When Plastic Pigs Fly - 1988-90 Perkins/TWR HSV Commodore SS Group A SV

The first two years of Group A didn't go well for Dick Johnson, but he turned things around and experienced the best years of his career. Holden would rather forget Group A entirely. Except for Bathurst. Peter Brock only managed one Group A win, Bathurst 1987. When Holden moved their factory backing to Tom Walkinshaw Racing, nothing changed.

Group C had been good to Holden. Despite challenges from Nissan and Mazda, the Group C rules created a two horse race between Ford and Holden. Between them, Falcons and Holdens carried drivers to all but one ATCC title from 1973 to 1984. Group A delivered a seismic shift in Holden's competitiveness.. Even though Brock cleverly shaved a few cc from the the VK SS's Holden V8 to bring it down a class, they were still too heavy and underpowered. The VL brought major aerodynamic improvements but it was still not enough. The European manufacturers had enjoyed a three year head start over Holden. But they were reliable, and Brock managed to win Bathurst in 1987.

The HDT VL wasn't the fastest car but it was a great endurance racer

The HDT VL wasn't the fastest car but it was a great endurance racer

Holden was able to live with this performance. Winning Bathurst sold more cars than winning a championship, and Brock was one of Australia's best drivers and a popular figurehead for Holden. But things had started to go wrong. It culminated in the Energy Polariser and the very public split between Brock and Holden. Holden needed a replacement, and they found one in Tom Walkinshaw Racing. TWR had been running Rovers in European Group A racing, but they were losing their competitiveness. Before becoming the factory Holden team, they were already planning to run Commodores in Europe from 1988. The Ford Sierra RS500 had not arrived in 1986, so the Commodore was seen as a potentially competitive package that simply hadn't had the development time of its European rivals. As a result TWR already owned a complete HDT VL Group A and three body shells in the UK.

Under the new arrangement, TWR established Holden Special Vehicles with Holden to homologate the cars that they would run under the Holden Racing Team banner. Essentially the same arraignment as Holden had before with Brock, TWR owned 75% of HSV, and Holden had the other 25%.HSV would have full responsibility for homologation of Group A Commodores.

The HSV VL represented a massive technical improvement over the old HDT. A comprehensive aero kit that went well beyond what HDT had done had earned it names such as “Batmobile” and “Plastic Pig”. It was unpopular with buyers, many of whom removed it. It was effective however. Drag was reduced by 25% relative to its HDT predecessor. The HDT carburettor made way for electronic fuel injection with twin throttle bodies, one for low RPM, the other high.

Rather than doing both themselves right from the start, TWR focused on establishing the HSV road car business and outsourced the racing program to Perkins Engineering.

Like Holden, Larry Perkins had split with Brock over the Polariser. Up until 1985,he was responsible for the HDT racing operation, and had full control of the race car specification. Perkins was vehemently opposed to the use of the Polariser. After discovering that one was fitted to his car at Lakeside, he quit HDT and Joined Dick Johnson as engineer/co-driver for the 1985 Endurance Championship. Perkins started his own team in 1986, with a VK Holden Commodore.

In 1988, a single HSV Commodore was entered for Larry Perkins under the Holden Special Vehicles banner.  The HSV VL SS was revealed in February, but industrial disputes and manufacturing complications pushed production back to September, so the old 1987 HDT SS Group A was used. The car, PE004 was a new build by Perkins Engineering in ;ate 1987. It had debuted at the Calder Park round of the 1987 WTCC with Perkins and Denny Hulme driving to sixth place. WIth no HSV Group A to race yet, PE004 was pressed into service in the 1988 ATCC. There hadn't been any major improvements to the car, so the Group A rules continued to hold back the naturally aspirated V8 Holdens. The Holden teams were left behind by Ford and BMW, with DJR’s Dick Johnson and John Bowe winning almost everything. Perkins’ best result was a third at Sandown and he finished third overall. Particularly embarrassing was Peter Brock finishing sixth in his M3, despite the BMWs being relegated to class two.

The HSV Commodore SS Group A SV Walkinshaw made it's racing debut at the 1988 Sandown 500. Perkins had a new car.Jeff Allam and Armin Hajne (filling in for Walkinshaw), drove PE004, which had been upgraded from HDT to HSV specifation.

