Thursday, 22 February 2018

Half Speedway and Half Free

Wow. There's fish out of water, and then there's this:

How awkward do they look? That's the beginning of a race I'd heard about but never seen, the Daily Mirror Indy Trophy at Brands Hatch, 7 October 1978. Yes, a United States Auto Club championship car race, but in Kent, the U.K. It was the second half of a double header following the Daily Express Indy Trophy, which had been held at Silverstone a week earlier. Convergent evolution had turned the IndyCar into something that looked a lot like its Formula 1 cousin, but under the skin there were some significant differences. These cars were a fair bit heavier (minimum weights for F1 were still in the future, so the flimsiest F1 cars were pushing 550kg, compared to 750 or so for the USAC machines), and without a Colin Chapman their chassis tech was a few years behind, think early 1970s state-of-the-art. One area where they were well ahead, however, was power – the USAC series had made the switch to turbocharging a lot earlier than F1, so in 1978 their single-turbo Fords and Offenhausers were already proven and reliable, pushing nearly 800bhp to F1's 500. They were also optimised for oval racing, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn components like the oiling system were asymmetrical to keep the weight transfer even through the high-G left-handers. Basically, USAC cars were built to do this...

Start of the 1971 California 500, confusingly at a place called Ontario Motor Speedway it's not that surprising they were all thumbs on the tight, mostly right-hand turns of Brands Hatch. Silverstone must've been spectacular though.

Apart from being the first visit to Europe for American open-wheelers since the Races of Two Worlds in 1957 and '58, these two races were significant for another reason. They were very nearly the first USAC road races in a decade.

Yep, according to my notes – and I'm open to being corrected on this, because not all the tracks are familiar to me – the previous road-course event for USAC had been a single race at Canada's Mosport Park in July 1977. Before that, you have to go all the way back to a 150-miler held at Indianapolis Raceway Park, in July 1970. Any earlier than that, and the token road race was literally held on a road, as in 1969 the Pikes Peak Hill Climb was still part of the championship.

Mario Andretti qualifying for it like the badass he is (Source – why aren't you reading Primitipo already?)

So by my count, from the start of 1970 to the end of 1979, a whole decade, the USAC Indy championship cars did just five road-course events in total (there was also the Kent Oil 150 at Watkins Glen in '79). But once Dan Gurney's infamous "White Paper" got CART jump-started, they did six in 1980 and '81 alone.

This is significant, because the CART takeover was apparently the prompt for Tony George's nunfuckery in the 1990s and 2000s – the Series War, the destruction of CART and IRL both, the rise of NASCAR, all of that. At least that's the message I got from Ed Hinton's excellent Honor, Blood and a Brewing Battle, which details the split from ground level from its beginning in 1996, through to the Danica Patrick era, just before reunification. The sense of doom he lays over the whole thing makes it clear George's decisions courted disaster from the start, but Hinton also gives George enough empathy to make it clear why he did what he did, painting him more as a tragic figure than the damn fool I see him as. In the early '90s CART was stable, commercially successful and rivalled F1 for TV viewers, especially after Mansell defected and took a huge chunk of the British public with him. When Senna tested a Penske at the same time Bernie just about had a heart attack. But by the time Dubya stole the 2000 election, "The 500" was at Daytona, not Indianapolis, and F1 stood alone as the world's biggest TV event. As Hinton tells us, Sports Illustrated was debating whether to even send anyone to Indy that year, where previously the only question was whether it would be on the cover or not.

Why? Because of that old bugbear, American insularity. Tony George wanted to make the 500 a "full-fledged, and certainly prominent, member of the worldwide racing community" – and he wanted to do this by returning it to its roots as an all-American extravaganza. Anyone with half a brain can see it's a case of "pick one," but Tony didn't see it that way. At the root of it all, so he believed, was the "CART barons" and their preference for road racing.
Traditionalist racers and fans had always resented CART as something of an occupying force on the hallowed ground of Undy, usurpers, dripping with opulence and arrogance and racing more for profit than passion.
Quickly the USAC "championship trail" of other races died out, replaced by the CART series. CART owners unabashedly tried to emulate Formula One, with emphasis on road courses and street circuits in addition to oval tracks.

The street circuits especially made business sense, because events could be held in and near major cities by simply laying out temporary courses, rather than building permanent racetracks.

But road and street racing also meant a different kind of driver. The tough Americans, who'd come up to Indy off the heartland oval dirt tracks, were phased out, displaced by Europeans, South Americans and Australians who'd been trained from childhood as road racers.

Slowly, American fans grew apathetic toward the imported personalities, and yearned for a resurgence of the Foyt ilk. But the Americans would never return in significant enough numbers. – Ed Hinton, Honor, Blood and a Brewing Battle
I'm sort of sympathetic – if Bathurst became dominated by foreign drivers instead of Aussies and Kiwis, I doubt the bogan backlash would be pretty – but at the same time I have to doubt the "fans switching off" aspect of the story, because as I said, CART was booming, the most commercially successful era the sport ever saw. And bear in mind, most of USAC's "championship trail" looked like this:

That's the start of the 1970 Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and it looks suspiciously 1940s for a race from the Vietnam era. At that time Indy was already being run by mid-engined cars with wings, but most of the championship involved this front-engined dirt-oval stuff, stuck in the past. That's what happens when blokes of a certain age graduate to management of a series – their idea of what racing should be was formed when they were wide-eyed youngsters having their first encounter with it and realising it was awesome. For the forty-something guys in charge of USAC in 1970, that mental image was probably from 1950. In the same way, Tony George's plans in 1996 were probably based on a mental image from 1976.

But it's probably not an accurate mental image. Something that's only just occurred to me in the last few days – and I've been reading Hinton's article on-and-off for a few years now – is that not once does it mention Formula 5000. Odd, right? Formula 5000 looms large in the memories of us Aussies, but it was actually invented in the U.S., where it emerged from and displaced what had started as Formula A, for mothballed F1 cars (Formula B, for production-based 1,600cc engines, was somewhere between F2 and F3 in speed; Formula C, for 1,100cc engines of either kind, was basically the second coming of Formula Junior).

Lou Sell's Formula A Eagle-Chevrolet, 1968 (Source)

To keep costs down the SCCA raised the Formula A engine limit to 5,000cc – the same as their juggernaut Trans-Am series – so it quickly became dominated by American V8s, which had as much power and more torque than the 3-litre F1 engines of the time. From there the formula just kept growing, and become the SCCA's headline act after the collapse of Trans- and Can-Am. In the mid-1970s, it was even co-sanctioned by USAC (which I'm guessing means USAC scrutineered the cars, with the SCCA providing the flaggies). But by 1978 it was an orphaned series, as USAC had pulled out leaving the SCCA to run it alone. But the Sports Car Club, naturally, wanted to run sports car races, so in a story that was recently detailed in Australian Muscle Car (worth a Pressreader search), they instead rebooted Can-Am by making everyone add fenders to their Formula 5000 cars. That went about as well as you might expect.

So in other words, that split between road and oval racing existed even in Indy's golden age in the 1970s – it's just that the road racing was easy to ignore in the history books, being literally split off into a different series. If you followed both halves, the '76 season looked an awful lot like a latter-day CART schedule:

USAC Championship on the left, Formula 5000 on the right

So even back then, road racing was putting bums on seats, and the CART barons were wise enough to realise that, with the demise of Formula 5000, they were ideally placed to make those events their own. That went double from 1984, when CART picked up the former F1 race at Long Beach. To hell with tradition, they made the Long Beach Grand Prix their season-opener, and today it's a blue-ribbon event almost as prestigious as the 500 itself. And let's not forget, the first race at Long Beach wasn't for F1, but a non-championship dress-rehearsal run in 1975 for... oh yeah, Formula 5000.

To be fair to Tony George, I'm not sure there was necessarily a solution to the problem of getting the dirt-oval heartlanders back to the biggest race of the year. That's the cost of professionalisation – it's not like an ordinary regional dealer can enter Bathurst anymore, either – and the career ladder to IndyCar is still something of a problem, although the Mazda Road to Indy programme is a valiant effort. But I'm not sure commercial suicide by trying to turn the clock back on your premier series was ever a smart move, even in 1996 when it all seemed so promising. Surely you have karting over there, Tony? Wouldn't getting young American drivers into karts have been a better move?

Or maybe the swing to NASCAR was always inevitable? As Hinton noted, the various breeds of dirt-oval racing no longer did much to send drivers to Indy, but it made a near-perfect ladder to NASCAR. And the slow descent of the once-proud Rust Belt, coupled with the political and commercial rise of the Deep South, was always going to shift the centre of gravity. The industry that underpinned the Midwest is long gone, not-at-all replaced by Reagan's "service economy"; Walmart is based in Arkansas, not Indiana, and didn't open their first store in Pennsylvania – home state of the Andrettis – until 1990. It's a long way down from there.

