1963… Then Ten Years Of Thunder

1963… Then Ten Years Of Thunder

Defining events seldom come in greater numbers…it’s 1963…. the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Stereo, FM radio, Drive-in movies and Roadhouses, JFK and the (very hot) Cold War, Boeing 707,s, The race to the moon, Martin Luther King’s dream… and a portent of springbok rugby, H.O. de Villiers the school rugby captain… It was a hugely eventful time & there was a touch of revolution in the air.

For a 15 year old at boarding school there were many ‘moments’… but absolutely nothing prepared me for that one day and the barrage of side-draughts firing from a low slung white Cortina tearing away from a stop sign… through the gears and up the road. As a car fan you pay attention to things like this, you pay special attention when you know that saloon cars don’t look, go, or sound like that. Come to think of it, nothing you have ever heard sounds like that! As it turned out, upon arriving back at hostel, there was the Cortina parked in our deputy housemaster’s parking bay. It was his brother’s race/road car (in those days one could do stuff like that) and he was putting miles on the newly installed ‘quick’ engine. It did not take long to arm-wrestle a ride up the road and a peek at those Webers… this was a modified Cortina GT…and a first see-feel-and-touch of what was to become such a large chunk of my life. The graduation from car enthusiast to confirmed petrolhead happened that cold afternoon in King Williamstown so many years ago..

2. CORTINA GT 7

This is a good example of what came ripping up Amatola Row passed me that wintery afternoon in 1964

 

I guess similar moments have happened to many over the years but what I didn’t know at the time, was that I had just had a glimpse of a revolution of a different kind…the onslaught of the Performance Saloon Car…The next ten years were going to be one hell of a roller coaster ride.

The 60’s were fantastic times for petrolheads, wherever you were during those days, saloon cars were taking on Jekyll and Hyde personalities. Sure, the art of ‘souping up’ mom’s taxi was nothing new, brilliant go-faster boffins and enthusiasts had been working on everything with an engine since the turn of the century, but in the 60’s,  something changed …..you could now buy these creations straight off the showroom floor….. starting a revolution in motor car tuning over the next ten years that has not been seen since.

In the UK it was a succession of the ‘S’ Mini Coopers , the Cortina GT and Lotus Cortina, in Italy the Fiat Abarth 850/1000TC’s, in France the 1108/1255 Gordinis and the Simca Abarth 1150, in Germany the BMW 1800 Ti, in the ‘States it was the Pontiac GTO and Ford Mustang 289 Hi-Po. In Japan there was something very special being brewed…Prince Motor Company busy with the precurser to one of the most iconic names in the business…

Overnight, quick cars with everyday logos were legit, enthusiasts were in heaven and brand-name battle lines were being drawn as never before. The unwritten rules holding sports cars and a few selected saloon car brands as the icons of rapid transport were in the process of being shattered in the most irreverant of ways. Soon the established heierarchy in the whos who of fast production cars had been turned on its head.

How about a 1108cc Renault four door saloon, complete with four very comfortable seats and looking every bit a domestic runabout, matching the new sporster of the time the 1800 MGB in a straight fight. A 1558cc Ford Cortina taking huge bites out of a Jag 3.8 in everything except absolute top speed and more significantly, outperforming the equivalent Alfas of the day. On the other side of the pond, a Pontiac Tempest ‘econobox’ running a 14 sec ¼ mile straight out of the wrapping paper!

Not only were these cars quick, but handling had been uprated and thankfully, performance tyres and disc brakes were coming to the rescue……  No matter what your affiliation, the status quo was very much under fire and the hot saloon car roller coaster ride was well and truly on a roll. The new language of Webers, Holleys, Headers and ‘Cams was finding its way into colloquial lingo.

For those of us in the midst of this wonderful new world, monthly issues of CAR…(local and UK), Road and Track, Car and Driver as well as that brilliant educational tool Car and Car Conversions were adventures in rewriting a 0-60 time or seeing some icon of performance past being assaulted by a new kid on the block. The Lotus Cortina was a classic, 0-60 in 9.9 sec and S 1/4 in the 17’s… in an era where big was considered fast….. accepted thinking had been turned upside down.

                          These publications were our real education and brought the art of the possible in the front door.

From GM that GTO fired up the Muscle Car era in the ‘States, ironically from a company that resorted to ‘dealer options’ to avoid direct conflict with stodgy exec thinking on the 14th floor. Pony cars were not much more than six cylinder shopping trolleys at the start, but, with the right options and lead by the Mustang, they were soon to weave the same kind of magic amongst enthusiasts.

Anybody take a ride in a fully optioned ‘67  Z28 Camaro?… even today a 13.5 sec ¼ mile sets the pulses racing…. in the 60’s…. it was akin to an out of body experience! The howl of the Four barrel Holley north of 6500 r/min and a close ratio ‘box coupled to a short final drive was mind numbing and had you grabbing at the shifter again and again just to experience the symphony.

