Meet Project HQ
Meet our next creation - a 1971 Holden HQ GTS Touring Car Masters race car - and the bloke who's going to build it for us...
As plans go, it’s simple but effective. We’re taking the big black monster you see here – a 1971-build Holden HQ GTS Touring Car Masters race car – and turning it into a road car that keeps some of its existing fighting character. With our own Uncle Phil steering the project, the hard work is being tackled by TCM competitor and long-time industry stalwart Gary O’Brien through his new business, Bendigo Retro Muscle Cars.
Oh, and the good news? You could end up owning it. Meet Project GTS, our next big build and give-away car for the first half of 2015.
Who’s the bloke behind the machine? Gary has built up a reputation for being one of the very likeable characters in the TCM paddock, as well as a formidable competitor. However, his real job is as the owner/operator of a car repair and build business based in Bendigo. In fact, he’s been in the trade since 1979.
"Where I worked, that business was established in 1850 and I was a fabricator by trade, and that place was winding down," he said.
"I had this passion for building stuff for cars, I worked in the sheet-metal shop, which was old school. So I learned a whole heap of stuff about cars … I had these great old tradesmen to teach me that stuff. It was all by hand – old skills.
"At the time, I probably didn’t appreciate it, but it turned into a situation when I was about 21 where the business was winding back.
"I’d already started doing rust repairs in whatever was around back in the day – EHs, that sort of thing.
"Back then we couldn’t buy a part from Rare Spares, so you had to hand-make it all. I was doing that on the weekends and had a young family – I started making more money on the weekends than I was during the week.
"I thought I might try my hand at getting into business and doing my own thing, so I packed up my toolbox. I had no idea on how to run a business, but I winged it and survived.
"It’s been a great journey. I still wake up happy and want to go and do it. People say I’m sick!"
Over time, the business has had to change significantly from the original Panels & Performance shop he started with partner Greg East.
"I floundered around for years. As the crash industry changed (that’s become my bread-and-butter business) we had to work out how to make money from such a micro-managed and controlled industry. It was really difficult. We had to get systems in place and become a business-person.
"The commercial business now has managers and it basically drives itself. My daughter runs that show. The spin-off was to get back into this (muscle cars)."
These days the portfolio has three elements: Bendigo Accident Repair Centre, a more specialised workshop in the shape of Panels & Performance, and the new arm called Bendigo Retro Muscle Cars. It’s the latter that reflects Gary’s true interests and will be where our GTS gets built.
"As the game changed, all those old skills have been lost. I feel sad for all these kids today because they bolt on a mudguard, put a grille in and put a headlight on – they haven’t got the panel-beating skills.
"My passion is the old stuff. So we got the business to run, and the long-term goal was to have a sandpit to play in and do what we love doing and, hopefully, pass this on to some future generations.
"What’s driving me personally is things like the race cars, touring car masters, and all the different good people we’ve met through these old cars. I’m lucky enough to have attracted a few good people to help me do this, so we’re off on another journey. I kick start every morning because there’s lots to be done!"
Gary’s petrolhead tendencies have local roots: "The idea of General Motors or Ford building an homologated special for Bathurst and then go racing always appealed to me," he says. "I always had that muscle car thing in the back of my mind.
"You look at the theory back then, which was strip all the good bits out, like air-conditioning and electrics, make it light, put bigger brakes on and hotter engines. That set where I wanted to go with cars.
"Back in the day, 1980, I put an LS7 454 in my LH Torana, and I used to go cruising in that. I could take it to Heathcote on the weekend and run sub-12 and burn around in it during the week. It was a great car. It was probably overkill for the street. I had to get on the track. That probably took another 15 years. Being in business and a young family took priority."
Gary entered his first circuit race in 1986, at Winton in a warmed up VB Commodore. "I put some good tyres on it and went skidding around. It was stripped out, of course; vinyl seats, no radio.
Didn’t have the good brakes – couldn’t afford them."
The HQ came along in 2003 and was raced in the Nc historic category for a while. "It was a bomb and used to run last and was a real handful. The things I learned from that…"
It wasn’t until 2007 that Gary finally got a taste of the Touring Car Masters action with the HQ, and gained a bit of national recognition.
"When I joined TCM, I’d only done five to ten races at club level.
"The passion was always to build a car and put a driver in it and let them go do their thing. That all worked fairly well for a while until they kept blowing things up and smashing things. That’s getting expensive, so then I started driving it myself. I thought, wow, this is fun!"
Gary reckons the key to enjoying your racing is to relax and just concentrate on driving the car, rather than what everyone else is doing. He says he sees other competitors who are "always on the limit – valve bouncing – I think, why would you do that? I walk around fairly relaxed, drive fairly relaxed and have a whole heap of fun."
Fun it may be, but slow it ain’t. Gary says the car was "nearly touching 275km/h last year, though it’s fairly short on horsepower". Running in the 5-litre category, the car produced about 500 horsepower rather than its full 530-plus potential to help reliability and keep the repair bills under control. "We run a bit skinny," Gary admits. "All the guys that help me are one-man shows. We could run at 500 all day."
In the meantime, the team learned that getting the monster to brake and turn was just as important as horsepower when it comes to producing lap times – perhaps even more so. The proof of this approach has been a number of class lap records over the years, plus a category championship win and numerous other gongs.
The black HQ has developed something of a cult following within the championship and, in honour of that, it will keep its existing colour through our rebuild.
Which begs a question: what are we going to do with it? This is where Unique Cars’ project manager Uncle Phil steps in. He and Gary have been hatching a plan that involves maintaining the HQ’s existing character rather than restoring it back to its original form.
"Old race cars usually go into obscurity," Gary said. "I’d like to see it stay the way it is now, with some special badging."
Phil nodded: "I’ve seen a lot of his work, and it’s pretty special. I want to see plenty of power and say to JB (John Bowe, UC’s road and track tester), let’s go out to Winton and do a 1:30 in it."
"If it’s that quick we’ll take it racing again!" Gary exclaimed.
Lots of details have yet to be decided. What we have agreed on is to turn it into a feisty road car that keeps a lot of its ex-racer character.
Under the bonnet, we’ll have a GM V8, possibly a stroked 350 taken out to 383. Behind that, we’re looking at a restored ex-race Super T10 four-speed ’box.
The boys reckon some early Corvette brakes could also be in the mix.
"This will have a little build plate that says TCM build number 14," Gary said. "It’s gotta have the race cred, but have power, and be able to stop and handle."
He reckons the small details have to be right as well.
"You see some restored cars and they look great, but the windows are not working, the gearshift is a bit dicky, the door drops when it’s opened. The idea is to have a car that’s 100 per cent operational, that feels like a new car."
As you can see, the plans are a little vague at this stage, but Gary and Uncle Phil are already arguing over who gets the first drive. "Me," says Phil emphatically. Watch this space.
Holden GTS 1971-72
Engine: 253 or 350 V8
Power: 138 or 205kW
Torque: 355 or 490Nm
Gearbox: 4-speed manual
Brakes: discs/drums (f/r)
Top Speed: 220km/h
Value: $20-40,000 in road trim
|Visit the website: www.bendigoretro.com.au|
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