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TG goes in search of Aussie muscle

  1. Just inside the doorway of Waddington Street Rod and Restoration Centre in Castlemaine, Victoria, stands a white Holden 48-215. It’s better known as the FX - the first car built in Australia for the Australian market. It still has a period chrome grin, and with its round eyes in bullet-shaped wings, resembles a marginally overinflated Morris Minor. Pearly white and sporting a decidedly non-vintage blue racing stripe, it is levitating gently on a set of axle stands, because this car - as you might expect of a Rod Shop intern - is not standard. Even though the heroic 1948 survivor is mostly stock on the outside, under the bonnet is a supercharged V6 engine, providing a good deal more power than the original 2.1-litre straight-six with its modest 60bhp. Turns out that Australians, like car enthusiasts the world over, love to tinker. Even icons aren’t safe from their tender ministrations.

    Which brings us to the car parked next to the FX, the car I’ve brought with me. It is based on a Holden Commodore, the latest Gen-F range, made faster by the independent associate Holden Special Vehicles. A bookend of the past 65 years of Holden production, then. It too wears a supercharger, but this time attached to a 6.2-litre V8, and producing 576bhp and 546lb ft of torque. The most powerful production car ever produced in Australia, and due to arrive in the UK this year, badged as the new Vauxhall VXR8 GTS. But the GTS is more than just a go-faster version of a cooking model (HSV likes to think of itself more as an AMG or M-Sport-style thorough engineering upgrade), because in Australia, this new, fastest-ever HSV is a bit of a superstar.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Pictures: Cristian Brunelli

    This feature was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. The television advertising doesn’t suffer from the slightly mincing European self-consciousness. It’s heavy on the blood-shunting rawk music, and basically announces with the universal gravelly tones of a Bruce Willis action movie, “The most powerful production car ever produced in Australia. Built for Australians by Australians. Buy one or you are a total loser.” I may be paraphrasing a little, but that’s the general gist.

  3. That sort of unapologetic tub-thumping works here. The result is plain to see. A five-seat saloon car that gets the kind of public reception that a Ferrari gets in Italy: broadband appreciation, almost universal approval. Which got me thinking. Australia seems to really understand the beauty of excess and revels in simple power. It doesn’t seem to have the sniffy attitude to brawn that we have in Europe, or feel the need to play down a powerful car. Which is brilliant. But if Australia’s newest poster child is this loud and fast, then how fast and loud is Australian car culture when left to its own devices? I have two days to find out. This might be fun.

  4. First thing to do was secure the HSV GTS as a kind of supercharged conversation-starter, and then head out and find car people. Turns out that you really don’t need to find anyone driving the new HSV, because they find you, immediately. Heading out from HSV in Melbourne and tracking down the Nepean Highway, we attract much attention, all of it good. I ask about local motorheads and immediately we pick up on a little car shop that has some “beauties”. It’s close, too, in a place called Dromana a few miles away. So photographer Cristian and I head down to an anonymous industrial estate and bang on a door. Like you do.

  5. Inside is a little slice of motorsport heaven. There are four inch-perfect Cobra Daytona Coupe replicas, kitted out variously for circuit, rally and road. Turns out Daytona Sports Cars really does have some beauties. These are no kit car-ish imitations either - the legendary Peter Brock liked them so much he raced one in the 2006 Targa Tasmania and was hoping to compete in the Bathurst 24-Hour Race before his untimely death in September of that year. You can see why he liked them. Old-school looks, modern mechanicals, unstinting attention to detail. And super-fast. Not quite what I was expecting from a first foray into Aussie cardom, but a nice surprise. But also not outrageous enough for my automotive treasure hunt, so it’s not long before we’re on our way to catch a ferry across the bay, looking for something a bit more obvious.

