New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents - Words and pho­tos: Quin­ton Tay­lor


Aus­tralian mo­tor rac­ing leg­end Pe­ter Brock claimed that the To­rana was the great­est tour­ing car he had driven in his 40-year ca­reer, and he drove some po­tent ma­chin­ery in Aus­tralia and Europe. Holden’s 1978 Holden Dealer Team (HDT) To­rana A9X won three cham­pi­onships in three years, was on pole po­si­tion at all Bathurst events it was en­tered in, and won twice at the ‘Great Race’.

It de­fined the 1970s Aus­tralian mus­cle car — along with the Ford Fal­con GT ‘Shaker’ — and, when driven by Brock, our own Jim Richards, and John Har­vey at HDT, it ab­so­lutely hum­bled the op­po­si­tion. Pri­va­teers Bob Mor­ris and Al­lan Grice also tasted great suc­cess with their To­ranas.

With Gen­eral Mo­tors Holden’s (GMH) char­ac­ter­is­tic shy­ness of any ‘su­per­car’ pub­lic­ity, and a re­luc­tance to ac­tu­ally name the car as a stand­alone model, the A9X ‘op­tion’ proved to be the ul­ti­mate ho­molo­ga­tion of the tougher and big­ger LX To­rana. It largely over­come the weak­nesses of its pre­de­ces­sor, the L34 LH To­rana sedan — mind you, those weak­nesses didn’t prevent Brock from tak­ing an L34 to an out­right win in the 1975 Bathurst event.

In 1976, the Mor­ris/fitz­patrick L34 man­aged to hang on de­spite me­chan­i­cal prob­lems to again win Bathurst. That year also sig­nalled Holden’s in­tro­duc­tion of the LX To­rana, and what would be the fore­run­ner of a great race car in the hatch­back ver­sion.

Big im­prove­ments also came with Holden’s ra­dial-tuned sus­pen­sion across the To­rana range in 1977. The hatch­backs in­cluded not only six-cylin­der en­gines but also an SS ver­sion pow­ered by a 5.0-litre V8, equalling the SL/R 5000 sedan ver­sion. A mul­ti­tude of sus­pen­sion changes — in par­tic­u­lar, changes to the sus­pen­sion pivot points — meant that at last some se­ri­ous caster and cam­ber set­tings could be di­alled in for rac­ing. A big plus for the hatch­back was that there was room to fit some de­cent-width rub­ber un­der the at­trac­tive body for com­pe­ti­tion. The A9X op­tion also re­ceived a stronger rear axle with a Detroit locker dif­fer­en­tial and four-wheel discs, while the LX SL/RS still had drum rear brakes and a Sal­is­bury dif­fer­en­tial. If you wanted to go rac­ing then your A9X also came with a Borg­warner T10 four-speed gear­box trans­mit­ting the stan­dard 5.0-litre V8’s 161kw, in­stead of Holden’s usual M21.

Big im­prove­ments also came with Holden’s ra­dial-tuned sus­pen­sion across the To­rana range in 1977

Some race teams used the L34 race en­gine, good for around 280-plus kilo­watts, and with an abil­ity to take wider rub­ber, the coupé proved to be a pop­u­lar weapon for Bathurst.

An A9X in your garage

Find­ing an un­mo­lested ex­am­ple of one of Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful tour­ing cars, let alone a gen­uine A9X, is nigh on im­pos­si­ble. Gen­uine ex­am­ples sel­dom come up for sale, and, with the model now record­ing tele­phone-num­ber val­ues, es­pe­cially with a hatch­back, the task is a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge for the bank ac­count of any prospec­tive owner.

Dunedin Holden en­thu­si­ast Merv Fox grew up in the heady days of Brock’s ex­ploits, and, like many, he fol­lowed the Ford and Holden ri­valry on the track. A keen Holden man, he is sup­ported in his en­thu­si­asm for the GMH mar­que by wife Rochell, and both are keen mem­bers of the Holden En­thu­si­asts Club of Otago.

He’s al­ways on the look­out for Hold­ens of all mod­els (he al­ready has an in­ter­est­ing Brock Com­modore, which he re­cently painted the cor­rect blue), and the chance to own a To­rana hatch came in 2013, when he tracked down one for sale in Nel­son. “The car was im­ported from Aus­tralia in 1981, and it was a gen­uine 1978 LX hatch­back, the last of [the] LXS,” Merv tells us. “It was a Nel­son-based car, and we bought it from a de­ceased es­tate in 2013. It looked pretty good, so we bought it and then pro­ceeded to build the car into what it is now.”