But in 1978, all that was in the future. The present was this hesitant, awkward, baby-steps return to the American tradition of road racing. I wonder what they would've said, if they could've known.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

This Is The End, Beautiful Friend

Saigon. Shit, still only Saigon.

So that's it: the last Commodore has left the plant. Elvis has left the building. The Australian car industry is now history, past tense, existing only on the pages of the car rags and the memories of those who were there. I thought I'd mark the occasion, and round out the year, by listing some of the cars made locally that I'd buy with my own money if opportunity knocked. Yes really, I mean everything I'm about to say, and I don't mean in the silly money-no-object way of pub arguments either, the kind of thing that ends with dreaming about parking your McLaren F1 next to your Chrysler ME Four-Twelve and taking the kids to school in your Cadillac Sixteen instead. I genuinely mean if I ever have the modest budget and the right one came along, I'd genuinely have one each of these... just, not all at the same time, probably.

Three Aussie Fords I'd Have...

1964 XM Futura Hardtop

Yes, a Falcon from the bad old days, before Broadmeadows got it right and built a Falcon we actually wanted to buy. A Falcon from the era of ball-joint failures and cracked suspension towers. A Falcon with the world's slowest steering ratio, five-and-a-half turns lock-to-lock. A Falcon with, at most, a 200ci "Super Pursuit" engine with 90 kW, capable of lurching from 0-100 in a dizzying 16.1 seconds and on to a top speed of just 152km/h. Why on God's green earth would anyone want to spend their hard-earned on such a machine?

Because of God's green earth, friend.

Think about it: how often do you redline your own car, truly? Have you ever? Or do you drive it gently and keep the bills from both the petrol station and the mechanic alike down to an absolute minimum? Yes exactly, so now imagine how you'd drive a car you dearly love and that's sixty years old, with spares ranging from critically endangered to nonexistent? Yes indeed. Realistically, the only way you can drive a classic car is slowly, so why not buy one you can enjoy by going slow?

That's where the XM Hardtop shines. It was Ford Australia's first attempt at a two-door Falcon – rarely a successful experiment in this country – and a sign of their desperation, as they sought to offer something you couldn't get from Holden. Hence the Hardtop: mechanically it was madness, as they were busy fitting strengthening beams from the American-market convertible to try and make the basic platform strong enough for our rough roads. Choosing that moment to rip off the roof structure and replace it with something only good for keeping the rain out was downright reckless. Yet thanks to that pillarless design all four windows could be made to disappear entirely, allowing the breeze to waft across those bench seats. Trust me, on a winding mountain road, on a glorious spring or autumn day, in area that has a very similar climate to central Italy, that's going to feel pretty good. Especially if there's a picnic hamper of lambrusco in the back, and someone with a wonderful personality in the passenger seat.

So why the luxury Futura? Partly just because it's the top-shelf version, which you want, but also because it's a hilarious reminder of how clueless Broadmeadows was in those days. There are times when the early Falcons really give away that they were designed for Chicago playboys, and the Futura's red vinyl interior rather rams it home. It's a time capsule, a moment so daft you have to love it. And yes, long trips would be dicey given that, like a Southern belle, it's prone to fainting at any moment... but as I said, you wouldn't be pushing it that hard, would you?

2002 AU Falcon Series III XR8

I admit it, I'm no fan of V8s. I mean, if you actually want an engine that's heavy, thirsty, drags the nose wide in tight corners and is, whisper it, just a bit gutless... uh, sure, go right ahead? Bentley's Maxim that "there's no substitute for cubes" is wishful thinking at its worst, and hasn't even been true since 1923, when a Fiat became the first supercharged car to win a major race (the Italian GP at Monza, since I know you were wondering). If you want performance you need forced induction, so don't bother marketing a V8 to me on its power. Instead, market it on the driving experience, on how well it'll let me balance the car on the throttle through the twisties on a road or track day.

Enter the Series III facelift of the V8 performance-optioned AU Falcon.

To deal with the elephant in the room, yes it's an AU, so it's styled after a well-cooked piece of asparagus. To which I say, so what? Looks don't matter much when you're inside it, working the wheel and steering, carving corners (to borrow a phrase from Unique Cars' Glen Torrens). Neither do 400m times, which was the only place the equivalent Commodore had the edge. Marketing the Holden was slightly easier with its sexy new all-alloy LS1 powerplant, but it was the Falcon that had the proper (read: expensive) independent suspension, sharp steering and that E-Series holdover of feeling light and dancing on its toes. Under the skin, the AU wasn't just more advanced than any Falcon or Commodore before it; in a lot of ways, it was more advanced than any since.

And while it's true Ford's Windsor V8 dated to the Kennedy administration, the people at Tickford had done an amazing job of polishing it. The end result was the flattest torque curve of any production engine ever made: the torque peaked with 435 Nm at 4,000rpm, but it never varied by more than 25% from idle all the way to the redline: any gear, any speed, put your foot down and something would happen.
It's a crying shame – heartbreaking, really – that Ford/Tickford couldn't sell more of these Tickfords back in the early 2000s. It wasn't for lack of trying. ... The least expensive model, the TE50, had 200 kW but the upper-spec TS50 220 kW versions were rebuilt with ported heads and a lumpy cam on a special assembly line to create a truly gorgeous, rorty tingling V8 with soul.

The chassis was a good thing, too: under the controversial style, Ford's suspension was a cut above the Commodore's; what amounted to a double A-arm front and the clever modular cradle-mounted independent rear (also double A-arm) suspension, gave the car a level of handling and tactility that was akin to a Mazda MX-5. Yes, really.

But with the poor sales of the Tickford T-Series, those carefully crafted Synergy 220 kW engines ended up being installed in XR8s. – Glen Torrens, Unique Cars #393
An obese MX-5 with guts? You know you want one of those. And with prices currently cratering they're cheap too – I saw one at my local dealer just over a year ago for $8k, and if you haggled you could probably get it for even less.

But I didn't, because I don't fancy pouring fuel down a V8.

2009 FG Falcon G6E Turbo

Fun fact: when they started working on the turbo version of the new Barra straight-six, the people at Broadmeadows called it Project Gull, as in seagull, "Because we knew it would shit on everything." And it did: starting with the BA series in 2002, SS and XR8 drivers alike soon learned to be wary of the new "XR6 Turbo" badge, which would run rings around V8 models from both sides of the fence. That went double if the owner started playing around with the boost – which they could, because the basic package was strong enough to stand up to some truly silly numbers, and the buyers knew how because most of them were former WRX owners who'd moved into their 30s and needed something a bit more family-friendly.

Despite four generations of XR6 Turbo, however, there have always been some niggling hints that this was never meant to be a performance car. It's big and heavy, for one thing – the FG is somewhere between a 5- and 7-Series BMW in size, and it has a 5-star ANCAP safety rating, which is a nice way of saying "really thick steel." There's also the nagging feeling the seat is too high and the steering wheel too low, with no adjustment possible (you're supposed to adjust the pedals instead); it's a giveaway that this was designed as a company car for Telstra, and only afterwards turned into a tyre-shredding monster. Eventually you find the nubs at 4 and 8 o'clock on that low-mounted steering wheel, and realise it's meant to be steered for long distances with one hand resting on your lap.

So rather than buy a track monster that really wants to be an open-road cruiser, why not buy a comfy open-road cruiser in the first place? After the AU debacle made the Futura and Fairmont Ghia badges untenable (especially the Futura – the AU had a different shade of ugly for every model, but the Futura was the worst of them all), Ford replaced them with the G6 and G6E badges instead. The inside of an FG G6E was a nice place to be, with Bluetooth integration (a big deal at the time), reversing camera, an in-dash six-stacker CD player (which never got used thanks to the iPod jack in the center console), leather seats, dual-zone auto air con and even a rear centre armrest (with cupholders!). But you could get it with the same engine as the XR6 Turbo, at virtually no penalty to performance – when even the base model weighs 1,710kg, all that luxury stuffing doesn't make for a significant increase. So put your foot down, and five-and-a-half seconds later you’d be doing the legal limit in perfect comfort, and the constabulary wouldn’t even blink; where the XR6 Turbo would incite a war with any SS drivers you happened across, the G6E would pass them on the right-hand side with hardly a second glance.

So in short, it's a bargain-bin Aston Martin or Ferrari Scaglietti, a four-seater GT car for about 2% of the price. But only 3,898 were ever built, so if this column has you tempted, you better hustle. A Barra turbo will help with that.

