GIVEN THEY GREW UP IN THE HEADY DAYS OF BROCK’ S EXPLOITS, IT’ S NOT SURPRISING THAT THE DEDICATED HOLDEN ENTHUSIASTS WHO OWN THIS GENUINE 1978 HOLDEN LX TORANA CREATED SOMETHING VERY SPECIAL
RECREATING A BATHURST LEGEND
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.
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.
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.