West Coast Cooler
Inspired by the radical mid-engine John McCormack Charger, West Australian Ian Diffen developed a stock Charger R/T E38 into a fire breathing mid-engine V8 monster to compete against Australia’s best Sports Sedans.
Inspired by the radical mid-engine John McCormack Charger, West Australian Ian Diffen developed a stock Charger R/T E38 into a re breathing mid-engine V8 monster to compete against Australia’s best Sports Sedans.
Look out you East Coast sports sedan pedallers – a big mover from the West wants a slice of the action,” began a story in September 1975’s edition of Sports Car World. “Perth tyre man Ian Diffen is getting ready to take on the big boys again – in a radicallyrebuilt Valiant Charger R/T.
Ian Diffen was as Western Australian as the ‘caught Marsh bowled Lillee’ on the WACA’s scoreboard and Quokkas on Rottnest Island. Being a smart cookie and completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree, he was snapped up as an executive trainee by the Ford Motor Company in Melbourne in the 1960s and soon found himself working with the Product Development Committee. This brought him into contact with the Special Vehicles department and his career seemed destined to head in this direction until he decided to return his young family to Perth in 1971. His son had developed chronic asthma because of Melbourne’s damp.
Diffen opened a series of tyre shops back in the 1970s known as Ian Diffen World of Tyres. He was WA’s equivalent of Bob Jane and, in fact, the pair had business connections. Diffen was an ambitious young man who built a well-respected and successful empire that survives to this day. Unfortunately, Ian’s health failed in later years and he passed away just over 10 years ago. He was a quiet and unassuming character and highly regarded by all who knew him.
Diffen was a motor racing enthusiast, supporter and competitor who contributed to the sport in many ways. He is probably best remembered on the East Coast for racing two ex-Bob Jane cars, the L34 Group C Torana and the Repco V8 Torana Sports Sedan in its later Chevy-powered form.
Then there was the Charger you see here – a car that made a huge impression in its day, particularly amongst motorsport fans in WA.
It started out as a genuine Vitamin C R/T E38 big tank car purchased from well-known local drag racing identity, Doug James of Doug James Used Cars. Doug at the time owned the imported Dodge Ram Charger drag car (which was quite a beast in its day and still is), now owned by his son Al James. Doug purchased the E38 new from Paceway Chrysler in September of 1971 for $4200. Six months later, he had a request from Paceway to buy the car back for Ian Diffen to use as a racecar. Ian subsequently bought the Charger on March 14, 1972, for the princely sum of $3800.
The car was originally raced as a stock E38 under the Series Production rules, but Diffen found it was uncompetitive against the GT-HOs and XU1s. He upgraded it to E49 Group C speci cations in 1973 where it competed in some Australian Touring Car Championship rounds, picking up a point or two here and there.
However, the Charger was again largely uncompetitive, so it was decided to modify it again, this time to compete in the burgeoning Sports Sedan category. Well respected local race mechanic Terry LeMay converted the car, installing a Chrysler 340ci V8 with a four-barrel carb and later, four down-draft Weber Carbs (which survive today under the bonnet of another locally-built historic Charger owned by Doug Jack). Apart from that, most of the car was pretty much standard, although it did have a 9-inch diff, a few suspension and brake upgrades and some lightweight panels. The Chrysler torsion bar front end remained.
Performance was quite impressive considering the modest level of modification. In this spec it lapped Wanneroo in around 65 seconds – a respectable time for Sports Sedans in the mid ‘70s. One notable showing was a dice with John Goss in his lightweight Falcon hardtop Sports Sedan when the Sydneysider visited the Perth circuit in 1974.
Enthused by the Charger’s promising early speed and the recent arrival of John McCormack’s radical mid-engined V8 Charger onto the scene, Diffen made the decision to build a serious challenger to compete in the growing number of national-level Sports Sedan races.
