Despite the Ford Mustang’s iconic status, in the mid-1980s it was an unlikely choice for an Aussie touring car legend to tackle the brave new world of Group A. Despite winning only a single race, this motor racing orphan proved a vital stepping-stone on D
The stayer! Despite the Ford Mustang’s iconic status, in the mid-1980s it was an unlikely choice for an Aussie touring car legend to tackle the brave new world of Group A. Despite winning only a single race, this motor racing orphan proved a vital stepping-stone on Dick Johnson’s remarkable journey.
Dick Johnson had every reason to begrudge the introduction of Group A in Australia. After years of struggle, he had finally made the big time, piloting big hairy-chested 5.8-litre Falcons under the homegrown Group C category that turned him into the poster boy of Ford fans across the country. The humble Daisy Hill mechanic had indeed done good, yet found himself in a seemingly dire situation. Johnson simply had to accept the controversial new formula – and embrace it. Even though he had won three Australian Touring Car Championships and the Bathurst 1000 in his beloved Falcons, he’d never been comfortable with the argy-bargy and backroom deals for concessions with the ruling body that were a necessary evil of touring car racing in the early 1980s. If ever there was a champion racer who lacked political cunning, it was the plain-speaking Queenslander.
What Group A offered was a welcome end to the off-track lobbying, which was more the domain of Allan Moffat, Frank Gardner, Howard Marsden and the powerbrokers at Holden. Despite being the Blue Oval hero, Johnson had been left to battle alone while Broadmeadows derived the benefits of his success without having to bother with the tedium of homologation, or tipping in dollars.
At the time it seemed that Johnson – and Ford – had been left out in the cold by CAMS’ love affair with anything French. After all, Group A homologation demanded huge production numbers – much greater than previously required in the small Australian market – and it had to be done by the manufacturer. And Ford Australia just wasn’t interested.
Yet, Dick Johnson knew what was coming down the line in Europe, and he could not wait to get hold of it. Trouble was, he had to wait. So, while Ford in the UK worked away developing what would become the Sierra RS Cosworth in 1987, back in Brisbane Dick had to find something else to tide him over for a couple of years. What he came up with was an American car, homologated in Europe, yet so outdated and unsuccessful that even its mother had abandoned it.
The Mustang had a great name, but no pedigree. Dick would have to take this bastard child of trans-Atlantic parents and on the sweat of his own brow turn it into a winner. It was never going to be a world-beater against factory turbo cars, yet it became an unexpected fan favourite downunder. It certainly did nothing to diminish Dick’s standing as the ultimate Aussie motorsport underdog.
Dick would have to take this bastard child of trans-Atlantic parents and on the sweat of his own brow turn it into a winner
An easy decision
When CAMS adopted the international Group A category in Australia for 1985 there was considerable speculation that Johnson could possibly race a turbocharged six-cylinder Falcon like the Tru-Blu-coloured XE road car that bore his name. However, as we outlined in AMC #82, the man himself had virtually nothing to do with the Dick Johnson Grand Prix Turbo.
Other stumbling blocks included Ford Australia’s lack of interest in racing and the fact there was zero chance of any party building the required numbers to be homologated. Thus, a Falcon Turbo was never a realistic prospect.
Johnson looked around the world and saw only two alternatives: the US-market Merkur, an American version of the British Sierra that was powered by a turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder with just a single overhead camshaft; and the all-American Ford Mustang, which strangely had been homologated in Europe (where it wasn’t even sold). Powered by the already ancient 5.0-litre Windsor pushrod V8, this ‘Capri on steroids’ had enabled Ford to ease into Group A racing, which in 1983 was the domain of socalled atmo cars such as the Rover 3500 and Jaguar XJ-S.
It was an easy decision. The Merkur was new, unproven and turbocharged, something enginebuilder Johnson was unfamiliar with.
Besides, as he explains: “The Merkur involved electronics, which we had absolutely no experience with at all, whereas the Mustang was just like a distributor/ carburettor type thing, which we’d been used to, so for us the easiest way was to go down the road of the Mustang. The two years with the Mustang was a learning curve for us while we got our head around electronics. We knew the Mustang was low-maintenance by comparison with trying to learn something on the run with a Merkur or such, which we’d have to race and try to develop at the same time.”
So Dick opted for the low-tech, low-cost Mustang and spent the next two years planning for the turbo car’s arrival, quietly assembling the people and resources required to “make sure that we got our shit together when the Sierra came.”
Ford’s acclaimed Zakspeed operation in Germany had built a Mustang in 1983. This car was raced mainly in the German touring car championship by Klaus Niedzwiedz, whose only prominent result was second to Tom Walkinshaw’s XJ-S in the German Grand Prix support race at Hockenheim. However, the Group A Mustang never met expectations and, with the Sierra in the wings and Zakspeed about to launch its own F1 team, the program was shelved in 1984 with a second car unfinished in the workshop.
When Johnson and long-time sponsor Ross Palmer came calling, Zakspeed was happy to clear out its two unloved Mustangs. Palmer did the deal, and Dick still does not know how much he paid for them.
The existing racecar was shipped off to Australia, while the German team completed the
second car as promised before shipping it off about six weeks later.
The first car arrived in Brisbane in mid-September, just in time for Bathurst where it was entered in the Group A class though never intended to race. Johnson simply wanted to assess the car’s competitiveness; it qualified five seconds slower than the Mobil-backed works Rover Vitesses, which seemed a reasonable start given minimal preparation.
“It had a done a fair bit of work and wasn’t exactly race-ready when we got it,” says Johnson.
Interestingly, he says that getting it ready for Bathurst affected preparation of the Palmer Tube Mills XE Falcon, which was in contention for victory until it stopped with a troublesome fuel pump “which we should have paid more attention to”.
Johnson says he was initially impressed by the design of the Mustang, but not the build quality. This was possibly a reflection of the low standing of touring car racing for a team that competed in the World Sports Car Championship, European Group 5 racing, the American IMSA series and was about to embark on F1.
“From a design point-of-view it was pretty well done, but I don’t think the workmanship was up to the standard of what one would expect from someone like Zakspeed,” Johnson says. “I thought a lot of the engineering was very average… (but) the basics were pretty much there in the car when we got it.”
Searching for power
Back at the DJR workshop after the Bathurst shakedown, a full strip-down revealed that the suspension and such was all quite legal, but the same could not be said of the engine. And it still pulled just 268 horsepower on Dick’s dyno – well short of its claimed 328hp! It would take quite some time to get up to that level, though “a bit of a play” had it at 290hp for the start of the 1985 season. “It was a hot-rod engine… and when we pulled it apart I couldn’t believe what was inside it – it was nowhere near where what the rules were, so a lot of stuff had to change. They had Chev rockers on it and all sorts of wonderful things – and we knew damn well that was not going to cut it because out here they scrutineer things a lot differently to what they do over there… “We just looked at the engine and wondered how we were going to make this thing work.” The Group A regulations allowed considerable internal engine freedoms, but the induction and exhaust systems had to be quite standard. Johnson tried for some time, without success, to get Ford to homologate electronic fuel injection. He also had to wait until a model update in August to get a promised tubular exhaust manifold and roller-bearing camshafts. Johnson’s biggest challenge for unleashing power was the inlet manifold. The rules allowed removal of metal, which was vital to improve flow, but Dick could not get inside the manifold. “The only way we could do it was put it on a band-saw and I cut it through the guts horizontally so we could get inside to port the thing out. You couldn’t add metal but gaskets were free, so I just glued it back together with Sikaflex and bolted it on.”
Considerable work then went into the camshafts, which were limited to an increase in lift of just 0.3mm over standard. Dick laughs at the memory of trying to get around that: “This is where we made a bit of grunt too! We were probably one of the first ones ever to have a bit of a trick… the knob on the camshaft on the top was almost flat – we mucked around with a lot of different valve springs and stuff to get it to do this – we used to what you call ‘loft it’. To get the extra lift, we used to slide a cam follower off the top of the camshaft and land it on the other side, which gave it another 50-60 thou lift without it even touching the camshaft. That gave us a lot more lift, which made the thing breathe better and made the manifold work.
“The heart and soul of those engines is the valvetrain. With any pushrod engine, when you get that under control, you’ve got everything happening for you.”
By the end of the program, the 302 Windsor produced a reliable and legal 350hp. It drove through a close-ratio five-speed Getrag gearbox to an Atlas differential – a Capri unit that Zakspeed had homologated for the Mustang. The problem for Dick was that it had only three final-drive ratios available, and they were all too tall for short circuits like Winton and Amaroo.
“It was a pretty strange sort of a rear end, but there wasn’t too much wrong with it to be quite honest. It actually ended up being a three-link rear end when you looked at it; they made a couple of the arms inoperative, but everything they did was within the rules.”
The front suspension consisted of fabricated uprights controlled by tubular fabricated wishbones mounted with ball-jointed rod-ends. Big disc brakes all round provided plenty of stopping power while the wheels – originally gold-spoked BBS composite units but later changed to white onepiece Momos – were 10 inches wide at the front and 10.5 at the rear.
Complete, the car weighed about 1265kg, so it had to carry 60kg of ballast to meet the 1325kg minimum dictated for a five-litre car under the power-to-weight Group A formula. That was 140kg more than the JPS BMW 635CSi that dominated in 1985 and an incredible 290kg more than the turbos that really took over from 1986. Hardly any wonder the big V8s struggled.
Two years on track
Decked out in familiar Palmer Tube Mills/ Greens-Tuf colours, the fastback Mustang looked like a baby version of the Falcon when it arrived for the opening round of the 1985 ATCC at Winton, where the main competition came from Jim Richards and Neville Crichton in the works BMWs and Colin Bond and Alan Jones in factory-backed V6 Alfa Romeos.
Central Victoria in early February can be brutally hot, however, and the conditions soon revealed shortcomings in the Mustang’s cooling system, designed for more moderate European climates. Using only two of the five speeds available (second and third) due to the tootall diff, Dick qualified second-fastest behind Richards but had to make numerous stops in the race before parking the overheating car to prevent unnecessary engine damage.
That might have seemed a worrying start to the season, but it would be the Mustang’s only DNF of the year. After that it racked up nine solid finishes – five seconds, three thirds and a fourth – to finish a close though never really threatening runner-up in the championship.
Johnson even won the battle for V8 honours with Peter Brock, who joined the fray from round two at Sandown (and scored his customary debut win) in the Holden Dealer Team’s new 5.0-litre Commodore. However, the writing was on the wall with Robbie Francevic winning two rounds in a turbocharged Volvo.
The Mustang mostly raced on Dunlop tyres that bulged to as much as 12 inches wide, but Dick also explored the wide range of rubber available from overseas. “We tried Pirellis and Avons because that’s what the Europeans were using, but we didn’t find them to be anything special.”
Looking back, Johnson must regard finishing second in the series, being so reliable and clearly best of the rest behind Richards’ JPS BMW, as a pretty good effort?
“Absolutely, when you consider that you’re up against the factory teams. Brocky had the Commodore, and you had BMW, which was a pretty slick operation with a lot of factory support. The Mustang used to keep going, that was the main thing.”
It did let him down, though, in the first enduro at Oran Park in August. Dick rates that as one of his most disappointing races. Armed with new homologation bits, the Mustang took pole some 0.8sec faster than the BMW and simply romped away in the race, only to be sidelined 12 laps from home when a stub axle broke.
