Australia's Own Italian Supercar - 1986 Giocattolo Group B

 
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By the mid-1980s, Australia's motoring history was already littered with ambitious attempts at home grown sports cars and supercars. Very few of them made it to production, even fewer achieved commercial success. Purvis, Bolwell, Buckle and Illinga are some of the more recognised names.

Paul Halstead was an IT recruiting specialist who made his fortune creating the IDAPs computer system. Being an avid car enthusiast, he used his wealth to establish a business called the Toy Shop, exporting Australian made Ford 351 Clevelands to Italy for use in the De Tomaso Pantera. He also assembled Panteras used for racing in Australia.

To promote the De Tomaso project, Halstead hired former McLaren engineer Barry Lock to build a ground effect Pantera for GT racing. When Pantera production wound up in 1986, Halstead needed a new project to replace it. The next logical step for him and Lock was to have a go at building his own supercar.

Halstead and Lock's 'La Pantera Bianca'

Halstead and Lock's 'La Pantera Bianca'

The inspiration for Halstead’s supercar was the Alfa Romeo Alfasud 6V.  It was intended for Group B rallying, but Alfa Romeo’s financial trouble prevented it from coming into fruition. Halstead figured he could take the project on, and the Giocattolo (Italian for toy), was born.  

Following a similar formula, Halstead used an Alfa Romeo Sprint as a starting point. The standard front mounted 1.5 litre four cylinder was to be replaced by an Alfa Romeo 2.5l V6 and ZF five speed transaxle manual mid mounted using an all new rear subframe designed by Lock. The initial plan was to switch to the new 3.0L V6 from the 155 for the production version, which would have boosted power from 110 to 150kW.

From the Sprint donor car, the monocoque frame, front suspension, steering and dashboard was retained. Brembo disc brakes were taken from the GTA. The mid-mounted engine necessitated redesigning the rear suspension. Lock produced a Lamborghini Countach-inspired double wishbone design with cast-alloy uprights and twin coil shock absorbers. Wide 285/40 rear and 195/50 front tyres shod 15 inch Simmons alloy wheels. A kevlar wide body kit helped fit the wide wheels and tyres to what was originally quite a narrow car. The engine bay and bulkhead were also made from kevlar and carbon fibre. Despite being a two-man operation, the Giocattolo Group B was a very technically sophisticated car.

The Giocattolo was aimed at European supercars, and had an interior to reflect that. While the dashboard was out of a Sprint, it featured Recaro seats, full leather upholstery, bespoke instrument panel and a premium audio system. A reasonably sized boot was located behind the engine, while the front was taken up by radiators. In the boot was a toolkit containing a bottle of Bundaberg Rum. If you couldn't fix the car you could at least drown your sorrows.   

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The car’s technical weak point was the carry-over front suspension. The Giocattolo weighed less than the Sprint with more rearward weight distribution.and was a lot more powerful. Ride quality and handling was still very good, but Lock knew it could be better.

Halstead intended to build three prototypes in 1986, followed by 22 cars  in order to achieve ADR compliance on a limited production basis. A further 25 would be built in 1987. Anything more than 25 cars/year and the Giocattolo would have to undergo crash and emissions testing.  Halstead intended on building more than 25 a year, but needed to begin selling them before he could afford to crash one.    

Four prototypes were built, and by December 1987, Giocattolo had taken 67 firm orders and 14 expressions of interest from overseas. But there were a couple of problems. The first was the engine, which proved too difficult and expensive to source. The Italians were reluctant to sell them from the factory. A replacement was found in the new Walkinshaw Holden 5.0L V8, as used in the HSV Commodore SS Group A SV Walkinshaw. Holden was more than happy to supply engines, even going as far as allowing the use of their engine test labs. The engine swap boosted power to 220kW, more than the 180kW officially claimed by HSV, even more than the then new Ferrari 328. As with the Alfa V6, the Walkinshaw V8 was mated to a five speed ZF transaxle.

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The second was Alfa Romeo Australia’s refusal to import bare Sprint shells. Giocattolo was forced to buy complete cars and strip them, and sell the parts as used spares.

The move from the V6 to the V8 made the Giocattolo almost as fast as a 911 Turbo over the standing quarter. Top speed was 260km/h. 0-100km/h took just 5.4 seconds, and there was a noticeable amount of front-end lift under acceleration. It also increased the price to $90,000, about the same as a BMW M535i. It still remained a relative bargain.A less powerful Ferrari 328 cost $148,000 in 1987.  

But it was still more than people were prepared to pay. Production numbers were lower than expected, and costs were becoming too difficult to contain. Giocattolo built just 12 production Group Bs before the company shut its doors.

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“We built a great car and it was a complete financial disaster,” he says of the Holden V8-powered, mid-engined Alfa Romeo-based Giocattolo. “I lost millions, so I’m not going to do a repeat performance of that”, Halstead told Street Machine in 2015.

More recently, Halstead has built a wide body 7.0L V2 Holden Monaro and a twin-LS 14 litre W16-engined supercar.  

The Giocattolo Group B was a great car, but like most Australian sports cars, it was a commercial failure. Alfa Romeo seemingly wanted it to fail, doing everything in its power to stop it. Australian Design Rules didn’t help either. It’s much harder to put a low volume car into production in Australia than other countries. Of the fifteen cars that were built, thirteen survive. One was destroyed at Sydney’s Eastern Creek raceway in a crash that also killed driver Todd Wilkes, and another was written off in a crash competing in the Classic Adelaide. The ones that remain are highly sought after.