While V8s have tended to dominate local muscle and performance car discussions over the last couple of decades, that wasn’t always the case. Nothing epitomises this better than the 1972 Hardie-Ferodo 500 endurance race at Bathurst.
No less than four 351 V8-powered Falcon GT-HO Phase IIIs took the top qualifying places, with Allan Moffat leading the pack. Next was a young Peter Brock in his LJ Torana XU-1 six, and then Leo Geoghegan in an E49 Charger (a six, of course). Less than six seconds covered the group on that long and demanding circuit.
And the result? Brock won on 130 laps, with Moffat on 129 and Doug Chivas (teamed with Damon Beck) in a Charger on 128 laps in third. Six, eight, six.
There’s no escaping that for some the V8 will always be the hero powerplant. The distinctive rumble of a pushrod bent eight gets under your skin and they do have the ability to provide that instant ‘hit’ when you goose the throttle.
But we reckon you’re missing something if you ignore the sixes. Particularly the cars that aren’t necessarily the ultimate hero models. As a broad generalisation, a six can give you very similar power, with less weight and often results in a better-handling car. Take the time to listen to one on full song, and you’ll soon get addicted.
For this story we’ve deliberately gone for affordable rather than stratospherically-priced investment cars, and we get to meet the owners. Enjoy…
When Ford GT-HOs and Holden XU-1s roamed the earth, Chrysler Australia had somehow landed itself in the middle with its hero car, the Charger. It looked like a full-size unit of roughly Ford proportions, but was running a six, like the Torana.
At the time, there were three hemi sixes on offer in the Valiant range: the 215, 245 and 265 cubic inchers (3.5, 4.0 and 4.3lt), all running pushrods for the two-valve heads and a common stroke of 94mm. Compression ratios varied – scaling up from 8.0:1 for the basic unit through to 9.5:1 for the ‘standard’ 265. The 245 and 265 also ended up with electronic ignition.
In ultimate form, a 265 in E49 trim claimed a very healthy 302 horses (225kW) at 5600rpm, and that was with the full ‘6 Pack’ set of triple Weber carburettors on board. That was substantially more than the V8s in the range.
In normal street trim, the 265 engine ran a single two-barrel carb and claimed more like 203hp (151kW) compared to 230hp (172kW) for the 318 V8 and 275hp (205kW) for the 340 V8 in E55 trim.
Now the 200-ish horses in the stock 265 for the day qualified this as a reasonably powerful car. It weighed under 1400 kilos and in this trim would unquestionably be a lively drive. Perhaps the biggest question mark over these cars was the prevalence of three-speed manuals over four-speeds. It seemed like an odd decision even to this day, and the owners seem a little split over the issue. Some retro-fitted four-speeds, while others have got to like the threes, pointing out the engine is more than flexible enough to cope.
“IN ULTIMATE FORM A 265 IN E49 TRIM CLAIMED 302 HORSES”
ALTHOUGH THERE seems to have been no census of surviving Chargers, it seems safe to say that 265-engined XL versions with authentic manual transmission could by now be harder to find than the more costly R/T. Low values throughout the 1980s and 90s, dwindling supplies of parts and the desire of enthusiasts who couldn’t find or afford an R/T to build their own all contributed to the accelerated disappearance of big-engined XL versions. A VJ or VK with the optional four-speed manual will be among the most difficult versions to find and cost considerably more than cars with a three-speed in manual or automatic. The later VK had better seats and – to some eyes anyway – a cleaner grille design. Looking to the future, authenticity will be crucial to value and perhaps even a car’s survival. Some jurisdictions overseas have suggested that older vehicles that haven’t been maintained in ‘original’ condition might be first into the crusher. Setting up alerts on specialist car-sales sites will help in the search for a car however you might have more luck joining a Charger club and visiting every Mopar display you can. Some owners whose cars might have been unseen for decades will often contact clubs for assistance when the time comes to sell or just park them outside a show venue with a sign on the window. It is hard to judge just how much a buyer would be prepared to spend on an outstanding and authentic 265 three-speed. But informed estimates range from $45-55,000. Paying around $20,000 for a rough, rusty example could be expensive in the longer term unless you can do most of the work yourself.
Luke Orton, the owner of the 1975 VJ XL you see here, admits a Charger wasn’t necessarily his first choice when he was out shopping, 15 years ago.
