Nissan (Datsun) Bluebird Turbo: 133.85 Seconds of Full-Blown Respect
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Nissan (Datsun) Bluebird Turbo: 133.85 Seconds of Full-Blown Respect

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By MarkOastler - 24 September 2015
This is the car that wrote a unique page in Bathurst history when it claimed pole position for the 1984 James Hardie 1000. It was one of three Bluebird Turbos used by Nissan Australia’s works team in Aussie Group C touring car racing and the last one built. Fortunately it has been restored to its 1984 specification under proud owner Brian Henderson for future generations to appreciate. Image: Nissan Australia

George Fury’s record-smashing qualifying lap to claim pole position for the 1984 Bathurst 1000 was  the pinnacle of Nissan’s Bluebird touring car program, as it symbolised not only its conquering of Mount Panorama but also the Aussie V8s which had made it their own since the late 1960s.

Fury’s mercurial lap of 2 minutes 13.85 seconds, set in bitterly cold conditions that were tailor-made for turbo power, will stand for all time as the fastest lap set by a touring car on the original circuit with the full-length Conrod Straight. It was also the first time a Japanese car had taken pole position at the Bathurst 1000. And the first time for a turbocharged car.

The greatest enemy of turbocharged engines is the immense heat they can generate, from the exhaust-driven turbine to the heavily compressed fuel/air mixture they consume. The more that air is compressed, the hotter it gets. And the hotter it gets the less dense it becomes, which reduces an engine’s volumetric efficiency and therefore its power output.

So on a freezing cold day, like it was at Bathurst on Saturday September 29, 1984 when early morning snow fell on the Mountain, the Bluebird was in turbo heaven. In normal race trim, the turbocharger on its 1.8 litre four cylinder engine would produce boost levels of 1.6 bar (23.5 psi) which was good for around 360 bhp. For Fury’s qualifying lap, the waste-gate was wound up as far as it would go to a peak of just under 3 bar, which meant the little Nissan was pumping  a whopping 44 psi of  boost and more than 400 bhp. In other words, the grunt of a full-house 5.0 litre V8 race engine in a smaller and much lighter car.

Flashback to Bathurst 1981 and the first appearance of the Bluebird Turbos. Two cars were entered, with one built in Japan and shipped here for works drivers Masahiro Hasemi and Kazuyoshi Hoshino. The other was this locally-built example for George Fury and Fred Gibson. The high-boost Japanese car nailed pole position for Class C (4 or 5 cylinders) but blew a gearbox in the race. The low-boost Aussie car retired early with suspension trouble. Note the tinted windows which team boss Howard Marsden favoured to keep his drivers as cool as possible.

It’s not hard to see how this lap captured the public’s imagination. At that time, Formula One qualifying involved super sticky tyres and mega-boost qualifying engines, which could produce staggering outputs of up to 1400 bhp for one organ-displacing lap before they had to be thrown away.

With the boxy-looking Nissan sedan twitching and sliding its way around the Mountain under maximum boost, it was a testament to the former rally ace’s immense skill. The single-car qualifying laps at Bathurst, in which the fastest 10 cars would shoot it out for pole position, was a pressure cooker situation in which Fury clearly thrived. A killer instinct honed from many years in the forests.

“George came from rallying and he didn’t know any other way to drive but absolutely on the limit all the time,” said Fred Gibson who was not only a team-mate of Fury’s in the Bluebird days but would later manage the Nissan works team and its Skyline race cars in the highly successful Group A era that followed.

“No one else could have done that lap in that car in those conditions, because the Bluebird was not an easy car to drive. It was nervous and unforgiving on the limit, because with those big tyres and all the grip it had, when it let go it would let go in a big way.

The Hasemi/Hoshino Bluebird Turbo powering through The Dipper at Bathurst in 1981. Note the split central air intake in the front spoiler which was enlarged to a single intake for the 1982 season, plus the neat pair of vents in the bonnet, to extract hot air from the engine bay caused by the  turbocharger.

“I went in the passenger seat with George at Oran Park and I’ve never seen anyone work a car so hard and also work the car so well control-wise. The boost would be wound up down the straight, then he’d wind up the brake balance for this corner, then wind it back for the next corner. He was constantly adjusting the car to suit each section of the track and was absolutely on the case.

“George was also a very game driver, he’d take punts like you wouldn’t believe. And he could just pick the whole car up and carry it on his back if he had to because he could adapt his style to drive around problems. Other guys who drove the Bluebirds just couldn’t believe what he did in those cars.”