In a September 22, 1974 Sunday Times interview, Ian justified the decision to build the Charger. “Well the car has an obvious promotional value, particularly in view of the upsurge in interest in motorsport. I might also make the point that we expect this venture to be self-supporting. Prizemoney, particularly in the East, is excellent, with one series being worth $100,000. But from my point of view, I think the car’s main value lies in the skills that teaches people who work for the company. They also learn the value of close teamwork and cooperation which is the basis for any successful business enterprise.”
To be competitive in this high pro le and lucrative series, Ian would have to dig deep into his company’s coffers and employ the very best expertise that was available locally.
To that end, he retained three of Perth’s top racecar engineers, mechanics and fabricators at the time in Jaime Gard (constructor of the Gardos Formula 5000 car), LeMay (the brains behind a very successful local Mini race team and the man behind the development of the Charger to date), and Phil Baartz, a meticulous young mechanic who was making a name for himself and responsible for the fettling of the V8 Torana XU-1 of local champ Brian Smith.
This was going to be one very trick, state-ofthe-art car and the mega dollar rebuild began.
The engine was given the best of everything available at the time, with latest Trans Am goodies from the USA, including a gear-driven Crower roller camshaft with roller rockers, Weaver threestage dry-sump system, Lucas timed mechanical-injection, Crower conrods, lightweight triple-plate AP clutch driving through an all-alloy new process Chrysler four-speed gearbox.
The body was gutted and only retained what was required under the rules. Standard suspension was binned and replaced with open-wheel Formula 5000-style rising-rate fronts uspension, fully-adjustable Koni all-alloy racing shock absorbers all round, a fully-independent rear-end that featured a quick-change diff-centre and Matich F5000 uprights. The engine was moved to the middle of the car, solid-mounted
and enclosed in an intricately-fabricated alloy housing. A full chrome-moly roll-cage was installed, so too an on-board re-extinguisher system, along with a foam- lled alloy fuel-cell (believed to an ex-Lola sportscar tank) in the boot. All removable body panels (front mudguards, bonnet, door skins and boot lid) were replaced with aluminium items specially pressed by the Chrysler factory. Wheel arches were beautifully ared in aluminium and steel to cover the new 15x10-inch wheels all round, with 12-inch wide rear tyres and 11-inch fronts. Brakes were the latest fully- oating race rotors and four-piston AP alloy callipers actuated by the customary balance bar pedal set up.
The now radical new Charger, nished in a deep shade of bright orange, with black interior and much polished alloy, was presented to the public for the rst time at the annual hot rod show, held in the Pagoda Ballroom in South Perth. Fellow WA racer Craig Marsland attended the show and can, today, still vividly recall his rst impressions.
“When I saw it for the rst time I can only describe my feelings as ‘gobsmacked’,” Marsland says. “At the time, this car was like no other; no expense had been spared. A large thermometer-style placard behind the car, with thousanddollar increments instead of degrees, proudly
announced that $63,000 had been spent up to that time. This was a phenomenal amount in the mid 1970s.”
The Charger, before even venturing onto on the track, certainly achieved its rst objective as a promoter for Ian Diffen World of Tyres, particularly in WA. There was much local pride in this state-ofthe-art car entirely developed by local expertise. The Charger was prominently featured in both the local and national media with little doubt that it was going to be a serious contender on the track.
Writing for the aforementioned September 1975 issue of Sports Car World magazine, WA writer John Rudd gave his impressions of riding in the Charger during early testing around Wanneroo Park. Rudd noted the massive ‘elephant trunk like intakes’ that pushed air from the radiator grille to the mid mounted V8. Rudd found crawling into the car quite difficult with the inevitable head banging with his crash helmet and roll-cage. The driver had a full safety harness and padding around the mid mounted engine housing to insulate him from the enormous heat the engine generated. No such luxury for the passenger, who had no safety harness and no engine insulation on his side! The result was an extremely hot, uncomfortable but exhilarating ride. After some warmup laps, Ian opened the Charger up and gave Rudd the ride of his life! Rudd wrote: “Round the right angle left hander at 80mph... then Diffen cracked open the gaping full injection throttles again and hurled the car and its new-found passenger to more than 100mph in almost as many yards. “Watching a motor race was never like this. Corners drivers seem to take in one long graceful sweep dissolve into a series of small slides, each corrected with a slight movement of the steering wheel, each leading into the next until Diffen again sends that (tacho) needle dashing around the dial as we hurtle onto the next bend. And the times on the board that Graham MaCale holds out after each lap are dropping...from over 70 seconds to 69.4, 68.4 and the quickest 68.1.”
