Torana History

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Torana History

The HB and Brabham Torana

Homogeneous as Holden’s had always been, the name was simply too good to waste on one basic model line; clearly there was a scope for a small four-cylinder "Holden", something that might pick up a few sales from the successful Morris Mini and Volkswagen Beetle. Thus it was that, in 1964, the Vauxhall Viva was slipped onto the Australian market in dress rehearsal for its future role as the Holden Torana. Even though the Holden badge was missing, the rhetoric was strong - "GM-H's small car" was presented as a baby Holden. Coincidentally, 1964 was the year of the EH 179M, the General's first attempt at a performance-oriented variant.

In those halcyon Holden days when there were really only 2 competitors, and both were local, there was obviously scope for a GM-H performance image within the four-cylinder market as well. After all, BMC had its Mini-Coopers and Ford had campaigned the Cortina GT 500 with great success both on the circuit and in the showroom. This was the context for the car Jack Brabham built - the Brabham Torana. To give him his due, Sir Jack did not actually conceive or design, let alone build, the Brabham Torana. But he put his name on it, a decision he may have subsequently regretted, as the performance Torana was a little off the pace.

In essence, the Brabham was a stock Torana (aka 1967 English Viva with Australian badges and round headlights) equipped with twin Strombergs, sports air cleaners and a rorty exhaust note from the end of an oversize system featuring triple resonators. It sounded ok, but there was little in the way of performance to back it up. Its acceleration was only barely quicker than any other Torana and a top speed of 85 mph (137 km/h) was not what serious performance enthusiasts lusted after.

But it wasn’t all bad news - there were front disc brakes and it was equipped with full instrumentation. Unfortunately the fuel gauge was probably more relevant than the tacho, since the Brabham Torana liked a drink despite the mediocre performance. And, unfortunately, if you looked a little deeper and you would discover the so-called "low profile" cross-ply tyres were fitted to four-inch rims. The Brabham Torana never evoked the kind of nostalgia inherent in the name 179M. But it was a start. The General recognised the need to carry a sporty image into the four-cylinder market. All they needed to do was back that image with substance.

The Six-Cylinder Torana

On the threshold of the 70s, the local motoring scene was hotting up. Performance had arrived with a vengeance. GM-H had released its Monaro in time for the spring of 1968, but had more in store; few industry observers guessed just what that more was. The press release was dated noon, Tuesday, October 28, 1969. Its subject was the most important new Holden since the appearance of the EH Holden six years previously. The General had inserted their red six-packs into the Torana.

Suddenly, what had once been just a four-cylinder shopping trolley had serious potential as a performance car. GM-H had already exploited part of this potential with its GTR version of the Torana. Better still, the GTR offered almost unbelievable value for the money - just $2778 put you behind the sports wheel of a two-door GTR with modified 161 motor, four-speed gearbox, front discs, heavy duty suspension, full instrumentation and striking stylistic details. If only you could pick one up for that kind of money these days.

In theory the GTR was to the LC Torana range what the GTS 186S was to the Monaro. Where the 186S was a reworked 186 with dual-throat carb and more efficient cylinder head, the GTR's engine was a modded 161. Back then it was sometimes referred to as a 161S. Modifications also extended to the air-cleaner, which was a new low restriction design – there were twin exhaust manifolds, higher lift cam and superior exhaust valves with heavy duty springs. The manifold was water-heated. All this translated its way neatly to the rear wheels. The standing quarter time was blisteringly quick - 17.2 seconds for a stock off the showroom floor car of 1969, and not a V8. Top speed was 105 mph (169 km/h) with 90 (145) available in third.

The LC GTR was as fast in third as a bog stock Kingswood was in the same gear. But the Kingswood lacked a fourth ratio. These figures alone were sufficient to indicate that the Torana was a different style of Holden, one that could move the tacho beyond 4500 rpm. The maximum power of 125 bhp (gross) was dialled in at 4800 rpm. Peak torque was actually less than on the stock 161 - just 150 lb/ft. And instead of coming in at 2000, it waited back until the tacho showed 2800.

So this was the first ex-factory Holden six-cylinder to rely at least as much on power and revs as on torque. At the time many observers described the GTR as an Australian sports car. The idea really wasn't that far-fetched – the LC GTR really was a purpose-built machine, which gave away next to nothing to family sedan considerations such as ride comfort or silence. Its ride was at least as firm as any British sports cars and it was also just as much fun to punt hard on twisty roads.

