Faulty Fox - 1985 DJR Ford Mustang GT Group A

The Australian Touring Car Championship started out in 1960 as a single race event meant for less specialized teams running near standard production sedans. In 1969 the championship became a series, and quickly blossomed into Australia’s undisputed peak of motorsport. The relatively conservative Appendix J regulations morphed into ever more extreme forms, culminating in the mind bending CAMS Group C Touring cars starting in 1973.

By the mid 80’s the car’s were producing nearly 500 horsepower (372 kw) and featured heavily modified suspension, massive wheels and wide wheel arch extensions. In the hands of legendary drivers like Jim Richards, Allan Moffat, D^ck Johnson and Peter Brock these mighty machines captivated the Australian audience, and further fueled the intense turf war between Holden and Ford.

The Group C regs produced a rabid pack of highly entertaining fire breathing monsters.

Despite the popularity of the “Big Bangers”, the Confederation of Australian Motorsport Sport decided it was time for a major change. Outside of Australia the FIA Group A touring car category had risen in popularity. The European series had been using Group A since 1982, and Japan had also shown an interest in adopting it for 1985.

With these developments in mind, CAMS saw an opportunity to give the ATCC a more international character. The Group A rules would open up the championship to European and Japanese teams, which CAMS hoped would raise the profile of the ATCC and cause an influx of tasty foreign cash.

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Dick Johnson demonstrating the power and danger of CAMS Group C.

The change was definitely not a smooth one. Compared to the aggressively modified Group C cars, Group A’s specification was a tremendous step back in engine power and handling. Group A was bound to very strict homologation rules and limited engine development, leading to comparatively underpowered cars with stock bodyshells and suspension. For the Aussie teams this meant they had to completely change their strategy.

One such team was Dick Johnson Racing. Founded in 1980 by Queenslander Dick Johnson, the team had risen to prominence as Ford Australia’s de facto works team. Johnson’s organization originally operated on a shoe string budget until a horrifying crash with a giant rock at the 1980 Hardie-Ferodo 1000 propelled him into the public eye. After a deserved win at the 1981 James Hardie 1000 and three championship titles in 1981, 1982 and 1984, his next challenge would prove to be just as difficult.

Running the prototype Mustang at the 1984 James Hardie 1000.

As Ford Australia had no intention to enter the new Group A ATCC, Johnson was in a bit of a pickle. Developing his trusted Falcon into a Group A machine was impossible due to the strict homologation rules, which meant he had to look elsewhere for a Ford racing product. Johnson was aware of Ford’s ill-fated “Merkür” branded Sierra racing car, but felt it was out of his price range.

His search for an alternative brought him to Germany’s Zakspeed and the DTM. Zakspeed had a longstanding association with Ford, and had developed a Group A variation of the Fox-body Mustang hatchback in 1983. To Johnson this was the perfect way out of his predicament, so he purchased two used chassis from Zakspeed to use in the ATCC.

Practice, 1984 James Hardie 1000.

DJR had been assured by Zakspeed that the car’s 302 (4.9L) V8 produced around 310 (231 kw) horsepower. At its first outing in practice for the 1984 James Hardie 1000, Johnson experienced otherwise. The car lapped a devastating 14 seconds slower than the Group C XE Falcon. Angered by the Mustang’s dreadful performance, he commented the ‘Stang “…would not pull a sailor off your sister“.

[The Mustang] would not pull a sailor off your sister.

Dick Johnson

The sluggish Fox aroused suspicion in the DJR camp, and the decision was made to dyno test the car. There the mechanics found the V8 produced a meager 260 horsepower (193 kw), 50 less than quoted by the money-grabbing Germans. The setback meant the team would have to spend ages developing the engine to get it back to its quoted performance level.

The 302 V8 turned out to be painfully slow.

When all was said and done the 302 V8 now delivered 320 horsepower, slightly more than the Zakspeed hacks had claimed. The figure paled in comparison to the 480 horsepower 351 (5.8L) engined Falcon, but Johnson had no alternative. The power was handled by a strengthened 5-speed manual transmission. In total the package weighed 1325 kg (2921 lbs).