Rudd noted that to be competitive, they would have to lap Wanneroo Park at around 63 seconds, a time Ian was con dent the Charger would achieve.
However, the Charger proved to be quite a difficult beast to tame and constant issues prevented it from achieving its main objective: to be competitive against the best from the East Coast.
Having debuted the reworked car in a minor meeting on May 4, 1975, Diffen’s rst opportunity to take on the big guns came on June 8 that year, via the Win eld Australian Sports Sedan Challenge, an event promoted by his own marketing company. Among the stars making the trek west were Moffat (Capri), Jane (Monaro), Geoghegan (Monaro), Frank Gardner (Torana) and John Harvey (Porsche).
A broken rose-joint in the morning warm-up necessitated a mercy dash by crew to a factory 30km away to fabricate a replacement. Their efforts were hampered by traffic jams caused by the huge crowd drawn to the track, the part ultimately being helicoptered-in and tted to the car in time for the third and nal heat. Diffen was rewarded with a fth place, posting a fastest lap of 65.7 seconds in his pursuit of race winner Moffat.
“I can recall going to Wanneroo on private tuning days to see the car being dialled,” Craig Marsland says. “Like any new racecar, especially one as radical as this, it had its share of issues, including some very quirky handling
characteristics, but when it went boy did it go!
“Unfortunately, the issues continued and getting it up to speed and to be reliable at the same time was proving very challenging for Ian and the team. It showed moments of brilliance and competed in a number of events but without the results required to justify the huge investment made.”
By the time of Wanneroo’s round of the inaugural Australian Sports Sedan Championship, in August 1976, the Charger had been parked in favour of the ex-Jane Torana.
“I think it got to the stage where Ian eventually said enough,” Marsland continues. “He just wanted to go racing. The Charger was shelved and he purchased the ex-Bob Jane Chevy Torana and enjoyed quite a bit of success campaigning that over the next few years.”
The engine generated a claimed 530bhp. This was achieved by radically modifying the cylinder heads, mainly the inlet port tracts and location and size of the inlet valves. Moving the inlet values to optimise the inlet tract compromised the valvetrain geometry to the point that the rocker arms were placing side force on the top of the valve stems. Head-gasket sealing was another problem.
Diffen sold the Charger to Brian Smith, who takes up the story.
“I purchased the car at the end of 1976 after selling my very successful – and highly reliable – Torana Sports Sedan, which was 302 Windsor Ford-powered.
“I took delivery of the Charger minus the independent rear-end to reduce costs. A bad move, in hindsight! But I couldn’t really afford the extra expenditure and thought a live 9-inch rear-end would be adequate. Phil Baartz, who maintained my Torana and who I respected as a highly-talented race mechanic, jumped in at the deep-end and put the car together with the live rear-end and off we went to the track early in 1977 for a test day. Everything seemed to go well for a rst outing, but when Phil got the car back to the workshop, he discovered we had a cylinder head gasket issue.”
It soon became clear that the huge power output from the Molloy Engineering-sourced engine was producing more heat than the old 340 head castings could dissipate.
“The result of this was that the head surface would expand and try to ‘balloon’ away from the block deck,” Smith explains. “Phil, dedicated to the cause, tried everything to cure this problem, without success.
