I don’t mean reading one – heck, I ticked that box in my 30s. Nope, I spent eight months of last year doing not very much besides researching, interviewing and writing for Kerry Packer: Tall Tales and True Stories.
It’s a paperback of 50,000 words. That’s equivalent to about 25 Wheels feature stories, which explains why I’ve seemed, y’know, distant and emotionally unavailable, darling.
When I signed up to write this book of stories on the Big Fella – his humour, his putdowns, the business deals, World Series Cricket, the largerthan- life gambling – I had no idea where to start.
So I figured I’d start with his cars.
Back in the early 1980s, rumours and sightings of Packer’s cars were like those of Bigfoot or UFOs. There was supposedly a Jaguar XJ-S with new-fangled turbo-hickeys, making more than 750 kilowatts; an utterly unattainable Audi
Quattro, or maybe three; Q-ship R32 Skylines with Gibson Racing engines… Packer’s car guy was race ace Kevin Bartlett.
The two met in about 1979, when Bartlett was asked to provide some driving lessons at Sydney’s Oran Park circuit, in Packer’s bog-stock Jag XJ-S.
“He was quite a good steerer, once you got into his head that you had to get the car slowed for the corner, before you could use the power,” KB told me. “But that’s a mistake that virtually everybody does when they first get onto a racetrack.”
Bartlett also discovered that Packer had a low threshold for being told what to do. Bartlett shrugged back at him: “If you can’t f--kin’ do it the way I want you to, go and do your own thing. And when you crash, don’t f--kin’ blame me.” Thus was forged a mutual respect that ran until Packer’s death in 2005.
Bartlett still has a great souvenir: the Audi Quattro (chassis #421) that he intercepted in 1981 en route to Madagascar. It was left-hook, of course, and unregisterable. But Packer wanted it. Cut to then Audi Sport chief (and now independent supercar-maker) Roland Gumpert welcoming Bartlett to Ingolstadt… Things didn’t always go that well. Packer’s dark and menacing, fat-tyred XJ-S turbo was a mythical black cat, said to spit fire. Bartlett built the twin-turbocharged V12 beast.
“KP had said, ‘Righto, how do we make this thing quicker?’ I said we’ll put a couple of turbochargers on it… It was a complete and utter disaster.”
Early aftermarket turbo technology was derived from Indy racing Offenhausers. Sydney firm Rymec ditched the Jag’s EFI for huge twin SU carbs. “You had to run a [carb] needle so thin that every time it sucked air, it would pull the piston sideways and bend the pin. Then it would jam, fuel-up, and the car would catch fire…” Bartlett reckoned the V12 made 900kW at its peak. It broke gearboxes, diffs and rear axles, as well as self-immolating (“never with him in it, but with me a couple of times”).
But under all the big-horsepower and billionaire bullshit, the XJ-S was a familiar story of two blokes bonding over a car.
“He kept on bitching and complaining about it,” KB grinned. “But then he’d say, ‘Oh, doesn’t it f--kin’ go!’”
KERRY Packer, who owned Wheels, memorably dropped in on our May 1991 Supercar Handling Test. After sampling the Honda NSX, Skyline GT-R R32, BMW M5, Ferrari 348 and 911 Carrera 4, he got ready to depart in his ex-US Army ‘Huey’ chopper. He pointed to the Nissan. “Get me one of those cars,” he called out to Kevin Bartlett. “Nah, f--k it. Get me two. One for James.”