...And One I Wouldn't:

1971 XY Falcon GT-HO Phase III

What?? Isn't this the daddy, the Godfather, the one they all seek? The greatest muscle car Australia ever produced, whose dollar values vary from half-a-million for a good one down to a paltry quarter-of-a-million for a scratched original?

Yeah, that's exactly the problem.

Let's imagine you've just spent half a million on a Phase III, an immaculate one with matching numbers, low kilometres, proper rear wing and Globe alloys, it's even in a colour you like (Starlight Blue for me please); well, you're hardly going to park it on the nature strip overnight, are you? So now invest in a scale replica of Fort Knox to park it in, complete with back-to-base alarms, motion sensors, a Catherine Zeta-Jones laser grid, and a Sudanese immigrant with a machete to watch over it (most Phase III owners are quite old and racist). That will require you to own your own home, and the going rate for one of those (in the capital cities at least) is roughly 3 national treasuries per square metre. So the bill for your $0.5 million car has now, as a bare minimum, quadrupled.

It gets better: you'll have to get a new, unlisted phone number, because otherwise you'll be getting a dozen phone calls a day from blokes asking about it – "Is it real or a replica?" "What's the VIN?" and "I'm interested in buying it..." will become depressingly common.

But one evening, the time will come to climb in for a special night out somewhere. Eventually you'll get the missus to agree to a restaurant, and you head over there... then spend an hour or so making sure you've parked it where you can see it from your table, because obviously you don't want to have to worry about it while you're enjoying your meal. Since a restaurant with this kind of view will be on a main street somewhere, you can add another few hundred for the cost of your terrine of smoked salmon and fillet mignon washed down with a bottle of '71 Grange, though by this stage you'll hardly be counting anymore.

Then on the way home the highway cops will pull you over, because they want to look at it too. Oh, and depending on the going rate for 98 RON (and you'll hardly give it anything less, will you?), it'll cost nearly $230 to brim that famous 36-gallon tank. And it'll be gone distressingly quickly, 23 litres per 100km if you have a very light foot.

But at least you'll have the pleasure of driving it, won't you? No, not so much. What you'll get is a car with 280 kW channelled through leaf springs and a Detroit Locker – bang, bang, bang, trust me it'll get old fast. The Toploader 4-speed will make you very aware you're moving big heavy gears around with thin little linkages, so every shift will bring on a small attack of nerves. The steering ratio is still as slow as the XM up there, five turns lock-to-lock. And however much you may think you'll run it up to its top speed, take everything I said about redlining your own car and multiply it by each dollar you spent on this one, then decide how often that'll happen. Even if you do, that top speed will only be as good as what the G6E is electronically limited to.

Honestly, Phase III ownership sounds like a nightmare you can't wake up from, except by passing it on to someone else, like herpes. You can have virtually all the fun at a fraction of the cost by buying a normal XY GT, or even a 500 GS with the right options fitted. But a Phase III? Sheesh, count me out.

Three Holdens I'd Have...

1958 FC Special

Tough to explain the appeal of this one, but I'll try: the Joe Kenwright article linked above calls it, "the world's best multi-purpose vehicle range," which illuminates the situation in the Australian motor industry in the 1950s. The FE was Holden's first true new model after the original 45-215. It was based on the Opel Kapitän rather than an American Chevrolet, but when it arrived it was 5 years ahead of either. The FE was the model that pushed Holden to that monolithic 50% market share, and it did it by being all things to all people. Cheap, durable taxi for fleet buyers? Yep, it did that. Panel van for tradies? Yep, that too. Ute for farmers? Check. Plush station wagon for blue-bloods to tow horse floats? Check and mate. It was tough, it was cheap to repair, it was easy to keep running and it would sail over our corrugated back roads without falling apart, tracking straight and giving you a wonderful feeling of invincibility. It was a comfortable off-roader in an era when 4WD Jeeps and Land Rovers drove like tractors and weren't considered passenger vehicles. Even the interior was nice, the perfect backdrop to listen to your Fallout playlist. Driving it was a simple matter of putting it in top gear and leaving it there; 53 kW from the wheezy old Grey six mightn't sound like much, but the fact is with 150 Nm available virtually from idle, top gear would take you smoothly from 13km/h all the way to 128, well above cruising speed on a country road back then. This is why Holden was so slow to introduce an automatic gearbox – they just didn't need it, especially when most buyers didn't want the extra outlay and dodgy fuel economy of an early auto.

The mid-life facelift of the FE, the FC, was the same but a bit nicer. And with very slightly more power, thanks to a compression ratio lifted from 6.8:1 to 7:1 – low even in 1958, but one that maximised engine life and gave plenty of leeway for the variable fuel quality in those days. Wheels called it, "A worthy continuance of the combination of features which made the previous model so popular. The designers have steered an excellent course through the paths of compromise. Holden has far fewer faults than many cars with higher price tags and imposing overseas origins." Indeed, the FC marked two major milestones, becoming the 500,000th Holden to leave the production line and the 10,000th to be exported.

So I just like for the same reason I like the XM Hardtop, but from the other end – if the XM is a time capsule of how wrong Ford was getting it in those days, the FC is a callback to how right Holden was getting it. My only stipulation is that mine comes fitted with one of Repco's High Power heads. The standard Grey engine had very poor gas flow, which could be rectified by one of Repco's bolt-on heads, available over the counter for the equivalent of about $5,000. Throw in one of those and let the old girl breathe, and she can keep up with the traffic.

1970 HG Monaro GTS 350

Simply, the uncrowned king of Aussie muscle. Holden had taken victory at Mount Panorama in 1968 thanks to the HK Monaro, then again in 1969 thanks to the HT; with the HG they could very well have had a hat-trick. It was much more racecar-oriented than its Falcon rival, with the same poised chassis balance as the HK and the same 350ci Chevy small-block as the HT, but its true home was the open road where it could be left pulling a mile a minute for hours on end. My kinda car.

That it didn't end up racing was down to a number of factors. One was that a "Holden GT-HO" was far from cheap to develop, and the amount of money the project was hoovering up was making it hard for head office to hide it from their bosses in Detroit (General Motors had banned all their subsidiaries from racing after the 1955 Le Mans disaster, and in 1970 they were still deadly serious about enforcing it). For another, the then-president of the RACV, Leslie M. Perrott, was an outspoken critic of high performance and was beginning to say some very unkind things about the "killer cars" Holden, Ford and Chrysler were building. Ford boss Bill Bourke could just flip him the bird and carry on with his day, but Holden's Bill Gibbs was a more timid soul, a good yes-man who did whatever Detroit told him. It was on his watch that the GTS 350 was euthanaised with just 415 built, as Holden turned to the new six-cylinder Torana for their Bathurst strike weapon instead.

It was a shame, because when Australian Muscle Car magazine got their hands on one for the model's 40th anniversary, they recorded lap times only a whisker behind the ones Wheels recorded in 1971... in the Phase III Falcon. And remember, being from 1970 and not '71, the HG wouldn't have been racing the Phase III, but the earlier Phase II, which was 11 seconds a lap slower. Just how confident did you feel, Mr Moffat? Hmm?

Oh well. Bathurst win or no Bathurst win, a true Holden lion, let down by a lamb.

2017 VFII Commodore Sportwagon SV6

Yep, I'm saying it: even though it'd get me disowned by my Dad and written out of the will (such as it is), I'd have a Series II VF Commodore – despite the convenient marketing tagline, they really did save the best 'til last. Even stranger, I'd have a station wagon, and since I decided on a "no HSV, HDT, FPV or Tickfords" rule before starting, that prevents me naming the Grange... so it'll have to be the Sportwagon, with the SV6 sports-lite trim.

I was as surprised as you, but let me explain: a couple of months ago I went to visit an old friend to buy a 6-string bass he was selling (I have other hobbies too you know). While I was there and we shot the breeze, I noticed he had one of these in Mineral Grey. When I saw the interior I was genuinely shocked at how nice it was, crisp and solid-feeling. It seems the real reason BMW and Mercedes keep piling in the fancy toys isn't because they've forgotten what luxury is, it's because sitting in even basic peasant transport isn't exactly an ordeal anymore. And with the wagon there's plenty of space to swallow kids, kids' friends, their junk, and still leave room for your guitars and an amp or two. So yes, I'll take mine in Son Of A Gun Grey, with the 3.6-litre High Feature V6 and the 6-speed auto, please.

