Looking for an original ’60s or early ’70s muscle car these days, whether it be American or Australian, can be a daunting prospect for those in the market to buy one. If they weren’t raced from new, then the likelihood of an example surviving unscathed following decades of ownership by myriad differing drivers with varying agendas, not to mention the toll taken by Mother Nature via the dreaded rust-bug, is rather slim.
So, when we spotted Brian Wong’s superbly original GTR XU-1 Bathurst version lined up for the inaugural Survivors Class category at this year’s Ellerslie Intermarque Concours d’Elegance, we couldn’t resist having a chat with Brian to learn more about him and the classic car he’s now owned for almost 40 years.
Brian first came into contact with a Holden Torana GTR XU-1 while his father was looking at a new HQ Kingswood, and a GTR XU-1 was also for sale. His father got to test drive the XU-1 whilst Brian sat in the back seat grinning from ear to ear. As Brian recalls, the Kingswood and the Torana were approximately the same price, but he thought the XU-1 was the better choice, as most young men in their early 20s would have. After that back-seat drive in the GTR XU-1, Brian decided it was the car he wanted to own one day.
Finally, at the age of 25, by combining all the savings from his first year’s full-time work along with previously accumulated assets, Brian had enough money to buy his GTR XU-1. His ambition was always to buy a new one, but unfortunately by that time — late 1975 — the XU-1 was no longer in production. Since he was still determined to own one, he began the search for a suitable used example. After a period of looking through the newspapers, Brian eventually spotted a 1973 GTR XU-1 for sale in Thames. He wasted no time in heading to the Coromandel town with a mechanic friend in tow to check out the car. The XU-1 was more expensive than some of the cars he’d previously looked at, but the owner of this particular one, Hugh Gilmore, kept telling Brian it was worth the extra money because of all the differences from the standard GTR XU-1. Brian had already made up his mind — virtually from the moment he’d seen the car — and knew that he wanted it. The XU-1 ticked all the boxes and was in excellent condition with low kilometres, so a deal was done. At the time, Brian was somewhat unaware of exactly what he’d bought — but the XU-1 he’d just purchased was the much rarer Bathurst version.
Living with a GTR XU-1
As you can imagine, Brian has amassed a substantial treasure trove of anecdotes relating to the car he has now owned for nearly four decades — and some of them are worth retelling.
As an example, one night around midnight during the early days of his ownership of the Torana, as Brian was heading out of Auckland’s CBD, he had an urge to see how fast the XU-1 would go as he entered the motorway at Wellesley Street, heading south. At the time, motorway traffic was light, and he knew he’d have a fairly clear run. As he started to wind up the XU-1 through a long curve and into a straight section heading towards the Gillies Avenue off-ramp, the Torana had scorched up to around 150–160kph. With the straight-six engine roaring at peak revolutions, the noise was deafening, and, just at that moment, Brian spotted a traffic cop parked on the side of the road. Fortunately for Brian, back in the ’70s, radar ‘guns’ were mounted on the outside of patrol cars, and the cop had been unable to clock the Torana’s speed, as he was still in the process of mounting the unit.
Brian’s options were to either run or to stop as he was waved down by the surprised officer. He quickly calculated an exit strategy via the next off-ramp, close enough for him to attempt a quick runner, but sensibly decided to take the safer option and pull over. Not surprisingly, the officer was less than impressed with Brian’s late-night high-speed antics, but he let him off with only a warning, as there was no exact evidence of Brian’s speed.
After that episode with the long arm of the law, Brian was more careful about where he stretched the XU-1’s legs, deciding the best option was to take the car to the Meremere dragway, where he entered a competition for street cars. Brian admits his drag-strip skills were not particularly good, but a final fastest time of 16 seconds for the quarter-mile was sufficient to win his class category — and earn him a bottle of Cold Duck wine for his efforts.