When the LC range was launched in that last week of October 1969, few people saw the writing on the wall for Bathurst-going Monaros. But, in fact, the introduction of a 161S Torana showed that the General's men had Panoramic status very much in mind for their smaller car — now, finally, much more Holden than Vauxhall. The six-pack Torana was lighter, more agile, trendier and cheaper than the Monaro. A GTR could almost keep pace with a 253 GTS and a 186S Monaro would be left floundering.

The General's then new image as a manufacturer of excitement machines was getting brighter at a rate of knots - after all, the Monaro was still less than 18 months old. In fact, the release of the LC Torana range followed hard on the heels of the second Monaro victory at Bathurst. The second was to be the last. Within nine months, the General had introduced their new racing weapon, the XU-1 version of the GTR.

Redifining the Aussie Performance Car Scene

Meanwhile the standard GTR had redefined the Australian performance car scene. It was further removed from its sedan counterparts than were any of its competitors. The Pacer, for example was never going to be any more than a hotrod Valiant. The standard Falcon GT was essentially a Fairmont V8 with more power. And, while the Monaro looked different from the big Holden sedans, you could order most of its running gear in a Kingswood package. But the GTR was unique. Everyone knew it was short on interior space and refinement, but a GTR buyer didn't give a damn.

When the XU-1 was officially announced, GM-H made no great play about the car's forthcoming role at Mount Panorama, describing it instead as "a higher performance version of the successful GTR sports sedan ... developed to meet strong demand for such a vehicle from motoring enthusiasts." The release did not go on to say that many of these "enthusiasts" actually planned to race their XU-1s. The first batch comprised 700 cars "to meet immediate demand, to be followed by further production if subsequent demand re-warrants."

Straight out of the box, any old XU-1 was good for 125 mph (202 km/h) with a standing quarter in 16 seconds flat (more than a second clear of the GTR). Its 186S engine was equipped with triple 1.5 inch side-draught Zeniths and developed 160 bhp (gross) at 5200 rpm with peak torque of 190 lb/ft at 3600. No ex-factory Holden red six had previously been happy over about 4500 and maximum torque was traditionally closer to 2000 rpm than 4000. The XU-1 still had to make do with the Opel four-speed gearbox that had first found its way into Holden’s back in 1967 when the HR 186S was made available with four ratios. This was undoubtedly the weakest point in the car.

GM-H was well aware of the 'box's vulnerability: it was never used behind a V8 engine. The standard final drive ratio was a slippery 3.36 with the taller 3.08 unit optional. With the standard diff, the XU-1 was well placed for storming up Mount Panorama and with the standard 17 gallon (77 litre) fuel tank it could keep on doing this for quite some hours. The LC XU-1 was tricked up further by Harry Firth, the taciturn but effective boss of the Holden Dealer Team, in time for the 1971 Bathurst race. Firth prescribed a heavier duty clutch and thicker front disc brakes. The head was reworked for better flow, there were new pistons and a higher-lift cam. These mods combined to provide an extra 20 horsepower, achieved at what - only two years earlier - would have been an unbelievable 6000 rpm.

Come the autumn of 1972, however, and the LC XU-1 was superseded by the LJ. Outwardly the updated model was distinguished by a HQ style rectangular grille and neater rear treatment. The interior, too, was tidied up. But the big changes were of a mechanical nature. Out went the super revvy 186S and in went a 202 - introduced with HQ in July 1971. But the XU-1's 202 came equipped with triple carburettors – Strombergs rather than Zenith this time around. The compression ratio was a high 11.3 to one and maximum power was 190 bhp (gross) at 5600 rpm with peak torque of 200 lb/ft at 4000. Transmitting this power was the locally developed M21 Aussie four-speed transmission with taller gearing in the indirect ratios. The standard final drive ratio remained 3.36 with the 3.08 optional.

The net result of the mechanical changes was a more relaxed car that was no quicker against the watch; the LJ version of the XU-1 felt more like a high performance road car than a purpose-built racer. Also helpful in this respect were changes to the spring rates and the front seats - on the LC model, the springs in the seat fought against those in the suspension, causing many drivers (and passengers) to make firm contact with the headlining when encountering any kind of uneven road surface. Harry Firth's intensive involvement with Torana’s continued. During 1972 he worked on V8-engined prototypes.

The Torana XU-2

And contrary to popular belief, had such a vehicle ever made it into production, it would have been designated XU-1 V8, not XU-2. But thanks to the supercar scare campaign conducted by the politicians of the time, the V8 XU-1 never got near production. So Firth had to extract more performance from the 202. For Bathurst that year a special limited production version was developed. It used a wild cam, a light flywheel - blueprinted and balanced it churned out 212 good old gross brake horsepower. The suspension was revised again and alloy wheels were fitted. It was in one of these 1972 Bathurst specials that Peter Brock drove his way to what would be the first of many Panoramic victories.

