The 1972 Supercar Scare

 

Up until 1971, the Bathurst 500 (mile) was contested by Group E series production cars. These were cars virtually identical to the cars on the showroom floor, distinct from the heavily modified cars contesting the Australian Touring Car Championship. Ford, Holden and Chrysler were in a battle to produce the fastest homologation special and win Bathurst. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday was the theory.

A total of 200 cars had to be built. The practice of building homologation specials started with the Morris Sports 850 and Holden S4. Ford followed with the Cortina GT500, a thinly veiled racing car with dual Weber carburetors, Lotus Cortina gear ratios, lower suspension, alloy brake cooling ducts and a second fuel tank. Ford then moved to V8s with the Falcon GT in 1967, and Holden followed in 1968 with the Monaro GTS 327. Chrysler stuck to six cylinders, running the Hemi Six Valiant Pacer E34. Unable to compete directly with Ford’s Falcon GTHO, Holden changed direction, replacing the Monaro GTS 350 with the smaller 3.3 litre six cylinder Torana GTR XU1 for 1970.

In 1971, Chrysler had replaced the Pacer with the smaller and more powerful Charger R/T E38. The three speed E38 was replaced by the four speed E49 in 1971, but not in time for Bathurst. Reigning champions Ford had the biggest weapon. The Falcon GTHO Phase 3 officially had 300bhp, but in reality it was closer to 380. It's 141 MPH top speed, achieved by Wheels Magazine on the Hume Highway made it the fastest four door car in the world. Phase 3s claimed the first nine positions in qualifying. Ford factory driver Alan Moffat won the race for the second straight year. This prompted Holden and Chrysler to prepare much more powerful cars for 1972.

The Supercar Scare was triggered by news of the V8 Holden Torana GTR XU-1 V8 and Valiant Charger R/T E55 and 380 bhp, 152 mph Falcon GTHO Phase 4. New Sun-Herald motoring editor Evan Green was looking for a big story and felt that this could be it. He contacted New South Wales transport minister Milton Morris for comment. Morris, known as “Mr Road Safety” had introduced radar traps, breathalysers and compulsory seat belts and was certain to be outraged.

Sunday, 25th June 1972. The day Green's article was published on the front page of the Sun-Herald. “160 MPH SUPERCARS SOON” was the headline. Morris was “horrified” by these “bullets on wheels”. Soon enough every news outlet in the country was reporting on it.

“I don’t mind expert racing drivers handling such machines on enclosed racing circuits, but the thought that ordinary motorist of varying degrees of skill will be able to purchase these bullets on wheels and drive them on public roads is alarming.” Morris told Green.

“I am horrified at the prospect of young and inexperienced drivers getting behind the wheel of such machines”.

“This is specially the case when the cars reach the second hand market And their braking and suspension systems have deteriorated.”

Three days later, Morris called for a ban on the registration of supercars. His Queensland counterpart agreed with him. There was also a threat from the federal government to stop buying cars from any manufacturer who put a supercar in production. With government fleets a big part of their business, they listened. The following day CAMS elected to end series production racing and allow modifications in Group E. This instantly made supercars irrelevant. As a permanent measure in 1973, Group E was abandoned. The ATCC and Australian Endurance Championship would run the same Group C touring car regulations. The ATCC and AEC were run this way until the AEC was abandoned in 1993.

Another day passed and Holden announced that there were no plans for a V8 Torana. Unlike Ford, who were furious about the news, Holden were very cooperative. If anything they would have been relieved that they didn't have to go to the expense of building a 320hp V8 Torana that actually worked. The extra weight in the nose may have upset the handling, so Holden shifted it as far back as possible. They also fitted wider wheels and tyres. The V8 reportedly handled better than the six.  Holden, unlike Ford and Chrysler, had not made any steps towards producing the XU-1 V8, however Harry Firth had built three prototypes. One was pink, another orange and the third green. Visually, the only difference between the six and the V8 was the wide tyres.When the program was abandoned, they were converted back to six cylinders and sold. Holden later built a single XU-2 prototype LH, and finally sold a V8 Torana, the SL/R 5000, with the release of the LH in 1974. 

The XU-1 V8 would have looked virtually the same as the six

The XU-1 V8 would have looked virtually the same as the six

Ford had built four Phase 4 sedans, three race cars for the factory team and a road car for dealer Bib Stillwell. There was also a fifth “half HO” coupe. Plans to produce any more were halted.

Ford at first denied the Phase 4 ever existed. Ford's marketing manager N.D. Schryver sent letters to dealers claiming "there never has been, is not now, and never will be such an option during the life of the XA Falcon model.". This despite a previous dealer confidential bulletin stating that the XA Falcon GTHO was in production.

Ironically, in the name of safety, Morris might have accidentally banned the sale of the safest Falcon yet. The Phase 4's biggest improvements over the Phase 3 were in handling and braking. It made full use of the XA's wider track to fit wider, stickier tyres on bigger 15 inch alloy wheels. Engine development focused on drivsbility more than increasing outright power, making it much more manageable. According to those who had driven one, the Phase 4 handled and stopped very well for its size. 

Production of the GTHO Phase 4 had already begun

Production of the GTHO Phase 4 had already begun

Chrysler went ahead with E55 production. Having already imported 340 examples of 340ci LA V8 engine, they had no choice. To avoid upsetting the government, it was watered down as a luxury SE 770 rather than an R/T. Instead of the Six Pack triple two-barrel Weber carburetors originally intended to be carried over from the E49, it ran a single four barrel. It's power figure of 275hp was lower than the E49's 302hp. An A727 Torqueflite automatic was the only transmission offering. This along with a 100kg weight penalty, made it slower than an E49. Only 127 E55s were made. The article mentioned the E49, but it was homologated and making it's competition debut at Oran Park the day the article was published. It was too late for it to be stopped by anyy government actions.

The Charger SE 770 E55

The Charger SE 770 E55

Because Ford had already begun Phase 4 production, they had a lot of parts left over. To get rid of them, a limited run Falcon GT RPO83 (regular production option) was sold in 1973. This was as close as we got to a production Phase 4.

The final Bathurst 500, and the first Bathurst endurance race for modified cars was held in 1972 Holden and Ford returned with the XU-1 and Phase 3 respectively. Modifications were limited, Ford had to retrofit larger 15 inch five spoke Globe alloy wheels to customers' Phase 3s in order to race with them. Only Chrysler had a new model for 1972, the E49. Moffat went in as the favourite again, but the wet weather favoured the smaller Torana, and Peter Brock won the first of his nine Bathursts. 

Did the supercar scare need to happen? For public safety, no. The cars in question would have sold in tiny numbers (no more than 200) and would have been very expensive, putting them out of reach for inexperienced drivers. The 1972 supercars would also have delivered major improvements in handling and braking that would have filtered down to cheaper models. There's a good chance they would have all been easier to drive than their predecessors, and the lesser Torana GTR, Falcon GT and Charger E48. Even those were niche products out of reach for "young and inexperienced drivers".

One benefit was that it moved Bathurst away from series production, a format it would not have survived in. Today there are no production car endurance races as popular as the Bathurst 1000. Although as the gulf in performance and safety between Group E and the ATCC grew, CAMS would likely have scrapped the former anyway. 

With series production racing gone, we never saw another period like the years before the Supercar Scare in Australia again. Homologation specials continued to be built up until the end of Group A, but none were banned for being too fast.