In Australia the battle for supremacy at Australia’s Great Race continued as Ford and Holden fought tooth and nail for victory
Torana is aboriginal for ‘to fly’, and in 1972 the new SL/R 5000 looked as if it had wings when compared to its rivals. In actual fact, the car looked quite plain with the exception of a rear spoiler, sporty wheel trims and SLR 5000 graphics. Then you opened the bonnet and your perception of this ‘plain Jane’ changed remarkably.
In spite of the hysteria caused by the sheer thought of a V8-engined Torana back in mid 1972, it’s bizarre that the LH V8s attracted so little criticism. The new-fangled cars were indeed bigger and heavier but they were still called Torana, and with V8 engines planned to power Kingswoods, Premiers, Monaros and even Statesmans they looked as if they would live up to the name.
This was the new car that would represent GMH at The Mountain, the successor to the already legendary XU-1. Regardless of their limitations, the LH Toranas were more competent family cars than their predecessors. Appreciated by their new owners, the extra 102mm of interior width and a smoother, quieter ride were attributes much needed for transporting four or five people plus luggage.
As sporting machines, however, these V8 versions of the LH fell short of the mark. The XU-l had always been a purpose-built race car and the SL/R Torana was basically a family car with add-ons. But even the greatest add-on, the lusty 5047cc (308ci) small-block, failed to qualify the 1974 Torana as a true XU-I successor.
However, while weight and size were up significantly, so too was power. With the SL/R 5000 developing 179kW (240bhp), on paper it certainly looked to have the goods. But any expectations of GT-HO-type standing quarter runs were disappointed. Regardless of what tyres were on the car, you couldn’t drive a stock SL/R 5000 over the quarter mile in much under 16 seconds. With 179kW at 4800rpm and 426Nm of pull at 3000rpm in a 1224kg car, this was exceptionally disappointing.
On paper, the SL/R 5000 presented a performance package to better almost anything of similar size and certainly of similar price. In practice, the car demonstrated compromises that weren’t redressed by a minor improvement in performance over the six-cylinder XU-1.
The SL/R 5000 remained an LH Torana built more for ride than handling, more for comfort than precision. Tossing a hefty lump of engine into a car of the Torana’s size demanded some serious structural engineering, and Holden made a decent first-up attempt. Hefty anti-roll bars fitted front and rear did their best to counteract body roll and vastly improved damping minimised the discomfort imposed on occupants of LC-LJ models.
The steering rack was still mounted on rubber. Moving from recirculating ball to rack and pinion steering should have produced a significant improvement in feel and precision. It didn’t, and the lack of information coming back to the driver via the steering wheel produced immense criticism. There was still too much understeer when you really stuck the boot in through tight bends.
If you were in the market for a family sedan with sporting overtones, particularly in performance and image, then the SL/R 5000 was not a bad thing. But if you wanted to speed around twisty roads then you would never have been able to regard the SL/R 5000 as a pure sporty car. The General’s advertising was of the full-on variety with lots of emphasis being given to the race track potential of the new top line Torana. It was described as “the new contender.”
Like all SL/Rs, the V8 version featured front and rear sway bars. Its interior was the same as any 3.3-litre SL/R; only a pair of spoilers distinguished the 5.0-litre externally, and that duck tail unit on the boot did plenty to spoil rear vision. In theory it was supposed to create a down thrust of 7kg at speeds in excess of 160kph. An under-bumper spoiler at the front proved particularly kerb prone.
In a way those add-on spoilers symbolised the SL/R 5000. It was bigger on looks than it was on grunt. GM-H seemed to think that by tacking on a bit of plastic here, a stripe there and by dropping a stock standard bent-eight under the bonnet it would score another winner. But it was clear to those familiar with the demands of Mount Panorama on that first October: Sunday every year that this was no car to follow the tyre prints of the XU-1.
While the much improved ride counted for plenty on the Highway, it wasn’t worth a bumper at the Mountain. Before the 308-engined LH could go to Bathurst with winning prospects, it was going to need several major mods; namely more poke, sharper handling and greatly improved track holding.
The blokes at the Bend, of course, knew this, and the formula was under control. When the LH range was released, there was talk of a forthcoming XU-2 version, complete with some 225 kilowatts (300hp) and four-wheel discs. What eventuated instead was factory option number L34.