The only caveat is that I'd get it serviced roughly twice as often as recommended. I've heard far too many stories of Holden's V6 engines dying suddenly in mid-rev, then spending weeks or months shuttling back and forth between mechanics, dealers and the factory, with no-one able to find out what's wrong with it. So by all means buy the car, but keep an eye on it, because there's a gremlin in there somewhere and they still haven't found it.

...And One I Wouldn't:

1977 LX Torana SS A9X

Yes, again, and for pretty much the same reasons as the Phase III too. Except at least the Phase III really was the car it claimed to be – it really did have 280 kW and really could do 240km/h, and more if you removed the rev limiter. The A9X's on-track pedigree is beyond question – two Bathurst wins out of three attempts, including that phenomenal 6-lap winning margin for Brock/Richards in 1979; two ATCC titles out of four attempts, including becoming only the second car to win every single round of the championship (Peter Brock and Bob Morris carving up the round wins between them in 1979); and it was the car that made Peter Brock the first man to take the Triple Crown of the ATCC, Sandown and Bathurst all in the same year (1978).

But that's the track, and this is about the road. And on the road, the A9X wasn't quite the car you think it was. It's true that it scored Holden's new Radial-Tuned Suspension, which made Holdens handle properly – hell, brilliantly – for the first time in 10 years. It was also the first performance Holden to score disc brakes all-round (and about bloody time too). And in his review for Australian Sports Car World, Bill Tuckey wrote:
The steering is heavy at low speeds, but sharpens up in the best possible European way as the speeds rise. It stops equally well – better than the four-disc GXL Falcons – with that nice progressive squeeze response that comes with all the good cars. You know the feeling: X degrees more squeeze on the pedal gives you X degrees moreretardation, so you can balance the car right into the apex of a corner for a very late, hard braking and dial in your entry speed to the last metre per second.

It is so fast and easy on the open road that you find yourself quite prepared to stop and do the tourist bit, content in the knowledge that all those 94 cars you passed in the last 50 kilometres will be behind you again once you change from third to top. The car is so easy to drive quickly, so responsive, so alert, that frankly – I can hear the mocking laughter now – I don’t think there is a BMW or a Merc or a Jaguar (even an XJ-S) that can beat it point to point.

If you see one for sale, buy it. Don’t even hesitate. Even if you hate driving it – which you won’t – you will have bought a classic car that will be worth a fortune in 20 years’ time.
But as he often did, the late great Bill rather overstated things. The driving dynamics are there, no question, and in its day the little Aussie hatchback was astoundingly cheap – just over $10,000 at the time, compared to some $25,000 for a Lamborghini Urraco with broadly similar performance figures. But today a good one will set you back a quarter of a million (see "Phase III," above) – the price of a new 911, for a car with a cheap interior and no radio? Really?

Okay, how about for a muscle car that's a little bit short on muscle? Yes, really. This is where the smoke and mirrors come in, because the race teams were allowed to use the same emissions-free engines they'd previously used in their SL/R 5000s. The road cars, coming out after the beloved and respected ADR 27a emissions law in July 1976, had to suffer a power drop from 186 to 161 kW. So in reality, your living-legend A9X has less power than a V6 Evoke today, even if it's in a car weighing less than a Corolla hatchback. I'm sorry, but it's just not worth it. Leave this one to the collectors and, if you absolutely must have that V8 Torana experience, find a clapped-out four-cylinder Sunbird and drop a 350 Chev in it. I've seen it done, and unlike the real thing, you won't be disappointed.

Three "Others" I'd Have...

Despite appearances this country hasn't always been about Ford vs Holden. If you really want to appreciate what we've just lost, just look at the entry list for the inaugural Armstrong 500 in 1960, and consider that the rules required every one of them to be at least assembled locally: NSU, Renault, Fiat, Simca, Volkswagen, Triumph, Peugeot, Hillman, Austin, Vauxhall, Standard, Humber and of course, Ford. All screwed together on our shores, and then forgotten. So let's also go through the cars I'd have that came from neither Broadmeadows nor the Bend.

1964 Volkswagen Beetle Deluxe
Picture not strictly relevant, I just love the image (full story here).

Wait, hear me out! I know I give low-tech a hard time, but I genuinely like the idea of a car that's unbreakable because there's nothing to break, a car that's the next thing up from a mousetrap. And I know Clarkson et al. love to deride this car as the brainchild of Europe's greatest mass-murderer, but that's mostly to distract everyone from Cruel Britannia's own score on that front (ask them about the concentration camps and extermination of 300,000 Kikuyu a decade after Nuremberg...). Anyway, here in Australia the Beetle had a fascinating little history all its own: post-VJ Day, the federal government wanted the whole Volkswagen factory as war reparations, since they'd seen how well VW military vehicles did in the deserts of North Africa and building them for our own armed forces while offering the Beetle to civilians seemed like good sense. VW got back on its feet rather more quickly than expected, however, and the deal fell through, but they still almost got their wish as the local branch started assembling Beetles in an old railway-car factory in Clayton, southeast of Melbourne. This facility eventually became the biggest VW factory outside Wolfsburg, and this tough, simple little car became the default small car of the Australian market.

Ever-rising local content rules made the 1964 version the one to have: by then it was up to 85%, meaning the Bug was stamped out in Australian steel using Australian interior trim. Unfortunately the same local content rules would ultimately kill it: it was tough to offer something better than a Holden when you were stuck with what had become Holden's personal supply chain. The Mini that started rolling out of BMC Australia's plant in Zetland, Sydney in 1965 rather knocked VW's market share around, and once Holden decided to get into the small-car market with their Torana, the game was up. Upgrading the Beetle to compete would mean importing parts, which the local-content regs made impossible, so VW closed its doors in 1968.

It was a shame, because although our air was rather warmer than that in its native Germany, that much-derided air-cooled engine was ideal for our harsh climate, and VW got a lot of mileage out of how little maintenance their cars needed. Consider that former F1 driver Larry Perkins, an unsentimental zero-bullshit engineering type, entered one in the 1979 Repco Round-Australia Trial, and the car was never undone by the Wide Brown Land (although it was rather undone by Larry's driving, when he rolled it in the Angorichina Gorge, north of Port Augusta. Apparently he rejoined in Darwin, and completed a number of special stages anyway!). Just remember to shuffle a pan underneath when you park it, and be ready to explain that you drive the most environmentally-friendly car on earth, one that's been returning oil to the ground for years.

1971 Chrysler VH Valiant Pacer 265

Chrysler is probably the best-remembered of the various third options that came along down the decades, so this'll probably be the least surprising entry on the list. I imagine a few are surprised I didn't go for the Charger: the VH E49, with the triple-carb engine and full Bathurst fuel tank that occupied the whole boot – that's the one everyone wants, right?

Not in my case, no. The Pacer was the John the Baptist of Chrysler's late-60s performance campaign, setting the buzz ahead of the Coming of the Charger – from the original VF, which was basically a four-door Plymouth Barracuda, to the VG, which debuted a potent new 250ci Hemi straight-six (though "Hemi" was just a badge in this case) with 138 kW on tap. It was easy to knock the engine as primitive, having started out as Chrysler's "D" engine intended for a variety of medium-sized trucks, but the crew at Tonsley Park had sent the engine to finishing school and turned it into a fire-breathing monster. Then came the VH, which upped the capacity to 265ci and power to 162 kW at 4,800rpm, and torque to a stonking 380 Nm from 3,000. Chrysler test driver Ken Hartland said, "The Pacer would easily wind the speedo needle off the clock, it had power to burn! It was exciting to drive and very fast, probably too fast given the car's suspension and brakes..."

But then the Charger dropped, and the Pacer was abruptly forgotten, like a symphony in mid-crescendo. Only 1,800 VH Pacers were ever built, a wasted opportunity for Chrysler as it proved too hard for suburban dads to get the kids in and out of the back seat of the Charger. So I'll have the Pacer, thanks – all the power and vulgar styling of the Charger, but its thunder stolen, a forgotten hero.

1988 Nissan SVD Silhouette GTS 

Yes, we made Skylines here, although in those days "Skyline" still meant a fairly ordinary compact family car. The base models of the seventh-gen R31 were fairly dreary, with wallflower styling and long overhangs front and rear, all very nothing-to-see-here. For Australia they wisely binned the HICAS four-wheel steering system, admittedly for reasons of cost more than because it wasn't working yet, and left a lot of other JDM toys on the shelf as well. To keep the project viable in the accounting department they also had to offer it with a four-cylinder engine as the Nissan Pintara, and were only able to make it a six-cylinder Skyline on top of that by using the same Nissan RB30E that Holden was already importing for the VL Commodore.

