Car Insights, Classic Cars, Collectors, Profiles

Racing around in a 1973 Holden Torana

Holden Torana

Peter Brock took his first Bathurst crown at the wheel of a Holden LJ Torana XU-1. Little wonder road-going versions are so highly sought after.

What would $15,000 buy you back in 2004? A shiny new Toyota Yaris if you wore your sensible hat, or how about one of these? A 1973 Holden Torana LJ XU-1 now worth over ten times that amount.

Gary Marriott snared himself this bargain XU-1 almost 20 years ago, and despite its subsequent stratospheric price rise, still uses it in the spirit of Peter Brock – the great man who piloted his Holden Dealer Team LJ XU-1 to 1972 Bathurst glory.

This low-mileage, three-owner classic is breathtaking in the metal. Its compact coupe body sits perfectly squat over tiny 13-inch Globe Sprintmaster alloys, and looks every inch the giant-killing mini-muscle car that so captured Australian imaginations half a century ago.

“My first car was an LJ XU-1, bought when I was sixteen,” Gary says. “It was a 1972 and I paid $2500. I was already working by then, and even though I wouldn’t have my licence for another six months, I had the car. After three years I sold it for a panel van, but I always promised I’d buy another XU-1.”

Packing a punch

Fast forward three decades and Gary made good on his word.

The original owner of the ’73 LJ bought it new in Melbourne, and in 1995 enlisted Tate Engines to rebuild the motor to 1973 Bathurst specifications.

“Ian Tate was Peter Brock’s engineer and a whizz with [Holden] Red motors,” says Gary. “It’s got the right gearbox [M21 close-ratio four-speed manual], the right diff, right engine, and the right head, which is pretty rare.

“The heads on these they’d throw away and put Yella Terras on because they thought there were better, but they weren’t. The XU-1 head was far better.”

Yella Terras were a popular aftermarket head upgrade offering a decent power gain for a reasonable price. Holden even enlisted its creator Dave Bennett to modify heads for the 202cu in ‘Bathurst’ GTR XU-1 cars.

Gary’s XU-1 isn’t one of these 200 ‘Bathurst Specials’ of 1972 or the 150 ‘Bathurst’ XU-1s of 1973, but Tate’s engine upgrades replicate them.

Under the bonnet is the 3.3-litre straight-six – first seen in Holden’s HQ – with uprated camshaft and higher compression ratio. A trio of Zenith-Stromberg CD-175 carburettors dominate the right-hand side of the engine bay, and do their part in offering a deliciously racy bark on start up.

“They haven’t got a lot of horsepower, it’s all about power-to-weight,” Gary says.

Factory rating was 142kW at 5600rpm, but weighing just 1048kg, the XU-1s would seriously shift.

“It’s not like a Ford 351 engine with lots of horsepower, but the XU-1’s just so small and light, it feels far more powerful than the numbers,” he says.

In the right hands

Gary says his 86,000 mile XU-1 was in good, tidy condition when he bought it, although the previous owner had added bonnet pins and the paint was showing

its age. He treated his new toy to a full repaint, and almost two decades later it still sparkles under sunny Queensland skies.

The current owner is perfect custodian for this slice of Australian history. When he was a kid, Gary’s parents both raced speedway, and they were always working on cars together in the back yard in Strathpine, north of Brisbane.

Initially a Ford nut, when he first saw a Warwick Yellow HK GTS Monaro he developed a Holden affliction too, cemented when the XU-1s hit the scene.

Gary’s current home workshop in rural Queensland is to die for.

The mighty space has a hoist, an engine stand holding a Ford 351, tools galore, Holden and Ford memorabilia hanging from walls, and a TV showing supercars. There’s even a wood burning stove and air conditioning to ensure it’s operational year-round.

Pieces of history

The XU-1 is up on the hoist as I arrive.

I’d forgotten how tiny these Toranas are –     hard to believe they roughed up the mighty V8 Falcon GT-HOs back in the day –          but then that Brock fella wasn’t bad at working miracles. The Torana’s underside is beautifully preserved, albeit with some tell-tale stone chips.

“It’s a car that gets driven,” Gary says. “If you don’t want stone chips, leave it at home. But that’s no fun.” Too true.

We check out the brakes – the same as used in HT/HK Monaros – which look meaty enough for an XU-1 of this size and weight.

A new set of Koni shocks have been fitted, replacing worn Bilsteins, while Gary’s just put in a new front end and steering rack.

“It still had original GMH ball joints, about fifty years old, so it’s been well looked after,” he says.

The Sprintmaster wheels may be buttonsized by today’s standards, but they’re certainly fat and help give this XU-1 a truly sexy stance.
They’re nine inches wide out back and seven inches up front, replacing six-inchwide originals, which he keeps in a box.

“These wheels were moulded off the ones raced at Bathurst in 1973,” Gary says. “They were magnesium and break down with age, so there was no choice but to make moulds.”

SEE ALSO: Ashley chose diesel mechanics, here’s why

The cabin mirrors the outside appearance – very well cared for but not trying to hide age or use. The seats feature Willans harnesses and look suitably period with houndstooth inserts.

“The first owner had these put in,” Gary says.

“Colin Bond used to race XU-1s with cloth seats as he didn’t slide around as much during cornering. They were a factory option, as was the radio.”

The simple AM radio is a true survivor. While most will have been ripped out for more flash aftermarket units, this one lives

  1. There’s even a mummified fly behind the plastic. If only it could talk, it would reveal some of the fun that’s been had in this hot Torana over the years.

The dash dials are classic 70s sportscar: simple black and white speedo, tacho, and vitals with orange needles – which are all a\ driver really needs.

Driving? That’s exactly what Gary does.

“I took it down to Sydney a couple of years ago, it went to Albury last year, and I’m taking it to Eastern Creek this December,” he says.

A fair few thousand added to the odo there.

“You know you’ve driven a distance in it,” Gary says. “It’s not really comfy. But they were built to race, not to be comfortable. On track it handles beautifully – it’s not overpowered and it’s just lovely to drive.”

Work of art

Another bonus is the XU-1’s sheer simplicity. Gary reports very little has gone wrong during his 20-year custodianship.

“The distributor played up once on the highway, but I carry spares and I got going in half an hour,” he says.
“Beyond that, it’s mainly servicing and regular oil changes.”

His mate Glenn Smith is always keen to help with upkeep, and Gary says he’s a master of the dying art of stripping down and rebuilding carburettors.

“I’ve only ever done the carbies once,” he says. “People say these carbies are a handful, but they’re a good basic carbie – easy to work on and easy to tune. Once tuned, they don’t go out.”

He opens the bottom drawer of his tool cabinet, and there’s the decades-old balancing gear close to hand. Such rarities are imperative when running a car like this. Neither Gary nor the XU-1 show signs of slowing down. He’s a regular at Torana club runs, and says if his mates plan any sort of distance trip, he’s straight in.

But when you fall in love with a car as a teenager, it can keep a grip on you for life. And Gary’s clear that this desirable, valuable Holden is one car he won’t sell for any price.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was $400,000,” he says. “I’m keeping it.”


Send this to a friend