“Clem Smith (no relation) in Adelaide faced a similar situation with his 340 Charger Sports Sedan. Clem also tried everything to overcome the head gasket issues. He purchased a pair of Chrysler W2 head castings that were supposed to cure the problem, but this was not totally successful. The best x was to pull some horsepower out of these 340 monsters. We never tried that, but should have.
“So, we lived with the head gasket issue for the period of time I owned the car through to 1981 when I sold it to Craig Marsland. Craig was fully aware of the head gasket problem but felt he could overcome it. To his credit, I think he had fewer failures than Phil and I experienced. Reliability issues aside, I did manage to win the 1977 state championship in Western Australia.”
Marsland, who’d had good results with his home-built E49 Sports Sedan, bought the Charger in 1981. His sponsor, Pizza Hut, assisted with the purchase and Marsland was very pleased that Phil Baartz was able to continue with his support. Some rear-end modi cations and internal fabricating was performed in order to address some of the handling issues, which did help, but like its previous owners, Craig experienced moments of brilliance and ongoing frustration with its niggling issues.
A huge crash in the 1982 ASSC round at Wanneroo resulted in substantial frontal damage. With a lot of effort, it was repaired and the car returned to the track a month later. It recorded one of its best times to date, which ironically was its last race. It was a time in the 65-second bracket – where it had been lapping before its major rework ahead of the 1975 season!
The following month at Adelaide International Raceway, a cam follower broke during practice and caused a considerable amount of engine damage. It was trailered home and parked, Marsland’s funds and patience having been exhausted.
The car was eventually sold, and has changed hands a number of times since and, apart from being returned to its Diffen-era paint scheme and signwriting, is pretty much as sold by Marsland. The exception is the engine, having been rebuilt, and the Lucas timed-injection metering units being sold off along the way. Marsland said Michael Aicheson in Queensland did get it going some years back and believes it may have competed in an historic-type meeting at the time, but as it so often did, it encountered engine issues.
Current owner Shane Anderson from Perth has a collection of rare Aussie Chryslers including the beautiful VJ Charger XL E49 featured on the cover of AMC #95 last year. Anderson said he had been keeping track of the historic Charger for a few years and eventually purchased it off a Brisbane owner 18 months ago.
Today, both Craig Marsland and Brian Smith remember the Charger with a mix of affection and frustration.
Marsland: “The fuel-injected engine with its light ywheel and small clutch had instant throttle response and absolutely barked very loudly through its fourinch unmuffled drainpipe exhausts, which exited just below the doors on either side. You sat right alongside the mid-mounted engine and the mechanical and exhaust noise at 7500 rpm was something else and had to be experienced; not to forget the heat emitted by one angry engine. It was not the easiest car to drive but when on song it went like a cut snake, stopped quite well and despite all its idiosyncrasies I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“The car showed great potential, but was temperamental, fragile and very expensive to run, as it was pushing the limits of development and the technology at the time was just not there to support it. Today with a rebuild using modern technology, I am con dent it would acquit itself very well.”
Smith adds that despite the car’s unreliability, it was a great car to drive: “Very fast and very challenging with that live rear-end! And it’s still one of the sexiest racecars ever seen on Aussie racetracks.”
Ian Diffen bought a second-hand E38 Charger from Doug James Used Cars (see sales book reference above) and went racing. It began as a Series Production car, was then modified to Group C (right), and then developed into a wild mid-mounted 340 Mopar Sports Sedan. 1973 Symmons Plains
Ian Diffen’s ‘World of Tyres’ Charger was WA’s answer to John McCormack’s Repco-Holden powered Charger. It ultimately came up short, but it was nonetheless a unique and spectacular machine.
AMC is indebted to Craig Marsland and Brian Smith for their enthusiastic help in preparing this story. Also thanks to current owner Shane Anderson and to Kim Belcastro for his input and excellent photography.
The Charger is back in original orange livery but apart from an engine rebuild it remains unrestored, as it was when Craig Marsland last raced it. Phil Baartz (inset), part of the Charger’s original brains’ trust, remained involved with the car after it left Diffen’s hands.