Automotive History: The 1970s Aussie Six Cylinder Small Cars – When Long Noses Were Fashionable

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(Sydney, Australia) The other day I happened upon an HB Holden Torana parked in the street, the first I had seen in many years. I was admiring this attractive little relic when it occurred to me that its significance goes way beyond being Holden’s first small car. Not because it was high tech, or fast, or glamorous in some way, but because it spawned a new genus of nose-heavy mutants that roamed the Galapagos Islands of the car world through the 1970s and 80s – the affordable small car with a lazy Aussie/American-style six cylinder engine.

This topic was touched on not so long ago in an item on the European Chrysler 180, which in Australia found itself lumbered with the local ‘Hemi’ six. Perhaps that piqued your curiosity about this strange little chapter in automotive history. If it did I hope this brief rundown gives you a fair idea of what it was about.

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The cars I’m referring to came from the then four local manufacturers: GM-Holden (GMH), Ford, Chrysler and BMC/Leyland Australia. Each car was of English or European origin, but fitted with an engine from a much larger, locally made model. In each case a four cylinder version remained available as well. Later models of GMH’s car were also available with a V8.

Of course, there have been countless examples of large engines stuffed into small cars, but we’re not talking about performance or prestige models here. These cars came about simply because they were cheaper to bring to market, thanks to the import tariffs and local content rules of the time, and they had strong appeal in a land where the six cylinder engine was king. Mostly, they were humble cars – just smaller, cheaper companion models to the larger six cylinder cars the makers would rather you buy.

Let’s start by going back to 1967. GMH has just released its new small car, the Torana. The badges say ‘Holden’, but it’s really a local production Vauxhall Viva, a very small car indeed, with a sub-1.2 litre, four cylinder engine. A low priced car it is, but it contains a high proportion of imported parts, and the import tariff rules of the time favour vehicles with 85% local content. And with that tiny engine, the thing is slow – worse, sales are even slower.

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What to do? Simple, shoehorn in a locally made engine – never mind what it is, whatever is lying around will do – and as much other local content as possible. As it happened, Holden didn’t make four cylinder engines, but it did make a six (with a V8 on the way), so that was what went in. The result of some mechanical surgery, along with some new styling, was the LC Torana Six of 1969, a car that was both cheaper to make and easier to sell.

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The mechanical transplant called for radical re-engineering, but GMH did a good job. Not only was the Torana Six the first six cylinder/small car to go on sale, it turned out to be the most well engineered as well. By far the biggest seller of the bunch, the LC and its successors went on to become a 70s Australian institution.

There were two ‘generations’ of six cylinder Toranas, the first from 1969 to 1974, the other from 1974 to 1980. The first generation comprised the original LC and the facelifted LJ of 1972. These came as a two or four door, semi-fastback sedan. The LC/LJ Torana sixes had a much longer front than the four cylinder cars, and they had a kind of mini ‘Bunkie Beak’ that was guaranteed to get dented in parking misadventures. The four, which wasn’t as common, was noticeably smaller and had a squared off, flat front end.

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The everyday models were accompanied by the sporty ‘GTR’ and the ‘GTR XU1’, which enjoyed much racing success.

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The second generation Torana, which debuted in 1974 as the LH model, was larger. These were available with an Opel four, the Holden six or, for the first time, the Holden V8. The revised LX was introduced in 1976. The LX was soon fitted with emission controls and then ‘Radial Tuned Suspension’.

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The final Torana, the UC, arrived in 1978. It was not available with a V8.

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The second generation Toranas initially came only as a four door, three box sedan, but a two door fastback/liftback joined it with the LX. (A famous liftback is the Absinth Yellow 4.2 driven by the people at the centre of the Azaria Chamberlain case in 1980 – the one in which a dingo took the baby in the photo) The six, V8 and four cylinder cars differed visually only in trim and detailing.

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As with the earlier generation, the everyday models were sold alongside sportier models, and there were high performance V8s available for the racers and hoons.

