The annual Classic Grand Prix at Phillip Island is now in its full Friday stride with every different type of internal combustion engine imaginable from a rotary in a Mazda RX2 to high capacity thundering eight-cylinder units common to the Australian beasts from the early '70s. In defiance of every economic indicator the event hailed as the largest gathering of classic cars in the southern hemisphere was just that, attracting 400 entries before the February 13 entry deadline. Even the traffic read like a brochure from a Pebble Beach auction.
Austin Healeys proved as popular as anything from Elfin, Holden or Ford but several creations had no comrades at the event or anywhere else for that matter. Turning from a garage packed with Porsches I found the adjacent filled with an Alfa Romeo and a Daimler SP250. In racing trim? Surely not. The owner confirms not only does he campaign it regularly...
Peugeot’s Grand Prix pedigree is long and respectably pedigreed, winning races even before BMW was a company. It took a bit of a break for several decades but Bob Pinkerton took the time to rectify that. Having snagged plans from Peugeot’s museum, he created a Grand Prix single- seater using period Peugeot bits which the company would have used to contest the world championship against the likes of Mercedes and Maserati, if they could have been bothered. Its stunning looks were matched only by its full-throttle thunder; no doubt it would have given the field a stern challenge.
Sadly most of its contemporaries were busy resting on their laurels but one veteran out with plenty to prove was a 1953 Holden FX. Using a Holden 147 engine it contested the under three liter touring class but its 1300 kilograms of heft kept it from the front of the field. The car’s caretaker claims another ’53 is in the works with a bit more squirt- undoubtedly to be unveiled later to a grid of shocked drivers.
As drivers and mechanics scrapped to gather wet weather tyres I managed to speak with Alf Bargwanna, owner of a very orange Holden Torana XU1. Big carbs, big exhausts and not an ounce of grease anywhere. Those three alone do not a fast race car make but they do a damned lot to help. Later that afternoon he would put on a fantastic drive in pouring conditions against a sea of Australian, European and American competition.
Reserved for the more expensive machinery such as Tom Walkinshaw’s 1985 Bathurst XJ-S now in the hands of Mike Roddy, the trackside garages housed a few other treats as well. Though not swarmed in stylish Italian mechanics like it used to be, Micheale Abloretto’s 1986 Formula One Ferrari rested quietly on its jacks, waiting for full wets. During its tour of duty I would never have been able to stand so close to the engine, but here it was on full display for anyone who so chose to study its jungles of wiring and turbo plumbing. After minutes of careful scrutiny I can say with certainty that it makes lots of horsepower.
Gerhard Berger’s Benetton BMW was also on deck allowing the proletariat to have a look inside his former office space which was every bit as esoteric and confusing as you would expect. Cockpits in most racing cars are made with big red switches and simple, vibrant stickers so the drivers can see everything clearly but here lay an apparent complication.
The area behind the pits was reserved for the usual battery of sponsor displays and vendor tents and some Minis. All were heavily modified and most had overt evidence of track time, except for the one on the end. Like the others it bore that exceedingly familiar red and registration number LRX828E, a sort of golden number to Mini fans. Not only does that brand it as one of the original BMC factory works rally cars, this one saw Paddy Hopkirk and Ruano Aaltonen behind its wheel before being shipped to Australia in 1968. Current owner Graeme Urch acquired it in 1971 and has driven & enjoyed it ever since. This car is nearly perfect in every respect and after meeting Graeme it’s easy to see why. Not only is his respect for the car and its pedigree massive, so is his appreciation of its abilities, a quality shared by every driver there.