“I was looking for a Torana and was searching through the classifieds. A guy I was working with spotted the Charger in Go Green and said you’ve got to go and have a look at it. At that stage I didn’t really know them that well, but I went and had a look and bought it on the spot.
“He wanted $6500 and got $6200. Then I was told I was completely mad and had spent too much money – you’ll never get your money back!
“It was always this colour but I’ve had it resprayed twice. The first time it bubbled and was a horrible job, so I saved my money and did it again.”
The engine started life as a 245 but is now a 265 with 245 heads, extractors, Cain manifold and 625 AFB carby. It’s got the original three-speed manual, and the original diff.
Luke also got the interior redone.
There was no mistaking the note of the big six as we heard it running through the gears, up the hill to meet us for the photo shoot. A lovely sound. Little did we know it had another purpose. “When I was living at home many moons ago, I used to go to work at six o’clock every morning,” explains Luke. “One day I was sick. My neighbour came down and complained ‘you didn’t go to work today?’ I explained and he responded, ‘I was late for work, because I use you as an alarm clock.’ He was four doors up from me and I didn’t drive past his house!”
What’s it like driving with the three-speed? “It’s different and you take a lot of time to get used to it. You spend a lot of time in second gear. It’s fine. The only complaint is if you’re sitting on the freeway for a long time, it sort of sings at about 3500 and can echo a bit with the pipes I have on it. But it’s fun. It would be nice to have the extra gear, but I kinda like keeping it the way it should be.”
For their era, the Chargers had a reputation for being a responsive steering package with brakes that could be made halfway reasonable – drums rear and disc front with power assist in this example.
“They slide around a bit,” says Luke. “When I bought it I opened up the boot and the bloke had an engine block in it. I asked ‘What’s this for?’ and the bloke said ‘to hold it down’. I ended up putting some very expensive tread on it and wasn’t as hectic with the driving and now it sits nicely. “It was very common for people to put bags of sand or whatever in the back of a Charger.” Of course one of the attractions (or downsides – it depends on your nature) of owning a Charger is the attention it gets. “You get a huge response to it,” says Luke. “I had a big old American Chrysler and you’d park the two at a show – no-one would look at the big car, they were more interested in the old Aussie one. And they wanted to tell you their story about them. Everyone seems to have had one – it brings out a lot of good memories for people, which is really nice.”
One day he was even pulled up by the first owner – at the time Luke was still running the car’s original plates. They got to talking and Luke asked why he sold the car. “I wanted a Monaro, the V8,” was the response, “But I shouldn’t have sold the Charger.”
“IT SINGS AT 3500 AND ECHOS WITH THE PIPES I HAVE ON IT BUT IT’S FUN”
VALIANT CHARGER XL
(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)
Chargers demand close examination by a panel-repair specialist before you commit to buy. These cars for many years were worth very little and repairs were often sub-standard just to avoid the car being deemed a ‘write off’. Now in a different market, those boggedup panels and dodgy welds are going to cause grief. Rust repair sections are available but good complete panels, even second hand, are very difficult to source. Re-doing an older restoration will likely involve the costly process of having panels hand-made so don’t pay too much for an imperfect car. Doors that need to be lifted when closing will likely need repair around the hinge mounts.
The Hemi engine used by these Chargers ranks high on the list of Australia’s bestever six-cylinder power units. Provided they haven’t been overheated to the point where rings crack and the cylinder head warps, 300,000 kilometres is likely between rebuilds. Replacement heads are still available at less than $1000, with standard pistons and rings around $500 a set. The Borg-Warner ‘single rail’ manual transmission was used in various cars during the 1970s and replacements are available. So too the standard diff centre.
NUMBER MADE: N/A BODY STYLES: steel integrated body/chassis two-door coupe
ENGINE: 4340cc in-line six-cylinder with overhead valves & single downdraft carburettor
POWER & TORQUE: 162kW @ 4800rpm, 354Nm @ 3000rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h 9.6 seconds, 0-400 metres
17.5 seconds TRANSMISSION: three or four-speed manual, three-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with torsion bars control arms and anti-roll bar (f) Live axle with semi-elliptic springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) drum (r) power assisted
TYRES: ER70 H14 radial
Charger suspension is basic but as CM versions demonstrated they did respond well to educated tweaking. Steering with almost 5 turns lock to lock wasn’t particularly direct and wear or looseness in the system will encourage the car to veer in whatever direction the road camber takes it. Check tyre pressures too as they can have an influence on stability. Be cautious when test-driving a Charger as they are known for locking wheels without a lot of pedal pressure being applied. If the pedal feels very hard or very spongy start looking at the master cylinder and/or power booster. Neither are particularly expensive to replace.
