Dawn in Devonport. Land at last.
After a rough night at sea (for my nauseous head and the Seventies-style décor of the Spirit of Tasmania), retreating to the confines of the car was more than welcome.
But this wasn’t any old car; this was the FPV Pursuit, the last, limited-edition Ute from Ford’s performance arm, complete with RSPEC-style rims, an audacious paintjob inspired by 1969’s Boss 302… and 315 supercharged kiloWatts.
I’d come to Tassie for a break from the mainland grind, to fly fish and explore some of the world’s best roads. A ‘work’ appointment at the Launceston National Motor Museum and a chance to catch up with photographer mate James Griffiths at the historic Longford circuit were all the excuses I needed.
Once off the boat, my plan was loose. Grab some Alka Seltzer post-haste, then drive towards Deloraine and its wonderful deli, praying my stomach would be settled enough by that time for breakfast.
Poached eggs and a sneaky side of bacon tentatively consumed, my walk back to the FPV Pursuit included a spike of rain… followed by a flood of water across the road to Mole Creek. Fishing was out of the question, but conveniently the road that makes up one of the Top Three Most Legendary Targa Stages (in my opinion) was waiting up ahead.
Cethana. In conditions more suited to a speedboat, the Pursuit’s early flare of leaf-sprung wheelspin indicates this will be a run as cautiously covered as the breakfast I’d just consumed. The early section of this legendary road offers good sight-lines before diving into the heart of the surrounding forest, with wattle trees lending their sap and flowers to an already treacherously wet road surface.
Stability control engaged, I meter out throttle, squeezing fully only when the road unravels straight, and do my best to manage the rev range by using the tiptronic-style shift of the ZF six-speed auto. Even then, overzealous applications of throttle can lead to inopportune kickdown, suddenly unleashing a 545Nm torque torrent that doesn’t dissipate from 2000-5000rpm. Wheels fizz, stability control chunters into life and cuts the histrionics rather abruptly; perhaps too abruptly if you are used to modulating throttle to balance wheelspin. It seems it’s best for both of us to meander back towards Launceston, following (appropriately enough) the Meander River.
The next morning dawns promisingly bright, with birdsong even in the middle of Launceston. Beat that, mainland.
After a mild panic attack trying to find a car wash (the sat-nav search function isn’t great) and then doing a frankly shit job of cleaning the Silhouette Black/Vixen Red paint, I meet up with James outside the Country Club Hotel in Longford. It’s most famous for its ‘Lex Davison Bar’, named in honour of the four-time Australian Grand Prix winner who crashed into the front bar during a practice session in 1962. The legend goes that Lex emerged from the wreckage to sit at the remains of the bar and order a brandy!
Our aim today is to explore as much of the old Longford circuit (known as the ‘Reims of the South Pacific’ for its high speeds) as possible, while getting to know the Pursuit in conditions more conducive to exploiting its masses of power.
In recent times the Longford Revival has brought motorsport back to the region. The event takes place on a section of old circuit that remains intact, known as ‘The Flying Mile’. It’s considered a straight, but at speed there are two distinct humps which really capture your attention; I’ll never forget Dick Johnson in his Tru-Blu Falcon hitting the second one at over 200km/h as he passed the masses at the 2012 revival. You could see him mouth a well-used expletive as the big XD slewed sideways, leaving rubber on the road as it landed with half a turn of opposite lock.
Shots taken, we move back towards the township in the direction of the race circuit, and spot the old viaduct off to the side of the new road. Back in the day, drivers dove under the viaduct into a sharp right-hander which curved them back towards the bridge, over the mighty South Esk River and on to the Pub Corner.
For me, this is the most evocative and atmospheric section of race circuit in Australia, sharpened into perspective by its derelict state today. As you walk the crumbling surface, the magnitude of what Longford represented as part of the Tasman Series eerily hits home. Greats raced and won here; Brabham, Clark, Stewart, McLaren, Hulme… the list goes on.
It fell to its current decrepit state thanks to ‘hoons’ who used to race through the nights on the circuit’s roads, long after the Tasman series had passed, at a time where there was no longer any sanctioned motor racing. The number of incidents led to the closure of some parts, the removal of others, and real racing history was forever lost.
As poignant an experience as Longford is, we wanted to grab some action shots of the Pursuit so headed for an unheralded piece of tarmac in the surrounding hills.
How the road from Poatina over to Deloraine is no longer included on the Targa route I’ll never know. It has a decent surface and reasonable width, enough in places to make the Elephant Pass stage feel like a claustrophobic maze.
It’s on this road that the FPV Pursuit and I start to gel. Growing familiarity with the road and dry conditions encourage DSC-free play and invites the rear end to assist the cornering process. At the end of the day, this is no performance car, despite the badge; the inherent limitations of its load-carrying rear-end mean that it is essentially a straight-line special. Bumps, particularly mid-corner, induce a big bounce (felt through to the seat of your pants) that takes its time to settle. By then, the apex is somewhere over there… metres away. This particular car (one of only 75 to be built, solely in this colour combination) also lacks the optional, and brilliant, Brembo six-pot/four-pot brake package, giving it a slightly-too-spongy pedal on the downhill sections and not enough real retardation to reign in the might of the 5.0-litre ‘Boss’ V8.
Throw it in a little harder, lean against its initial reluctance to turn in, get back on the throttle a little earlier than usual and the rear loads up and breaks slightly wide to help the nose tuck in. It’s all easily controllable as long as you don’t go overboard with the throttle, in which case the 245-section rear tyres simply dissolve. Even in a straight line discretion is best, unless you’re the type that welcomes wheel-spin on the freeway…
One thing is undoubted; the FPV Pursuit attracts attention. I’m approached regularly throughout the trip, in the usual laid-back Tasmanian style. “Nice Ute maaatteee, much fancier than the usual stuff we get ’round here!” is the general gist of things.
Over my remaining time, I sneak out to the St. Patrick’s river for a ‘fish’ (I catch nothing and my stumbling attempts at wading the high waters are akin to an energy drink- infused bull let loose in a china shop) but it means I get to explore another favourite Targa stage, The Sideling. By now, the Pursuit and I are almost on the same page, and the tighter, rising corners of this section of road allow for some fun, the flat-out run across the top allowing the car to fill its lungs completely.
For the trip back to Devonport we cruise Highway 1 for a while (there is a surprising amount of road noise) but then decide to branch out and discover some of the less well-known Targa stages, such as Nook, Sheffield and Dunorlan, all of which offer a variety of challenges that you can only expect in this automotive playground. And though the Pursuit can offer entertainment value, it’s more about power and presence than all-round performance. An authentic Australian muscle car, yes, but at the end of this epic trip I couldn’t help but crave something sharper. Now for the boat…
Images by James Griffiths