On the face of it, it seemed as though the “suites” in boardrooms had established that motor enthusiasts had acquired bank accounts, or was it that the marketing guys had sussed out the need?…In part yes… but In truth, the quick saloons happened because enthusiasts throughout the industry made them happen.  With more than just a little help from those publications in spreading the word, interest grew and a healthy competitive spirit developed.

As the chicken men say… the craving had spoken…those ‘suites’ were going along for the ride and with a few notable exceptions, marketing guys were playing catch-up, baby boomer customers were in the driving seat.

It happened differently in the various companies of course, there were wonderful maverick  tech folk and execs like Vince Piggins, Elliot Estes and John de Lorean who fought the good cause at GM in the midst of the Donner  “ thou shalt not mess with exciting stuff ” eras…. masterminding that GTO and later the 302 Z28 Camaro. Lee Ioccoca of Ford, creator of the Mustang and the pioneer of the Shelby connection…and not forgetting the father of the GTR, Shinichiro Sakurai.

Most credit though, should go to those engineer enthusiasts who created these masterpieces…. some in the ‘skunk works’ within the corporates…. but many fashioned by the invaluable ‘outside’ boffins such as Cooper, Chapman, Abarth, Gordini, Shelby and locally, Van Rooyen, Meissner, Green, Armstrong, Porter/Conchie/Adler and a host of others.

Together, the in-house engineers and those boffins produced the magic, the outsiders often being allowed into the hallowed engineering operations inside the manufacturers.  The factory engineers being exposed to the then ‘out the box’ thinking of the hot rodders. It made for interesting times. The result?

Very Quick cars and Good Hardware

Everything from performance cylinder heads, close ratio gearboxes, suspension mods and brake packages, instrumentation and everything in between. The list was endless, whether packaged as stand-alone model derivatives, options or simply performance parts available to enthusiasts and racers alike….. the best bit and the motivation for these writings…. High performance production saloon cars ended up on showroom floors.

Some did it better than others & to their credit, Ford, BMC (Mini) and Renault got their packages spot-on. General Motors started well in the USA with the GTO and later the Z28 and put together some brilliant option packages from the Chevrolet, Buick and Oldmobile camps in between… but somehow forgot that they were also responsible to enthusiasts outside the USA. BMW  made their mark in Europe with the 1800 Ti and threw down the gauntlet, a precursor to the gigantic Ford/BMW track battles of the 70’s. Alfa Romeo had been rattled by Ford’s Cortinas in the 65 European Touring car rounds and threw everything into restoring national pride in ’66 with the lightweight GTA. The small (engined) guys Abarth and Gordini were exceptional against the big guns with those icons the 850/1000TC’S & 1108/1255 Gordini’s wreaking havoc on the track. South Africa was not to be left out and that brilliant Renault Alconi arrived from local tuners Conchie and Adler in 1965.

Chrysler continued their tradition by leading tech breakthroughs in the industry and introduced the second generation Hemi V8, a serious headache for Ford and GM…..clearly the result of engineers within the organisation winning the  battle against the cost police.

I also recall a Cortina GT test in the PE Evening Post questioning the use of the ‘exotic’ GT logo on a mundane saloon car. At exactly the same time Car and Driver in the USA were trying to digest  the GTO in Pontiac.  These were two cars on different continents with common threads – Sedans with uprated engines, short gearing, outrageous (for the time) name branding and no fancies, they simply blew the doors off their contemporaries, grabbed the enthusiasts imagination and fuelled the roller coaster.Towards the end of our ten year snapshot, the rules governing saloon car racing in SA helped to create cars like the Capri Perana and Chev Can Am by countering the ‘asthmatic’ engine regulations imposed by the group two rules… nicely rounding out the period before the first fuel crisis slowed things dramatically in late 1973.

These two machines started it all way back in 1963. Kicking off a high performance saloon car revolution that continues to this day. Both had major involvement by marketing folk…Walter Hayes for the Lotus Cortina and Jim Wangers for the GTO 

From the start, the effect all this had on the street was electric, the same ‘go faster’ boffins were out there working with the new hardware and we soon began to find out that there was nothing that could not be improved, transplanted or modified by a committed tuning specialist . Speedshops and dedicated Tuners popped up everywhere, enthusiast keen to make a buck from their passion for making cars go faster. The bar had been lifted and whether you were in Europe, the USA, Australia, South Africa, or anywhere in the world on the receiving end of these magical creations, quick production saloon cars were embedded in car culture and happily for us, reignited saloon car racing and the ‘Go faster’ tuning business spectacularly.

It took a while but GM eventually got going outside the USA and in the UK Bill Blydenstein gave hope to the General’s troops who were to that point not participating in the art of burning rubber… In the Orient there was a ‘sleeper’ and Prince Motor Company were soon to be taken over by Nissan…the result of that union was to create a performance car dynasty that would eventually rewrite all the rule books.

