The last iron warrior: Geoff Portman’s Nissan Bluebird
The withdrawal of the factory Ford and Datsun rally teams saw the demise of the ‘golden era’ of Australian rallying in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the age of the privateer had begun.
Part 2: Power to the peopleThe choice of power plant was pretty easy. Les had always intended the car to use a LZ Nissan engine. Turbo technology was unproven in the 80s, and Les’ experience with Datsun engines was unparalleled, even in those days. The choice, for drivability and reliability was easy. A 16 valve, twin cam unit which had been used by Nissan in the Southern Cross Rallies, but with some special Datrally Developments tweaks, like a 2.3 litre capacity block, was put to good use… While the engine was adequately powerful and produced that power in a useful rev range, ultimately it produced nearly 250 bhp, delivered between 5,000 to 8,200 rpm, it suffered some component problems, which were traced back to poor quality machining of pretty important components, like valves and pistons. These would ultimately lead to the car’s retirement in critical events in 1984. The LZ engine’s cylinder head came from the Datsun PB210 which was driven by Shekta Mehta in the 1977 Southern Cross Rally, and required extensive modifications being made to the larger 2-litre cylinder block. The LZ engine now offered a realistic comparison with the BDG engine Escorts, and the ex-factory Fiat 131 Abarth of Greg Carr. Oil surge was prevented by fitment of a dry sump system. The Bluebird boot housed the oil tank. Towards the end of the car’s life, prior to the 1984 Alpine Rally, further development to the power plant saw 55mm Webers fitted in order to chase more power and torque, and for that benefit to be delivered over an even wider range of the rev band. All successfully achieved, according to Collins. Mated to the engine was a Nissan “Option 1” 5-speed direct drive 5th gear transmission modified by the fitting of an Option 2 first gear, making starting special stages a bit more stressful on the clutch, but offering Portman a closer range of ratios once things were moving along. A 5.1:1 ratio Nissan (modified by Datrally, naturally!) differential centre was used in the final drive area. All that power was put to the ground via 14 x 6 inch Enkei wheels fitted with inch Dunlop SP52 and then CR70 tyres, which provided a mind blowing 14 kilometers per set of rear tyres! Geoff Portman says that the later Dunlop SP82R tyres would last longer and survive better on the longer stages, but became skittish on loose gravel. He suggested that we not talk about their performance on muddy or slippery roads! As was always going to be the case, Geoff’s long time friend and fellow forester, Ross Runnalls would co-drive in most events in the Bluebird. Ross agreed with Geoff’s summation of the car: “It handled really well and the drive out of corners was pretty impressive.” The Bluebird’s big time debut was in the 1983 Dunlop 2GO Rally in Gosford, the car being finished just in time to do some testing the week prior. Geoff was surprised with the car’s speed and equally surprised his competition with fast “out of the box” stage times, which saw him running in third place, before slowing and eventually retiring with a broken valve spring. Next up was the Alpine Rally, held in the area well-known to Geoff and Ross surrounding Bright in North East Victoria. With great expectations following a suspension development program, on just the fifth special stage a rather large granite rock impacted the sump guard, which in turn bent the engine sump so badly that it broke the oil pick up, reducing the oil pressure to zero. Collins: “The front springs failed on the trailer going to the Alpine. That’s why it broke the oil pump pick up that year.” The rather short 1983 season proved to be a disappointment for the crew. Geoff took 10 weeks of his long service leave from the Forests Commission of Victoria to supervise and help build and develop the car. The 1984 season commenced with a new air of confidence in the Datrally camp, and of course an extra 20 or so horsepower,r coupled with continued suspension development, was always something to get excited about. In 1984, Geoff’s main rivals for outright honors and another Australian Rally Championship crown would be Greg Carr in the ex-factory Fiat 131 Abarth, David and Kate Officer in their Mitsubishi Galant, Murray Coote in a mid-mounted, L20 engined Datsun 1200, and Ian Hill in the venerable but still exceedingly fast ex-Ford Australia Escort RS1800, YJT 444. The 1984 ARC started with a new rally, the Canon Zodiac Rally held around Bairnsdale, Victoria. Greg Carr rocketed off to an early lead, with the Bluebird setting a fastest time on one of the early stages. A rare mistake by Portman saw the Bluebird smack a tree and damage the left hand rear. Carr dropped out with electrical issues, which allowed Geoff to take the lead, albeit with an all-night session booked with the panel beater before the next day’s competition commenced. Sunday brought spark plug