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The six cylinder Holden ‘red’ engines used in Toranas came in various displacements and states of tune, depending on the model and year. They ranged from the small bore ‘2250’ (138ci) to the 3.3 litre (202ci) engine found in the typical family HQ Holden Kingswood or early Commodore. The most powerful six was the triple carb 3.3 in the GTR XU1s. The V8s, in the LH and LX only, were of 4.2 litres (253ci) and 5 litres (308ci), with tuned versions of the 5 litre in the high performance models. Note that Torana engine displacements were always listed in metric units.

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The Torana Six was a success, so naturally it bred its imitators. Ford’s answer, the TC Cortina Six, came in 1972. This was a Mk III Cortina with its four cylinder engine replaced by the familiar (Aussie) Falcon six of 3.3 or 4.1 litres (200/250ci). The TC Cortina Six was distinguished from the four by its quad headlamps.

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As with the Torana, there were two generations of Cortina Six. The first generation comprised the TC and the nearly identical (visually) TD of 1974. The larger, second generation Cortina Six comprised the TE (Mk IV in the UK) of 1977 and the facelifted TF (Mk V) models. All were available as a four door sedan or wagon.

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The Cortina Sixes weren’t as well engineered as the Torana, and they were known for wayward handling and road manners. They also had a reputation for poor build quality. Despite all that, the Cortina Six was fairly popular, and it was still a common sight long after production ended in 1981 These days the few TC Cortina Sixes one sees are invariably fitted with a V8. wide tyres and a doof doof sound system, and painted the sort of lurid colours so beloved of trainee car body repairers everywhere.

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Chrysler’s entrant was the Centura KB, a version of the French Simca/Chrysler 180 (recently mentioned on these pages) with the Australian ‘Hemi’ six of 3.5 or 4.0 litres (215/245ci). The Centura arrived late on the scene, in 1975, and as a four door sedan only. When its facelifted successor, the KC, quietly departed in 1977 Centuras were no more. They were never a common sight, even in their heyday (if they had one). As with the Cortina, the Centura might have been good as a four, but the makers never put in the effort required to handle a big, heavy six.

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Last, and assuredly least, we have the fourth example of the Australian affordable six cylinder/small car genre, the unlamented Morris/Leyland Marina 262 Six. Introduced in late 1973, the 262 Six had the 2.6 litre OHC six from the ill-fated Leyland P76 (think Edsel on steroids) up front. Like its four cylinder brethren, it was available as a four door sedan or coupe. (The coupe has strange proportions – did it have the front doors from the sedan?)

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As in the case of Ford’s Cortina, and Chrysler with its Centura, BMC/Leyland Australia didn’t do enough to equip the car for the extra power and weight up front, but apparently the Marina 262 Six was in a bad place all its own. Nevertheless, that wasn’t enough to deter at least one brave pair from racing a Marina Six in the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in 1974. (The race was won by a Falcon GTHO, and also the year before. A Torana GTR XU1 won in 1972, and a V8 Torana won in 1975.)

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As far as I know the only way to distinguish the Marina Six from the four cylinder versions is by seeing the ‘262 Six’ badges on the flanks (‘262’ referring to 2.62 litres, not 262 ci). I remember a contemporary newspaper review of the car, the most scathing I have ever seen (so much so that it sticks in the mind 40 years later). Essentially, the reviewer said the people responsible for the Marina Six just didn’t give a shit – and in words barely more restrained than that. I think the market agreed, as I don’t remember seeing very many around. Production of Marinas ended with the P76-led demise of Leyland Australia in 1975, but I am sure leftovers were being sold for years after.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief lesson on a unique class of car. They were a response to the peculiar conditions in the Australian market at the time, and I doubt if anything like it will ever be seen again. Nowadays these cars (maybe except for the doof-doof Cortinas) are usually only seen on sunny Sundays and at car shows, pampered and gently driven. Each a survivor, a burnt orange, lime green, or cacky brown reminder of an Australia long gone.