The girlfriend factor
Classic cars and girlfriends (or boyfriends) don’t always mix, and, indeed, Brian’s girlfriend at the time he acquired his XU-1 was not impressed with his selection of car. Looking back, Brian remembers one incident that really didn’t endear the Holden to her. It was an extremely cold night in the middle of winter, and they were attending a post-wedding dinner function, after which everyone dispersed to go home. However, the XU-1 refused to start. The battery had lost power and simply wasn’t up to the task of starting up a stone-cold high-compression motor. Brian summoned a few friends before they departed, and got them to try and push-start the car — however, even with four men pushing, the Torana refused to start. Finally, a passing taxi driver who was cruising for fares stopped, and helped by jump-starting the car. Luckily for Brian, standing around in the freezing cold while he attempted to start the recalcitrant XU-1 must’ve been forgotten eventually, as that girlfriend is now Brian’s wife!
The breakdown factor
Of course, anyone who runs an older car on an everyday basis will know there’s always scope for potential breakdowns — they’re all part of the character-building aspect of classic car ownership. And, of course, XU-1s were no exception to this rule.
On one trip around the East Cape on State Highway 35, Brian and his wife were heading towards Hicks Bay. The XU-1 was running well and easily handling the winding hills when, all of a sudden, its engine stopped firing on one cylinder. Even on five cylinders, Brian still managed to overtake cars easily while climbing the hills — that surprised him and agitated his wife. On reaching Te Araroa, Brian found a garage, where the mechanic owner obligingly came to their rescue — despite the fact this was all happening during the traditional summer holiday period. On closer inspection, it appeared a pushrod had smashed through its valve rocker arm, and, unfortunately, there were no parts available — not too surprising when you consider the small garage was located in a little town in the middle of nowhere. However, the Torana’s rocker arm was discovered to be exactly the same as the item used on a HQ Holden, and, coincidentally, the garage owner just happened to own one. Thus, the appropriate part was removed from the HQ and installed into Brian’s XU-1. It must have been his lucky day, because the only cost involved was a minor labour charge, plus the price of the new part the mechanic would have to order for his own car.
This kind and helpful garage owner was typical of the friendly people Brian and his wife met whilst touring around the coast. On another occasion, Brian had stopped at the traffic lights controlling the Newton Road and Piwakawaka Street intersection in Auckland. Brian, his wife, and the Torana were at the front of the queue, and he was ready to turn right when, without warning, all electric power departed from the XU-1, leaving him embarrassingly stranded. If you’re not an Aucklander, you should know that Newton Gully on a Friday night at 5pm during peak traffic isn’t a great place to break down.
Being at the bottom of the gully, the only direction to go was up, but that was impossible. Brian had no option but to leave his wife with the car in order to get help.
Of course, if you drive around in a charismatic performance car, you’re bound to notice the attraction this type of vehicle stirs up in, mostly, young men — and such a moment of attraction occurred whilst Brian’s wife was stranded at the traffic lights. A young teenager was so attracted to the Torana that he asked her if he could sit in the driver’s seat until Brian got back to fix the car. Probably not something to be recommended these days, but in this case it turned out to be a great relief for Brian’s wife, as the teenager took the brunt of the many irate drivers waiting behind to get through the lights. Fortunately, there was a garage close by and a considerate mechanic offered his assistance, so Brian wasn’t away for too long.
Once back at the Torana, he determined that for some unknown reason the main power cable from the battery to the starter had been too thin for the current, and it had completely melted through, at which point the power had been cut. The short piece of cable was quickly replaced, and Brian and his wife were soon on their way.
The kid factor
Running a highly-strung performance car such as the Torana as an everyday family car did have it drawbacks, and that reminded Brian that the GTR XU-1 is definitely not geared for back-seat passengers, especially kids. Soon after his second child was born, Brian was transferred to Gisborne for work, and during holidays he would commute back and forth from Gisborne to Auckland via the Waioeka Gorge — a two-hour, winding and hilly drive. The Torana was ideal for taking on these challenging roads, but the combination was not so good for the passengers, and his kids often got agitated and cried for long periods of time.