Johnson had set aside the newer car for Sandown and Bathurst, when it would also benefit from a model update and the August 1 homologation. Outwardly, it differed only in having a then-fashionable ‘letterbox’ grille, losing its bonnet bulge (which had no performance deficit because “we were grabbing the air elsewhere”) and, from Bathurst, gaining the white Momo wheels.
“It was a much, much better car,” Johnson says. “In every area, too, in as far as suspension, brakes, where the weight was and what we did with the weight; engine-wise it was a huge difference.”
Larry Perkins joined the team in mid 1985, having walked out on the HDT. It was only a short-term arrangement as Perkins had set his sights on establishing his own team for the following season.
“Larry wanted to run Bathurst and he wanted to help prepare the car and all that sort of thing – as Larry does. He had the ability and came up and worked in our workshop while we prepared the car for Bathurst. It was a great relationship.”
Johnson made a storming start in the Sandown 500, leaping into the lead from third on the grid and driving away, but a broken axle and distributor drive prevented a debut win for the new car. It was also very competitive at Bathurst – clearly the fastest car behind the TWR Jaguars – but the race was a disaster; oil-cooler damage from the pitlane speed bumps relegated the Mustang to an unrepresentative seventh. The endurance season ended in diabolical conditions at Surfers, where Dick again led before joining half the field in a storm-water drain.
The season was not over; a week later the Mustang finally scored its first – and only – victory. It might have been merely a support race to the 1985 Australian GP in Adelaide, but the win was vital to Johnson’s future. Present at the highprofile event were bigwigs from Shell, who Dick was trying to woo. Exactly one year later at the same location, they would announce the biggest sponsorship in Australian motorsport.
Although the single-cam Sierra XR4Ti was now racing successfully in the UK, Johnson elected to retain the Mustang for 1986 rather than the costly alternative of clearing out the workshop – now based at Palmer Tube Mills in Acacia Ridge – for a single season with the interim Sierra model. But it was to be a hard season for DJR, now facing an improved ‘evolution’ version of
Main: Johnson qualified ‘best of the rest’ at Bathurst in 1985, lining up an impressive third on the grid, with only the two leading Jaguars ahead. In doing so, quick Dick went eight seconds faster than his best Mustang time in ’84. Far left: Who could have predicted that reigning Bathurst champ Larry Perkins would be aboard a Ford for his DJR cameo in ’85. Right, top to bottom: Fruitlessly chasing the Volvo Turbo at Symmons Plains 1985; This image sums up the Mustang’s lot in life in ’85 and ’86; Fruitlessly chasing the Skyline and Volvo Turbos at Amaroo and Symmons Plains ’86. the Commodore, an upgraded Volvo and the new Nissan Skyline turbo. Even the JPS BMW would struggle against that lot as Group A’s generous 1.4 turbo equivalence factor took hold.
Dick started the season in New Zealand with the Mustang wearing JPS black thanks to a partnership with Neville Crichton. They finished second in the Wellington 500 (to new HDT pairing Brock and Moffat), but retired at Pukekohe with engine failure.
The rapid pace of Group A development rendered the Mustang impotent in the ATCC. As Francevic edged out George Fury’s works Nissan for the title, Johnson was qualifying in the bottom end of the top 10 and had to settle for fifth and sixth placings. Sixth in the championship was a desolate – but accurate – reflection of the old Mustang’s standing in 1986.
Johnson couldn’t wait for the year to end. With Gregg Hansford joining the team for the enduros, they finished a distant third at Surfers, broke a gearbox at Sandown, plugged around at Bathurst to finish fourth (third according to Jill Johnson’s lap chart) and crashed out at Oran Park. Even the AGP meeting offered little, apart from the announcement of that huge Shell deal for 1987.
The muscular Mustang had manfully served its purpose, but that nice red Sierra could not come soon enough!
Dick Johnson Q&A
AMC: After getting to the top with the Falcon, you can’t have been looking forward to Group A.