lead problems to our chargers in the Bluebird, but their fight to continue to lead of the event was soon followed by a holed piston, which resulted from a poorly machined valve, which broke its head off. Geoff describes this as now being an expensive paper weight! Les Collins provides the background: “What happened in the Zodiac event was that when a new set of forged pistons were made for the 2340cc engine, a 3mm drill bit broke off when drilling the oil drain holes in a piston. It was stuck and the manufacturer peened it in, believing that it would not be a problem. “It started to move and with every cycle it would hit the gudgeon pin on the down stroke at BDC (bottom dead centre) and then try and come out the crown of the piston when going over TDC (top dead centre). It eventually found its way out through the crown, leaving a neat3 mm hole into the chamber. The compression then found its way into the sump and blew out the oil. Nothing was damaged and a new piston fixed it all. Lesson Learnt”, acknowledges Collins. Next up was the MidState Television Rally at Bathurst. With limited spares availability for the bespoke LZ engine, the Bluebird was fitted with a spare 2.1-litre single cam power unit. This was fitted with one of the Datsun “FIA” homologated cylinder heads and offered about 215 bhp. “With the single cam engine, the car felt like a 1600,” suggested Runnalls, “so we were looking forward to the return of the Twin Cam.” A solid fourth place at the end of the first day resulted. Sunday was not as dry as most would have liked, but Geoff was reveling in the damp conditions and the additional work carried out to the suspension proved valuable as the car was a rocket out of corners, allowing for some very aggressive and thoroughly enjoyable driving. A string of fastest stage times and an eventual podium finish in third place was the result. Up to Queensland for the James Hardie Rally was next on the ARC agenda. An all-nighter following the media day outing at Mt Coo-tha quarry faced the crew to get the car straight again. This was one of the rare events that Ross could not co-drive as he was in England getting married to Chris. His place was filled by David McKenzie. David got the surprise of his life – and was lucky not to be seriously injured – when a heater attachment broke under the dashboard, spaying him with pressurized hot water. Their maladies were to continue, and while holding down a fine third place an oil line burst, placing even more pressure on the service crew, and while fighting back, second gear decided to pack it in and on stage eight the Bluebird retired. Bluebird sat out the next two rounds of the ARC, but for the year’s final round, the Enka Fill Alpine, it was back with a vengeance and renewed enthusiasm from the hard-working Datrally team. Geoff had spent two months preparing himself and the car. Expectations were high. During the event the car was beset by unsuitable gearing, a broken axle and then the ultimate ignominy of the engine drowning in an over- large puddle. Despite these setbacks, the guys were able to maintain third place all afternoon, ahead of George Fury’s potent 2.4-lite Datsun 120Y, and behind David Officer’s Galant and Ian Hill in YJT 444. Into the night stages another broken axle stalled the Bluebird’s progress, this time permanently. It was the last time our intrepid team ran the Bluebird in an ARC event. As history will show, Geoff went on to be successful in his driving exploits as professional driver in Malaysia, first in a Ford Laser TX3 4WD, a clone of a Mazda 323 BFMR, and later in a Toyota Celica GT4. His last recent competition outing was in an Escort RS1800 in the Otago Rally, and then the seven-day Silver Fern Rally, both in New Zealand in 2016. As usual, Ross was calling the corners. They came away in second place, only 28 seconds behind the winner, The Escort, now owned by Victorian Luke Sytema, is a regular starter in Victorian Championship rallies. In the final event that Ross partnered Geoff in the Bluebird, the Golden Hills Rally in Victoria in 1985, Ross recalls a most frightening instance: “The steering wheel came off in Geoff’s hands and we left the road and hit a bloody great tree!” Portman used the Bluebird for several non-championship events and it starred in one of his driving instruction videos, before being sold to Phil Messer of Victoria, sans engine. Its ownership passed onto Jason Selmer, before going to North West Tasmania in the early 1990s. Fitted by then with a good 2.4-litre engine, it was sold off yet again before a couple of season’s use in both racing and rallying (Tasmania had a race class for rally cars at one stage). It ended its life having been rolled into oblivion, and its parts sold off. Some lucky guys in Tasmania still have smiles on their faces! It was probably not the ending Les, Geoff, Ross and the Datrally team wanted. The story is one of hope and failed glory. But one which is worth telling, and puts a nicely timed full stop to Nissan’s Australian rally experiences.
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