Mighty Mouse - 1983 Nissan Pulsar EXA Turbo Group C
In 1973, the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport moved to consolidate the two of the most popular categories into one streamlined set of regulations. Before, touring car racing had been divided into Group C Improved Production as used in the Australian Touring Car Championship, and Group E Series Production in the Australian Manufacturers Championship.
Aside from being a confusing cluttered mess, this setup had been supported by Australia’s big three automakers, Chrysler, Ford and Holden. However, the infamous “Supercar Scare” of 1972 involving a high performance homologation version of the Ford Falcon, the GTHO Phase IV, caused public backlash against the practice of building racecars to production spec.
Following this, Chrysler and Ford folded their factory teams, forcing CAMS to come up with a solution. That solution was Group C Touring Cars, a more liberal formula based around engine displacement, and with much more lenient homologation requirements. In this new environment, the eternal war between Ford and Holden flared to new heights.
Blow by blow the two companies challenged each other to get stronger and stronger. Models came and went, but the recipe was always the same. Get the biggest V8 you can find, strap it to a common sedan, put a manual gearbox in the middle and send the drive to the back. As a result, pure unadulterated Aussie muscle reigned supreme for the better part of the decade.
Nearly a decade after the conception of Group C, the status quo was thoroughly shaken up. Ford took another break from the sport in a continuing on/off relationship, leaving their star driver Allan Moffat to turn to Mazda and their RX7. BMW followed with a works effort based around the 635 CSi in 1983, and was joined by Gibson Motorsport, which became Nissan’s factory outfit.
The foreign invasion brought in rotaries, straight sixes and tiny turbocharged four cylinders. The 1.8L Z18ET engine in Gibson’s Bluebird Turbo produced 300 horsepower (223 kW) and 369 Nm (272 lbs ft) of torque, enough to propel the featherweight 1000 kg (2204 lbs) car to V8-beating speeds.
However, all that boost came at a cost, as more often than not the Bluebird’s race would end in a blue cloud of smoke. With turbo technology still in its infancy, the car had a hard time beating the lumbering large-capacity dinosaurs dominating the ATCC.
But rather than give up, Nissan and Gibson Motorsport ferociously doubled down. In an effort to drive the point about the superiority of small turbocharged engines home, they created the single most unusual machine CAMS Group C would ever see.
Going against all tradition, the team selected the quirky and incredibly angular Nissan Pulsar EXA Turbo as the base for a second Nissan Group C challenger. The diminutive four-cylinder, front wheel drive coupe was derived from the humble hatchback, and the antithesis of all things ATCC. In its ultimate form, the little tyke produced just 105 horsepower from its 1.5L E15ET engine, about 4.5 times less than the strongest Group C cars.
The idea of turning the microscopic Japanese lunchbox into a fire-breathing touring car ace seemed like the ramblings of a madman, but team principal Fred Gibson soldiered on regardless. As luck would have it, he would receive help from an unexpected source.
While filling out the car’s homologation papers, CAMS officials made a small typo which would do wonders for the project. Instead of entering T02, they filled in a certain box with T03. This denoted the specific type of Garrett turbocharger allowed on the car. Thanks to the typo, that turbine was now a damn side bigger than it normally would have been.
The result of this was a gigantic mountain of power from the tiniest engine in the Above 3000cc class. Now fitted with forged Cosworth pistons, strengthened internals, a dry sump system and solid engine mounts, the re-dubbed Z15ET could push out as much as 350 horsepower (250 kW).
In an effort to contain this forced-fed fury, the stock five-speed manual gearbox was fitted with a stronger gear set provided by Holinger, and the front differential was fully locked. Additionally, the car was made as wide as it was long, fitted with 270-section tires all around and graced with a fantastically aggressive aero package.
Fred Gibson took to the track to try his new toy out, and quickly found himself holding on for dear life. Owing to the dwarfish engine trying to spool up a massive turbo, the car suffered from intense turbo lag. Coupled to the locked front differential and a total weight of just 750 kg (1653 lbs), the Pulsar simply refused to move in a straight line.
