1954 FJ Holden Tarmac Rally Car Review
John Bowe gets to grips with an FJ tarmac rally car that's an incredible mix of old school and cutting edge
FJ Holden Tarmac Rally Car
In my youth I had a bit of a thing for the humble FJ and they played a major role in the early days of Australian motorsport. Greats like Leo Geoghegan, Norm Beechey, John French, Bob Holden and Norm Gown cut their teeth in ‘humpys’ and in Tasmania where I grew up, Brian Higgins won two Tasmanian touring car championships in an FJ.
This car is owned by Dave Ryan, who’s a mate and one of the directors of Rare Spares, and the work that’s gone into it is mind blowing, considering Dave and his team started with a dismantled shell that cost him $750. It was built for Dave and Greg Stevenson to contest La Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, which is a recreation of the original early ‘50s rally. Think of it as a Mexican Targa Florio.
Dave asked me to drive it because it had handling issues and as soon as I did I knew what Kym DeBritt (who is now driving the car for Dave) was complaining about. It was as nervous as buggery in the rear from turn-in to mid-corner and that stops you from pushing harder. Once you were back on the throttle and in the exit phase of the corner it was fine, but the way the car was at Winton, it would bite you if you had to make a split-second decision on a bumpy targa stage. You need a benign car for tarmac rallying.
I reckoned it needed a stiffer front anti-roll bar and maybe a stiffer front spring because it was rolling diagonally and unloading the rear end too quickly and the back was trying to pass the front. During the test session, we stiffened the front shocks, which improved it, and that told me that it wasn’t stiff enough in the front. Apart from not having 600hp, the handling was just like an old V8 Supercar’s, which is not surprising because there’s a lot of early V8 Supercar tech in this car and not a lot of FJ left.
It’s based on a very hot 48-series Holden that was built for Paul Freestone for Targa Tasmania and that Greg Stevenson did a lot of work on. Paul gave Dave access to all the CAD/CAM drawings done for his car by former V8 Supercar engineer Paris Acott. It was built on a master jig for accuracy and after the shell was welded to it they sliced off the bottom six inches so a new chassis and roll cage, fabricated by Steve Sinclair, could be installed. The cage makes the body very stiff and the chassis could easily handle 400hp.
Paris fabricated the double wishbone front-end, modified HQ uprights, adjustable Watts linkage and sway bars and Ron Harrop made the rear control arms and V8 Supercar-style VN Commodore diff which has a torque-biasing Truetrac centre. Former Williams F1/Prodrive fabricator Rob Harlow put a lot of work into it too. The steering is a real bitsa, with a BMW 3-Series power steering rack, A-Class Mercedes-Benz electric pump and VR Commodore column, but it steers fantastically well.
The old iron head red motor is set back three inches and the firewall is cut and shut to fit it and it’s beautifully executed. With only 270hp the power wasn’t overawing but you know I’m a fan of sixes. The Webers are so well sorted, they don’t spit, cough or backfire or have any flat spots. It only revs to 6500 and with stronger components you could rev it to 7500 and make more power but, again, it’s a road car not a race car. The Borg Warner Super T10 Plus four-speed was the best I’ve driven and the twin-plate Extreme clutch is just right for the power it makes. I was surprised how well the brakes worked. They’re just stock VE Commodore brakes with two-piston calipers adapted by Ron Harrop but it stops beautifully and it has really nice pedal feel due to a proper AP Racing pedal box.
You probably know that Rare Spares makes a ton of parts for old Holdens and Fords and things like the door handles in this FJ are beautiful. Inside it’s beautifully finished too with a modern MoTec dash but it’s amazing how small the cabin is and all that bar work makes it a tight fit. I really enjoyed this test and told Dave I’d love to do a ‘friendly’ event in it just for the hell of it, something like the Mount Buller sprint. Over to you, Dave…
CARRERA-ING AROUND MEXICO - DAVE RYAN
"Greg Stevenson and I did the 1993 London-Sydney Marathon in an HK Monaro and we’d talked about doing La Carrera for years. Just before my 60th Greg said, ‘Are we going to do La Carrera or not? We’re not getting any younger.’ An FJ fitted the bill because Rare Spares business is based on early model Australian cars. Also, my dad and uncle did the Redex Trial in FXs, and there haven’t been many periods in my life when I haven’t had one.
"It was the best event, fantastic. Scary fast in spots and very tough, you’re on the pace all the time, and they make the transport stage times very tight too. You really have to be on the go right from the jump. There’s no such thing as a speed limit, it’s just flat knacker all the way. We covered just on 3000km in seven days and a fair section of it was competitive stages but you’re going almost race pace on the transport sections.
"You can’t compare it to something like Targa Tasmania. It was just manic. It was not unusual to be in a stage at full noise and come across Pedro in his old ute with a donkey on the back of it going in the opposite direction. The stuff that went on…"
1954 FJ HOLDEN
Engine: 3298cc in-line 6, triple Weber carburettors
Power: 270hp @ 6500rpm
Gearbox: Borg-Warner Super T10 Plus 4-speed
Suspension: Double-wishbone, Eibach coil-overs, Koni shocks (f); Watts link, fully-floating Harrop Truetrac diff, Eibach springs, Koni shocks
Brakes: Modified VE Commodore discs
Steering: BMW rack, Holden column
0-100 km/h: 5.5 sec (approx)
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