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With the Datsun 1600 and Stanza now obsolete, Geoff Portman took a Les Collins / Datrally prepared Nissan Bluebird to the ARC with high hopes of success. Bruce Keys reports on the history of a car that never really lived up to its potential. * * * * * * In the early 1980s, Australian rallying at national championship level was at the crossroads.  Manufacturer support for rallying, particularly from Ford, Nissan, General Motors-Holdens and Mitsubishi was all but gone, mostly and ironically thanks to successful marketing campaigns based around motor sport, coupled with the budget needed (even in those days) to mount an assault on the Australian Rally Championship. The publicity generated from success in rallying, to actually get people into showrooms to buy new cars, simply did not stack up. The 1981 Alpine Rally was the swansong event for the heady days of the mighty Nissan Stanza works cars.  Three cars – for George Fury, Ross Dunkerton and Geoff Portman headed the starting list.   Team Escort, the Ford backed team for Greg Carr and Colin Bond, went to the used car lot earlier that year.

Geoff Portman (right) and Ross Runnalls after winning the 1978 Alpine Rally in "Grunter".

The support provided to Wayne Bell for the Holden Gemini was over, as the car was not being sold any more, and the Mitsubishi Lancers, after storming to victory in several Total Oil Southern Cross International rallies in Andrew Cowan’s capable hands, had been pensioned off several years earlier. As history records, following that 1981 Alpine Rally, Nissan team Stanzas were delivered into the hands of some very loyal and lucky drivers – Bob Nicoli (WA), Peter Phillips (Qld) and Phil Horan (SA) being the luckiest. But Nissan had a problem on their hands.  For many years Nissan (nee Datsun) had built a reputation for tough and reliable cars, borne out by success – and used to positive marketing advantage – in rallying, firstly with the venerable Datsun 1600 and later the Datsun Stanza.  The Stanzas led the charge in the Australian Rally Championship of the time and had been promoted by the corporation as such.  Who could forget the ubiquitous rear window stickers “Datsun Rallyability”? Following the demise of the works operations for rally cars, privateers started taking the honors in ARC events - which were not glory days for the industry’s marketers!  It was not altogether totally appropriate to have a high profile rally series won by a 20-year old car – or that’s the way it looked on the surface. Nissan, through its Competitions Manager, Howard Marsden, clearly saw the flaw in the process, and although the Stanzas went into hands that would produce good results, there were few outright successes at the highest level to follow.
Geoff Portman's Grunter Datsun 1600

Portman and Runnalls splash their way through tough conditions in the Alpine Rally.

By that time the Stanza model was starting to age and the focus of Nissan’s marketing turned to the Bluebird. Initially marketed as “the first four cylinder limousine”, Nissan was also determined that the appeal for the car should stretch to a younger demographic, thus the successful migration of ‘George Fury Rally Driver’ to ‘George Fury Race Driver’ in one of the Japanese built Bluebird Turbo race cars. But Marsden was still keen on doing something in rallying.  In fact, there were plans for a two-car Bluebird Rally Team on the cards, however the concentration – and expenditure - on the race cars soon saw the planned bank account for the rally effort depleted. One of Marsden’s star rally drivers, in fact the 1981 Australian Rally Champion, also had a long-term relationship with a highly successful and innovative engineer-cum-vehicle developer who specialised in Datsuns. The partnership between Geoff Portman and Datrally Development’s Les Collins had seen Collins and Portman radically modify and develop a 1970 Datsun 1600 into a real weapon – which we now know as “the Grunter” – to the stage where it was an embarrassment to the works Escorts and Stanzas in the late 1970s. Now, if only the same magic could be worked by Datrally on a current model Bluebird, Nissan may have a successful and marketable commodity on their hands. Marsden was not the only one to get this situation.  Similar thoughts were floating around young Geoff Portman’s head.  After all, if there was anyone who was going to break into the big time as a rally driver in Australia, Geoff wanted to be at the front of the queue. Not much publicity value winning high profile events in a 14-year old car, was there?  So the die was set and Geoff ‘s determination to succeed and to go further onto the world rally stage soon saw some long and in depth conversations between Geoff, Howard Marsden and Les Collins, on what may be able to be achieved to see a positive outcome for all the parties.

George Fury headlined Nissan's touring car campaign with the Bluebird Turbo.

The dawn of Project Datrally Bluebird was not far away. The body shell used for the Portman Bluebird was a Japanese sourced unit with an independent rear suspension set up – just like the race cars. Looking around at the cars that were at that stage winning ARC events, Collins soon determined that a live rear end set up, similar to that used in the all-conquering Ford Escort RS1800, Stanza and Dinta Officer’s Mitsubishi Galant was probably going to be superior to a relatively standard Nissan independent rear end. First problem:  How to transplant a competition oriented 5-link rear end into an IRS chassis? Answer?  Removal of many existing panels and lots of fabrication of a totally new rear floor pan and suspension mounting points. This was by far the most significant modification made to the Bluebird’s body.  The entire rear floor pan aft of the front seats was removed, redesigned and engineered to accommodate not only the four equal length rose-jointed trailing arms and the transverse watts linkage, but also so that there would be adequate clearance for the projected suspension travel, as well as space to relocate the 80-litre FIA fuel cell over the rear axle.