Fury’s history-making performance on the Mountain earned plenty of respect for Nissan and its unshakeable faith in the future of turbocharging. For here was a 1.8 litre production-based four cylinder engine outpacing the country’s fastest V8 touring cars with more than double the base engine's cubic capacity, including Mountain master Peter Brock gunning for his eighth win that weekend in the HDT’s latest and greatest VK Commodore.

It was the culmination of four seasons of hard work and a lot of heart ache with the Bluebirds, as what was initially designed as a 3.0 litre class contender was developed over time into an endurance series champion and multiple outright race winner.

Fred Gibson said multiple Australian rally champ George Fury had a ‘flick it and catch it’ style of cornering developed from years competing on loose surfaces. In the early days of the Bluebird touring car program, Gibson spent several days riding shotgun with Fury at Oran Park providing one-on-one tutoring in how to adjust his style to better suit bitumen-based competition. Here Fury and navigator Monty Suffern are powering towards victory in the 1978 Southern Cross Rally in their works Datsun Stanza.

No Pain, No Gain

After enjoying great success in Australian rallying with its factory-backed Stanzas in the late 1970s, the Japanese company decided to ditch its well established Datsun export brand in favour of a global realignment of all of its products under the parent company name Nissan.

Its motor sport interests in Australia also shifted from gravel to bitumen for the 1980s, with corporate backing for a new Group C touring car program commencing with a two-car team in the second half of 1981.

Logically, the weapon of choice was the 910 series Bluebird sedan, the last of the rear wheel drive Bluebirds which was to be built in 2.0 litre form at the company’s Melbourne manufacturing plant in Clayton and sold through Australian dealerships.

Although the race cars and road cars would look outwardly similar, the race car’s FIA homologation was based on a more up-spec overseas version of the 910 Bluebird, with a 1.8 litre fuel injected turbocharged engine and semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension not available in the Australian-made cars.

The Bluebird Turbo program spearheaded a corporate shift in naming from Datsun to Nissan in Australia. This 1982 advertisement shows how they did it, using shared Nissan-Datsun branding during this transition phase before dropping the Datsun name altogether. These ads worked well in also explaining how the Bluebird road cars benefitted from the company’s touring car campaign. Image: ratdat.com

From a marketing viewpoint, this corporate shift made plenty of sense at a time when Ford and Holden were the undisputed kings of the local family car and fleet car market with their Falcon and Commodore sedans. Both models in V8 form were also heavy hitters in local touring car racing, so Nissan had no choice but to follow suit.

Original planning was aimed at winning the 3.0 litre class. However, it soon became apparent that if the company really wanted to make a dent in Falcon and Commodore showroom sales, it would have to give them a shake-up on the race track as well. In other words, turn its class competitor into an outright contender.

“That’s what it was to start with and then everyone got excited because they figured we could probably start giving the slower V8s a hard time,” Gibson told the Shannons Club. “A bit more boost, a bit more homologation, a bit more speed, that’s where the problems started really. We just tried to do too much with the car and from a marketing viewpoint it probably wasn’t all that great because the overall impression was that they were fragile and kept blowing up all the time.”

On reflection, it seems unjust that the lasting memory of the Bluebird era for many race fans is one of constant failures of turbochargers, gearboxes and diffs. While the cars were often marginal on reliability, that was due almost entirely to the company boldly pushing the limits in the outright class rather than playing it safe in the 3.0 litre division. When you try to stuff a size 12 foot into a size 6 shoe, you’re going to feel some pain!

Japanese works driver Hasemi stunned the V8 brigade at Bathurst in 1982, qualifying third fastest in his Bluebird Turbo. In more conservative low-boost race trim, Hasemi and co-driver Hoshino won the 3.0 litre class and finished eighth outright. Here television commentator Evan Green is chatting with Hasemi on the starting grid prior to the race, which would have been difficult as the Japanese star could not speak English. The team had its own interpreter to assist.

Blow for Go

The Nissan Bluebird Turbo Group C touring car was unique to Australia and a fascinating feat of engineering, thanks largely to the political skills of Nissan’s product planning boss Howard Marsden in getting the necessary components and modifications through the homologation process.

With a svelte racing weight of around 1100 kg, the Group C Bluebird was substantially lighter than its V8 Commodore and Falcon opponents. And its turbocharged 1.8 litre four cylinder engine was officially classified as being just over 2.5 litres in capacity after applying the FIA’s turbo equivalency factor of 1.4 (1.8 litres x 1.4 = 2.52 litres).

The racing Bluebird’s engine was based on Nissan’s turbocharged and fuel injected Z18ET four cylinder unit, with cross-flow SOHC eight-valve head and two spark plugs per cylinder. Although special high-strength Cosworth pistons were specified, crank and rods were claimed to be stock and proved well able to cope with the stress of high boost levels.