Though viciously fast, every time the boost came on the car would zip across the track thanks to a truly titanic amount of torque steer. Because of these glaring flaws, Fred Gibson opted to stay with the much more docile Bluebird, but his wife Christine had other ideas.
Known as "The fastest woman in Australia", she was somehow able to master the unruly machine. To help her fight the torque steer, the larger standard steering wheel was left in, allowing for more leverage. Even with the bigger wheel in place and Christine’s skilled hands operating it, the Pulsar was proving to be something of a handful. Every time she changed gear, she had to rush her hand to the wheel to brace for the next wallop of torque steer.
The car was so erratic in fact, Christine’s colleagues from rival teams were concerned about having to lap her. As the car violently zipped around the width of the track, the chances of an unforeseen collision were deemed pretty high.
In response to this, the drivers agreed to let Christine clearly indicate which side she would stay on, before her competitor would carefully find a way round. Of course, this line of reasoning failed to account for the car’s immense straight line speed. The V8-boys would have a tough time passing her.
Owing to its savage nature, the Pulsar EXA took its sweet time to make its ATCC debut. As the team worked feverishly to make it somewhat more drivable, the more conventional Bluebirds were kept in service. It was clear the EXA’s problems could never be fully resolved, so the car was seen more as a wacky promotional tool.
The car finally showed its face for the first time at the 1983 edition of the famous James Hardie 1000 at Mount Panorama, Bathurst. Christine Gibson was partnered by veteran Bob Muir (AUS) for the event, and qualified a distant 37th.
Their quickest lap of 2.27,1 was nearly ten seconds slower than the one set by pole man Peter Brock in his Holden VH Commodore SS. Come race day the party was over way too soon, as the drivetrain predictably collapsed after just 14 laps.
Bathurst turned out to be the first and last appearance of the EXA Turbo in 1983, as the problems with the car were still not sorted. In 1984 a select few races were run, mostly off the ATCC circuit. Races at Oran Park and the non-championship AMSCAR series at Sydney’s tiny Amaroo Park were run, but the little Nissan never met with much success.
A second attempt at Bathurst that year saw Christine Gibson partner up with promising rookie Glenn Seton (AUS). A best qualifying time of 2.20,93 showed an improvement of nearly seven seconds over the previous year, but the car was just as much slower than polesitter George Fury, who put in a record-breaking performance with his Bluebird Turbo.
The EXA’s shortcomings had been made painfully clear by its bigger brother, as Gibson/Seton were down in 26th. The race followed a similar pattern to the year prior, as the Pulsar snapped off one of its driveshafts on lap 76. Yet another retirement sealed the car’s fate, as it never made a high-profile appearance ever again.
In any case, 1984 was to be the last for CAMS Group C machinery, as the governing body finally caved to pressure from outside of Australia to conform to the by then wildly popular FIA Group A formula. With homogenized rules, foreign teams would have a much easier time coming over to compete, hopefully raising the profile of the ATCC and bringing in more money.
In a strange twist of fate, Australian touring car racing had come full circle, as Group A’s strict homologation rules forced teams to adopt near-standard cars, like they had done prior to CAMS Group C’s formation. This meant insane designs like the Nissan Pulsar EXA Turbo were made completely impossible.
The Nissan Pulsar EXA Turbo was a mad exercise of 80’s excess. Fitted with huge wheels, wings and a turbo almost larger than the engine, the whole car screamed with psychopathic joy. With ages of turbo lag and immense snap torque steer, the minuscule monster ping-ponged its way forward with harrowing urgency.
A locked differential and a large factory steering wheel could only do so much, as the incredibly brave and strong Christine Gibson wrestled the manic motor along Australia’s tight club circuits. Daft from the start, the car didn’t stand a chance against the more traditional machinery, serving mainly to scare and entertain rival drivers and enthusiastic fans alike.
The little bundle of front wheel drive insanity lives on today in the hands of its original owners, and still lights up tracks in historic racing. One can only hope the other drivers have been warned.