MIDNIGHT, APRIL 1972. The Great Western Freeway between Adelaide and Melbourne is still, subdued by the heavy blanket of night. A pair of headlights streak across Victoria’s vast western plains, disrupting the peace and tearing into the darkness like a serrated knife through linen sheets.
It’s a yellow LJ Torana, rego KSN 116, with a fresh-faced 21-year-old at the helm, pushing his galloping metal steed to near terminal velocity in a show of youthful bravado. Thin rimmed glasses help him peer into the inky blackness before him as the speedo needle swings around the dial – 100mph, 110mph, 120mph. It’s a relentless climb accompanied by a 308ci V8 bellowing in top gear – a guttural war cry sung to only the empty fields that stand as solitary witness to this high-speed display of automotive grandeur.
Now, some of you might be thinking, the LJ Torana was never sold with a 308 V8, right? Correct, but this wasn’t any regular LJ, it was the test mule for a secret Holden project intent on defeating Ford’s all-conquering XY GTHO Phase III Falcons – and this is its story.
It wasn’t just any 21-year-old achieving the speeds, either – 130mph, 140mph, and still climbing – but a youthful Larry Perkins (long before his F1 foray, and a decade before he’d claim outright victory at the Bathurst 1000) who was working as a mechanic for the Holden Dealer Team (HDT).
He chances a final glance at the speedo. The needle now indicating 150mph (just over 240km/h), and the V8 is now sounding like a relentless heavy-metal riff, the tempo ever increasing as revs build toward a 5500rpm redline.
You see, in 1971 Ford had debuted its now-legendary GTHO Phase III Falcon at the Bathurst 500. Powered by a 351ci Cleveland V8, the brawny Ford crushed Holden’s puny Torana at the power-centric Mount Panorama circuit – sweeping the first seven grid slots in qualifying and finishing 1-2-3 in the race. The wily and enigmatic Harry Firth was leading Holden’s technically not-factory-backed, but factory-funded race team at the time, and came to a realisation: if he was to get a fair fight at Mount Panorama the next year, he’d need to replace the XU-1 Torana’s sixcylinder pea shooter with a V8 cannon.
Perkins was charged by Firth to create the first-ever V8 Torana, under the auspicious guidance of legendary engine builder Ian Tate. “I remember the project well,” Perkins tells Wheels. “I was given the job by Harry, who said ‘put that V8 there, the one on the ground, into that car’.
“It was straightforward getting the 308 into the Torana. We may have had to cut the cross member out of it, or shift the brake power booster, but it wasn’t a big job.”
While Perkins was in charge of stuffing the V8 into the LJ’s engine bay, it was Tate who helped make the call on using the venerable 308ci motor.
“There were three engines considered for the project,” Tate recalls to Wheels. “We borrowed a little trailer and drove up to a woodmason’s shop that had a weighbridge. General Motors had provided us with a six-cylinder from America – if you thought the XU-1’s engine was big, this thing was massive, almost four and a bit litres – plus a 253, and a 308. We weighed all three of them, and that information went back to General Motors, and the big sixcylinder was dropped as an option and we went from there.
“The boys finished the car off on Christmas Eve ’71.”
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