While ‘L34’ doesn’t look as if it really means anything, there is some logic to it. Simply, GM-H uses the ‘L’ prefix as an engine code, as indeed does Chevrolet and every other GM car division. The L34 code means engine, eight cylinder, high compression, 308 cubic inch variant two. The ‘variant two’ refers to the beefier components (such as stronger rods and bearings) used to improve durability.
On the other hand, L31 refers to the stock 5.0-litre engine, L32 to the 4.2 and L33 to the low compression 4.2, and L20 was the ever trusty and now departed high compression 3310cc 202.
Despite having launched into production with V8 Toranas scheduled (after suitable mods) for the racing scene, GM-H was still smarting from the negative supercar publicity of 1972. That’s why the XU-2 name was never used. The whole L34 exercise was carried out quietly because the heavies understandably didn’t want a repeat of the scare. But while L34 is merely an engine code, the car that carried the name had much more than just an improved engine to qualify it for line honours in touring car races.
A better grip
There were bigger inlet and exhaust valves, twin headers, a wider track and those bolt-on flares that prompted so many sharp operators to try to pass off lesser SL/Rs as L34s. Higher spring rates and stiffer dampers gave the L34 a better grip on things, as well as reducing both body roll and understeer. Thus equipped, an LH 308 could finally see which way an XU-1 went around a corner!
On top of this little lot was an A$1500 bundle of options. This bought a Holley four-barrel in place of the Stromberg (also a 4bbl), a hot cam profiled with Mount Panorama very much in mind, and some other more minor mods. However, rear disc brakes still resided somewhere in the future — in A9X-land to be specific.
The L34 was a worthy Bathurst contender, even though it failed to knock off John Goss’s Falcon. It extended the SL/R 5000 theme beyond that spunky image, giving it some serious substance. This car, however, was still not as grunty as a Phase III and neither was it as competent a grand tourer. It had more of a race track feel, very sharp and steery, extremely firm in its ride. Many enthusiasts have continued to prefer the character of the LJ XU-1 to that of the L34, but development work on the Torana 308 was far from over. The next model change would bring the hatchback body style, and during the life of LX, Radial Tuned Suspension would follow as part of GM-H’s new deal for the Australian motoring public.
Dean Kebbell’s passion
Dean’s passion for Aussie muscle cars started back in his early teenage age years. Like most of us he enjoyed tinkering around with old cars, especially old Holdens, and gained a real liking for these Aussie icons. Today his passion continues, and Dean has a rather impressive line-up of GM-H classics in his garage — including a genuine VL Walkinshaw Group A Commodore, a VX SS Commodore (his wife, Brenda’s car) with a few performance enhancements courtesy of Paul Manuell, a new VE HSV GTS Commodore and our featured 1975 SL/R 5000 Torana.
Dean has owned the Torana for four years. Because the car was deregistered for many years, he has been unable to trace its history beyond the previous two owners, and according to Dean the last owner did not use the car much and had it parked up for three to four years. The owner before then repainted the Torana in its original white colour, and it remains in basically original condition.
Ebbetts Waikato recently rebuilt the L31 V8 to original specifications using as many original GM parts as possible. Dean, a busy businessman, unfortunately doesn’t get the time he would like to spend working on his cars and has built up a trusting relationship with Ebbetts, which meticulously maintains Dean’s cars to his high standard.
As a member of The Early Holden Club, Dean and Brenda enjoy entering the Torana in competitions, although Dean admits he’s not into winning trophies, but just likes to have the car on display for people to enjoy and appreciate.
Dean plans to purchase a bit more land in the next few years, and build a new house complete with a barn so he can continue collecting interesting Holdens.
1975 Holden Torana SL/R 5000
Engine L31 V8
Capacity 5047cc (308ci)
Valves Two per cylinder, overhead
Max power 179kW (240bhp) at 4800rpm
Max torque 426Nm (315lb/ft) at 3000rpm
Fuel system 4bbl Carburetor
Transmission Muncie M21 four-speed manual
Suspension Front Coil spring, double wishbone; Rear coil spring with multi link location
Steering Rack and pinion
Kerb weight 1224kg (2700lb)
Max speed 195kph (121mph)
0-100kph 8.2 seconds
Standing 1/4 16 seconds
Words: Ashley Webb Photos: Adam Croy