Hasemi showed great courage and skill during qualifying for the 1982 James Hardie 1000, whistling around the Mountain at astonishing speeds for a 3.0 litre class car which surpassed all but the two fastest V8 Commodores. Fred Gibson said the Japanese drivers were overawed by Mount Panorama on their first visit in 1981, but were on top of the job when they returned 12 months later for their second and final appearance.

This race engine also featured a dry sump that used a two-stage oil pump driven from the crankshaft by a toothed belt. Its oil lines ran to an oil tank mounted in the boot; a space it shared with the car’s big aluminium fuel tank which in typical Group C style hung right down through the floor to lower the car’s centre of gravity.

A variety of turbo brands and sizes were trialled, including the Garrett T03,  T04 and IHI RH26. The tuned-length extractor system featured an adjustable waste-gate to control boost pressures, while the compressed air/fuel intake mix passed through a large intercooler (to lower its temperature) before being force-fed into a small plenum chamber with short intake runners and big fuel injectors.

Although under the rules the car’s turbo boost was not supposed to be adjustable from inside the car, it was generally suspected, even accepted, that the Nissan drivers were turning up the wick when needed even though no one was able to find how – until now.

The Bluebird Turbos that raced here in the early 1980s were tame by comparison to the wildly modified versions seen in Japan’s ‘Super Silhouette’ series. This is the Bluebird that won the championship in 1980 and 1982. Weighing only 1000 kg and powered by a massively turbocharged 2.0 litre DOHC four cylinder engine, it produced around 600 bhp. Huge tyres and powerful aerodynamics kept it glued to the bitumen. It’s a pity we didn’t see one of these compete in local sports sedan racing. Image: www.nissan-global.com

“If you pulled out the ashtray, the knob to adjust the turbo boost was hidden in there,” Gibson revealed with a laugh. “Later we fitted a large orange light on the dashboard which we said was an oil warning light, but when you screwed the orange lens off it the boost adjustment was hidden in there. It was real game of cat and mouse back then.

“I remember once when I finished a race at Bathurst, I screwed the lens off it to turn the boost back down and dropped the bloody lens on the floor somewhere when I was driving into the back of the pits on my way to the scrutineering bay! Fortunately I managed to find it and screw it back on in time.”

A triple-plate clutch had the vice-like clamping force needed to transfer all that turbocharged grunt to a hybrid five-speed gearbox, locally developed using the standard Nissan casing loaded with a set of tough dog-clutch gears from Melbourne racing transmission guru Peter Holinger.

In 1983 the Bluebird adopted a larger rear spoiler during the ATCC and from mid-year was authorised to use a larger turbocharger as well, which bumped it up from the 3.0 litre class to the outright division. This also brought more aggressive changes to the car’s bodywork as seen here at Bathurst that year, with wider wheel arch flares and a revised front spoiler which now incorporated a body-coloured bumper bar in one smooth moulding. Running with mega boost, Fury qualified second fastest at Bathurst to secure Nissan’s first front-row start, only to suffer a gearbox failure on the first lap. Check out the massive Nissan signage in the background. The company's motor sport commitment was substantial.

“Originally you had to use the standard gearbox but eventually the internals were free and that’s when we went to Holinger,” Gibson recalled. “Before that we had to use the stock standard gearboxes and they were useless. They were full synchro boxes out of the road cars and they just kept breaking.”

Completing the drivetrain was a beefy 3.0-inch tailshaft and Nissan differential casing which like the gearbox was equipped with a remote oil cooler. After much experimentation, it was eventually fitted with a spool-type crown wheel and pinion arrangement that was fully locked.

“We tried all kinds of tricky diffs, like (Detroit) lockers and limited slips and what have you, but in a car that didn’t handle all that well and tended to lift its rear wheels here and there, the spool was the way to go and it certainly suited George’s driving style,” Gibson said. “Being fully locked it was like driving a big go-kart really.”

This is how the mighty Bluebird Turbo appeared in 1984 – the last year of Group C. With big front and rear spoilers, chunky wheel arch flares and fat tyres, it looked fantastic and was a formidable opponent when everything held together. Fury had mixed results in the 1984 ATCC, with the highlight being his dominant victory in round six at a wet Lakeside Raceway in Queensland.

Front suspension featured MacPherson struts like the road car, but modified for racing with Japanese Tokico coil-over shocks. There were also extended inner pivot points for the lower arms to increase negative camber on the front wheels plus an adjustable anti-roll bar.

The hand-fabricated independent rear suspension was another fine example of Howard Marsden’s persuasive ways. The fact that the homologated papers were all written in Japanese was no doubt an important tactical tool.

The racing Bluebird's rear suspension retained the road car's semi-trailing arms as demanded by the rules, but notice how only the outer front pivots were used. The inners were left floating in the breeze, which allowed this component to serve as a simple trailing arm for the improved geometry provided by new upper and lower transverse links. The inner ends of these rose-jointed links pivoted from firmly braced 'sandwich' plates on the rear of the diff housing and provided the wheel camber, toe-in and roll centre adjustments required. Note also the stout steel rods on the wheel uprights to support the lower end of the coil-over shocks. A clever fix for the road car's less-than-ideal suspension geometry, which was not easily solved under the Group C rules.

Additional rose-jointed links and revised pick-up points (see above) provided the correct geometry needed for competition use.

The addition of Tokico coil-overs and an adjustable anti-roll bar resulted in a superior arrangement to that of the road car’s original semi-trailing arm design, which according to Gibson was useless for racing.

The first of two starts for the 1984 James Hardie 1000 at Bathurst saw Fury make a lightning getaway from pole position. Even Peter Brock appeared to be surprised as he looked across at the Nissan on the approach to Hell Corner. It was all for nothing though as the race was stopped on the first lap due to a multi-car crash behind them, triggered by Tom Walkinshaw’s stranded Jaguar. Brock made a faster start the second time on his way to a crushing victory.

“The first Japanese-built Bluebird they brought out here for Bathurst in 1981 had the standard road-type (semi-trailing arm) suspension on it and the back wheels just fell off in practice because the rear stub axles were breaking,” he said.

“It was like a swing-axle suspension that kept tucking the rear wheel under the car through the corners like a Volkswagen. It had so much positive camber, it was putting too much load on the little stub axle which would just snap off.”

Braking was via four wheel discs, with big slotted and ventilated front rotors usually clamped by one but sometimes two four-spot calipers per wheel. This allowed softer brake pad materials to be used (for more bite and pedal feel) without the need to make a pad change in long distance races, because it doubled the amount of friction material. The smaller ventilated rear discs had one four-spot caliper per wheel.

The works Bluebird using up all the road as it fires out of Murray’s Corner. Fury was joined by young Queenslander Gary Scott at Bathurst in 1983 and 1984. The son of racing ace Glyn Scott adapted well to the Bluebird and in a great solo drive won the opening round of the 1984 Australian Endurance Championship at Amaroo Park. Scott would later drive for Nissan in the Group A era, qualifying on pole position at Bathurst in 1986 in a turbocharged Skyline DR30.

The adjusting of brake bias from front to rear by drivers during races was also frowned upon by authorities back then, on safety grounds. However, the Nissan drivers considered it a useful tool, so on the Bluebirds it was also hidden. If you pulled the headlight switch it turned on the headlights - but if you turned it left or right it adjusted the brake bias!

For such a compact sedan, the Bluebird wore some pretty big boots. By their last season in 1984, the Nissans rode on 16 x 10-inch Simmons three-piece composite rims with 265mm wide tyres on the front and even fatter 310mm wide bags on the rears. The body clearance needed to run such big rubber required extensive trimming of the sheet metal around the wheel arches and fitting large fiberglass flares to shroud the wheels and tyres which protruded beyond the standard bodywork.

Those lightweight flares, along with big front and rear spoilers, were all part of the car’s race homologation package and grew larger and more aggressive over time. By the end of the Group C era in 1984, the chunky Bluebirds looked positively sinister. And were very fast.

The lone Bluebird finished a lowly 16th at Bathurst in 1984 after a lengthy stop to replace a diff (some reports say oil pump) while running third at around the 80-lap mark. Not the best way to finish its last Bathurst race, but thanks to Fury’s qualifying lap this famous Nissan will forever hold the record as the fastest touring car around the old Mount Panorama circuit.

Even so, after four seasons of competition Nissan did not have an Australian Touring Car Championship or Bathurst 1000 win to show for its efforts. As a result, that has tended to unfairly taint historic perception of the Bluebird program, despite it being the company’s first foray into Australia’s premier touring car division when it was also pioneering turbocharged technology.

The facts are that the Bluebirds did pretty well. They scored numerous 3.0 litre class pole positions and class wins, several outright race wins, claimed the 1982 Australian Endurance Championship Manufacturer’s prize for Nissan, came within six points of winning the 1983 Australian Touring Car Championship and capped it all with that magic V8-thumping pole position at Bathurst in 1984. A fine legacy, whichever way you look at it.