  6. Said ferry departs just past a little seaside town called Sorrento, on the spit of land that sticks out into Port Phillip Bay. On the way is a little wiggle of road that looks too tempting to miss, so we decide to give the VXR8 a little workout up a mountain called Arthurs Seat. A good call, because despite my Mad Max prejudices, it turns out Australia is not just dusty, arrow-straight outback roads. At all. And the VXR8 really is much, much faster and nimbler than you would give it credit for. In fact, the run up Arthurs Seat is the first time I’ve really had a chance to let the 6.2 loose on a road - Australian police evincing a famous zero-tolerance attitude to speeding - and it feels glorious. There’s torque-vectoring now, as well as latest-generation traction control and magnetic ride, but that’s all just tinsel to a car that thumps away in any gear. It is both familiar, and yet not so, meting out a tried and tested recipe with a modern twist - the chilli chocolate of modern muscle. But the basics are still there underneath. A manual gearbox. Rear-wheel drive. A stentorian bellow of V8 thunder. The sun is shining, the sea off to the right is a luminous, shimmering blue. Perfect. We cut back down Cape Schanck and hook back up and around through Tootgarook and Blairgowrie to hop on the ferry, causing a minor crowd-control incident when the other passengers see what we’re stowing in the bowels of the boat. Honestly? It’s a bit odd.

  7. After we’ve extricated ourselves from the gathered frenzy of questioning, we head towards Moolap and thence to Geelong and up towards Ballarat and Daylesford. The roads are an odd mix of twisty country lanes and mile-eating straights, rolling countryside framed by the windscreen. The GTS thrums, comfortably long-legged, surprisingly easy on fuel. Though this is a contextual statement based on the expectation of a supercharged V8 needing to be fed with the regularity of a newborn baby. The view, meanwhile, keeps on breathing out. The thing that keeps cropping up is a feeling of space, and an odd sort of calm. Like a prairie, once you’re out of the main suburban areas, Australia feels tangibly spacious. People seem to have a little more time, and you start to understand why Australian cars are the way they are. It’s a physically big country, and generous, loping cars feel appropriate here. Fuel is still relatively cheap, and there’s a definite ‘if it ain’t broke’ attitude. Change, one suspects, is gradual and glacial. It doesn’t need to be anything else.

  8. A feeling confirmed when we reach our destination: Castlemaine. Self-proclaimed Hot-Rod Capital of Australia, it boasts more road-registered street rods (identified by their special SR suffix numberplates) per capita than anywhere else on the continent. A quick trot out to meet Kelvin at Waddington reveals not so much a subculture as a mainstream operation. All sorts of Australian classics reworked and modified, from street-sleepers to resto-mods, pro-street to vintage, rat to pure-bred rod. And this is old-school brilliance: swathes of metal turned elegantly 3D from decidedly 2D sheets via English wheels (an old metalworking tool), hammers and formers. Proper stuff.

  9. A quick scout about, and we discover a meeting of the Castlemaine Street Rods club that very night. Game on. Now, to have a street rod, technically, you need something pre-1948, and modified. So the demographic tends towards the - ahem - more distinguished gentleman. At least in the Castlemaine Hot Rod Club. When asked about attracting younger rodders into the fold, president Rod Hadfield announced that they’d be welcome, “but they’ve got s**t hair and like s**t music, so they’d have to lose all of that…” But the grumpy welcome is a bit of a front; this is a friendly enough bunch, who simply glance at the GTS and announce it as “rodder fodder”. I think they’re joking, but assuming they’re not, we beat a swift exit before the V8 gets nicked for someone’s latest project.