For the 1985 ATCC season the Mustang would face competition from seasoned European designs such as the BMW 635CSi, the Rover Vitesse, the Jaguar XJ-S HE V12, and the Volvo 240T. Also in the mix was a clumsy and unsure effort by Holden with the VK Commodore SS. Holden was completely out of its element with the new rules, something Ford Australia had sneakily avoided.

Dick Johnson and his team presenting the Ford Mustang GT Group A.

The dramatic lack of power from the 302 V8 was now largely solved, but the Mustang still lacked pace in comparison to the competition. The BMW 635CSi of New Zealanders Jim Richards and Neville Crichton swamped the shrunken field of 15 cars at the first round at Winton.

The radical change to Group A had shaken a lot of the local teams, which left the seasoned Bavarian machines with no real competition. D^ck Johnson dropped out early in the race with an overheating engine, although his second placing on the grid provided a shimmer of hope.

Start of the 1985 ATCC season, Winton 1985.

Dick Johnson qualified 3rd for the second round at Sandown, behind Jim Richards’ BMW and a hard-charging Peter Brock in am overweight prototype Holden, which was awaiting homologated improvements. The Mustang held on well during the race, and provided Johnson with a 3rd place podium finish. At Symmons Plains the Mustang was best of the rest once again with a 2nd place finish behind Robbie Francevic (NZ) and his Volvo 240T, but in front of Richard’s BMW. Again Johnson complained about the sluggish Mustang, saying he could drink a cup of tea in the time it took the car to complete the back straightaway.

Round 4 at Wanneroo provided a display of D^ck Johnson’s amazing kindness. Before race start Robbie Francevic’s transmission broke, and the team did not have a spare ready. Johnson agreed to lend one of his gearboxes to his rivals, which they modified to fit the Volvo’s B21ET 4-cylinder engine. At the start Francevic blew by Johnson, who had accidentally turned the ignition off. The Volvo’s jerry-rigged gearbox mountings quickly came apart however, granting a storming Johnson third behind Brock and Richards.

The Mustang regularly lost out to the better developed BMW 635CSi

At Calder Park a heavy panel bending battle between Brock’s Commodore, Richards’ BMW, Francevic’s Volvo and Johnson’s Mustang kept the crowd on the edge of their seats. A scrap between Francevic, Johnson and Richards saw the cars shoving the Volvo along, trying to get it out of the way. Finally Richards took the win in front of Johnson, with Crichton 3rd in the second 635CSi.

Surfer’s Paradise would see the Mustang finish 4th behind Jim Richards, Robbie Francevic and Peter Brock. Although the car slowed flashes of speed and displayed amazing reliability, it could not dream to match the level of the factory developed cars of the competition.

The Mustang was lagging behind from the start.

At Lakeside Dick Johnson showed the potential of what he called his best handling and braking car to date. A hard battle for the win erupted between him and Jim Richards, but the BMW proved to powerful once more. In the end Johnson had to settle for second.

The tiny circuit at Amaroo Park was next on the 1985 ATCC calendar. The short track layout put less emphasis on outright power, giving the well handling Mustang a small advantage. A 3rd place on the grid was the result. Again the Fox was outgunned by the big Beemer for 1st, but it took second in front of the much smaller BMW 323i of Tony Longhurst (AUS).

Calder Park, 1985.

Against all odds Dick Johnson ended a surprisingly strong 1985 season with another 2nd place behind the Volvo 240T of Robbie Francevic at Oran Park. A crazy coincidence saw the top three all with a time of 1:16.3, which had to be narrowed down further to give the final qualifying positions. His consecutive podium finishes earned him 2nd in the 1985 ATCC standings.

With the 1985 ATCC season over DJR now needed to focus on the Australian Endurance Championship. The series held long distance rounds at Amaroo Park, Oran Park, Sandown,the world famous Mount Panorama Bathurst and Surfer’s Paradise. The races would require a vastly different setup, meaning all bets were off in terms of possible competitiveness for the Mustang.