On the race track, the names Sir John Whitmore, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Koos Swanepoel, Basil vanRooyen, Bob Olthoff and Scamp Porter, to name a few synonymous with the period flexed their muscles. The greater involvement of factories in the business of quick production sedans provided a new lifeline for these men and fresh links to available quick technology. ‘Trick’ part homologation resulted in racing saloon lap times taking a pounding. In late 1963 the top tin top racers in their Jags were running the show….. along came that modified 1500cc  pushrod Cortina GT at Kyalami putting paid to that lot. Jack  Sears in a Lotus Cortina in the UK ending the tenure of the Jags with help from big brother Galaxies.  Lightweight monocoque body construction had arrived, along with engine designs bringing unheard of reliability and power from four cylinder production based race engines.

By the end of some truly great contests during the sixties, those last seven years had produced a winner …. without doubt Ford was it. The difference, I guess, was that their ‘suites’ were the most involved in this new adventure and in truth, were rewarded for their contribution …. Enzo telling Uncle Henry to take a hike resulted in the Blue Oval’s boss-man getting his team involved. With the Ford ‘brass’ now supporting the tuning busines and the declaration of Ford’s “Total Performance Programme” everything else fell into place pretty well for the men from the double ‘D’ ranch*.

The saloon car racing world had been a given giant shove from the start in 1963 and to make the point, it was at the end of our ten year picture that that man van Rooyen ran within a whisker the first 100 mph saloon car lap at Kyalami in his Firenza Can Am… a 1 min 31.93 sec….. 28 seconds off the lap record …..stunning. The  German invasion of Cologne Capris and Batmobile BMWs was in full swing and by the end of 1973 saloon car lap records were all but matching Formula one times of just 6 years before……

As noted in the opening paragraph, I can say with hand on heart that for those of us gearheads, petrolheads, hot rodders or enthusiasts (call us what you will) involved in these times…it was special… and never to be repeated.

* Dearbourn and Dagenham

These two V8 powered machines rounded out the period spectacularly…a brilliant showcase of South African engineering

The ten-odd years from 1963 leading up to that first fuel crisis in 1973 produced the most memorable road cars, track racing and growth in the tuning business ever. One thing is cast in stone, No similar period since has seen that level of change, on-track improvement, or mindset upheaval, so let’s take a peek at the cars, the people and some incredibly clever tech stuff.

I will cover the cars individually, starting with the car that had the biggest impact in getting that roller coaster going…but first a decision on which machine deserved the top spot.

On a recent business trip, I did the required visit to the car mag section of the book store at the airport. Paging through the comparative road test of a BMW M3 vs an Alfa Quadrifoglio went straight for the 0-100 times and found both to be in the mid 4 second bracket. These figures were impressive but given the potency of quick saloon cars these days, hardly raised an eyebrow. As I settled into my seat reading the road tests, my thoughts scrolled to a simple question of what production saloon car ‘hit’ the first ever 4 second 0 to 100. The answer came swiftly and although the figure of 4.6 seconds was for a 0-60 mph time, that prize goes to the Pontiac GTO of 1963/64.  On that occasion I was reading the Car and Driver road test of the ‘Goat’ in study period at boarding school… dodging the prep police. Raising an eyebrow is one thing, resisting the temptation to express a verbal expletive in the dead silence of prep was a lot more difficult…the 0-100 Mph time of 11.8 seconds was simply staggering.

A few days before, again avoiding detection, I had read a car mag road test of a Lotus Cortina giving a top speed of 110mph and a 0-60 of 9.9 secs…. This is 1964 folks… and the average 1.5 litre saloon was not far short of a 20 sec run to 60mph. The mind boggled at the time but I now needed to decide as to which of the two kick-started the ‘go faster’ tin top production business most effectively.

A really difficult decision simply because in either country of origin, their machine would be declared the winner… however… because we are looking at this phenomenon holistically… the Mk1 Lotus Cortina gets to be on the top step. It may not be the fastest, best engineered and consequently not the most reliable but it did one thing first and better than all the early quickies …it immediately re-wrote the rule book on saloon car racing and did that in addition to the staggering (for the time) on-road performance. The Pontiac also rattled cages spectacularly and despite the fact that this was the machine that initiated the Muscle Car phenomenon…the GTO was more of a marketing tour de force than being the hard core Muscle Car tag it eventually carried so well.

Both left an indelible imprint in this gearhead’s psyche…

Their stories to are coming soon!

By |2018-12-07T07:53:27+00:00Dec 7th, 2018|Categories: A Different Corner, Performance Saloon Car History|Tags: , |2 Comments

About the Author:

I have been in the motor industry all my life and despite spending 20 odd years with Datsun/Nissan, remain a GM man at heart.

2 Comments

  1. Peet du Plessis Dec 8, 2018 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Thanx for another great article!

  2. Bruce Meaker Dec 8, 2018 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    Great nostalgia

Leave A Comment

Follow Us On Twitter