A year later the XU-1 - already a classic - received its final rework, but only 150 of these were built. Perrys had produced a special tubular exhaust manifold and Perfectune's "Dyno Dave" Bennett had devoted additional attention to the head. The valves were larger. Some internal engine components had been beefed up for Bathurst and the brakes had also been improved. Heavier duty axles were used, too. Come 1974 and the performance Torana entered a different phase.

Despite the fact that the LH range (released in March at the Melbourne Motor Show) included the SL/R 5000, the news was not all good. Perhaps it was surprising that these cars called Torana could openly boast 5.0 litre V8 power, when only 18 months or so previously there had been a huge public outcry on the whole subject of supercars. In the brochure and beneath the glittering lights of Melbourne's Exhibition Buildings, the SL/R 5000 was a full-on fire-breather. On the road, however, it was barely a match for a well driven XU-1 and its standing quarter mile figure of 15.9 was only 0.1 second quicker.

As far as handling was concerned, a stock 5000 couldn't equal an XU-1. The reason was simple: the whole rationale behind the suspension design of the LH Toranas was ride comfort first, handling a distant second. Oodles of rubber was used to reduce noise and to isolate occupants from the sometimes unpleasant reality of the road beneath. For keen drivers, though, the unpleasant reality was that all LH Toranas understeered and conveyed minimal road feel through the steering wheel. The steering rack was rubber-mounted even on the SL/R 5000.

Factory Option L34

It's true that the suspension was tied down better than on the standard cars, but this was still a sporty version of a family sedan rather than a full-on sports sedan. When LH was released, there was talk of an XU-2 version, replete with 300 horsepower and four-wheel discs. But what eventuated was factory option L34. If you're ever wondered what "L34" meant, here's the explanation straight from the GM-H manual: "engine, eight-cylinder, high compression, 308 cubic inch variant two." The "variant two" bit means stronger rods and bearings for improved durability iread: racing conditions).

Apart from the stronger components, the engine also boasted bigger valves. There were twin headers, a wider track and those famous bolt-on flares that started a fashion tidal wave. Spring rates were higher, dampers were stiffer and the whole car felt more in touch with terra firma. A $1500 option pack added a Holley four-barrel instead of the Stromberg, a hot cam and some other minor mods. But no rear discs. Four-wheel disc brakes did finally arrive for the performance Torana, but not until A9X, late in the life of the LX. When the LX was released it was little more than a reheated LH with ADR27A. The release of the Hatchback variants added some stylistic interest but there were no significant mechanical advances. The LX SS 5.0 Hatchback was essentially just a prettier, less practical LH SL/R 5000.

The big banger Toranas moved a big step closer to perfection in February 1977, 11 months after the introduction of LX, when Radial Tuned Suspension found its way beneath them, courtesy of Joe Whitesell, Peter Hanenberger and the executive will of newly appointed GM-H boss, Chuck Chapman. RTS was no simple matter of beefing up the spring rates, fitting better dampers and a set of steel radials. Rather, the pivot points for both upper and lower suspension arms were relocated, the lower control arm bushes were revised and half a degree of negative camber was given to the front wheels. The coils were uprated by some 15 percent and the steering ratio was dropped slightly for reduced effort.

By this process the six and eight-cylinder Torana’s went from mediocrity to near brilliance in the handling department. Better was to come in the form of the A9X, introduced in October 1977. No longer were there rear drum brakes and a steering rack mounted in rubber. The A9X used a different floorpan from earlier LX's to incorporate the Salisbury rear axle complete with the rear disc brakes — it was a forerunner to the UC model (sadly not made in a V8 hotshot version). It had the L31 5.0 litre engine (rather than the L34 - remember ADR27A was in force by this time), a choice between the M21 gearbox or Borg-Warner's T10, a Davis-Craig electric cooling fan, an air scoop and more flares than a 70s jeans shop. Diff ratios reached all the way to 2.6:1. Top speed was about 206 km/h with the 16.0 second standing quarter time so common among performance Torana’s since XU-1.

In short, the A9X, was superb. In just two months on the market, it became recognised as a classic and the near $11,000 purchase price didn't deter enthusiasm. You could specify it as a hatchback or four-door. Great as it was in itself, the A9X had extra significance: it served as a reminder of the great old supercar days of the late 60s and early 70s, when Australian performance cars were beginning to equal the world's best and when newspaper journalists saw no need to write headlines that would jeopardise the industry.

Also see:

Holden Heritage | Holden Torana | Holden Red Motor | Holden Car Commercials
LJ Torana GTR XU-1
LC Torana

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