After missing the first round at Amaroo, and a dismal failure owing to a broken front axle at Oran Park, Johnson took on his trusted second Larry Perkins to partner him for the Castrol 500 held at Sandown. Perkins was a former F1-driver and had won Bathurst 3 times for Holden, partnering Peter Brock an John Harvey. Unfortunately the all-star team was let down by mechanical problems after starting an encouraging 3rd on the grid. Johnson/Perkins were eventually classified in 19th position.

Johnson and Perkins getting ready for the 1985 James Hardie 1000.

By then it was time for “The Great Race“, the James Hardie 1000 held at the glorious challenging track of Mount Panorama Bathurst. DJR had entered both of its chassis for this race as a safeguard, and Larry Perkins even managed to qualify the second car in the Top Ten Shootout. The Johnson cars showed no sign of mechanical issues however, so shortly before the start the second car was pulled out of the race.

Newcomers for the 1985 event were Scotsman Tom Walkinshaw Racing and their squad of three howling V12 Jaguar’s XJ-S. The 450 horsepower (335 kw) big cats took the first two grid positions in qualifying. Following the big Jags was Allan Grice/Warren Cullen in the Roadways VK Commodore SS Group A with Johnson/Perkins in 4th.

Dick Johnson battling the big Jag of Tom Walkinshaw (GB)/Win Percy (GB).

Johnson ran very strongly with the Mustang, taking second place at the start. After 20 laps however, there was a major problem. A weld on the oil cooler had let go, causing it to spill its fluid everywhere. Johnson rushed to the pits to get the problem fixed, furious at his mechanics. The oil cooler had failed the day before on the speed humps at pit entry, and Johnson had instructed his crew to replace it.

The following morning he found the cooler to have been repaired instead of replaced. Unsatisfied but strapped for time with the race start in sight, he begrudgingly stepped into the car hoping for the best. Sadly his concerns were vindicated in the early stages of the race. Johnson and Perkins fought back hard after losing three laps bypassing the oil cooler, and were rewarded with a disappointing 7th place after 6 hours.

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In car footage of Dick Johnson's 1985 Bathurst effort.

For the 1986 ATCC season DJR focused on making up the deficit to their competitors. Naturally, the main focus was engine development. Through more homologation grants, they managed to extract a further 40 horsepower from the tortured 302, making a grand total of 360 horsepower (268 kw). Refinements to the axles and the suspension were also implemented.

Sadly the improvements were to no avail. It was clear that the Mustang’s stunted development had caused it to lose the Group A arms race from an early stage. Fresh competition from the Nissan Skyline DR30 RS Turbo, the Ford Sierra XR4 TI and sophisticated developments of its more familiar competitors left the Fox in the dust. During 1986 Johnson would record a best finish of 4th at the opening round at Amaroo Park.

The 1986 James Hardie 1000 saw Johnson’s Mustang qualify in 6th with a cracked windscreen. Again Johnson instructed his crew to replace the part, and again he found it still on the car the next morning. With no time to replace it, he was forced to start the race with the crack still there.

Equally cracked was a bone in his foot, which he contracted by tripping in the paddock on Saturday. Adding insult to injury, the Mustang lost oil pressure in the later stages of the race, with Johnson and co-driver Gregg Hansford in a strong 3rd. The pair managed to get the car home in that position, only to discover a third crack in the engine block during servicing weeks after the race.

The DJR Ford Mustang GT was dragged into the ATCC out of pure, desperate necessity. Dick Johnson’s operation found itself without a car to race, and turned to the dishonest Germans at Zakspeed for help.

Their purchase of two Zakspeed chassis was not without issue, but the plucky little hatchback managed to fend for itself against much more capable opposition. The Mustang served as a worthy placeholder for DJR during 1985 and 1986, until they could get their hands on the devastating Sierra RS500 Cosworth.