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.

Australian Muscle Car - - Four-Door Muscle -

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.

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