Absolutely none of that sounds appealing, does it? Well here comes the fun part – one of Nissan's employees in those days was a certain Howard Marsden, the former boss of Ford Special Vehicles in the glory days of the Phase III (although he gets rather more credit for that than he deserves, it was really predecessor Al Turner's car; the Phase IV was Marsden's baby, but we never got to see it in full flight). Marsden convinced the board to let him run another Special Vehicles Division, and so Nissan SVD took the warm Silhouette performance model and created the Silhouette GTS. The first one, based on the Series II facelift, was available only in Classic White and came with oil and transmission coolers, stainless steel extractors and a modified cam to lift power to 130 kW, plus upgraded suspension and brakes pinched from the JDM parts shelf. It was a solid-feeling car that sat planted through the corners, but it was still a bit tepid, so with the Series III facelift in October '88 they had another go and created the GTS-II. This time they added a piggy-back ECU to change the engine's fuelling, lifting power to 140 kW at 5,600rpm and torque to 270 Nm at 3,500, with a shorter diff to maximise the zoom up through the gears. This time it came in a much more extraverted Beacon Red, though personally I think I like the white one better – it's much more "Eighties" somehow. Only 200 of each were ever made, although a few extras left the factory with the juicy mechanicals fitted to less outspoken bodies – mostly supplied to various state police departments.

Now originally I was going with the GTS on the condition that we lift the engine out and replace it with the RB30ET from the VL Turbo, but now I'm not so sure. The turbo version of the RB30 was unique to Australia, as the Japanese wanted nothing to do with it, which adds some bonus Australian-ness... but on the other hand, fitting it means junking Marsden's carefully-fabricated extractor setup, just to go from 140 to 150 kW? You could play around with the boost, sure, but if you're going down that road there are so many other Nissan engines the tuners could recommend. So nah, on second thought I'll stick with the standard atmo engine. I know an understeering, underpowered four-door sedan mightn't sound like the ideal performance car, but remember not all of us have the talent of our Bathurst heroes. In the real world a car that swings around the corners flat and stable, giving plenty of warning of the approaching limit, with a responsive, howling six I can flog all day without ever worrying it'll break... yeah, that sounds about right. And it was made in Australia, using local and important ingredients!

Honourable Mention

1999 Mitsubushi TH Magna Executive

Mitsubishi never really had to create a hero model for the Magna – for most of its life, that role was adequately filled by the Starion or, later, the Lancer Evo. So for the first 15-odd years the base model could get by with a 2.6 or even a 2.4-litre four, a sentence so boring I can barely even type it without nodding off. Parallel to the Magna, however, they'd also been offering a premium version called the Verada, and since buyers in this bracket preferred not to sacrifice performance for luxury, it came with a bigger engine range to compensate for the extra weight.

And then, with the TH model in 1999, Mitsubishi axed the imported four entirely. Suddenly, even the base-model Magna Executive came with a 3.0-litre V6 as standard, with the big-brother 3.5 available as an option. An engine that offered 300 Nm of torque from 3,000rpm; an engine that was officially rated for 147 kW at 5,000rpm, but actually redlined above 6,000; an engine teamed with the familiar 5-speed manual gearbox, which was now available across the range.

Quite by accident, Mitsubishi had created a performance car that blended in with the traffic and was invisible to insurance companies. For slightly less than $32k, you could buy a car that matched anything rolling out of HSV or Tickford at the time: Modern Motor wrote in some surprise, "At 15.76 [seconds], the Sports equals the new HSV XU-8's 400m sprint time." Yes, it was as fast as the latest overhyped HSV Commodore: up to 150km/h the two were neck-and-neck. Imagine the look on the Haitch-Ess-Vee driver's face when they left the traffic lights and he was unable to pull away! And at just 1,416kg, the Executive was lighter than the Sports...

Really, the only reason it's not on the list proper is because I have to undermine my original premise by going for something more show-offy. The TH Executive had the urge, but it was from that 90's styling period of extreme understatement. It wasn't until the follow-up TJ model that the Magna got that distinctive "beak" in the radiator grille that made it stand out, and then they finally started sexing some models up with a nice wing and bodykit – personally I love the look of the VR-X (and think it would've looked even better zooming around Mount Panorama in Ralliart colours, but that's another story). But by then the Magna was gaining weight again, and the 0-100 times started dropping off, and the Sports started coming with an unnecessary all-wheel drive system, and the Magna Ralliart was just a contrived collectable, and, and...

All the elements just never quite came together in one vehicle, but the TH Executive is probably as close as we ever got. Buy one, and annoy the kids making late-night Maccas runs in their VTs, who wonder why their obese V8s can't leave this little shitbox behind already.

Edit: Halt that! A mate of mine, He Whose Spanners I Am Not Fit To Rearrange,  tells me he's never yet seen a Magna that doesn't eat its piston rings like moly McNuggets. So if you choose to buy one go in with your eyes open, and understand there are only two kinds of Magna – those that blow blue smoke, and those that are going to blow blue smoke. The second that exhaust plume becomes even slightly visible, flip it to a greater idiot before you have to stump up for a $6,000+ ring replacement. Phew, lucky I didn't include it in the list proper, huh?

...And One I Wouldn't:

2000 Toyota XX10 Avalon

Sometimes I think this only came about because the executives were embarrassed. At some point they realised it looked bad to fill Toyota's head office car park with E-Classes and 7-Serieses, so a panicked call went out for Toyota to make something in the executive sedan class, stat!

Now just to be clear, I've got nothing bad to say about the follow-up model, the Aurion. My brother has one and it's great: plenty of power, surprisingly efficient for a 3.5-litre V6, comfortable and extremely reliable – despite being "very negligent" with the servicing, it's made it to 250,000km without any issues whatsoever (although it must be said, as a former Toyota mechanic his idea of being "very negligent" might be different from mine). There was even a supercharged TRD version, which goes hard but has a torque steer problem, so make up your own mind there.

No, the problem was with the Avalon, which had no redeeming features whatsoever. Even the way it landed on our shores reeked of "meh," with Toyota transferring the tooling to the local branch in 1999. It was a fine example of the muda principle, or "eliminate waste," an aspect of the Toyota Way, but it did leave them pitching a model from 1994 against ever-more-aggressive offerings from Munich and Stuttgart. There was nothing really wrong with it, but that was part of the problem, because there was nothing really right with it either – it was boring then, and because Toyotas last forever, they're still boring now. The Avalon just had the misfortune to occupy a place on the Venn diagram that didn't overlap, aimed at plush, upmarket sedan buyers who never went anywhere near a Toyota dealership. Toyota's customers were commercial fleet buyers, and the very few after a family sedan were spendthrifts who knew they might as well save themselves about $20k and buy the Camry.

But to me the Avalon's true crime was being advertised by Sir Les Patterson, one of the lesser creations of Barry "Oh, You Mean The Bloke Who Plays Dame Edna?" Humphries. Whenever the question of an "Australian Trump" is raised by my lefty friends, my mind always conjures up the image of Sir Les. Also, the tagline was a pun-ishing "Avalon drive and you'll never turn back!" which is never far from my mind because I live not far from the village of Adelong. Past tense, it becomes, "Adelong drive and couldn't remember it after." So no, I'd rather make tender perfumed love to a bucket of broken glass than own an Avalon, but at least all those Toyota executives finally had something nice to drive home in.

So what have I forgotten? Criticisms? Outbursts? The comment box is below. Otherwise, have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a safe and prosperous whichever-solstice-is-appropriate-to-your-hemisphere, and a great New Year. Bye for now.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

And What Happened After

My third goddamn attempt at posting this. Hey Google, Ctrl+Z is a reflex for every PC user out there, one that comes out whenever we need to quickly undo something. Under no circumstances should it translate to, "Please unrecoverably delete everything I've got done today." I know it's a free service, but your interface has some serious kludges, and the "Send feedback" button doesn't seem to be connected to anything. Any young bloggers out there, learn WordPress, okay? Long-term, it's worth it.

Anyway, the final rounds of the Australasian season pretty well tracked the World Touring Car Championship, as it thundered towards its dramatic, controversial, extremely bitter finale.

Bob Jane T-Marts 500
It would be easy to dismiss this as a race of convenience – you know, we've come all this way, spent 20+ hours on a plane, might as well get another race in before we go home, yeah? But I think that does a huge disservice to the passion and determination of its owner, Bob Jane. He'd spent a fortune turning the mickey-mouse Calder circuit into a top-tier motorsport venue, and he was determined to host something significant there. He'd tried to get the Australian Grand Prix, but lost it to Adelaide; he'd tried to get the World Motorcycle Grand Prix, but lost it to Phillip Island. So when the World Touring Car Championship came to town, Jane had pulled out the stops to ensure he got a round after Bathurst, making Australia the only country on Earth to host more than one round of the WTCC.

