John Bowe drives a Race of Champions 1980 VC HDT Commodore
Our man reacquaints himself with a piece of Aussie racing history.
The last time I laid eyes on this car, Formula One driver Didier Pironi was buried in the passenger side rear door! It was the 1980 Australian Grand Prix at Calder Park in Melbourne. Bob Jane – the brains behind Calder Park – had brought back our new world champ, Alan Jones, to race a whole lot of other drivers in a dozen brand new Brock Commodores, the whole thing was a pretty big deal.
I was racing that weekend in a Formula 5000, and I was lucky enough to be invited to race in the Race of Champions. What a great showcase that was for this car. It was all the racing heroes of the day and it was a bit of a free-for-all! I was an open wheeler driver and we’re not into body contact, but all these other blokes were pretty eager so just to keep up with them you had to be pretty willing.
There was a race on Saturday and a race on Sunday and on aggregate points, I actually won! All of a sudden, I’d become someone who’d been noticed! This was 1980, and I didn’t get into Touring Cars until five years later. I’ve got a picture at home somewhere of Jackie Stewart – he was an icon of F1 and did some commentary for TV - presenting me with a great big Big M Milk trophy with a group of pretty Big M girls standing behind me. That was a pretty major moment, let me tell you!
It was actually a lot of fun. These cars were bog standard cars from HDT, right down to those Uniroyal tyres. Peter Brock was the Holden factory driver when half of Australia drove Holdens. The man was a hero. I had some conversations with him and his management about driving for the Holden Dealer Team; but it never came to anything. But him doing these road cars was pretty special stuff.
Even today, it’s quite an impressive drive. It has quite nice steering which I would put down to the rack and pinion set-up. Even plenty of European cars of the time still had boxes. Brocky installed Bilsteins and played with the camber and caster to provide more cornering grip. You can feel that it’s light. At around 1300kg, its half a tonne lighter than modern day HSVs. Lightness equals power so it gets along at a pretty good rate. Sure, it’s not a tyre-tearing monster but it’s still a fairly fast motor car. I think they were quoted at 165kW which is bugger-all in today’s terms. But at the time, this car was a huge break-through.
Brocky had a hot-rodder’s feel for cars and I think in today’s world where we’re more strictly governed by rules and regulations, maybe he wouldn’t have been as successful. But in that era, what he did was what every little kid would love to do, build special muscly road cars!
It was the start of what we still have; our own little iconic Australian muscle car industry.
THE RACE OF CHAMPIONS
What better way to promote Australia’s newest high-performance road car than by racing it? That was the thinking behind the Race of Champions at the Australian Grand Prix at Calder Park in November 1980. It was a very public debut for the then-new HDT Commodore created by Peter Brock’s HDT Special Vehicles.
Lining up on the grid that weekend were 11 identical – except for colour - HDT Commodores. (The plan was to race a dozen, but one car suffered problems.). Kevin Bartlett won the first race on Saturday, with a young bloke by the name of John Bowe coming second. After starting some way back on the grid, Peter Brock won Sunday’s second race in his lone black car.
The races demonstrated just how seriously good the original Brock Commodore was. Back then, Australia was Kingswood Country. Cross-ply tyres were the norm; motorists were only just getting used to the term ‘Radial Tuned Suspension’. Reviewers were in awe of even the base-model Commodore L’s on-road dynamics. So putting a dozen road cars onto a track was a visionary idea.
This is the car that Australia’s first F1 Champ Sir Jack Brabham raced. Numbered 11, it’s now owned by John and Donna McCoy Lancaster who restored the car during 2006/07. Big thanks to both the McCoy Lancasters, and their mate for bringing the car to our photo shoot.
- Glenn Torrens
Engine: Holden/HDT V8
Internals: HDT-spec cam, heads and ignition
Induction: Rochester Quadrajet (four barrel) on HDT-modified manifold
Exhaust: HDT/HM extractors, Holden dual system
Other stuff: HDT cold air intake
Gearbox: M21-spec close-ratio four speed manual
Diff: 3.23:1 LSD
Wheels: 15x6-inch HDT-spec Irmscher alloys
Tyres: ER60H16 Uniroyals
Suspension: HDT modified with Bilstein dampers, stiffer springs, extra caster/camber
Brakes: 280mm vented front discs, 260mm rear discs, performance pads, 25mm master cylinder
Body: HDT front and rear spoilers, wheel arch flares, HDT stripes and bootlid badge, body-colour bumpers
Seats: Commodore SL/E
Trim: Red velour
Gauges: Holden/HDT full instruments
Wheel: HDT/Momo three-spoke leather
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