He had al­ways wanted one of these spe­cial To­ranas, his in­ter­est hav­ing been kin­dled, as it was for many of us, by the ex­ploits of a par­tic­u­lar rac­ing hero who en­joyed huge suc­cess with the cars. “I guess that grow­ing up with all the his­tory of Brock and that sort of thing and fol­low­ing his ca­reer right through, it in­flu­enced my en­thu­si­asm for Hold­ens. Brock had some pretty good cars, and the To­rana hatch was some­thing pretty spe­cial,” says Merv.

Three-year project

Merv took the car to Dunedin panel man Dave Matika, of AB FX, to check the To­rana over, con­firm­ing that it was an ex­cep­tional ex­am­ple. “Dave stripped the body back to bare steel and con­firmed that the To­rana had no ev­i­dence of dam­age or any­thing like that. There were no re­pair patches. I can blame Dave for talk­ing us into keep­ing it,” he says, laugh­ing. It was the be­gin­ning of a three-year project to build the car into a replica A9X To­rana. Changes had to be made to the body­work in a num­ber of ar­eas, and, in par­tic­u­lar, the wheel tubs re­quired some de­tailed work: “Dave cut all the rear guards away so in­ner and outer guards were stitched back to­gether and made mini-tubs, which is the way he had to do them to get the clear­ance for the big wheels. Beau­ti­fully done, though!”

Look­ing at the rear of any race-pre­pared A9X, the ob­vi­ous ad­di­tion that catches your eye is the huge long-range fuel tank For this, again, Merv turned to a lo­cal source for help in fab­ri­cat­ing this item: “I didn’t build the tank. A mate did. There have been a few mates along the way. They are pay­ing jobs, but I use these guys be­cause they do a good job.”

In the en­gine bay, it was de­cided that re­li­a­bil­ity was what was needed, with­out go­ing to the lengths of adding a worked en­gine with all the as­so­ci­ated tractabil­ity prob­lems for road use. “It uses a fac­tory Holden 5.7-litre V8 stro­ker en­gine as used in the HSV Club­bies,” Merv says. “I could have used an LS1, but that would have meant a whole lot of ex­tra chas­sis en­gi­neer­ing re­quir­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.” The en­gine is fit­ted up to a Tre­mec five-speed T5 Ca­maro gear­box, and this area was the only part of the car that pro­vided a chal­lenge, with a num­ber of de­signs tried to even­tu­ally suc­cess­fully fit a hy­draulic clutch.

Stop­ping re­ceived a big up­grade, with four-pot Wil­wood calipers and discs to en­sure safe brak­ing un­der all con­di­tions. “We prob­a­bly got a bit car­ried away with the brakes, to be fair,” he says of the work, “but we built it fast and safe.”

The rear end is also heav­ily mod­i­fied, with a brand new Cur­rie nine-inch 31-spline dif­fer­en­tial fit­ted with a 3.25-ra­tio True­trac lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial (LSD). “It’s now fourlinked with chro­moly ad­justable sus­pen­sion arms. A bit of trick stuff!” Merv ex­claims.

To get the To­rana to not only look the part out­side but in­side, too, it was nec­es­sary to com­plete a lot of cabin work, and spe­cial items pe­cu­liar to the model had to be fab­ri­cated from scratch. The sub­tle

“We prob­a­bly got a bit car­ried away with the brakes, to be fair, but we built it fast and safe”

ad­di­tions are in keep­ing with the A9X flavour. “An­other good friend, Paul Fogg, tack­led the in­te­rior trim,” says Merv. “He’s a very clever man, and he had to pull the seats to bits too.” The re­sult­ing tidy in­te­rior looks great in its orig­i­nal To­rana che­quer­pat­tern cloth, with the ad­di­tion of body­colour green pip­ing. Paul also re­fur­bished the door trims and roof lin­ing, with many new trim pieces sup­plied through Rare Spares. Keep­ing with the com­pe­ti­tion theme, the steer­ing rack is also fac­tory — and unas­sisted.

One rea­son that Merv’s To­rana is such a suc­cess­ful trans­for­ma­tion from a stan­dard To­rana into an A9X replica is the ex­pert ad­vice that he re­ceived through­out the re­build from Heads Rac­ing Sup­plies in Mount Maun­ganui, which pre­pares the Hop­kins To­rana hatch­back for the Cen­tral Mus­cle Car se­ries. “I got a lot of help in dis­cus­sions with Rod­ney [ Heads] over the pe­riod of the build, such as the cor­rect wheels to use, sus­pen­sion set-up, off­sets, things like that. He’s been pretty help­ful and he’s a clever guy,” says Merv. Ad­vice he re­ceived also ac­counts for the im­pres­sive set of wheels and tyres fit­ting un­der those big flares, with Sim­mons 17x12.5 rims on the rear and 17x9.5 on the front, shod with Nitto rub­ber.

