Back in the early ‘60s as a youthful, car-crazy journalist on the Launceston Examiner, I thought I’d won the lottery when the editor added the paper’s motoring editorship to my responsibilities.
I had a weekly section, usually of a couple of pages, that I had to fill with a road test as the lead story.
Trouble was that accessing press-test cars from the manufacturers was not at that time possible in Tasmania.
If I went to the mainland on holiday I could book and road-test a car but that was only a couple of times a year at best.
Fortunately, most of the local new- and used-car dealers understood the value of having one of their cars featured in the paper, so I was never without a car – at least for a day or two at a time – about which to write.
Some of the dealer cars I remember include the Datsun Fairlady roadster, Triumph Spitfire, Holden HD X2, Falcon XP Futura hardtop and, horror of horrors, the Nissan Cedric.
I also remember a couple of used American muscle cars . . . the Buick Riviera and its Wildcat sibling.
Boy, did their tyres do some smoking.
I’d never experienced such grunt.
Without doubt, however, the most memorable car I drove in these early years was the mega-big and mega-expensive Mercedes-Benz 600 — otherwise known as the Grosser.
The first one to arrive in Australia — it was burgundy with grey leather — was bought by the then chairman of one of the major companies.
He had agreed with Benz Australian management that the car could be shown at the Melbourne motor show before he took delivery.
As it happened, just before the big Melbourne event, Launceston’s new-car dealers organised their own motor show and held it in one of the city’s big wool stores.
Benz management agreed that the car could be shipped to Launceston for the local dealer to show it off on his stand.
The car duly arrived a couple of days before the show and to my amazement, the dealer rang me and asked if I’d like drive the big Grosser.
Would I what!
A short time later that morning he arrived at the newspaper office and handed me the keys.
“Bring it back later this afternoon,” he said.
I was incredulous and dropped everything and headed off in the car with my fellow-journo best mate at the time. I also took my then girlfriend and now wife for a spin.
I gave the big 6.3-litre V8 heaps of throttle out on the open road and was amazed by its power and handling.
All these years on I still shudder to think of the consequences had I bent it.
In fact, I discovered years later that Melbourne motoring journalists were offered a ride in the car, but only with a chauffeur behind the wheel, which made me the first Australian motoring journalist to drive the big Benz.
The car measured 5.5 metres; the Pullman with an extra row of seats in the back was 6.2 metres.
It had a 6.3-litre engine that developed 184kW and 500Nm of torque, with single overhead camshafts (SOHC) and Bosch-made multipoint manifold injection.
The Grosser’s complex 150-bar hydraulic pressure system powered the car’s windows, seats, sun-roof, boot lid, and automatically closing doors.
Adjustable air suspension delivered excellent ride quality and sure handling over any road surface.
Having the Grosser for a few hours gave me the opportunity to execute the biggest “pose” of my life.
I drove into the heart of the CBD, found a parking spot, which wasn’t easy given the car’s length — and did some shopping.
When I returned about 15 minutes later, I could hardly see the car for the crowd of people milling around it.
Like Moses parting the Red Sea, I pushed the crowd and drove off.
What a poser!
While the Grosser looms large in my memories of that time, the car that excited me most was a Mark 1 Lotus Cortina – one of 3306 built during a collaboration between Ford and the late Colin Chapman’s Lotus Cars between 1963 and 1966.
It was a classic white example with the olive-green flash and, if I remember correctly, the trim was beige vinyl.
I had seen sensational film of the late and great Jim Clark throwing one around British race tracks en route to being British touring-car champion and to get behind the wheel of an identical car added to the excitement for me.
The car was owned by one Robin Bessant, who at the time had a busy Shell service station/workshop and had begun a successful racing career with the ex-George Reynolds VW Beetle which at the time was known as the world’s fastest.
Robin later graduated to a Mini Cooper S, then to a Lotus Cortina (not the one I drove) and subsequently to a Shell-sponsored Mustang where he mixed it with the likes of Norm Beechey, Bob Jane and “Pete” Geoghegan in the Australian touring car series.
Robin was a good friend to me and in fact it was his brother Peter from whom I bought my Twin-Cam MGA.
Such was Robin’s generosity that he used to let me clean my oiled-up spark plugs on his plug sandblaster . . . something I had to do often.
The Lotus Cortina was powered by a 78kW (at 5500 rpm) 1557cc twin-cam engine, mated with the same four-speed close-ratio gearbox used in the Lotus Elan.
The rear suspension was significantly tweaked and lightweight panels were used for the bonnet, the boot and the doors.
New 240mm front disc brakes gave the hot Cortina the stopping power it required, even though the rear drums were retained.
Inside, the centre console had been redesigned to accommodate the different gear-stick position.
The seats had also upgraded as had been the dashboard which housed a tachometer, speedo and gauges for oil pressure, water temperature and fuel.
A wood-rimmed steering wheel completed the picture.
As I remember the Cortina, the sports-tuned suspension made the ride a tad harsh and noisy on rougher road surfaces.
The steering was beautifully weighted though and the Elan-sourced gearbox delivered slick changes to take advantage of its perfect ratios.
I remember seeing 100 mph on the “clock” before I backed off, but the car’s reported top speed was 108 mph with a 0-60 mph time of around 10 seconds – not too flash by today’s standards but pretty slippery back then.
These days, good examples of a Lotus Cortina are hot property and much-loved and admired around the world in the burgeoning sport of historical racing.
I know I’ll never get to race one but I treasure my memories of having spent a day behind the wheel way back when.