James Riddell during the massive fabrication effort to the Bluebird's floor pan to incorporate the rear trailing links. Note the extend of the floor pan cut out! Photo: courtesy of Geoff Portman

This latter item was essential to contribute to better weight distribution, improve front end turn-in (for which Grunter was famous for) and ultimately obtain superior traction out of corners. The rear wheel tubs were also reworked to provide for the projected increase in wheel travel, of over 200mm. The significant change to the rear suspension also required special dampers to be sourced, which were German Bilstien units arranged through Quadrant Suspension. Datrally Developments fabricator, James Riddell, spent several weeks on this area of the car alone. The result was not only first class workmanship, but a suspension that worked really well. “The car was fantastic to drive,” enthused Portman. “With the single cam engine it was like a 1600, but with the Twin Cam on song it was something else.” Next on the agenda was to balance up the rear with some work on the front end.  This is where some extra assistance from Nissan came in handy in the shape of a trailer load of spares.  The Nissan front end was basically sound – things were in the right location and it was inherently strong, but the steering mechanism of the standard Bluebird needed to be replaced with a rack and pinion set up from one of the Japanese Bluebird race cars. This required more expert fabrication from James on the front cross member and some neat work in swapping the front 4-spot brake calipers from the rear of the struts to the front side of the ventilated disc rotors to make room for the steering rack.

The Bluebird, sitting in its new home at the Datrally workshop in Cheltenham, not long after arriving from Nissan Race Team workshop. Photo: courtesy of Geoff Portman

The rear brakes were also 4-piston Nissan units which were fed from a pair of master cylinders, operated through a threaded and adjustable bias bar arrangement.  This ensured a precise amount of pressure could be delivered to both the front and rear to cope not just with Geoff’s driving style, but to easily change the bias set up depending on the surface of the stage. An in-line hydraulic hand brake completed the braking system. In production, the Bluebird was not all that much heavier than a 1600, however, in order to reduce the impact of the slightly heavier car, a lot of thought was put into weight reduction.  This included a specially moulded thin fiberglass bonnet and boot lid, together with small bespoke wheel arch flares on each mudguard.  Extensive use of Perspex replaced most of the windows. Unused brackets and other protrusions were skilfully removed.

The Bluebird’s rear brake calliper set up. Photo: courtesy of Geoff Portman

All up the Bluebird, despite being almost a half a meter longer, diagonally, than a 1600, weighed in at around 1000kg, about the same as a reasonable rally Datsun 1600. A pair of special feather-weight Marsh seats, tailored to Geoff and Ross Runnalls’ height and to accommodate the reduced profile of the Bluebird’s roofline (when compared to a 1600 or a 180B), completed the interior fit out.

Geoff Portman is a two-time Australian Rally Champion in Datsuns.

Part 2: Power to the people

The 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.

James Riddell (L) attends to the Bluebird during a service in the Canon Zodiac Rally (ARC Round 1, 1984). Master engineer and Datsun guru, Les Collins provides the orders.

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.

Bathurst Mid State TV Rally 1984. Note the power-down stance of the rear suspension, providing Geoff Portman with immense amounts of traction. The corner apex, however, is a long way from where it should be! Photographer unknown.

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!

Geoff Portman kicks up the dust on the 1983 Enka Fill Alpine Rally.

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.

Testing the front suspension! Mid State Television Rally 1984. Note the extreme rear suspension travel when in droop mode. Photo courtesy of Les Collins

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.

The Portman/Runnalls Bluebird on the now defunct Bright Dirt Circuit during the 1983 Enka Fill Alpine Rally. Photo courtesy of Geoff Portman

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.

The last known photo of the Datrally / Collins / Portman Bluebird in action at a Ballarat Hillclimb. Photo courtesy Paul Williamson.

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.

Geoff Portman steers his Nissan Bluebird around the Bright Sports Ground in the Alpine Rally.

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Author

Bruce Keys

Bruce has been involved in rallying for over 40 years. Although a senior administrator with CAMS (Motorsport Australia) for 35 years, he is probably best known for exploits as a motor sport photographer in the 1970s. He was awarded Life Membership of CAMS (Motorsport Australia) in 2011. Bruce is currently semi-retired and lives in Melbourne.
Bruce has been involved in rallying for over 40 years. Although a senior administrator with CAMS (Motorsport Australia) for 35 years, he is probably best known for exploits as a motor sport photographer in the 1970s. He was awarded Life Membership of CAMS (Motorsport Australia) in 2011. Bruce is currently semi-retired and lives in Melbourne.