Holden HT Monaro - 2016 Motorclassica winner

By: John Wright, Cliff Chambers, Guy Allen - Unique Cars magazine, Photography by: Nathan Jacobs & Stuart Grant

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It not only proved that we could make a fast coupe, a Monaro has now shaken up the world of Concours

For the first time, an Australian car has won the nation’s premier show: Motorclassica. Terry Smart’s lovely white HT Holden Monaro GTS 350 still wears the original black and white numberplates and was recently restored from the ground-up (just making the show deadline) to a standard where it beat myriad Ferraris, Aston Martins and the like.

The GTS 350 made its debut in 1969, but the significance of this sports coupe in Australian automotive history can only be understood by taking a flashback to the previous year.

In 1968 automotive brands were less confusing. A Porsche was a rear-engined sports car and a Holden was a sedan, wagon, ute or van. So it was that the arrival of the Holden Monaro GTS 327 late in the winter of that year was almost as astonishing as a UFO landing on a nearby sports oval.

Imagine this scenario. Reg and Barb got married in late June 1968 and bought themselves a brand spa Kerr’s Candy Apple Red Ford XT Falcon GT as their wedding present. They drove from wintry Melbourne to the Gold Coast hinterland where they had a six-week camping honeymoon. No newspapers, no radio, no TV, just newlywed bliss and the occasional fast drive in their fab Ford.

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In their last week camping, they take the GT in for its first service. It’s a peerless day, one of those typical south-east Queensland pearlers. Reg decides to find a deserted road – easy in those days before the whole Gold Coast was its own metropolis. extending miles inland – and take the GT to V-Max.

He’s cruising at 80 (miles per hour) waiting for the perfect long straight. For the last 10 minutes they haven’t seen another vehicle. Reg checks the mirror and is astonished to see a yellow car gaining on him. There’s no siren on top and he’s never seen or heard of a yellow police car.

In outline the vehicle looks almost like an HK Holden but, no, it’s too low-slung, too sleek. It’s closing quickly now. ‘Put your foot down, Honey,’ says Barb. ‘Let’s show this poser.’ Reg needs no urging, sinks his Raoul Merton deep into the throttle. The speedo sweeps past 100 and now the yellow car is clearer in the mirror. He daren’t look for more than a second. It sure looks like an HK grille but this must be a coupe, it’s so low.

One-one-zero, one-one-five. The Ford has more to come, but it’s starting to come more slowly. Meanwhile the yellow car is – astonishingly; it’s not a Porsche 911 or an E-Type – preparing to overtake.

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Reg can count every additional mile per hour. One-one-six. One-one-seven. Hell, the yellow devil is moving across, its shape crystallising. It looks for all the world like a Holden coupe but there’s no such thing. Barb focuses all her attention on the overtaking vehicle. ‘It’s definitely a Holden,’ she yells above the 302 V8’s roar.

The yellow car is emphatically a Holden, and undeniably a beautiful coupe. ‘We’ve been bush too long,’ bellows Reg. We’ve somehow missed this news. A bloody Holden. A bloody coupe. And the badge says GTS!’

When Porsche produced its first Cayenne, the purists complained but when Holden caught us all comatose with its HK Monaro there was nothing but delight. Holden the brand was sexy for the first time.

‘For those who feel the world has gone a little grey we present Monaro, Australia’s first sports machine.’ Thus began the HK Monaro brochure. Now, these 48-plus years down the bitumen, this seems almost like an understatement because nobody foresaw how that original Holden coupe would change the landscape of Australian motoring, focusing on one particular venue called Mount Panorama in the NSW town of Bathurst.

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Put simply: the HK Monaro was the first Holden to come to market with a variant primarily intended for racing. The S4 variant of the EH was too little, too late, too compromised. But the GTS 327 was always going into the 1968 Great Race as favourite. It’s 5.7-litre Chevrolet V8 was much more engine than Henry’s little 302, let alone the 289 that had powered the winning XR GT the previous year.

The Monaro was slipped onto the market six months after the rest of the ‘New Generation’ HK range. Another car as forgettable from day one as the Monaro was memorable made its debut at the same time – Brougham, which by dictionary definition is pretty close to old carriage with luxury pretensions.

