, be­fore we go any fur­ther, I have to qual­ify what I’m say­ing by point­ing to the time­line and the Camira model that won me. It was the very first one from 1982, the Aus­tralian ver­sion of the global J-Car from Gen­eral Mo­tors, with the baby 1600cc en­gine.

I liked the car be­cause it was taut and re­spon­sive, and quite a tidy drive for its time and con­sid­er­ing it was a front-wheel drive car. It wasn’t as ef­fec­tive or re­spon­sive as an Al­fa­sud from Italy, but still pretty good for a home­made Holden built by a com­pany which was all about the top sell­ing Com­modore. But this col­umn is not just about the Camira, it’s mainly about the press pre­view for the car.

At the time, Holden had a well-earned rep­u­ta­tion for press events that were more like road races. It’s fine to say it now, be­cause many of the peo­ple in­volved – on both sides of the pub­lic re­la­tions di­vide – have moved on and some have also passed away.

Cars were thrashed and some­times trashed as writ­ers ex­plored the lim­its of ve­hi­cles that were fine for the time but rub­bish by modern stan­dards. It was not un­usual for some to fail un­der the pun­ish­ment, or for cars to need new brakes and tyres and sus­pen­sion parts after a sin­gle day of eval­u­a­tion driv­ing. And it wasn’t just the jour­nal­ists. There was one time when Peter Brock set the pace and the mo­tor not­ers strug­gled to keep pace on a long down­hill de­scent in Tas­ma­nia. Some had trou­ble stop­ping for a rest break and the steam­ing, smok­ing cars were parked by the side of the road to re­cover as the bench rac­ing be­gan.

Then there was the time when a car­a­van­ning cou­ple driv­ing up a nar­row moun­tain road in north­ern Queens­land were re­duced to tears by a high-speed train of baby Gem­i­nis hus­tling the other way down the nar­row dirt road.

Once, the head of PR at Holden called the cops on the crew after a par­tic­u­larly fraught run through the Vic­to­rian hin­ter­land that in­clud­ing a romp down the Great Ocean Road. The se­nior sergeant who an­swered the dis­tress call warned of dire con­se­quences for any­one step­ping over the line once lunch was done.

Then there was the time Peter Ha­nen­berger, who got his nick­name of ‘Han­dling Burger’ dur­ing time as a sus­pen­sion en­gi­neer at Holden, rearended a States­man when he turned around to talk to a jour­nal­ist he was chauf­fer­ing in another States­man. Not bad for the man­ag­ing direc­tor… And the Camira es­capade? Holden went all-out for its new com­pact hero, stag­ing an event that be­gan with tech­ni­cal work­shops and track laps at Surfers Par­adise In­ter­na­tional Race­way on the Gold Coast be­fore a flight north to Townsville to sam­ple the cars in gen­uine Aussie out­back con­di­tions.

Things be­gan well as en­gi­neers talked about the con­cept of the J-Car, which was go­ing to be built as ev­ery­thing from the Camira to a Cadil­lac, and then il­lus­trated their work on tweak­ing it for Aus­tralia. There was even a work­shop on NVH – noise, vi­bra­tion and harsh­ness – that was the best I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced on iden­ti­fy­ing the an­noy­ing short­com­ings of any car, then or now.

The track laps at Surfers were fun and, de­spite the howl­ing tyres and tor­tured en­gines as jour­nal­ists stormed around in bat­tling packs, the cars all came through un­scathed. Well, as far was we could see. Things turned, for the worse, in Townsville. The drive pro­gram was long and tough, with lots and lots of rugged dirt roads that tested many of the driv­ers as much as the cars. And that’s with­out wor­ry­ing about the help­less Holden peo­ple who were strapped into the pas­sen­ger seats, partly to nav­i­gate and partly to an­swer ques­tions on the cars. To back­track a lit­tle, Holden would or­gan­ise the cars for its press drives in small groups to en­sure ev­ery jour­nal­ist got to ex­pe­ri­ence each ver­sion of any new model. And each car would have a des­ig­nated Holden co-driver, to keep an eye on things and en­sure the right mes­sage was de­liv­ered to the jour­nal­ists.

How­ever, and this is where things of­ten got in­ter­est­ing, the var­i­ous groups would be ‘seeded’ to try and pre­vent too much jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion­ing or over­tak­ing. Fastest at the front, or course, but some­times with a driver or driv­ers break­ing clear of their colour group and cut­ting into the cars in front. The same thing ap­plied to the ex­ec­u­tives, with se­nior chaps avoid­ing the cra­zies in the fastest groups and new­bies be­ing blooded with younger and less ex­pe­ri­enced jour­nal­ists at the back of the pack.

As the Camira run re­sumed on the sec­ond morn­ing, the quick­ies quickly made a break through the long and rugged dirt sec­tions. It was more like a rally than a road test for real-world cus­tomers.

My Camira was one of the first to fail, when the gear link­age tore from the top of the gear­box. That just meant a cou­ple of hun­dred kilo­me­tres with the car jammed in third, the best ra­tio for the road, be­cause there was no place to stop and no parts for a re­pair.

Another jour­nal­ist had the grille dis­in­te­grate and the bon­net pop open, but the best of the ac­tion was re­served for a par­tic­u­larly tricky cor­ner.

I re­mem­ber it as a left-han­der over a crest with a dirt bank on the out­side to catch any­one who was not on the job. Which it did.

A cou­ple of cars suf­fered flat tyres as they rat­tled along the scenery, so there was a group of jour­nal­ists and Holden peo­ple stand­ing around and watch­ing the tyre chang­ing when the real ac­tion be­gan.

A Ja­panese jour­nal­ist had been in­vited along on the Camira pro­gram but, with zero ex­pe­ri­ence on Aussie gravel, he was strug­gling from the start. He badly mis­cued on the tricky cor­ner, and the Camira went over. And over.

He was shocked and em­bar­rassed by his mis­take, but much more shocked and em­bar­rassed when he emerged from his bat­tered car to dis­cover that his pri­vate pain had be­come pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment.

Spare a thought for his pas­sen­ger, a GM staffer who was on his first press pre­view drive!

Of course, none of the hor­ror sto­ries went pub­lic and the re­port­ing on the Camira was mostly good. But that didn’t last long when Holden was forced to in­stall a wheez­ing 1.8-litre en­gine to sat­isfy new emis­sions reg­u­la­tions, and own­ers be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence the same qual­ity short­com­ings which had hit so many cars on the Townsville tor­ture test. PG

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