Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Monaro: Holden's Original Muscle Car


It's tedious and annoying, isn't it? When you see it in a comment section, your brain just sort of cringes. Just like mine does when I see the Holden lion badge, if I'm honest. But I have to admit, few cars can claim as many firsts as the Holden Monaro, and I kind of want one. But first, let's refresh your memory:

All very cool, I was caught by surprise when Clarkson actually liked it, but really the 2001 V2 Monaro was just a Commodore with the back doors welded shut. Its grandpa, the 1967 HK on the other hand, was Holden's first V8, the first Holden to win at Bathurst, and was the first Australian-made car to win the Australian Touring Car Championship. Not a bad CV, wouldn't you say?

The story, which involves some fantastic skulduggery from the marketing department, goes back to the mid-1960s when Holden looked more like an Australian version of Toyota. They sold lots of cheap and serviceable family sedans, taxis, commercial vehicles, but nothing much in the way of fun. It seems weird today when Holden is notorious for its thumping megalitre V8s, but they'd only done their first performance car a few years earlier, the EH S4 Special, which only gave 86kW (115hp). The S4 had come second at Bathurst in '63 and might have even been first had it not been for the rat cunning of Harry Firth and his factory-backed Ford Cortina Mk. I GTs. Unfortunately, second was as close to glory as Holden was going to get for a while yet, as Ford embarked on a massive race program to claw back some of Holden's vast 50% road car market share.

That plan came together in 1967 with the XR Falcon GT, a family car preposterously given the V8 out of a Mustang, and Holden collectively crapped themselves. They had a competitor in the pipeline, but now it was going to have to be delayed while they stretched the width and wheelbase to match the comfort and legroom offered by the Falcon. No problem: in the meantime they talked their bosses at General Motors into importing a handful of Camaro SS 350s that almost nobody in Australia could afford. Once you paid the import fees and converted them to right-hand drive, they cost a whopping $7,600 - more than a decent house! But with its swoopy styling and monstrous 5.7-litre small block V8, it got all of Australia abuzz. Just as planned.

The Camaro nudged everyone towards wanting muscle cars after all, and with the ground prepared Holden rolled out their baby - the HK Monaro GTS 327 (the only time something really was "new and improved"). It shared styling cues with the Camaro, but it had four seats, a usable boot, suspension that could actually cope with Australia's roads, and at $3,790 was half the price of its American cousin. Best of all, thanks to an engine pinched from the locally-assembled Impala, it boasted 187kW (250bhp). Holden's next most powerful engine was only 108kW: that was a massive step up.

On the first Sunday in October, 1968, they took it to Bathurst for the first 500 to be sponsored by Hardie-Ferodo. Bruce McPhee took pole position with a lap time of 2 minutes, 56.7 seconds (pretty leisurely by today's standards!) and then drove 129 of the 130 laps himself. Barry Mulholland took over for only a single lap mid-race, and only because the rules required a co-driver, but after nearly seven hours of racing McPhee's consistency had ground the opposition down. Holden's first V8 muscle car had delivered their first long-awaited Bathurst win, in dominant 1-2-3 fashion.

As often happens, however, the spirit skipped a generation. The 70's-era HQ is still a legendary car every Holden fan wants, but it was still a soft, asthmatic thing compared to its hardcore dad. The grandkids on the other hand followed right in its footsteps. By the new millennium the V8 Supercar formula prevented the rebooted Monaro from racing in the Bob Jane T-Marts 1000, so in November Gary Rogers Motorsport took it to the rival 2003 Bathurst 24-Hour instead. As with gramps, it took a fair bit of cheek to enter them at all - the cars themselves were all-Australian, but the engines had arrived in a box from 'Merica (this time, the 427ci V8 from the racing-spec Corvette). That meant there was no road-going counterpart, and the fact that GRM weren't thrown out on their ears is still a sore point to some. But either way, the massacre was glorious: the Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis had no answer to the Monaro's handling, durability and that epic 7-litre donk, and when the timer ran out they were lying first and second - and had given Peter Brock his tenth (unofficial) win at The Mountain.

Not bad for a little Aussie battler, eh?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Auf Wiedersehen, Falcon

Strange times. V8 Supercars is set to be invaded by Volvos, Chryslers and maybe BMWs. NASCAR is in Europe and DTM is in America. Le Mans has a better rulebook than Formula 1. And the only series making right kinds of noises, funnily enough, is IndyCar, the beast whose fatal wound seems to be healing.