Charger seat frames were a weak point and there won’t be many in existence that haven’t needed welding at some point in their lives. Make sure the seats can be easily moved on their runners and aren’t twisted with the backs sitting at odd angles. The trim is pretty basic vinyl and won’t be difficult for an automotive upholsterer to duplicate. Replacement dashboards and instruments appear on internet trading sites and aren’t expensive. Replacing the distinctive Charger steering wheel costs around $500.
For us, the Torana LC GTR is a landmark car. Why? Because it took the humble Australian six and packaged it up in something that screamed ‘sports car’, setting a trend. Sure there had been plenty of local cars before it claiming sporting intention. Holden’s own EH S4 of 1963 instantly springs to mind as an example.
This wasn’t so much about the engine itself – the perfectly capable 92kW 161 (2.6lt) pushrod straight six – but the complete integrated package. It was something special and groundbreaking.
In 1969, Holden pulled together a really well thought-out combination: a six rather than a four-cylinder in the snout of a light two-door coupe that had become very much its own product, despite the Vauxhall roots. It was running an Opel four-speed manual, with disc front brakes, wrapping up a credible mechanical recipe.
That was wrapped in what was at the time a fairly lairy cosmetic make-over. There were stripes down the flanks, a special grill treatment with bold GTR badging and a pretty flash interior that included a Monaro steering wheel and a wild-looking set of door cards.
For owner Geoff Bower, half the charm of this car when he first clapped eyes on it 18 years ago was that it was pretty stock.
“I was actually looking for an XU-1,” he admits. I was wandering through a car show in 2000 and saw this thing in the middle of a paddock with a for sale sign. Took a good look at it, and decided it was as good as anything I’d seen on the day. So I hunted down the owner and we did a deal pretty quickly.
ANYONE KEEN to own a GTR without selling their soul plus most of the furniture might need to be patient. Twice during the past 30 years we have seen values climb faster and higher than a Saturn 5 only to tumble backwards in a shower of disappointment. Now they are at it again. These single-carb Toranas are a rare car; probably less common these days than the XU-1. During the 1980s they were more likely to be scavenged for parts to sustain an XU-1 than preserved in their own right. By 1995 when typical LJ XU-1s were selling at $11,000 a GTR in excellent order cost less than $6000. Ten years later as Aussie performance car values started to move and XU-1s headed for $90,000 the few remaining GTRs languished in the realms of $40,000.
The few cars available currently are following that same pattern of price relativity. With prices for XU1s at $120-150,000 and some owners asking more, a GTR at $55-65,000 is decent value. Given their extreme scarcity, LC GTRs might manage 60 per cent of an LC XU-1’s value. In some places, police were supplied with GTRs as traffic patrol vehicles and those that survive often come with interesting mechanical upgrades and accessories. The downside is that they were painted the drabbest colours on the chart and you won’t find an ex-cop Torana in Dolly Yellow or Strike Me Pink unless it’s had a repaint. GTRs were identified by the build code 82911 in their serial number so one with a different number will be non-genuine. Cars with their original engine will be harder to find but vendors asking premium money need to supply documents which authenticate the car beyond reasonable doubt.
“It was in pretty good shape – the paint had started to fade. A friend fully restored it for me in 2009. It was repainted, on the rotisserie, everything was taken out of it and that’s what you see here. It was done in a two-car garage at home, so he did a very good job.”
This was before the last couple of classic car price booms, so we were curious to hear what he paid. (Look away if you have a sensitive nature!) “I paid $7500. At the time that was around the mark,” says Geoff, “and they’ve just gone crazy, like a lot of Australian cars. It’s not for sale and nor is it going to be.” That said LC GTRs haven’t reached the dizzying heights of the local models with Bathurst-winning history and are still achievable.
Something you instantly notice when the owner raises the bonnet is that the car’s assorted caretakers over the years have resisted the impulse to fit triple carburettors, to give it the XU-1 look.
Geoff reckons it should stay as it rolled off the factory floor: “They came out with a little 161 six-cylinder red motor in it, with a two-barrel Stromberg carburettor, header exhausts, chrome rocker cover. It was alright for the time. It ran through a four-speed Opel gearbox and everyone blew them up. The one in this car has been there for 18 years that I’ve known of and never blown up.”
