Saturday, 11 October 2014

And Bangers Bang

George Fury's Herculean qualifying lap bought him exactly one advantage - the inside line into Hell Corner. And even that was looking of dubious use, because at Bathurst the cars lined up side-by-side, not staggered, and sitting right beside him was Peter Brock in a very special machine - the #05 VK Commodore "Big Banger," a car with a V8 engine that'd give Brocky some serious shove off the line.

The VK was Holden's new flagship, and more rightly belonged to the incoming Group A era than the one coming to a close. Brocky had been racing the outgoing VH in the sprint races of the ATCC and actually won two of them - more than anyone else had managed, and that despite being marked absent half the time because he was off at Silverstone or Le Mans sharing a Porsche 956 with Larry Perkins.

So I'm not sure why Holden decided to build two new cars when they only had about four months of competitive life ahead of them, but my ideas begin and end with, "marketing decision." Holden had been pushing the VH by accentuating its European-ness, a blend of luxury, performance, sophistication and... hey, stop laughing! It was too kitsch to rival a BMW or Merc, sure, but it wasn't terrible, and Holden had seen which way the wind was blowing 20 years ahead of schedule. Ford, for example, were still marketing the rival XE Falcon as just blue-collar transport for the masses.


Anyway, with those priorities Holden must have been pleased when Phillip Morris stepped in and requested the red parts of their Marlboro livery be tarted up to the brighter, almost fluorescent orangy-pink seen below. This instantly linked the HDT cars with the turbo McLarens that were dominating Formula 1 that year, and made the cars look rather splendid, almost classy. That was a moment Holden wanted to savour, because it wasn't to last: this was the VK after all; the car mentioned by name as the chariot of knuckle-draggers in that Area 7 song.

But we shouldn't get too high cosy on our high horse: the VK might represent a brand image Holden were trying to shed even back then (and are trying still, 30 years on...), but VKs are everywhere today because Holden got it right: you could drive it all day under the summer sun and it'd never pack it in - and unlike modern Commodores, it was also light on its feet and surprisingly nimble. An ideal weapon for Bathurst, in other words. Brocky's Holden Dealer Team took delivery of a pair of VK body shells and simply bolted on all heavy-duty racing stuff they had lying around from the VH era, adding a squared-off front splitter, a ducktail rear spoiler and those outrageously swollen wheel arches to the mix. The original Group C rules had required the cars to race with production bodywork, but clearly some wiggle room had opened up on that front, and with good results too: not only did the final gen of Group C cars look properly 'roided up, HDT claimed a 5km/h improvement down Conrod as well.

It was all done in a tearing hurry, though. Time constraints meant the publicity car was photographed without an engine, and the second #25 car was finished so late it didn't run until practice for the Castrol 500 at Sandown. "But," said Jeff Grech, HDT mechanic, "they were simple cars and it really didn't need it." If your cultural cringe is twitching reading that, don't: the engineering that went into Australian touring cars was absolutely world class, as Dick Johnson would prove a few years later when he'd take his Sierra to Silverstone and steal pole position from names like Eggenberger and Soper. There was nothing wrong with the workmanship; it was just the cars they started with that were primitive.

Besides, they won at Sandown, which meant they were hot favourites for the next round at Bathurst. It was a faith that wavered when Brocky failed to take pole on that icy Saturday, but Sunday dawned bright, warm and sunny - a VK kind of day.


There were any number of minor stories going on, too. One of them involved Tom Walkinshaw, the volcanic Scotsman behind Tom Walkinshaw Racing, one of the great names of international touring car racing. TWR had dominated Group A racing in Britain with the Rover Vitesse, and had brought a pair of them to Bathurst this year, where they showed the difference in speed between a Euro tin-top and an Aussie Big Banger, barely managing 2:23s to the locals' 2:14s. But Tom himself wasn't driving one of those; he'd done himself a deal with John Goss, another ex-Ford Hero and winner of the '74 race, to run a Jaguar XJS with a Group A engine. Seems pretty well certain that he was getting some early testing, assessing the XJS's suitability for the Mt Panorama circuit - with some success, it must be said, because the slippery Jag clocked a record top speed on Conrod, some 290km/h.

That was the theory, anyway. When the green flag flew, it was all much less encouraging. Tom stalled the Jag and was left sitting helplessly as half the field roared by. Nearly everyone managed to thread the needle and find a way around him, but then along came John Tesoriero in the #34 Camaro Z28, already up to 160km/h and suddenly finding himself with nowhere to go. The pile-up that followed completely blocked the track, and forced the first restart in Bathurst history.

After the restart, it was a return to the realities of Group C: crude, but fast. Even if the slippery Jag was faster coming off the mountain, nothing was going to beat a Falcodore from Hell Corner to McPhillamy. At the head of the pack sat Peter Brock in the famous #05, with Dick Johnson and Allan Grice not a huge distance behind, but definitely falling back.

It was another smooth run for Brocky, who in those days seemed to have the mortgage on Mt Panorama, winning three in a row from '77 to '80, then '82 and '83 back-to-back (in the same car, no less). In fact, if it hadn't been for Dick Johnson in '81, Brock and HDT would've taken six in a row. Such was the way of Peter Perfect: cool, calm and collected, never caning his car because he wanted it to last, but following such flowing lines he was whiplash-fast anyway. Brock (and co-driver Larry Perkins) surrendered the lead for just 19 of the 163 laps.

It helped that the opposition simply fell apart. The Walkinshaw/Goss Jag was already a casualty; by lap 70 so was the eternal bridesmaid, Allan Grice. Then the Dick Johnson/John French Falcon broke an axle on lap 107 and ended the day fuming, ending the last real opposition HDT might've had. And the polesitting Bluebird of George Fury and Gary Scott? Blew up with less than 20 laps to go. That was the fing wiv 'ese imported cars, y'see. They let ya down jes' when ya started t'rely on 'em...

As if to rub it in, Brocky actually slowed down in the final laps and backed into a formation finish with the sister car of David Parsons (who was actually two laps down). Still, a 1-2 finish for the Holden Dealer Team finally exorcised the ghosts of Ford in 1977. It was a good day to be a Holden fan.


So why is this win, and this car, so revered today? Well, if I might call the kettle black, it's because Baby Boomers are a sentimental bunch and this was the last time all was well in their world. Next year Bathurst would be swarmed by unfamiliar drivers with unpronounceable names in cars not even for sale here. Then Brock would start getting weird with that whole polariser thing, break up with Holden and end up driving BMWs and stuff, and even though he was destined to take another Bathurst win, it would be awarded to him in a courtroom after the cars that actually took the chequered flag were disqualified. And of course by then, if you wanted a hot Commodore, you had to get the one with the turbocharged Japanese engine... in a nutshell, 1984 was the last time we saw Peter Brock and the Holden Dealer Team Big Bangers in full flight, with a big V8, getting some big air, and winning by a biiig margin.



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