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
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