Dick Johnson: CAMS used to continually change rules, without consultation a lot of the time. But they tried to do the right thing, which they thought was go to Group A.
AMC: Were you against it at the time? DJ: Mate, I just tried to deal with it – there was nothing I could have done to change it. The only one who would have got upset was me, so I didn’t bother.
AMC: You didn’t really have any support from Ford by the end anyway, did you?
DJ: Well, I never had it. We had a little bit through Doug Jacobi at Motorcraft, but as far as Ford itself goes, no. In the Tru-Blu days they helped by allowing us to walk down the line (at Broadmeadows) with a body shell and say I don’t want this, I don’t want that… but that and a bit of a parts deal was about it.
AMC: So you headed off overseas to look for a potential Group A car.
DJ: We knew the Sierra was coming, but that was a couple of years away, so we needed something to fill the gap. The only thing I could see that was Ford, that was homologated, was the Mustang because there were a couple running over there (in Europe) through Zakspeed. It was a program they did for a little bit and sort of walked away from it... So we went over and bought a couple of Mustangs off them. They’d shelved them by then, so we said we’ll take them off your hands at the right price.
AMC: It seems unusual that they had a new, complete car ready there if they’d stopped racing them.
DJ: Yeah, well, you could say the same for us now, mate. Here we are building brand new Falcons for 2018 and the car’s not even produced any more…
AMC: The homologation for the Mustang was fairly dated wasn’t it? Didn’t it go back to May 1983?
DJ: Yeah, it was pretty old. There was nothing special about it, that’s for sure, and (the legality) was fairly loose because it was done overseas – there were a lot of grey areas, but once we had a good look at it we thought we better straighten all of these things up, otherwise we’re going to get sprung for something dumb.
AMC: Wasn’t there meant to be an updated homologation before you even raced it?
DJ: Well, we tried to get fuel injection homologated and Ford wouldn’t have a bar of it. It was through Ford US actually because (Ford of Europe) knew the Sierra was coming and they couldn’t give two hoots (about the Mustang).
AMC: When you got the first car and took it to Bathurst (in 1984) just for practice, presumably you hadn’t done much to it before you ran…
DJ: We’d done a fair bit to it prior to getting there, which probably hindered the preparation of the Falcon to be quite honest… But it was good to see what the Mustang would do.
AMC: Did you learn much from running the first car that you then put into the second one?
DJ: It was all work in progress the whole time. We didn’t muck around, we sort of just developed as we kept going. I look back now and wonder how we ever survived to be quite honest. AMC: I’ve seen you describe the Mustang as “a shitbox” and “that old bastard of a thing”, but it was actually not too bad… DJ: No, all it lacked was… because of Group A rules and because it was a V8, it was penalised dreadfully. The weight was 1325kg, and that’s what really killed us. The width of the wheels, the tyres we could put on it, the brakes and the handling were bloody superb.
AMC: Were there any other challenges with the car?
DJ: We had a little issue with the front upright because to hold the whole thing together it had big bolt through the middle of it and that was fairly unsavoury, really. It needed something a little better than that. It nearly cost us in Wellington (1986) and if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of Dyno (Dave Johnson), my brother, we would have been on the sideline. The thing had come loose and we were getting pad knock-off and the wheel was wobbling; he just got the big rattlegun and a socket and fortunately it grabbed and tightened it right back up again. Away we went and ended up coming second.
Top left: “Mate, it wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.” Bottom left: By the time of DJR’s third trip to Bathurst with a Mustang, 1986, the team had shaved almost 10 seconds off DJ’s ’84 time in the first Zakspeed Mustang.
AMC: Are you surprised that many of your fans actually like the Mustang, even though it didn’t have much success? It’s a bit of a fan favourite.
DJ: Yeah, it was. It was just because it was different. It was one of those cars that lobbed with an iconic name, though Ford had gone away from the original concept of the Mustang and went sort of compact.
