Driving Down-under

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In which J.W. concludes his experiences of motor racing and motoring in Australia

The motorway has not come into wide use yet. They drive with right-hand steering and kilometres. The overall limit is likely to be no higher than 62 m.p.h.. or just over 75 on the motorway, but each state makes its own laws. The road signs are green and white, just the same as America on main trunk roads. The police use either radar or other speed entrapment devices widely. The police cars have Highway Patrol hedging and are usually large American style barges from Ford.

Those are just some of the impressions that I brought back with me, but the overwhelming one was of the number of dirt roads. The day after the Bathurst race I went up to the home of Gabriel Szatmary, publisher of weekly newspaper called Motoring Reporter, which was up in the old gold mining town of Hill End. A mischievous lady guide decided that if the men were so keen to drive on dirt roads she would lay on the real thing . . . The result was hours of travel along roads equivalent to dry Welsh and Scottish stages on home international rallies. Quite the best hours of my trip, though! did feel for the slightly meddled Holden Isuzu Gemini coupe tha I pounded along at speeds up to 80 m.p.h. Especially when we encountered a drainage ditch and flew for several hundred feet. It was the only time my co-host for the trip, and Gemini owner Mark Fogarty, looked even slightly apprehensive. Then it was because his flat-mate was pounding along in a Commodore, somewhere within the choking clouds of sandy dust swirling behind us. On the way back I further brushed up my technique cruising at 60-70 m.p.h. along broader dirt roads in the comfortable Commodore. a machine developed by German Opel engineers in association with the Australians around a Rekord passenger cockpit and Senator front end. I was astonished at the damping refinement they have managed to build in, my passenger smoking a cigarette and stubbing it out accurately while we wrestled through a series of ess-bends using all the steermg lock provided.

That Commodore was a 3.3-litre straight six automatic, but I also drove a version powered by the 4.2-litre V8 and a 5.7 version. These are Australian engineered developments of the Chevrolet ilk and few, if any, parts are interchangeable. The six was the type of tough engine you can imagine farmers using, the 4.2 was a nicely balanced pleasure to drive and the 5.7 quite a tyre smoking character, though very now-heavy when pointed at wet corners in a hurry. It would “nod its nose” in worried manner until a firm foot on the throttle solved the understeer and supplied as much tail-happy motoring as a budding Makinen could require.

I drove the bigger engined, manual four-speed example, well over 1,000 miles and enjoyed them all at a steady 15.5 m.p.g. with speeds indicated up to 124 m.p.h. Some estate car!

I also covered 300 miles or so in a Ford Fairlane 5.8, this 14.4 m.p.g. machine also equipped with four-wheel disc brakes and power steering. However this Ford really represents an amazingly successful combination of American comforts associated with sheer vice and handling/braking abilities that can easily be judged by European standards on first acquaintance.

Neither of these big V8 cars was that fast in outright terms, the 5.8-litre Ford covering the standing quarter-mile in 17 seconds with a three-speed automatic, a little slower than a 2-litre RS Escort. However their big engines do confer instant passing ability on the often miserably crowded two-lane roads that are normal fare.

So far as sales go in Australia at the moment, GM lead Ford (both American owned companies have made losses in the past couple of years: strikes and new model investment are blamed) with Toyota third. To avoid swingeing import duties (57%) every leading manufacturer has local assembly plants, odd bedmates appearing in the cause of scale economies in a market capable of absorbing around half a million vehicles a year.

I am deeply sorry to say that the least impressive vehicle I drove in respect of bangs and breaks over Australian roads was the Rover 3500, which is currently very popular in the executive class — a category led by Ford with the Falcon/Fairlane, while GM tend to lead in the expanding smaller categories. Another threat that has materialised to Rover is the Japanese off road competition from Toyota for the Land Rover. I was bluntly told by one country man that the Toyota was not only cheaper, but also now improved to the point where it was better for the job. I was not able to judge the truth of this, but there are certainly a lot more Toyota off road vehicles around than Land Rovers and Range Rovers put together.

Prices? The Fairlane cost about £6,000 complete with air conditioning, electric windows and all the other things, except an i.r.s. rear end (it is creakily leaf-sprung) that a European Granada buyer would expect for £8,000 plus. Other prices I checked at random were the Alfetta 2000L, at approximately £6,000 too, while a Volvo 244GL starts at £5,250 for a four-speed manual.

Lots of vehicles are missing from the World’s offerings of course, principally the front drive machines. There is a prejudice against the layout, coupled to the fact that it would cost so much to import the transaxles — and it is not really worth tooling up for the needs of f.w.d. for Australian sales. GM are currently arguing with the government over this, trying to trade off exports (which are almost non-existent at the moment because of Australian labour rates) against imports at a reduced duty.

Leyland used to be represented by a largescale manufacturing plant producing specialist six, eight, and four cylinder cars for the market, but that is now history, along with the Mini. From a strictly motorist’s viewpoint I enjoyed the price of petrol, the chance to drive some interesting bigger engined cars and the dirt roads. I didn’t much like the worry of police action (Super Snooper radar detection is vital and effective), or the normal main road driving. A fine country for the enthusiast of saloon car racing, but even better rallying country. —

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