HSV brought three cars to Bathurst. Two were entered, driven by Perkins, Walkinshaw, Hulme and Allam. Two of the cars built by Perkins Engineering and one by TWR. Not feeling confident about winning, due to the improved reliability that the Ford Sierras had shown, Walkinshaw lodged a protest against the four Australian-built Sierras. The three DJR cars and Tony Longhurst’s car. DJR retaliated by protesting the three HSV Commodores. In the end, Walkinshaw’s protest was deemed invalid as the cars were entered by Perkins,and only entrants were allowed to protest.

Tom Walkinshaw drove a Commodore in the 1988 RAC Tourist Trophy at Silverstone. Walkinshaw and Allam qualified ninth but had a disappointing race, running behind most of the Sierras with the M3s to finish 15th. They did manage to set the 10th fastest lap, faster than all the BMWs and some of the Fords.

In 1989, for the first time since 1970, there was no factory Holden team competing in the ATCC. Perkins was still running one of his Walkinshaw Commodores from 1988, but was doing so without any backing from Holden. PE004 had been sold to Lyndon Riethmuller, who drove it himself in 1989. Walkinshaw themselves fielded two HSV-branded Commodores in round one at Amaroo Park for Percy and Neil Crompton, but took no further part. Alan Grice was the highest placed Holden driver in the championship in 14th. Chris Lambden was 17th and Perkins 18th.

Lyndon Reithmuller in an ex-factory Commodore at Bathurst, 1989

Lyndon Reithmuller in an ex-factory Commodore at Bathurst, 1989

Perkins was again contracted to field the Holden Racing Team entry for the endurance season. It was the first time that the HRT name was used. At Sandown, Perkins was joined by Percy, and Crompton drove the second car with Steve Harrington.

Bathurst saw Harrington replaced by Tomas Mezera, who partnered with Perkins in the #11. Percy moved into the seat vacated by Harrington alongside Crompton in the #16. Three cars were brought, all built by Perkins, but the third car was purely a practice car and not entered in the race. Once again they were thoroughly outpaced by the Fords and Nissans. The 6th and 7th placing for the #11 and #16 was not a bad result, but they were 3 laps behind race winners Dick Johnson and John Bowe.

1990 would be HRT's third and final year with the VL. TWR was running HRT themselves for the first time, with a single ex-Perkins car driven by Percy and Crompton. Following his appearance at Bathurst the previous year, Walkinshaw invited Percy to relocate permanently to Australia to manage, and drive for, the Holden Racing Team. Perkins was left to continue with his own team. He retained cars, but had no sponsorship. Brock had Mobil sponsorship, but wanted to move away from the Ford Sierra. The two entered into a “marriage of convenience” and ran as a two car team. HRT elected to run a single car driven by Percy, with Crompton driving a second car at Wanneroo (Barbagallo). Percy's results were ordinary, a reflection of the car rather than the driver. He earned just one podium, at Lakeside, and finished 8th in the championship. 

In order to run the second car, HRT resurrected the TWR car from 1988, which became the #16 for both Sandown and Bathurst. HRT's Sandown effort consisted of Percy and Crompton's #16 only. A strong qualifying result of fourth was followed by brake failure on at turn one resulting in a DNF.

Crompton joined Brad Jones in the #7,and Grice shared the #16 with Percy.  At Bathurst, Grice qualified 10th, scraping into the shootout, where he managed to improve his position to sixth. Grice was one of only two drivers not in a Sierra to make the shootout, the other being Perkins. Percy and Grice battled with Perkins and Mezera and the #18 DJR Sierra of Jeff Allam and Paul Radisich, and came out victorious. It was the first race win for Holden since the 1988 Australian Grand Prix support race and their first ATCC/endurance race win since Bathurst 1987.

Also racing at Bathurst that year was PE004, with its third owner in as many years. Trevor Ashby and Steve Reed had purchased the car to run in thee AMSCAR Series, Bathurst and the Easter Creek 500. 

The final race for the VL before it was superseded by the VP was the 1990 Australian Grand Prix support race, where it had won at the hands of Larry Perkins in 1988. Saturday's race ended in disaster, with Percy's suffering an engine failure. He redeemed himself on Sunday, charging from 23rd to 3rd in just 10 laps.

Whilst not a particularly successful car, The Plastic Pig, the Batmobile, is a historically significant car in Australian motorsport. It represents the first HSV road car, the first car to win a race under the Holden Racing Team banner, and is also the first race winner to come from Perkins Engineering. Against the Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth, E30 BMW M3 and Nissan Skyline GTS HR31, the HSV shouldn't have won a single race, but sometimes it did. Sometimes plastic pigs can fly.