During one journey, Brian remembers his little daughter started crying incessantly. He told his wife she would stop after half an hour. She did — but only for a moment before she started again. This time her screaming caused Brian to pull over, so they could all take a breather.
As a result, on subsequent trips, they’d leave at 5am when the kids were still half asleep — normally, they would remain that way at least until they’d been able to drive through the gorge.
The impracticality factor
As much as Brian loved driving the XU-1 back in the early days of his ownership, he admits it wasn’t exactly an ideal family commuter car. When he told his father he was buying an XU-1, his response was that the car just wasn’t practical and that, instead, he should buy a Toyota Corolla — a car that would have been ideal for a young family with small children. Obviously, Brian did not heed his father’s advice.
After getting married and having two kids, Brian experienced the impracticalities of owning a car like this — such as getting kids settled into the back seat. Loading a carry cot with a baby together with a toddler into the back through the door and over the back of the folded-down seat took time, energy and a degree of tricky manoeuvring, to say the least. It all proved trying, especially during one time when Brian had to rush his sick wife to the hospital in the early hours of the morning.
Another less traumatic problem came when he was installing child booster seats. At the time, such seats weren’t compulsory, but, as Brian had to do a lot of highway driving, he thought it was a necessary and safe option. This meant he had to pull the back seat out of the car to utilize the existing seatbelt anchor points to attach the fixings for child booster seats. It was such a major hassle that he didn’t get around to eventually reversing the process until long after the kids had grown out of the seats.
In addition to these issues, when going on holidays with his family, all the gear needed to be packed into plastic or fabric bags. With a 72-litre petrol tank protruding up in the middle of the already small boot — plus a spare tyre also taking up room — the use of normal, average-sized rigid suitcases was definitely not a viable proposition.
After close to 40 years of ownership, Brian has absolutely no regrets about buying the GTR XU-1. He constantly gets men of all ages admiring and acknowledging the desirability of the car and, over the years, has turned down many offers from people wanting to buy his Torana. The first of those offers came only a few years after he’d bought the car. Brian was in Petone on holiday when a young teenager came running out of nowhere, asking to have a look at it. He soon made an offer for it of $7K — $2K more than the price Brian had paid. Needless to say, Brian wasn’t interested in accepting the offer. Another time, someone driving behind Brian jumped out of his car and ran up to him when he stopped at a set of traffic lights to make an offer. A persistent chap, he kept making higher and higher offers, even though it was pouring with rain and the traffic lights had turned green. Brian’s also had an offer from the XU-1’s previous owner — he had tracked Brian down through a GTR and XU-1 owners’ car club.
Of course, Brian remained unmoved by such offers, and the Torana remains in his home garage, although it long ago stopped being his everyday car. However, the XU-1 remains in original condition and has never been restored — a true survivor.
Holden Torana LJ GTR XU-1 Bathurst
- Manufacture date: August 23, 1973.
- Paint colour: Tangerine
- Engine: Holden in-line six-cylinder
- Capacity: 3.3-litre
- Bore and stroke: 92.1×82.5mm
- Max power: 142kW (190bhp) at 5600rpm
- Max torque: 270Nm at 4000rpm
- C/r: 10.3:1
- Fuel system: Triple 175CD Stromberg side-draught carburettors
- Transmission: M21 four-speed manual
- Suspension F/R: Independent short- and long-arm–type with coil springs, one-piece stabilizer bar, hydraulic double-acting telescopic dampers; four-link–type with rubber-bushed suspension arms and coil springs, hydraulic double-acting telescopic dampers
- Steering: Rack-and-pinion
- Brakes F/R: Power-assisted hydraulic disc; drum
- Overall length: 4387mm
- Width: 1600mm
- Wheelbase: 2540mm
- Height: 1436mm
- Track F/R: 1330mm; 1300mm
- Kerb weight: 1099kg
- Max speed: 222kph
- 0–100kph: 8.2 seconds
- Standing quarter-mile: 13.5 seconds
This article originally appeared in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 215. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: