Ex-HDT Torana XU-1 rally car

By: Ged Bulmer, Unique Cars magazine, Photography by: Mark Bean

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Tracing the lineage of this ex-HDT Holden Torana GTR XU-1 took some painstaking detective work from a local motorsport hero

My wife is a fan of the SBS reality TV show Who Do You Think You Are? The show deftly traces the genealogy of various Aussie celebrities, from actors to musicians to sports stars, and inevitably throws up some skeletons in the familial closet. It occurs to me that a similar show on classic cars could have legs, since old cars as we know have usually been through multiple sets of hands on their journey through life, and often have their own ‘skeletons’.

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All of this is especially the case when it comes to old race cars, as I discovered when I began chasing information on a specimen owned by Sydneysider Peter Farrelly-Rogers. I met the gregarious 70-something on a Maserati drive day at Phillip Island and assumed he was a well-heeled retiree with a garage full of Italian exotics. Peter quickly set me straight on that, as he’d been given the drive by his brother-in-law who’d won it in a charity auction. He did, however, have a unique piece of Aussie motoring history back home, in the shape of Holden LJ Torana GTR XU-1. And not just any XU-1 but an ex-HDT car that had won the ’73 rally championship. Say what!

| Read next: 1976 Holden Torana LX SL ex-HDT promo car

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I nearly gagged on my prosciutto and swiftly whipped out the notepad to record a few details. According to Peter, he’s owned the rare Aussie giant-killer since 1988, after stumbling across a ‘For Sale’ advertisement in the Sydney Trading Post. "We couldn’t believe the ad," says Peter, recalling how even back then the words "Ex-HDT Torana XU1" leapt out like neon from the jumble of closely-stacked text.

| Read next: 40 years of HDT Special Vehicles

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Shortly thereafter he and a mate were bee-lining south to Wollongong to check out this unicorn. Once there they met by a character who, as Peter puts it politely, "seemed a bit down on his luck", but who showed them to the car in pieces in his shed. The car was "not very good," and "looked like it had been around the traps," says Peter, "But the main thing was that it had the (competition) log books and he could back up everything."

With the log books providing some assurances of its provenance and the bloke seeming to have a good handle on its past life, the deal was soon done, and the car trailered back to Sydney, at which point Peter’s friend and renowned touring car fettler Ron Missen picks up the story. 

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Yep, that’s the same Ron Missen who built a reputation through the '70s and '80s for building some of the quickest touring cars in the country. Ron owned and ran RJ Missen Automotive in the Sydney suburb of Ingleburn for nearly four decades during which time he worked closely with the Ron Hodgson Motors race team. Among the long list of famous cars Ron spannered on were Bob Morris’s LJ Torana GTR XU-1, which finished second outright in the ’74 Australian Touring Car Championship; and Kevin Bartlett’s Channel 9 Camaro, which also placed second outright in the 1980 ATCC.

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As Peter tells it, back in ’77 he’d purchased a genuine A9X hatch and when he later wanted to add a drop tank, extractors and airbox, he was steered towards Ron. That was the beginning of their automotive friendship, but it would be some two decades later before another Torana would reunite them. Ron recalls that Peter gave the XU-1 to a mate to repair but, like so many old car projects, the resto fizzled out and the car ended up being stored unceremoniously out in the open on acreage in Minto Heights. "We lived very close to there and would go past it every now and then and I would see this white Torana out in the paddock," says Ron, who didn’t know of the car’s HDT provenance, or that Peter owned it.

However, a decade after buying the car, Peter finally accepted the resto was going nowhere, and asked Ron to take it over. "I went out there (in ’98) and all this grass had grown through it and it was a bit of a mess. It was bad, it’d had a massive hit on the left-hand corner that was gone. We ended up stripping it and sandblasting it and all that sort of stuff," says Ron.

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Ron’s Ingleburn workshop was in full flight at the time and restorations weren’t really his thing, but he had a project room and a semi-retired panel beater who’d come into the shop and work on the car every day for nearly a year. Fortunately, they also had some materials to work with as the bloke Peter bought the car off had sold it with new sill panels, bonnet, boot, nose and more.

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Famous Aussie racing signatures

As they dug into the XU-1, Ron discovered that successive owners had left their mark on it, with various modifications that weren’t true to its HDT race-spec. This included the battery having been moved to the boot, and a hydraulic clutch assembly, among other things. Other mods, such as seam welding, strengthened top arms and diff housing, looked to have been the work of Harry’s HDT crew.

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While the body was one thing, the engine was quite another and needed special attention, says Ron. Fortunately, the car still had its period-spec drivetrain, namely an M21 four-speed gearbox, hitched to the race-bred 3.3-litre inline six cylinder, with big inlet valves, heavy-duty rods, the HX-grind hydraulic camshaft, triple Zenith-Stromberg carburettors and extractors.  "But the block had a massive big split in the bore and was full of yuck inside the motor. It’d had a fairly hard life." says Ron. "Back then you could buy new blocks with no engine number and you’d get a card from GM saying if you’re not using the old engine number you can put this engine number on it. So, we stamped the engine number off the damaged block onto that."

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The car was eventually finished and handed back to Peter in ’99, but by then Ron had become intrigued by a couple of aspects of its back story that didn’t quite add up. "You see Peter always thought it was the ’73 winning car," says Ron, meaning the ’73 Australian Rally Championship-winning HDT XU-1 driven by Peter Lang and navigator Warwick Smith. The pairing beat their better known and more highly fancied HDT teammates Colin Bond and George Shepheard to the silverware that year. While Ron had no doubt this was an HDT car, the compliance plate of Peter’s car showed a build date of the second month of ’73, while the first round of the ARC that year was the Uniroyal Southern Rally 500, on 10-11 March. He reasoned that this would have made it impossible for the car to have made that event, or for that matter the next round two weeks later, where Lang/Smith placed second outright. In addition, the car’s racing logbook wasn’t logged until ’74, prompting Ron to put on his deerstalker hat and channel his inner Sherlock Holmes.

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Ron’s detective work led him back to his old touring car connection Ian Tate, who at the time was chief mechanic for Harry ‘The Fox’ Firth. Harry was running the HDT team in ’73 and Ian was working with him, so they had first-hand knowledge of the car and its provenance. It was Ian who confirmed the XU-1 was an indeed one of the former HDT cars but not the car that won the ’73 Championship. Instead, he explained, it was built for Lang and Smith for the start of the ’74 rally season, which gelled with the competition logbook dates.

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Here is one of the three Strombergs that feed the straight six

As Ron tells it, Ian Tate recalled that the team had a spare body shell they were planning to use on Peter Brock’s infamous mid-mount V8-engined XU-1 sports sedan, "The Beast". But Harry nixed that idea and instead suggested using the body of the’73 Championship-winning car for that project, meaning Peter’s car became the beneficiary of the rolling chassis from the championship car.

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As Ian Tate explained it to Ron, when they built the new car for Lang-Smith in ’74, they took all the rally bits out of their championship-winning ’73 car and transferred them to the new body shell. "So, all the components in there, like the gearbox, diff, the front-end, even the doors on that (Peter’s) car is off the early car," says Ron.

After a handful of rallies for HDT in ’74 the car went to Bill Patterson Motors who sold it to a bloke on the NSW Central Coast by the name of Robert Jackson who continued to rally it until about ’77, says Ron. "A guy out at Penrith bought it off Jackson and he used to hillclimb it and do lap dashes around Amaroo and all that. He sold it to somebody in Coogee, and then I think the guy from Wollongong bought it from him and he was going to restore it, but as far as I know he did stuff all."

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These days this valuable piece of Australian motorsport history spends most of its time in storage, but owner Peter gets it out for a weekly run through his home streets of the inner-west suburb of Rozelle. It still turns plenty of heads with the rorty rasp of its triple Strombergs and race exhaust, says Peter.

"It’s a little bit noisy, but it’s nice, I like the sound of it," he laughs, "It’s a very smooth car and feels so small when you get into it, as I’m used to bigger cars."

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The plates are as desirable as the car

While the car’s original plates are long gone, it wears the prized NSW numberplate of HDT-XU1. Ron remembers these as having come into Peter’s hands by pure chance back in 1979. "We finished it in ’79 and, this is how arsy he is, he went up there to get it regoed at Ingleburn and spoke to the woman there and said, ‘have you got any numberplates that might have HDT or XU1 in it?’ They didn’t but she said, ‘we’ve got HDT XU1, would you like that?’" laughs Ron incredulously.

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The dash looks remarkably standard

Both the car and the plates are likely to be put up for sale later this year, says Peter, who admits he doesn’t know what either are worth but believes they’ve both been solid investments. "I’m going to sell it, I’ve had it long enough now. I’ll probably sell the number plate separately to the car in case someone from interstate buys it and doesn’t want the (NSW) plate," he said. In Unique Cars 2020 Value Guide (UC # 435) classic car guru Cliff Chambers rates a Condition 1 LJ Torana XU-1 as being worth $135,000, and that "$150K for an exceptional LJ XU-1 remains possible."

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Mind your step getting into the XU-1 office

While the changed body shell might make valuation difficult, the fact that this car has racing provenance may well counter any concerns. That and the the original logbooks, with period images of the car in its Marlboro HDT livery, not to mention the word of no less than Ron Missen, Harry Firth and Ian Tate to back him up. There’s also a signed Bathurst paddock-access pass from Harry, which Ron obtained for Peter back in about 2000. "I spoke to old Harry and he said ‘yes, that’s the last LJ Torana we built in the factory’," said Ron. While that lot might not compensate for actual DNA, it’s about as good as ancestry gets in the arcane world of true-blue Aussie race cars.

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(Editor's note: despite our best efforts to trace the history of this car, doubts have since been expressed by people in the Torana community. Our advice with this car, and any high-value vehicle, is to take every precaution to double-check its provenance before committing to a purchase.)

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