Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Car of the Past

Only days now until the flag waves at Clipsal and Australia's V8 Supercars enter their brave new world of four-marque racing. As well as the dashing Ford Falcon and the world's fastest tractors from Holden, we'll have the Kelly Gang's new Nissan Altimas and the polished engineering of the AMG Mercedes E63s. And of course, anyone older than 30 is going to be laughing like buggery, because a mere four manufacturers is chicken feed compared to what we had long ago. On the same Adelaide streets where the new age will begin, twenty years ago another age ended, an age dominated by cars from Germany, Belgium and Japan, cars not even for sale here in Australia: Group A.

Yes, the end of Group A in Australia came neither with a bang nor a whimper, but more of a collective, "You still here?" It was a non-championship race supporting the 1992 Australian Grand Prix, and it was won by (what else?) a Nissan. It was a race of two halves, one racing the cars of the future, the other the cars of the past.

At the front, quick as rats and remote as a mirage, the cars that defined Group A: John Bowe's Ford Sierra RS500 and Jim Richards' Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R, better known as "Godzilla". Despite being loathed as foreign, both of them were surprisingly Aussie under the skin. All Dick Johnson Racing got from Europe was the body shell. The rest - engines, suspension, interior, brakes - all of it was put together by Dick. The heavy-duty diff was even taken from one of their old XE Falcons, and they needed it because they'd tweaked their turbos for maximum compression and devastating lag, giving them up to 500 kW.

It was the same story at Nissan. Fred Gibson, a Bathurst winner turned team boss, had likewise rebuilt Godzilla from the ground up - engines, wheels and uprights, even the three-mode four-wheel drive system. It was an amazing piece of Australian engineering, but as far as the fans were concerned, neither car could get out of the country quick enough. The Sierra might have been a Ford, but it was a European Ford, and - I can't stress this enough - no-one in Australia could buy one! As for Godzilla, it was Japanese, and that was reason enough to hate it: in those days the War was still in living memory, and everyone had an uncle who'd been in Changi and never quite got over it. A Japanese car - especially a turbocharged, silicon-implanted four-wheel-drive monster that twisted the very definition of "touring car" - was about as welcome as a televangelist in Mecca.

And so Group A died as it had lived, the Sierra unbelievably fast, but not fast enough to stop Godzilla's rampage. But behind them, a peek at the future...

"Give the people what they want" was the ATCC's new mantra; so what if what they want is a big stupid dinosaur? Ambitious and clever, a certain Tony Cochrane could see the way forward was to give the fans back their locally-made V8s and revive the glory days of Ford vs Holden. Next year's regulations had basically been written around the big 5-litre Holden Commodore, with incentives to tempt Ford to build an equal-but-opposite Falcon - regulations that in a few years would become the V8 Supercars. The proof they were onto something came right here, on the streets of Adelaide, where everyone's favourite Czech Tomas Mezera in the new VN Commodore took on Larry Perkins in the Group A-spec VL - and got his ears boxed in a thundering, sliding, fire-breathing V8 battle. This was the way of the future - mechanically backward, but visually spectacular.

It's a formula they're wisely sticking to, and the cars that will fire up in the same Adelaide pit garages this weekend could almost have been eligible for the same race 20 years ago. But I have to wish them well, because if Group A taught us anything, it's that any attempt to make Australia's touring car scene more "international" is doomed to end in tears. Let us hope this time it goes a little better.