Retro round returnee
Just when you thought all of the Group C Torana racecars were either lost forever or already found, another one has emerged – Warren Cullen’s rare four-door A9X from 1977.
Sandown’s retro-themed Supercars round was a massive success on several fronts. The professional teams embraced the concept with ‘old school’ liveries and crew uniforms, plus a selection of old touring cars were displayed and paraded at the spiritual home of motorsport in Melbourne.
Among the cars of yesteryear on show was a Holden Torana Group C car having its first public outing following restoration. Fittingly for an old touring car at a retro round, this four-door A9X appeared back in the colours in which it made its debut at the same venue, 39 years earlier.
This striking looking car was raced just once by its original owner, Warren Cullen, before he decided the then brand new four-door A9X (this was no upgraded L34) was not the way he wanted to go.
While some teams elected to run hatchbacks when the new A9X came on stream, others converted their existing L34 four doors to A9X specification. And then there were those who built up a brand new four-door A9X, which included Cullen. But he hadn’t banked on the gun Holden teams appearing with hatchbacks when they gathered at Sandown in September ’77 to debut the new model Holdens.
“Initially the teams thought four-door A9Xs
were a better chassis for a racecar, but everyone seemed to move to the two-doors, even Warren did later on,” says the Pioneer-liveried feature car’s current owner Craig Bowring.
“I went to see him a while back. We sat down and had a chat, he did remember the car but didn’t have fond memories; he did use some quite colourful words about when the other teams rocked up at Sandown with two-door cars and here’s Warren with a four-door car – he wasn’t overly pleased!”
Cullen reported that his new four-door was twisting as it braked for Sandown’s fast turn one. Add the fact the hatches of Peter Brock and Allan Grice came home 1-2 and that Holden enthusiasts were drooling over the sexy twodoors, and it’s little wonder Cullen also wanted a ‘bees knees’ hatch version.
“So in the following weeks he was down at GM-H and they built him two A9X two-doors, one of which ran at Bathurst and the other one subsequently appeared later on in life. Warren described that quite colourfully. He wasn’t overly impressed that everyone else had a two-door.”
What makes this car extra special is that purpose-built four-door Torana A9Xs with competition history are ultra-rare beasts, even by A9X standards.
“It was never an L34; it was a new car build. It carries a CLXO chassis number and all the build date data we’ve got for the car suggests it was an early build A9X Torana.”
Contrary to popular belief – and the livery of the day – the familiar ear on the side of the Pioneer cars of the era never appeared on this particular machine.
“There’s an interview with Warren in the ’77 Hang Ten race programme and he talks about running his new four-wheel disc-braked Torana,” says Bowring. “If you look at the pictures there’s a four-door Torana with no ear on the side of it. All of his L34s ran with the ear on the side of them. So it’s a bit unique in that respect. It still runs the L34 rear flares, the smaller ones.”
The car made its racing debut in the 1977 Hang Ten 400 where Cullen qualified 18th and finished seventh, seven laps down on Peter Brock’s winning Bill Patterson Racing hatchback.
Cullen had a hatch ready in time for the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 at Bathurst, though the fourdoor A9X also made the trip to the Mountain and ran as the team’s T-car during practice, giving both he and co-driver Brian Sampson some extra track time.
The hatchback became Cullen’s focus into the ’78 season so the four-door found a new home with Victorian privateer John Smith. Not the Sydney-based driver of open-wheeler and Toyota class car history fame, but his lesser known namesake, who ran the car (in plain white livery with a black bonnet and a smattering of small signage) in various touring car events in Victoria. This included the ’78 ATCC rounds at Sandown and Calder and the ’79 ATCC rounds, also at those two circuits.
The car also ran in the ’78 Rothmans 500 endurance race at Oran Park (driven by John and Graham Smith) in June of that year and finished 11th overall, 15 laps down on the winning HDT car of John Harvey and Charlie O’Brien.
By this stage the car had reverted to a white livery with a black bonnet. The change to touring car regulations that phased out the Torana and introduced the Commodore in 1980 also meant the ex-Cullen A9X departed the scene, bound for a new state and a new category of racing.
“John Smith had it until 1980 or 1981,” says owner Bowring today. “Then it was sold on to Keith Carling and then a guy in New South Wales, Tony Dach. I got into the White Pages and there’s only one guy listed with that spelling. So I called him and lo and behold it was him.
“He couldn’t believe the car still existed! He had some good memories of the car; he just used it in Sports Sedan events. But the car was still a touring car. There were realistically no changes made to it. It still ran a Holden V8, had steel panels and 15 x 10” Magnums (wheels) on it.