  10. The next day we visit Rod’s lock-up - his mates call it the Garage Mahal - and see some of his projects. Turns out Rod is into everything. He built an incredible Merlin-engined roadster based on a model toy his grandfather made him. Twin-engined hot rods, salt racers, myriad rat rods and even a proper LA-style low rider. Turns out Rod’s automotive church is much broader than he makes out. But it’s all a bit… static. More phone calls, and we head back into Melbourne to see if the Muscle Car Expo at the Royal Exhibition Building can provide any leads. It’s a brilliant show, highlighting both Americana and home-grown Aussie muscle-car talent, which in some way ran in parallel to the US stuff, giving a deeper insight into why the continent may have grown up knowing that rightness is V8-shaped. A few polite enquiries while poking around the exhibits gives us another lead. Australia’s most powerful HSV Commodore apparently lives in Melbourne.

  11. An hour later, we meet a man called Craig Munro in an anonymous industrial estate somewhere in the Melbourne suburbs. It feels a little illicit. Craig owns an innocuous-looking dark blue HSV R8 VX Commodore ClubSport that wears the numberplate TRYHRD. It looks nice enough and not particularly out of the ordinary. But this is the mother of all street-sleepers. Because under the bonnet is a 427ci (7.0-litre) twin-turbo V8 built for the Australian dyno competition Horsepower Heroes. Craig’s car has won said competition, tweaked to just under a couple of thousand bhp, and has been described as the “best known and over-engineered Commodore in Australia” by GM High-Tech Performance magazine. It was, and quite possibly still is, Australia’s most powerful street-driven HSV Commodore. The HSV Commodore GTS I’ve been driving is Australia’s most powerful production car. But it has 576bhp. Slightly detuned for today, Craig’s car is putting out roughly 1,600bhp. To the rear wheels. Craig really does drive the car every day and has spent upwards of half a million dollars on his HSV. Craig is, blatantly, nuts. He is also, as they say here: “A bloody nice bloke.”

  12. I enquire as to what getting 50 per cent more power than a Veyron feels like when driving half the wheels. “Well,” says Craig, looking thoughtful. “Wheelspin is a bit of an issue. First and second are pretty much a waste of time, as is third, come to think of it… but after that, it really gets going.” The car is so wayward that Craig has actually converted the independent rear suspension back into solid axle (“So that I know which way it’s going to go when it breaks traction”) and moved the fuel cell and fuel pumps into the boot. The rear track has been widened - not that you’d know at first glance - and the interior is pretty much standard. Of course, when he starts it up, it sounds like a cross between a V8 and a jet engine, but, again, nothing that would cause you to run for cover. We do an extremely naughty side-by-side burnout, and the GTS produces just as much smoke and fury, just as easily.

  13. It’s not until Craig takes me for a quick ride that I realise quite how daft this much horsepower in a purely rear-wheel-drive car really is, and how civilised, easy and foolproof something like the GTS has become. The GTS is a proper car - RWD, manual and a supercharged V8 - you still have to drive it. Craig’s TRYHRD, on the other hand, is cheerfully lethal, and it almost has a mind of its own. A deranged, dark mind. The weird thing is Craig treats it like a diesel Golf. “You just have to get used to the boost, really,” he calmly announces as the turbos spool up the minutest of margins and the Commodore snaps left, “because it kind of… spins its wheels.” Craig changes to second. Boost. Car snaps left. Third. Boost. Left - you get the idea. We are going fast. I am more scared than I like to admit.

  14. But just as a pair of turbos chitter and choosh, and a pair of men applaud the dark blue saloon wheelspinning up the road at 100mph, the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The reason for the GTS being such a hero, the reason for the bullish advertising. It’s because Australia’s car culture walks its own beat. It might look recognisable, but there’s something glorious about the way Australia consumes cars. People aren’t ashamed to love cars here. They don’t feel slightly apologetic for admitting to loving the antisociably noisy or the pointlessly fast. The whole continent is, very basically, just a bit more Top Gear.

  15. Back with TRYHRD, and it has started to rain. This does not settle my nerves. We hit 110-ish mph, the boost comes up and the car snaps left again, collected with a lazy left-handed palm of the wheel. “It’s fine. And it’ll really hook up in, like, fifth,” says Craig, without a trace of irony, “as long as it’s dry…”

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