LOOK AT the photos. What do you see? If you said a down-on-its-luck, duck-poop brown VC Commodore, youíre just not a true romantic. I see a hillclimb weapon, thrashing up a snake of bitumen somewhere in the bush, engine screaming, tyres scrabbling for grip and little old me, gripping the tiller and laughing like a loon.
Okay, thatís a fair way off at this point (although the loon bit always fits) but if you let your imagination roam free, you should be able to conjure up the same image. Lord, I hope so, because this here early-girl Commodore is, in fact, earmarked to become the next Morley hillclimber.
Or track-day beast. Or motorkhana warrior. Probably all three. Iím not fussy.
The idea is dead simple: A scruffy but sound everyday production car plus a minimum of dollars and a maximum of imagination, becomes something that will be fun to use for grassroots motorsport events. Thatís right, Lowndes and Whincup are pretty safe, but everybody else should be looking over their shoulder for a certain brown bomber. The best bit is that weíll be showing you how itís done and making the point that you donít need to be a nuclear engineer (like Homer Simpson) to take a set of oldschool family wheels and turn it into something that should be huge gobs of fun. And it doesnít have to be a chromebumper Commodore, because Iím going to keep this general.
The fun gets underway when you sit down with a couple of mates and beers and decide what car youíre going to butcher Ė er Ė base your racer on.
The criteria seemed pretty simple to us; it had to be reardrive, cheap, preferably with rack-and-pinion steering and a track-friendly live rear-end.
After two beers, our choices came down to early Celicas, maybe a rear-drive Corolla and a Holden Torana. The Torana was the front-runner because I could fit it with a big old Holden red six and have a decent torque-toweight ratio (more important than power-to-weight for a hillclimber). But have you looked at Torana prices lately?
But then I thought: Hang on, an early Commodore is about the same weight and size as a late-model Torana and uses the same mechanicals Ė and is a whole heap cheaper...
Easy: The search for an early Commodore was on.
However, it wasnít quite that simple. To keep costs and complexity down, I wanted to use as much of the original car as possible. That meant it had to be a clean, rust-free body that didnít need paint.
I can cope with faded paint and a few crows-feet, but I didnít want the expense and hassle of cutting out rust and blowing on new enamel and over-capitalising the project.
I also wanted a manual car so that I could use the original gearbox and avoid chasing new pedals and changing flywheels and such.
And I needed a base-model car Ė theyíre lighter than upspec models Ė that wouldnít keep me awake at night over what Iíd done to a nice, clean original SL/E.
Why a six? Simple: Cost and tuneability on a budget. And if youíre old enough, youíll recall the Commodore 1, 2, 3 in the 1979 Repco Around Australia Reliability Trial. And guess what? Those cars used sixes for their toughness and lightness over a V8. Stage one will be a tune up of the stock engine with a four-barrel carb of some sort, a set of headers and a mild cam. All well-trodpath stuff likely to give me enough grunt to have fun.
Stage two will involve a built engine and a lot more poke, but for now, the 3.3 six that came with this car will do the business. As will the M20 box and the Salisbury diff.
So then I hit the classifieds.
Actually, I started by phoning anybody I knew who knew what an early Commodore was and asked if they maybe had one lying around. A couple that surfaced were too far gone to get them to first base. Or they were autos. With only about about a quarter of the early Commodores still running being manuals a bit of patience is needed. In the end, I stumbled over an online advert for this very car with a short description and a $3000 ask. Sometimes you can look at a car from 100m away and just know itís a good one? That didnít happen this time. In fact, the amount of silicon under the windscreen rubber looked like a rustyplenum job. But a quick dig with a Stanley knife revealed the silicon was only sealing leaking rubber. So we started haggling. The final price was $2200; not as cheap as some, but okay for this one.
And it is a beauty (no, really). Driving it home on a permit I could tell it was tight underneath. Its brand-spanking change-over steering rack explained that.
But the motor is fit, too, and the gearbox shifts nicely and, like the diff, isnít whiny or clunky. The engine oil is clean, the underneath is a-l-m-os- t free of oil leaks and the bodywork is mostly straight and 100 percent rust-free. Yep, weíre on a winner here.
Iíve got a bunch of ideas on how to improve the beast with little or no outlay and a few little pearls of engineering Iíve been dreaming up while Iíve been scraping the bugs off the VC and washing it to find out what colour it really is. Sadly, it really is duckshit brown.