AMC: Do you feel more fondly about it now? DJ: I loved the car. It was great to drive, albeit being left-hand-drive. At circuits where horsepower wasn’t a huge issue, it used to go really, really well – but even in saying that, it used to go pretty good at Bathurst, although you’d get killed going up and down the hill. I had a pretty good race with JB in the Volvo, where he’d turn the boost up going up the hill and look at me and laugh, the prick!
“I loved the car. It was great to drive, albeit being left-handdrive.”
Where are they now?
Dick Johnson’s pair of Greens-Tuf Mustangs have led very different lives since they were first imported into Australia, though the good news is that both cars live on.
The first car he wheeled out for practice at Bathurst in 1984 became his 1985 Australian Touring Car Championship car that took him to second to Jim Richards in the points with eight podium finishes – though none of them victories. This car then became the team spare and was entered as car #18 at Bathurst and qualified by Larry Perkins, though withdrawn from the race. An interesting sidebar to this was that Allan Moffat tested the car as part of a Channel 7 story for that weekend’s telecast too.
Repainted in JPS black and gold, this first car was run in the early 1986 Nissan Mobil races in New Zealand by Johnson and Neville Crichton and was unraced for the remainder of the season before it was sold to Kiwi Robbie Ker and returned ‘across the ditch’. Johnson joined its new owner for the early ’87 Wellington street race, where the car was crashed in qualifying and withdrawn. Ker raced the original Mustang for a few years, including as a Sports Sedan with bigger wheels and tyres and flared guards. It then passed through the hands of a range of owners before it was tracked down and purchased by enthusiast Ross Donnelly in 2006. He commissioned Kiwi Ken Hopper to restore it prior to it returning to Australia.
Purchased and raced by the late Bill Pye, this car has continued racing in Heritage Touring Cars. After Pye’s passing the car was sold on to Terry Lawlor and is now owned by Brad Host. [ED: We thank Brad for making his magnificent Mustang available for this issue’s cover and story photography.]
The second Mustang made its first racing appearance as car #17 with Johnson and Perkins driving at the ’85 Sandown 500. It was also driven by the duo to seventh place at Bathurst and to victory in the inaugural Adelaide Grand Prix touring car support race by Johnson. This turned out to be his only race win aboard the Mustang in the two years he raced these cars.
Johnson used this ‘second’ car for the 1986 touring car championship, finishing sixth in the points, out-gunned by the emerging turbo Volvos and Nissans. Johnson and Gregg Hansford also ran it in the endurance races, finishing fourth at Bathurst.
The arrival of the turbo Sierras for 1987 meant this car was placed on the market and sold to Perth privateer Ian Love, who continued to race it in select touring car and Sports Sedan events in Western Australia, including the ’87 ATCC round. It passed on to another WA owner in Ray Miles, who raced it at Barbagallo for a few years.
Dick Johnson bought it back to add to his personal car collection alongside the Tru-Blu Falcon XD and Greens-Tuf XE. Financial issues resulted in him selling his entire car collection to David Bowden and the car remains in the Sunshine Coast collector’s hands, occasionally placed on display at DJR Team Penske’s workshop for fans to see.
Our office dictionary defines a stayer as ‘a tenacious person or thing, especially a horse able to hold out to the end of a race’. Dick’s pony was a stayer in two senses: it held him over until the Sierra arrived; and it invariably was still galloping on at race’s end.
Top left: The one on the left was 14 seconds a lap faster. Dick now says running the Mustang in practice and qualifying for 1984 James Hardie 1000 detracted from the XE’s Bathurst swansong.
Main: Car #71 from Bathurst ’84, which also contested the ’85 ATCC, now resides in the NSW Hunter Valley. Top right: Zakspeed had more success building a Mustang for IMSA in the US than Group A in its own backyard. Above: Note the headlight treatment straight off the boat, which disappeared ahead of its first hitout in ’85.