Words: Chris Ralph
Photos: Supplied, unless indicated
Thousands of horses scrabble for grip away from the startline in the Just Cars Historic Touring Car grid. Behind the snarling, rubber-frying muscle cars there’s an eclectic mix of period cars as different from each other today as they were in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. While many are familiar, some are… well, a bit odd.
Variety made touring car racing so good then, just as it does today. Eights in a V, sixes in a V or straight fours with camshafts in the block, single or doubled-up overhead, in-line, transverse or horizontally opposed. Front or rear drive, three or four-speed manuals, on the floor, on the tree or at the push of a button. All drum brakes, all discs or disc/drum.
From Australia, the US, UK, Italy, Germany, France and Japan they came as the automotive world exploded with creative engineering. Amazingly, there was often not much between them on the track. Watching a tiny Mini outpace a giant Chevy Bel Air or Ford Galaxie on a tight track (and some longer ones) is a special kind of pleasure no other racing category can deliver.
You pays your money and you takes your choice
It costs as much to build a smaller or slower historic touring car as it does a front-of-grid bruiser (and possibly more, as aftermarket go-faster parts for the latter are more readily available). The cost of body preparation, caging, suspension, seats and belts, suits and helmets, compliance and entry fees are the same no matter which end of the grid you are.
The usual formula works, so…
Almost all the Just Cars racers are road car survivors, with some having been resuscitated from donor corpses. Generally speaking, the front-engine, rear-wheel drive with beam axle predominates.
The popular bang-for-buck cars are logical choices, so it can be easier in a Camaro, Mustang, Falcon or Torana, or further down the field in a Cortina or Mini. Why? More survivors, more parts, a bigger pool of knowledge, more help in the pits and often a bit simpler to work on.
So what’s with the Oddballs?
Is it just the attraction of something different or the crowd cheering for the underdog? Was it an a-ha! moment finding something flicking through car ads, or did the epiphany come over a reflective beer staring at a car already in the garage?
What makes a guy like Victoria’s Dallas Bassett, for example, choose to build an Austin 1800? Sure, they were London to Sydney Marathon weapons, but not something usually associated with the track. But when you think about the decades of race development behind the sturdy BMC B series engine and inherently good handling, especially in the wet, why not? Dallas’s car was ready 20 years ago before he was sidelined by powerboat racing, but it’s coming out again soon.
‘Unsafe at any speed’
That was the title of safety crusader Ralph Nader’s book in the ’60s, slamming the US automotive industry, and GM and the Chevrolet Corvair in particular.
With an air-cooled flat six sitting outboard at the rear, plus swing axles and no sway bars, the Corvair probably wasn’t ideal for the average American driver. But the US racing fraternity tamed it and one has been raced in Sydney by Ian Johnson, with another under development in Melbourne.
Small Fords? Take your pick
While the 1172cc sidevalve Ford engine begat a ’50s racing clubman class of its own in the UK, it wasn’t until the Australian debut of the very handy OHV Anglia in the early ’60s that it made its mark here as a racing sedan (as well as a cheap and easy Sports Sedan with a 1650cc motor).
For decades, NSW’s Chris Dubois has humbled cars many times the capacity of his famous and immaculate “Anglebox,” resisting the urge to go Cortina but later submitting to an Escort as a garage companion.
Cortina MkIs swept through the ’60s with the spartan but light 240, the handy GT and the much faster Lotus Cortina, then the MkII versions that followed and, at decade’s end, the Pinto-engined MkIII. The latter is a rare choice, but a MkIII Cortina is being built in Melbourne by Norris Miles.
Bigger Fords, plenty to choose
Sixties V8 Fords come in 289, 302 and 351 cubic inch capacity, in various shapes of Mustang and Falcon. Why would somebody choose to build a racer with the heaviest body and smallest engine? Ask HTCAV’s Eligibility Officer Dean Bryant about his 1967 XR GT Falcon 289 and he’ll say: “Because it’s a rare, grouse car. Never going to win races, but I’ll enjoy driving it, it’ll be in the correct gold and sound fantastic.”
Anyone who’s heard Paul Dobson’s similar car at full stretch will have to agree.
Since selling his 1300 Escort, Dean had dabbled with other projects, including a 2-litre Cortina, Volvo 122S and even a Mercedes 220 before settling on the XR – classic oddball stuff!
Or is it because they just love them?
David Forbes, the subject of an earlier Just Cars feature, loves early Falcons. His glorious white XK racer is strongly competitive but getting too valuable nowadays, so he’s bought an XM Falcon for track duties.
Across in the red camp, Phil Barrow has a lifelong familial love for the astounding ‘FJ Supercar’ that was his father’s before him, while Eddie Dobbs is truly married to the ex-Blanchard FE Holden that he’s been racing for more than 30 years. An original from the Appendix J period, Eddie’s car carries a C.O.D. (Certificate Of Description); one of only a handful of touring cars in Australia to do so. And Tasmania’s Phil Shepherd is unlikely to race anything other than his rapid EH.
“I think it hates me…”
Another C.O.D. car is the epitome of odd - the FWD Citroen 11D of Mick Stupka. Much photographed, much admired and much overtaken on track, the Citroen’s design is pre-war, the car itself manufactured in 1954 and turned into a racer in the ’60s. The twin Weber fed crossflow head 2-litre four delivers big power for a car that has a mind of its own. “Honestly, sometimes I think it’s trying to kill me,” says Mick, “Heavy steering, torque steer, tricky brakes - every corner is different every lap.”
Down the back of the field, intra-French rivalry can be intense, with Vince Parisi’s Simca Vedette and the occasional Simca Aronde.
Mick’s previous race car was a Hillman Imp - one litre of screaming, rear-mounted alloy OHC engine and a UK Touring Car Champ in its day. In NSW, Imps recently fought fiercely in the hands of David Roberts and father and son Jerry and Mark Lenstra.
Euro rivals and eccentric Brits
VW 1200cc Beetles were the go-to daily drive race car of the ’50s before being edged out by Minis, but Gavin Sheehan’s example shows that there’s life left in the People’s Car 60 years later.
In Group Nc, BMW 2002s and Porsche 911s have been something different, while from Sweden, several Volvo models are solid performers (Group Nb 2-litre Volvo 122S racer Andrew White is now building an earlier Group Na 1.6 litre Volvo B16. Is that odd?). Italy’s Il Tricolore is usually waved by Alfa Romeo GTVs, although there’s a Fiat 124 Sport being built in Bendigo by Gordon Cox.
Which brings us to the Brits.
Gordon exercised an Austin A90 Westminster at Winton in recent years, but it’s now owned by oddball-fancying Volvo 142 driver David Belford, while lever arm shock absorber expert Steve Russell-Clarke keeps threatening to return his Austin A40 Farina to battle.
Vince Parisi’s Morris Oxford will get the occasional outing, but the Triumphs of Ians Watt and Cuss are regular combatants.
As disparate as the desperates driving them
Historic Touring Cars are as unlike a one-make or formula category as it’s possible to be.
It remains an honest reflection of the different and sometimes incongruent touring cars racing in a period that so captured Australia’s imagination that it edged out glamorous open wheelers to become the nation’s premier motor racing category.
It also remains one of the few categories that champions the individuality of the racers themselves, and that’s reflected in the wide, weird and wonderful variety of cars they choose to race. They know they may not (won’t!) win, but they insist on racing the old cars they like – as hard as they possibly can.
Vive le difference!