It was a spectacularly daft circuit as well, combining the existing Calder Park road course with the brand-new NASCAR-oval Thunderdome into what the Americans would call a "roval." Cars came blasting down the front straight as normal, but then braked hard well before the first turn and instead nipped left, through a narrow opening onto what was about to become the back straight of the Thunderdome. From there they tore the wrong way around the Thunderdome in what was basically one huge right-hand turn, before pulling up again to nip through another small opening in the concrete barriers to rejoin the road course just before Turn 1, completing the rest of the lap as normal. The full lap was now 4.2km, and the race distance was set at 120 laps.

It was probably the only time road-oriented European touring cars ever tackled a high-banked oval in anger – as far as I know, DTM races at the AVUS took place with a flattened Nordkurve, and only sports cars raced on the Monza sopraelevata after 1961 (if anyone knows better, the comment box is below, I've love to hear about it). This was sure to bring a bit of culture shock – the Bathurst broadcast mentioned that Allan Grice, with his NASCAR experience, had taken Win Percy for a run around the Thunderdome in a road car, and frightened the living shit out of him – Percy just couldn't believe how fast you could get a car around the banking.

Sadly, YouTube footage of the race seems to be rather lacking. There's a highlight reel of the Yokohama/Bob Jane T-Marts 300, but that was just a dress-rehearsal on 9 August to prove the layout's readiness, and was won by Nissan's Terry Shiel and John Bowe, the two co-drivers getting some seat time ahead of the main events. The Bob Jane T-Marts 500, Round 9 of the WTCC, was held on 11 October. Both were run in lovely overcast Victorian weather, but only the 500 had the privilege of starting in the pouring rain.

The 32-strong entry list read like a culled version of Bathurst: Eggenberger, DJR and HDT all fronted up with two-car teams, but both the Oxo Supercube and Peter Jackson Nissan teams had dialled it back to single cars only. Between the wrecked #34 and the engine-troubled #35, Andrew Miedecke probably only had one full car functioning anyway, but Fred Gibson's reasons are mysterious, having put his full-timers Fury and Seton in the same car and left his co-drivers Terry Shiel and John Bowe on the bench. Murray Carter had brought along his Netcomm Skyline, while newcomer Kieren Wills had shown up with yet another Statesman Shirts-backed Skyline to be shared with co-driver Phil Henley. Despite being New Zealanders, and despite sharing a racing number with the Team Nissan NZ Skyline that had raced at Bathurst, this was a completely separate machine, built by Wills himself out of a road car with support from Nissan NZ.

The Bigazzi BMW of Vogt/Heger in free practice

BMW had once more scrounged up all the cars they could muster, with five out of the six cars entered at Bathurst patched up and ready for Round 9. JPS Team BMW followed Fred Gibson's lead in entering only a single car for Richards and Longhurst, though BMW numbers were maintained via an all-new #62 Schwaben Motorsport M3 driven by the very posh-sounding Baron Thomas von Löwis of Menar and Prince Leopold of Bavaria. Rather than try to fit all that across the windscreen, the team opted for a very matter-of-fact “PRINCE-BARON” legend instead. And fair enough too.

Another newcomer was a second Maserati Biturbo, a #4 with factory Italian drivers to join the #1 of Kevin Bartlett and Armin Hahne, both entered by Pro Team Italia. In the smallest class, it was down to a two-horse race between the #100 Alfa Romeo 33 of Francia/Toffoli, and the #91 Corolla of Toyota Team Australia – not a Sprinter coupé like their usual cars, which had both been wrecked at Bathurst, but their third car, a rather less sexy front-wheel drive hatchback. The rest of the grid was the usual assortment of privateer Commodores – Noske's Kalari Transport VK, Mulvihill's Yellow Pages VK, Perkins' Enzed VK (he had a VL built, but it was still unsorted, so he left it at home) – and the Gulsons in their BMW 635. Lawrie Nelson also entered his Capri Components Mustang, but apparently failed to qualify.

Once again the Texaco Sierras qualified at the front, Ludwig taking another pole with a 1:42.92, about three seconds faster than Grice's pole time in August. With rain in the early laps the conditions were treacherous, not least because the rain was tipped to be brief and many elected to start on slicks. Soper and Dieudonné were not troubled on their way to victory, but this time the BMWs weren't so far behind, Roberto Ravaglia bouncing back from his fainting fit at Bathurst to clinch a 2nd place, just 22 seconds behind. Altfrid Heger was lucky to escape a serious accident on the banking, when he blew a tyre at close to 250km/h; as banked ovals have always done, he was flung back onto the track and into the path of von Löwis, and both cars were totalled.

After qualifying 5th, meanwhile, Moffat once again never needed to concern himself with driving "his" car, as Rouse blew the head gasket after just 21 laps. Dick Johnson qualified badly but managed to finish this time,albeit in 13th place with plenty of damage, 7 laps down on the winners; conversely, the Crichton/O'Brien car qualified well but retired on lap 25. This was the second time Rouse, Eggenberger and Johnson Sierras all met on the same track, and he hadn't exactly covered himself or Australia in glory. Next time, he vowed, it would be different.

Nissan Mobil 500
Just as the Australian rounds had seen a strong Australian contingent, the return to Wellington for the year's second Nissan Mobil 500 saw a strong New Zealand contingent. Among the 37-car grid were the Anderson brothers, Bruce and Wayne, with their yellow Pinepac Mustang (incorrectly listed as the #43 on Wikipedia, it was actually #32), while fellow Kiwis Glenn McInture and Robbie Ker were down to drive the #23 Police Community Mustang.

The Australians, meanwhile, seemed to've found completely different sponsors for this one race. Larry Perkins and Denny Hulme were back in a #11 Commodore, at last debuting Larry's first VL, but in Casio signage rather than Enzed. Dick Johnson Racing showed up with their usual two cars, but with the usual Shell Ultra-Hi livery replaced by one for DDB Needham, an international advertising network (since 1996 it's DDB Worldwide); Andrew Miedecke similarly had a DSR livery in place of Oxo, and co-driver Phil Myhre in place of Don Smith, who at last seemed to've extricated himself from the team he'd founded. Gibson Motorsport was back to a two-car team, although that wouldn't last long on race day, while Team Nissan NZ was out in force with both their Skylines in action, the #25 of Graeme Bowkett/Kent Baigent supplemented by the #24 Graeme Crosby and Gary Sprague (the Kieren Wills car was nowhere to be seen). Brock's Mobil HDT had Neil Crompton back driving the #10, with Brock’s 1985 co-driver David Oxton to share the load, while there was some confusion over the Brock/Parson car's numbering – the doors said #5, but the roof (and the commentators) said 05. Similarly, Wikipedia lists the Grice/Percy Commodore as its usual #2, but footage from the day reveals it was actually #3.

BMW was back to a full twelve cars, the usual Schnitzer, CiBiEmme, Bigazzi and Schwaben cars supplemented by not by JPS Team BMW, who stayed home, but by local Kiwi entries. John Sax's Sax Racing team rocked up with an M3 for Sax himself alongside Graeme Lorimar, while returning to his homeland, Jim Richards had once again teamed up with Trevor Crowe in what was probably another ex-JPS M3, this time a #53 sponsored not by Viacard, as Wikipedia says, but by the Cardinal trucking concern. The #13 Viacard BMW, an old 635 CSi, was palmed off on Charlie O'Brien and Avon Hyde, while the Gulsons had also brought along their 635 CSi. Without the JPS team making an appearance, Tony Longhurst had had to fend for himself, but at the last minute he'd managed to score a seat in the #44 CiBiEmme machine alongside Altfrid Heger.

The twelfth and last BMW in the field was the #55, a smaller 325i entered by Bryce Racing to be handled by JPS engine man Ludwig Finauer, and a young Kiwi driver named Paul Radisich. Well, when I say "smaller," it actually had a bigger engine than the M3, but it was nowhere near as powerful so it basically counted toward the tiddler class. The actual tiddler class, meanwhile, pitched five Corollas (four AE86 Sprinter hatchbacks and one AE82 FX-GT) against the lone Alfa Romeo 33, again driven by Francia and Toffoli.

The really intriguing entries in the race, however, were the two Söderqvist Racing Services Volvos, both sponsored by U-Bix Copiers. This was the Swedish team that taken over the Volvo Dealer Team's orphaned machinery at the end of last year, so Volvo fans look sharp – the #4 of Ian "Inky" Tulloch and Per-Gunnar Andersson was actually the ex-Mark Petch 240T, winner of this race in 1985 and Robbie Francevic's ATCC winner in 1986.