“Eventually it ended up with a couple of guys in Adelaide. They ran it in the South Australian Sports Sedan scene. It still remained as a touring car up until the last couple of years of its racing life where they kind of took to it and put a 350 Chev in it. They also cut some of the steel panels off it and replaced them with fibreglass bits and pieces. But inherently the car still survived. They blew an engine up and the car was parked in their business for many, many years.
“A friend of mine in Adelaide knows these guys well and suggested I go and have a look at it. So we went and had a look at it and it was a good old Sports Sedan sitting in this factory with a cover on it. It was probably around 2005, maybe earlier.
“They said it was one of Warren Cullen’s old Torana L34s, and went off to the office and came back with a logbook, much to my amazement it was still the original old green CAMS logbook. So
1978 Calder Park 1979 Sandown Park
I had a look over it and I knew it wasn’t an L34 because the chassis number started with CLXO.
“I thought, what is this? I asked if they wanted to sell it and they said they’d never sell it. I said ‘do you mind if I call you regularly to see if that changes?’ Two or three years went by and after I’d called them quite a few times they decided they wanted to sell the car. All we had to do was settle on the price.”
So Bowring found himself with a green four-door A9X Torana and a restoration project ahead of him that has resulted in a magnificent completed car in the ’77 Pioneer colours carried by Cullen at Bathurst – complete with ‘T’ on the door. But the modifications made to the car during its time in Adelaide first needed to be undone.
“They’d cut a lot of the front of the car off to lighten it off,” he says.
“Luckily the chassis rails still remained and the chassis number was still on the car. The inner front guards were cut off it and the radiator support was cut off it. The doors still may have been steel. It had a fibreglass bonnet and still had the original plastic rear spoiler on it too.
“They’d modified the flares and put very big flares on it to accommodate very big wheels and tyres. It still had the Salisbury diff in it but they’d modified it to a four-link rear end and that involved cutting the rear floor of the car quite dramatically, but all common practice for that era of Australian motor racing.
“Because of the way they’d done it, everything they’d done to the car was quite easy to undo. We stitched another front onto the car because all we had forward of the firewall was the two chassis rails sticking out.
“The car had never been in a major accident so it was dead square – the new front went onto the car without any trouble. There were still signs of the original paint underneath the green they’d painted it too.”
As with all restorations there are always hurdles to overcome. But for Bowring the main hurdle came at the start of the project.
“The trickiest part was how difficult it was early on with the research required on the car’s history,” he says. “Once we knew exactly what it was, we could set our direction to take on what livery to put the car back into. When I initially saw the car in photos it didn’t look too good, but shots where it showed the Settlement Road Auto Wreckers signage helped make it look better and not as bare.
“Lots of people saw it was one of the best looking cars of the period. Sure, it’s no Marlboro HDT car livery-wise, but it’s a cool car, very seventies. I’m really happy with it.”
Bowring is a long-time Torana man. He spent a period racing Steve Perrott’s Phillips A9X Hatchback in Group C touring car competition, had an A9X road car and bought the ex-Bob Jane XU-1 as a crashed car and restored it (that car today sits in the National Motor Racing Museum at Bathurst).
“I’ve had a few of these types of cars but the pinnacle of a Torana is an A9X and especially a Group C car so that was my drive to get it,” he says. “I always remember as a young boy my father wanted to buy an A9X two-door as a road
car but the practical side of my mother pointed out that it wasn’t a very good family car!
“It was an era of Australian motor racing that stuck in my mind. The whole Group C period really, especially from that late 1970s period onwards, he reminisces.
“I was born in 1967 so being 10 years old at the time of Bathurst 1977, watching it on television, the memories stuck from there.”
So now he has this car completed, what are the plans for it?
“I’ll come out and do a few appearances in Heritage Touring Cars, but it’s way too good a car to race, especially considering I have another racecar I could be using!” laughs Bowring.
“These days the value of a Group C A9X Torana is high, they are thin on the ground so I really don’t want to damage it in any way. It’s not the A9X with the greatest amount of history but it’s still an iconic car.
“I’m going to take it up to Bathurst and have a run next year – why would you not do it in an A9X Group C car, after all. If you have one, you have to do it!”
As we wished its owner well and headed off to leave Sandown for the day, we couldn’t help but stop and look back at the blue and yellow Torana.
Next year will be 40 years since it competed in its sole race in Warren Cullen’s hands at the very same venue, Sandown.
The A9X Torana is a piece of Australian muscle car, and indeed touring car, history. Seeing another one back out in full period livery and ready and raring to taste some track time again is priceless.
1977 Sandown 400
1977 Sandown 400
1977 Hardie-Ferodo 1000 Main: It was the Cullen team’s T-car at Bathurst in ’77 before it passed through the hands of others.
2016 Sandown Park
Main: Owner Craig Bowring recently completed a restoration, with its public return coming at Supercars’ retro round.