“I will be tak­ing it in on the track with the club when we get the op­por­tu­nity, and my aim is to def­i­nitely get it onto High­land Park for a run at some stage,” he says. The oc­ca­sional quar­ter-mile run will have the ben­e­fit of a can­is­ter of ni­trous ox­ide neatly plumbed into the rear lug­gage area un­der the hatch­back.

Re­wards and awards

Three years on, the project is largely com­plete, with just a few items to ad­just. The car’s first pub­lic out­ing was at the Holden Na­tion­als in Dunedin in April 2017, where the stan­dard of work be­gan a flurry of awards.

“We were down to the wire. The Na­tion­als were on the Satur­day and the cert plate ar­rived on the Wednes­day be­fore. So we got a war­rant [of fit­ness] on Thurs­day, and then, on the Fri­day, be­cause it has all cus­tom stain­less-steel ex­haust un­der it, we couldn’t fit the drop tank un­til we got all the ex­haust work fin­ished. A lot of work had to be done be­fore the To­rana was dropped off on Fri­day night at the Edgar Cen­tre for the dis­play, but it was all worth the ef­fort. We won the En­trant’s Choice Award, and also an award of first prize in the To­rana (Mod­i­fied) sec­tion. I thought that [the En­trant’s Choice Award] was pretty spe­cial con­sid­er­ing that’s all voted for by the other en­trants, con­sid­er­ing their stuff, and pick­ing the To­rana,” Merv says.

Mov­ing on to the Otago Au­tospec­tac­u­lar in Septem­ber this year, and the stand­out green ma­chine re­ceived an­other award, for Best Aus­tralian, and last Novem­ber the cou­ple re­ceived the Best Holden Award at the an­nual Kai­tan­gata Car Show and Run, in South Otago.

Like many keen clas­sic own­ers, Merv and Rochell have a dis­play board out­lin­ing the de­tails of the To­rana, a nice touch at shows.

Easy road-run­ner

The long­est drives for the To­rana so far have been to Lawrence, Kurow, and Kai­tan­gata, but the big one will be the

planned trip to New Ply­mouth in 2019 for the Holden Na­tion­als, along with a big group of keen Holden mem­bers from Otago. “It’s good to drive and it’s mod­ern to a de­gree, with the run­ning gear in it now. It’s been built as a re­li­able cruiser. Turn the key and it starts first time, ev­ery time,” Merv says.

Fuel in­jected and with the ni­trous kit for a bit of ex­tra urge when re­quired, the To­rana has proved to be rea­son­ably eco­nom­i­cal when cruis­ing. The 3.25-ra­tio dif­fer­en­tial means fifth is usu­ally se­lected above 80kph.

Fu­ture plans in­clude mak­ing a few mi­nor ad­just­ments, in­clud­ing to the sus­pen­sion ride height, which is not quite what Merv wanted: “We will play with the ride height a lit­tle bit as I’m not quite happy with it. It’s been full-on for the past three years with the To­rana, and now we are en­joy­ing driv­ing it. I now find my­self scratch­ing around in the shed for some­thing to do.”

Prior to the Holden Na­tion­als, Merv in­tends to freshen-up the en­gine and re­place the gear­box with a TKO 600 unit, along with the ad­di­tion of a full chro­moly roll cage. “We have also pur­chased a new ni­trous kit, so it will be fun when we get it all to­gether,” Merv says.

There was sup­posed to be a re­built HQ Monaro for Rochell, to ac­com­pany the To­rana. They had flown to Auck­land to pick up the car in Wark­worth, and de­cided to drive it home on a re­lax­ing tour of the coun­try. The big 5.7-litre two-door coupé proved to be a great drive un­til, while trav­el­ling in a line of traf­fic just north of Oa­maru, an on­com­ing tourist crossed the cen­tre­line and col­lided with the Monaro. The re­sult­ing dam­age was such that the Monaro was writ­ten off, and the de­ci­sion was made to just carry on with the To­rana.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see what Merv and Rochell come up with next, but if the stan­dard of prepa­ra­tion of this Holden To­rana A9X replica is any­thing to go by, it will be an­other classy ad­di­tion to the clas­sic ranks.

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