The Monaro wasn’t Australia’s first sports machine, nor our first coupe, but in my lifetime there has never been a more exciting new Australian car. Here was an absolutely homegrown coupe that was a match for a Chevy Camaro or Mustang.

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In his classic Australia’s Greatest Motor Race 1960-1989, Bill Tuckey writes: "In stock form the 327 Monaro ran standing quarters in the mid-15s and pulled just on 200 km/h at the top end. It was a good handler that you could throw into controlled oversteer as you liked, either with wheel or power, although while it had the disc/drum rear set-up, it was always a little suspect on brakes. But it was as quick as the Falcon GT, and probably better handling, so the gauntlet was definitely thrown down."

Tuckey drove a Fiat 124 Sport in 1968 but was in a GTS 350 the following year. As far as he was concerned the HT represented a significant advance on the HK.

And so it came to 1969. Knowing that Ford was moving to a bigger and tougher Falcon, and unhappy with the coarseness of the old 327 engine and clunky American gearbox, GMH made its Monaro with the superb 350 cid Chevrolet V8 and the latest four-speed transmission, plus some smarter suspension work and better brakes.

Harry Firth, head of the newly formed Holden Dealer Team followed Bruce McPhee’s tyre formula from the previous year when he won the race in his GTS 327 on half-worn Michelin XAS tyres. The highest qualifying of the HDT trio, Digby Cooke, did a 2:50 flat, 6.7 seconds quicker than the best of the HKs: nearly seven seconds is a long time in one lap of Mount Panorama.

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But Phil West still prefers the 327. ‘The 350s were nowhere near as nice. Firth preferred understeer so changed the handling completely.’ But West had played a big role in developing the HK’s dynamics, having worked on it at Lang Lang in the Bathurst development program: 

"They had a few pre-production Monaros we were developing and five Falcon GTs to test against them. Interestingly, Ford and GM had swapped these cars to avoid having to buy each others’ cars. As they came the Monaros were about 2.5 seconds quicker than the GTs [at Lang Lang]. The Holden people had done a magnificent job of developing the Monaro before we started. They were very quick, with a nice gentle oversteer at the limit, and very forgiving. The Ford was a serious understeerer at the limit, and took serious provoking to get the tail out to tighten the turn-in, or mid-corner when needed. It was very quick below this limit, but it was when you provoked the oversteer that the thing really wanted to bite. We worked on each, developing the Falcon as we expected they would do, while developing the Monaros. We knocked about four seconds off the initial lap times of each, but the Monaro still had that 2.5 second advantage."

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Maximum power of the 327 was quoted at 250 brake horsepower at 4800rpm with 439Nm of torque at 3200rpm. The Bathurst cars might have nudged 300 bhp. But the GTS 350 had 300 on the showroom floor.

It is often thought that the first version of a car is the purest but in the case of the hottest Monaro, that wasn’t the case. There is no question that the 350 V8 was smoother and much more powerful than the old 327 and it made a huge difference to the car. While Phil West took a different view on suspension from Harry Firth, the stopwatch doesn’t lie and the GTS 350 was the quickest Holden around Mount Panorama under the old series production rules – four seconds quicker than Colin Bond’s XU-1 in 1970, 6.7 quicker than Bruce McPhee’s pole-winning and race-winning GTS 327 in 1968.

Wind back to today and the example you see here had a unique start in life. Owner Terry Smart takes up the story: "Born at Melbourne’s Dandenong plant, this car was a one owner until 2004, retaining extraordinary originality.

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"Its build schedule confirmed this GTS as a ‘priority’ order and was removed from the production line midstream. Expert opinion suggests this may have been for a competition race order. Known as one of the approximately 12 to 14 Melbourne ‘mystery’ Monaros by one the country’s foremost Holden historians, this HT was fitted with the rare Chevrolet-sourced 618-numbered engine block, being a higher nickel and tin content unit designed for higher performance engines. This part was also used in Z28 Camaro.

"Lying unutilised for some time, this GTS rejoined the production line some 1800 cars later and production was completed. The car was then purchased from a local Melbourne dealer for $4450."

In the end, the judges at the 2016 Motorclassica scored it as a 100-point restoration. Spectacular...

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