But of course, none of these entries matter when the Eggenberger Texaco Sierras were around, looking the same as ever, slick and invincible. Descriptions follow for anyone unable to watch the videos:

As usual the Eggenberger Sierras ran 1-2, Soper ahead of Niedzwiedz, with Grice trying to keep up and Emmanuele Pirro down in 4th. Pirro put a move on Grice early to move up to 3rd. Glenn Seton had a radiator problem after a coming-together with the Baigent/Bowkett Skyline, and parked the #15 Peter Jackson car with just 7 laps completed. He moved over to take co-driving duties with Fury, Bowe and Shiel once again finding themselves benched. Robbie Ker in the Police Community Mustang hit the wall on lap 9 and Grouillard crashed his Bigazzi BMW on lap 10 (Ker was probably being lapped and they hit each other) and, with nowhere to move the cars, they were simply pushed against the guardrail and left there. Perkins pitted his Casio VK with front-end damage after failing to avoid two BMWs making contact. Soper put a lap on Crichton in the second DJR Sierra, which had some rear bumper plastic flailing in the wind, but soon moved over to let the #7 take the lead, playing the team game for the championship. Crompton pitted to have a loose front splitter removed from his Mobil Commodore, dropping from 14th to 23rd. Slicing through the backmarkers, Pirro almost collided with Bryan Bate in the #92 Corolla Sprinter. The #16 U-Bix Copiers Volvo of Ulf Granberg was pushed into the garage with the engine overheating. Grice was throwing the #3 Bob Jane T-Marts VL around like a paper aeroplane, got a bit too aggressive in the hairpin and two-wheeled it into a brush with the Armco  on the exit. He got away without any real damage, but pitted and handed over to Percy soon after, citing an array of racing driver's excuses, like the track being greasy and oily and starting to break up. Brancatelli then threw his CiBiEmme BMW at the guardrail in the Nissan Mobil Chicane on lap 44, retiring the car. Brock made his scheduled stop and got out of the #5 and virtually collapsed, sagging into a chair and letting the pit crews throw some cold water over him. Fury pitted from 4th and handed over to Seton, who rejoined 5th. Soper likewise pitted from 2nd to hand over to Dieudonné.

Dieudonné got no help from the blue flags in passing David Parsons, but made the most of the phenomenal squirt of the Sierra to zip past on pit straight. Inky Tulloch completely missed his braking point in the #4 U-Bix Copiers Volvo and had a head-on with the guardrail at the Town Hall chicane. He got going again, but the radiator damage wasn’t going to help his turbo engine much. Niedzwiedz made a scheduled stop from the lead to hand over to Ludwig. While getting up to speed Ludwig was passed for the lead by Pirro, which he could've passed off as Pirro being out of sequence from having yet to make a pit stop, but that wasn’t really guaranteed with the economical BMWs. Then Tulloch was seen stranded again on lap 68 with his right-front wheel at a precarious angle, which Richard Hay pointed out could've been either the cause or the result of his collision with the Armco earlier. That triggered the Pace Car, which threw BMW's plans into turmoil as the M3s were just coming up on their pit windows. Most were compensating for the speed of the Sierras by trying to make it through on just one stop, but with pit lane closed under the Pace Car the margins were suddenly looking very tight. Ravaglia was left standing around in pit lane, helmet on but wondering if Pirro was going to bring it in or not. Anette Meeuviseen in the #47 was brought in as a test, the idea being if the Kiwis let this car rejoin, they’d bring in Pirro. Stermitz went straight out, so things were looking good for Pirro – except the Kiwis switched the lights off on the Pace Car at the last second, the car going dark and diving into pit lane in the same moment, leaving no time for the drivers to misunderstand things. The race went green just as Pirro made his stop. Ravaglia rejoined for the run to the flag; it was just a matter of whether he could narrow the gap to less than the Sierras' final pit stops. Percy put a nice move on Parsons for 5th place, taking the inside line at the Northern Hairpin and forcing Parsons to go the long way around – a move for pride more than position given they were now laps down on the leaders, but impressively firm and well-executed nevertheless. Crompton pitted the #10 Mobil Commodore after a two-hour stint and handed it over to David Oxton. With cold tyres he was easy prey for Glenn Seton, who immediately deprived him of a place. The #17 Sierra then made its second stop for Hansford to get out and Johnson to get back in.

David Oxton pulled the #10 over in Toop Walk on lap 89, smoke coming from the back end – Oxton soon told they thought a support arm for the rear axle had pulled free of the body. Dick Johnson then pulled over just on the exit of the Northern Hairpin on lap 103. Brock continued to storm around, hoping some pressure on those ahead of him might push them into mistakes or mechanical failures. Then Win Percy was in a few laps early, and Les Small came out and eyeballed the right-rear wheel, suggesting yet more axle problems had arisen. The car rejoined with Grice at the wheel but it was smoking badly. Dieudonné pitted to hand over to Soper, but soon it emerged a rubber seal had got stuck open as the car started gushing fuel in left-hand turns. Within a lap he was shown a mechanical black flag, and although Soper came in and the problem was easily fixed, the Eggenberger team got in some serious trouble for not doing it on the next lap, as required by the rules; when the official rather sternly pointed this out, the team protested that the flag hadn’t been shown three times, as the rules required, but only once! Despite the dramas car #6 kept 3rd place. Then Stermitz was seen pulling over on Jervois Quay on lap 126, the right-front guard apparently having taken a whack and now rubbing on the tyre. An incident into the Northern Hairpin as the Casio Commodore of Perkins arrived on the outside with Ravaglia on the inside and the Skyline of Seton from behind; Ravaglia, naturally, nipped through without a hitch and Perkins converted his wide line into a criss-cross, leaving Seton high and dry with nowhere to go. He was wise enough to keep it out of the barriers, barely, but he was brought to a complete stop in the process.

Ravaglia was now only 15 seconds behind Ludwig with no more pit stops between either car and the finish. Ravaglia got his head down and charged, and a lap later it was 13 seconds, but most thought it was too late to catch the black Fords. Blue flags got the #16 U-Bix Copiers Volvo out of Ludwig's way, then he very gingerly passed the Gulson 635 into the Town Hall corner. Soper got boxed in between Brock, Seton and the Pinepac Mustang and got turned around in the Northern Hairpin, but luckily no-one hit him. He rejoined, flustered but unscuffed. But nothing had gone even slightly wrong for car #7: Klaus Ludwig swung it calmly through the final turn and was greeted by the chequered flag, taking the (second) Nissan Mobil 500 for Texaco Eggenberger Motorsport. 2nd went to the hard-charging Ravaglia, with 3rd to the troubled Soper and 4th to Seton’s Skyline, a lap down. 5th was car #5, Peter Brock taking a decent result in the car that never finished Bathurst. This time, at least, the crowd clapped politely, with none of the booing they'd got in Australia.

But the interesting part was a throwaway comment from Mike Raymond in the closing stages, about “if Ludwig wants to be the World Touring Car Champion, 1987 Edition – and a limited edition, at that,” suggesting everyone knew the WTCC was already on the rocks.

InterTEC 500
The final round at Fuji was all about settling the matter of the World Championship – Ludwig or Ravaglia? Ford or BMW? Step forward and place your bets.

#37 TOM'S Supra Turbo of Geoff Lees & Kaoro Hoshino

As you might imagine, the vast majority of the entries on the 46-car grid were Japanese, a gaggle of Toyota Corollas, Toyota Celicas, Mitsubishi Starions, Honda Civics and Nissan Skylines (both DR30s and the new HR31), leavened by a handful of European cars and even a lone VK Commodore for Yasuo Ishimura and Masahiro Kimoto (though Inari only knows why). Not wanting to leave anything to chance, Eggenberger entered a third car for German drivers Armin Hahne and Bernd Schneider, while BMW brought along the usual complement of Schnitzer, Bigazzi and CiBiEmme cars, with the European presence boosted by another appearance from the Söderqvist Volvo team.