One of the few mods to the car is the set of Sprintmaster wheels, which were a period accessory.
He’s also a fan of the cosmetics. “The instruments had everything: water temperature, oil pressure, amps, tachometer and a great little steering wheel on them. They look fantastic.
“The silver flash on the inside of the trim looked pretty spectacular – the LC GTR was the only one to have it. In my mind they’re pretty special, including the stripe down the side, and the orange insert in the grille.
“You would have been very happy when you drove it off the showroom floor. At the time they were probably a lot of money for a young bloke like me, back in late 1969. I was working at that stage but didn’t have the money to buy one.”
On Geoff’s mind, the fact the GTR wasn’t the ultimate hero car led to many being cut up for other duties. He’s probably right. “They went alright for the time. But once the later ones came out – the LJs with the 202s in them – everyone jumped on to them and the LCs were pushed aside. People put V8s in them and went racing. Thirty odd years later there weren’t many of them around and they’ve become very desirable. I was lucky to have picked that one up.”
What’s it like to drive? “It’s rough and ready and hits the bumps pretty hard, but every time I drive it I have a smile on my face, so it must be doing something right. They handle pretty well and stop pretty well and go alright for what they are.” He adds that braking is pretty good, with a power-assisted disc/drum set-up on dual circuits.
“You get blown off at the lights by a little Hyundai these days, but they can have their Hyundai. I’ll have my Torana thank you very much.
“Now I’m so happy that I was walking through that car show that day and decided to go back and have a look at this car. I still know the bloke I bought it from and still talk to him. He’s pretty happy to see that he sold it to someone who still has it 18 years later.”
LC GTR TORANA
EXCELLENT $ 65,000
(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)
GTRs restored in the days when these cars were of little value can be carrying injuries and defects that will cost a new owner plenty to rectify. Areas to check for rust and shoddy previous repairs include the firewall, inner mudguards and sills, sub-frame, suspension mounting points and floors. New panels are virtually impossible to find and anything second hand and in decent condition is a rarity as well. Replacement panels including front mudguards, sills, floor pans and the radiator support panel are available new. So are reproduction bumpers at $400-550 each but check the quality.
‘Red’ Holden engines were produced for more than 15 years and made literally in their millions. Problems with repairs and parts are minimal unless the block in your GTR is seriously damaged and you want to keep the car completely ‘authentic’. Cast iron can be welded but consult a specialist about viability and cost. Reconditioned Red engines that have been uprated to produce substantially more power cost $3000 upwards. The original ‘Opel’ fourspeed gearbox was barely adequate for the power of a stock GTR engine – most broke and were replaced by the later M21 gearbox or even a Japanese five-speed.
NUMBER BUILT: 6610 (LC) 3639 (LJ)
BODY: integrated body/chassis two-door sedan
ENGINE: 2640 or 3048cc, in-line six cylinder, ohv, 12v, single dual throat carburettor
POWER & TORQUE: 101kW @ 4400rpm, 262Nm @ 2000rpm (LJ)
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h: 9.4 seconds, 0-400 metres 16.8 seconds (LJ)
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual SUSPENSION: Independent with wishbones and coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, anti-roll bar (f); live axle with coil springs, locating links and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: disc (f), drum (r) with power assistance
TYRES: BR70H13 crossply
Unless the GTR you’ve found has been neglected for a long while, the suspension should at least be in usable condition. Cracked bushings, steering joints that haven’t seen grease in a long time and leaks from the steering rack aren’t insurmountable problems but allow $1000-1500 for a front-end rebuild including new coil springs. Reconditioned steering racks cost from $500 exchange, with replacement LJ steering wheels an extra $400-475. Check if the rear brakes are warm after a decent test drive as some hardly work at all and put added stress on the discs. New brake boosters are selling for around $400, rebuilds from $250.
Seat springing is an issue and the vinyl after many years may be brittle. Some cars have cloth or velour inserts which make for greater summer comfort but look a bit tacky. The standard headlights were typical 1960s and many performance Toranas will have acquired halogen inserts or separate driving lights. Make sure the heater and fan work so you get some demisting flow to the windscreen but there isn’t much that is going to cool a Torana cabin in summer. Replacing original seat belts with new inertia-reel units costs a few hundred dollars and is a sensible move in a car with no other passenger protection devices at all.