So V8s will soon display badges from Holden, Nissan, Mercedes, Volvo, Chrysler and perhaps BMW, but it's looking less and less likely that Ford will be counted among them. The angel of death has been fluttering over the Broadmeadows Assembly in north Melbourne for years now, and a couple of weeks ago, Ford made it official. They will cease production in Australia as of 2016. Ford Australia will soon be a mere importer, no better than the Hyundai and Kia riff-raff. Why is that important? Because Broadmeadows, dear friend, is where they build Falcons.

Confession time. Australians traditionally come in two flavours; you're either a Ford Man or a Holden Man (rumours that there are also Ford and Holden Women continue to prove unfounded when all we find are very feminine blokes. Seriously, singlets aren't a good look on anyone). Despite actually driving a Corolla, your humble author considers himself a Ford man. His father, likewise, is a Ford man, having owned a red XD Falcon ute around the time he was picking up the author's mother (apparently, it helped). His grandfather owned Escorts and Cortinas. His great-grandfather owned a T-Model. To put that in perspective, in those days I'm pretty sure Holden was still making saddles.

So as a Ford Man from a Ford clan, I'm gutted that Broadmeadows is closing. But as a young-ish member of Gen Y raised on The Fast & The Furious and Top Gear reruns, I have to admit I'm not as gutted about it as I probably should be. To be honest, it's more the mere fact of Australian car manufacture going the same way as Vegemite, and I was more upset when I found out that FPV wouldn't be doing their own version of the Focus, and I'd be stuck performing The Stranger over photos of the Eurotrash XR5.

I'll be in my bunk.
There's a lot to be said for having a car engineered for your country. The heater in the new VF Commodore, for example, is apparently nothing special, but the air con will freeze spit before it hits the floor, and the suspension soaks up abuse from roads that haven't seen a repair crew in years. Falcodores, the perfect blend of American muscle and European GT cruiser, were the right tool for the job of navigating this wide brown land, but the hard fact is they occupy a spot on the Venn diagram that doesn't overlap anymore. For the daily school run, you buy a Territory. If you want something fast to throw at corners, you get a Focus. If you just something cheap to get from A to B, you buy Korean. And if you're a rep who absolutely has to have a four-door sedan, you buy German, because nothing beats an Audi or BMW badge when you're trying to be classy. I used to work at a petrol station in Melbourne, and the only time I ever saw a base-level Falcon was if it was painted yellow and had "taxi" written on the side. The rest were all blinged out with "FPV", "GT" and "Boss 335" badges. Falcon sales have become like an iceberg, except the tiny, visible part at the top is the only part that actually exists. Falcons are just for revheads and collectors these days, not the working mums and tradies that used to make up their core customer base.

So it's not at all surprising that Broadmeadows is closing, but that doesn't mean it isn't sad. Watch this video from 1960 advertising the new XK. It's 23 minutes long, but it's worth taking the time, because the thing that hits you over and over again is that this will no longer be happening. All this fantastic engineering will soon go quiet and never start up again.

It's kind of funny though, they make a bit of a deal about the XK having "independent ball and coil" at the front and then go on to mention how the car's been tested to ensure durability, but the original XK Falcon was a bit of a dud on that level. It might have been made in Australia with input from Australian engineers, but it was still an American car designed for the wide, sweeping highways of the U.S. On the corrugated roads over here, those delicate front ball joints tended to break, and Aussie owners sneeringly nicknamed them "Foul Cans" as a result. It would take a few years and a second generation before Ford Australia got the Falcon right, and it wouldn't be until they gave it the V8 out of a Mustang that they really created something special. And then, in the early 70's, Detroit pulled the plug on the American version and the Falcon nameplate became ours alone, flying the competition flag for its makers and fans. Let me put it in perspective: before the Commodore became Holden's motorsport entry thirty years ago, it was the Torana. Before the Torana, it was the Monaro. Before the Monaro was the humble EH. And all of them had to beat a Falcon. Just let that sink in for a minute.

So auf wiedersehen, mighty Falcon. There was nothing wrong with your engineering, only your badge. In today's Australia, if you want to market something to the masses, you need to make it classy and European. A blue-collar blue oval is just the wrong message, that was something you were never going to fix.