Unfortunately, photos and race reports for all of this is pretty difficult to find. Given that the Japanese are a) a car people, and b) insular as all hell, I imagine there's actually copious documentation out there, but it's probably locked behind a kanji firewall, which they can see no reason to make available to the roundeyes. If anyone can link me with translations of Japanese race reports, again, the comment box is down the bottom. I've love to hear more, because I've found this round above all others hard going. This evening-news cut of the race is literally everything I can find on YouTube:

So, on the Friday during practice, FISA's verdict over the Bathurst wheel arch issue was passed down, and the Eggenberger cars were judged to be in breach of the rules. The wheel arches were indeed bigger than standard, which had helped to lower the cars and fit 17-inch wheels, which slightly aided tyre life. If Eggenberger did return the wheel arches to a legal configuration – which I'm not convinced they did, but if they ever did it was here – and the team was allowed to practice and qualify on Saturday, with the modifications having made no difference to their performance. says that, "Now Ford (Ludwig and Niedzwiedz) was 6 points behind instead of 28 points in the lead," but I wonder where they got those numbers from. By my count, Ludwig came into the weekend with 258 points to Ravaglia’s 226 – a 32-point gap with a maximum 40 still up for grabs. Fuji was to be the decider, but then the Bathurst ruling cost his 30 points for 2nd in the James Hardie, while Ravaglia was bumped up two places, so his 20 points (8 for 5th overall plus 12 for 3rd in class) became 24 (12 each for 3rd overall and in class). So by my reckoning, on Saturday Ludwig qualified for the race knowing he was on 228 points to Ravaglia’s 230. But the precise numbers aren’t important, what matters is:
Ludwig and Niedzwiedz had to win, while a second Sierra had to block Ravaglia from 2nd. … Ford tried to play it safe, and entered a third car for Hahne and Schneider under the banner of Andy Rouse – a bad decision, since Rouse sold his own car to Japan and shared this with [Naoki] Nagasaka – with this new entry, he lost the chance for points, while Hahne and Schneider had endless problems and never got near the front.

...after practice the Ford empire was happy; two cars on the front row, only the third car was way back in 12th. BMW was happy too; Ravaglia was only 2 seconds a lap slower than the Sierras.

The race started well for Ford, though Soper took the lead after an error of Ludwig. The third car ran into all sorts of problems, concluding in a collision with a Holden; they finished a lowly 17th.

Just before half-distance, the Sierras came in, took a little fuel and soft tires and haunted [sic] for 20 laps. After the next regular stop, they were still ahead of the BMWs, led by Ravaglia. But 17 laps before the end, Dieudonné was missing; he came in with a blown rear tire. So Ravaglia was now second in the WTCC classification; to add insult to injury, Rouse finished second on the road but did not take away points from Ravaglia, who took the title!
The final classification showed Roberto Ravaglia was World Touring Car Champion on 269 points, a single point ahead of Klaus Ludwig, on 268! That seemingly also completed the trifecta for Andy Rouse, having screwed over Johnson, Moffat and now Eggenberger in a single season, all in the pursuit of sterling over silverware – it’s a wonder Ford didn’t have the bastard bumped off. But there was some consolation to be had from the results: the #7 Sierra finished ahead of the #46 BMW on the manufacturer’s table, 268 to 249, so in the end the Driver’s Championship went to a BMW pilot, but the Manufacturer’s Championship went to Ford.

South Pacific Touring Car Championship
The Group A support race for the 1987 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide was held on the same weekend as Fuji, so it was here the Australians and Europeans went their separate ways. Although billed as Round 1 of the 1987 South Pacific Touring Car Championship, both Auto Action and Racing Car News articles pointed out that no-one knew where Round 2 would be held, so the series was basically dead in the water. After a hard-fought ATCC and World Championship rounds at Bathurst, Calder and Wellington, none of the Australian teams were keen to ship their cars and equipment all the way back to New Zealand for a series neither the fans nor the sponsors cared about much. Indeed, delays in shipping had already hampered Adelaide preparations for some (though Fred Gibson stolen a march over his opposition by air-freighting his cars back).

Skippy Parsons in the Mobil VL puts a move on Denis Horley in the Netcomm Skyline

So after a long year in hell, Dick Johnson finally got a break between the wicked walls of the Adelaide street circuit. Despite running only one car, which had a diff problem in qualifying and started from 5th on the grid, Dick worked his way into a comfortable lead in the early laps. Both Brock and Seton went out after challenging early, while behind, Grice and Perkins resumed their now-usual battle. Fury made his way past the duelling Commodores late in the race and started closing rapidly on Johnson when the Sierra started slowing, blamed at the time on a fuel pump failure. Dick has since clarified, however, that the fuel pump was fine:
What the problem was, we discovered, the fuel was actually vaporising which aerates the fuel. So it was getting half fuel and half air. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
Johnson brought the ailing car over the line to win the 32-lap race, his second victory of 1987, a consolation after a terrible year. Fury finished 2nd, with Perkins beating Grice to 3rd. Colin Bond finished 5th in a final shining moment for the embattled Alfa Romeo 75, making its final appearance after major repairs to its Bathurst damage. Joe Beninca said the car’s increased competitiveness was purely the result of more engine gains.
For Adelaide we fitted one of the early Autronic engine management systems which only controlled the fuel injection, but it allowed us to optimise the fuel mixture through the rev range. If we’d had an EMS with separate fuel and ignition [maps] it would have performed even better.

Given that and other improvements the car would have been really good if it had run the next year. We would have been able to maintain at least 330bhp in race trim with reliability. I remember running one of those 1.8 engines in my sports sedan and it was making about 550bhp [with larger turbo etc] so there was nothing wrong with the engine in terms of being able to cope with the power. – Joe Beninca, Mark Oastler’s Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo Evoluzione: A Need For Speed, Shannons Club

Overall, I think the lesson of the 1987 World Touring Car Championship was that that Group A was a disaster outside its native Europe. The principle behind the rules – a sliding scale of engine size, tyre width and minimum weight – wasn’t exactly a bad one, and if they’d done a better job of putting the turbos on a leash and easing the weight penalty for muscle cars, there’s no reason it couldn’t have remained a roaring success into the 90's. But it still would only have been a European success. The core of Group A was development, one manufacturer against another, and there was no fair way to pitch Holden, with its prospective market of 20 million buyers, against the economic might of BMW, with a prospective market of 400 million. As I say again, local markets are local, and the Australian preference (in those days) for four-door sedans with V8 engines would never allow Holden to build an M3 or Sierra equivalent (or a Skyline equivalent, for that matter).

And even if the technical rules had found a workaround, the differences in unwritten rules – the constant, ongoing negotiation between teams, scrutineers and fans over what is and isn't acceptable in racing – would never really go away. Australia is 15,000km from Europe, and Eurovision memes aside, that remains a simple fact.
In the end, Ford lost the court case, which means that the cars were illegal, according to the wording of the regulations and how it could be interpreted. We had to accept being deprived of a prestigious and relished win.

For us drivers, we never knew and it was irrelevant. The fact is the whole matter developed about a technicality for which we could not feel any difference: the weekend after Bathurst, Steve and I won again easily at Calder Park with the same car in “legal” trim. The car felt exactly the same. We would both have preferred to be stripped from the victory in Calder rather than the glory of winning the big one, the James Hardie 1000. – Pierre Dieudonné, AMC #87
But that’s just it, isn’t it? No-one protested at Calder because no-one cared: Bathurst was the one that mattered. But to me the whole "Bathurst protest cost us the WTCC" narrative is a fairly myopic take on things. This version of the story never seems to mention Rouse's shenanigans at Fuji, nor the BMWs being disqualified from Monza right back at the start of the year, which could set up the argument that the Bathurst decision merely redressed the balance.

Either way, the whole affair did nothing for the European perception of Australia, who couldn’t help but read it as paranoia and sour grapes over our poor showing on home turf. Which isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s also true that we in Australia felt robbed – our teams had been forced to throw away $100,000 worth of racing cars and invest in new ones that cost three times as much, yet were actually slower (in the early days at least)... only to find out that, after all that effort, the Europeans didn’t adhere to their own rulebook anyway. The whole schemozzle had been immensely damaging for the sport, long-time race sponsor James Hardie walked away, and protest ringleader Frank Gardner – formerly one of the shining stars of the Ford empire – had incurred their eternal enmity.

WTCC maestro Andy Priaulx leads the pack, Brazil '06

Today of course, the FIA World Touring Car Championship rides again, but today the world is a very different place than it was 30 years ago. Shanghai, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur are counted among the great world cities, and Proton, Tata and Haval are counted among the makers of mass consumer automobiles. But even so, with world cars like the Ford Fiesta, Dacia Logan and Fiat Palio selling up a storm, the WTCC is really just the same old Euro buzz box formula, the ETCC rebranded, with guest rounds in Brazil, Morocco and Macau to keep up the pretense. Formula 1 and Le Mans Prototypes offer the universal language of engineering, but I don't know if the world will ever really be ready for a World Touring Car Championship. Thus I stand by my original thesis, that Australia has V8 Supercars, Germany has DTM, Brazil has Stock Car Brasil and the U.S. has NASCAR, and under no common rulebook could the twain ever meet.