JOHN MALCOLM FRASER, Australia's Prime Minister, lists fishing and photography as his recreations in Who’s Who In Australia. He really should have added cars.
For John Malcolm Fraser is an enthusiast who loves Lancias, knows Bugattis and reads WHEELS. And it was as an enthusiast that JMF drove Australia's biggest and most expensive car – Ford's LTD Silver Monarch – not so much because we asked him to but rather because he was interested.
For 23 minutes, early one September morning, Australia's Prime Minister drove the LTD around Canberra and talked cars, not LTD cars but European cars and especially Lancias, while the Mercedes-Benz 450SEL – registration number C1 - and its driver waited at the Lodge.
Perhaps we should begin at the beginning because it's not every day that a Prime Minister goes road testing for a motoring magazine. Our idea had been to test the LTD between the Lodge and Parliament House, Canberra. There seemed little point to putting the plush super-Ford through our regular testing procedures, except for purely academic purposes.
Where better to evaluate it, we decided, than between the Prime Minister's home and Parliament House. After all, Ford had been only too keen to push the idea that the PM should be driving an Australian car when it released the LTD.
And since the government bureaucrats and politicians buy more LTDs than anybody else, Canberra seemed the perfect location for our story. It made a great deal of sense.
Then we became more ambitious and decided that what we really needed was a photograph of the Prime Minister's Mercedes-Benz with the LTD outside the Lodge. Surely, if we waited long enough one morning when parliament was sitting the Benz would roll out and we could capture the two cars on film.
Wouldn't that be great, we thought. Then, by following the PM to Parliament House, we could describe how the LTD felt from the back seat at 60 km/h along the State Circle or sideways in the apex of the corner at the back of Parliament House.
To try and find out about what time the PM might leave the Lodge in the morning we tried ringing a contact in the press gallery only to be told he had resigned to join the public service. Why not try the PM's Press department, somebody suggested. Why not indeed?
The response was hopeful. "Ah, WHEELS, yes I know, it goes straight into the PM as soon as it arrives." So we told the man our idea and asked if he would try it out on Mr Fraser. We even suggested that if the PM would like a change from the Benz then we would drive him to the House and that if he wanted to drive there would be no problems. Well, we reasoned it would help the story if we could get some comments from the Prime Minister about the LTD. It was about
then that we began to wonder just how we would explain to Ford if the LTD happened to be run into by another car with the PM at the wheel. But it all sounded rather like a Walter Mitty fantasy.
Unfortunately, the week we intended taking the LTD to Canberra clashed with the school holidays and Mr Fraser was down on the farm with his children so we postponed the trip until the following week and wrote a letter to the PM's Press office outlining our idea, never really expecting it would come off.
We rang Canberra again the next Monday only to be told that Mr Fraser was in Wilcannia and that the subject of the LTD had yet to be raised in his presence. We tried again on Tuesday and didn't even get through to the press secretary and simply got a message that he still hadn't had a chance to talk to the PM about our idea.
So we left a few telephone numbers in the vague hope that something positive might happen and confirmed with the photographer that it was Canberra come-what-may the next morning and that the original idea was still a bloody beaut anyway.
At 9.15 on Tuesday night the phone rang in the middle of Warship. "Tell them, if I can drive it, it's on" was the relayed message. If we turned up outside the Lodge at about 8.15 the next morning then we could only get to take the PM for a drive but he wanted to drive. It was that easy.
Thick fog slowed us down on the way to Canberra in the early hours of Wednesday but we made it in time to wash the LTD, check out the Lodge and clean out the car.
The big silver beast and its occupants must have been obvious because Mr Fraser's press officer recognised the LTD parked in Canterbury Crescent, at the back of the Lodge, while we loaded cameras and waited for the appointed time to roll around. The press man stopped, said yes it was still as planned and we followed his Cortina around to the front entrance and told the security guard who we were.
"The man really likes cars," we were told; "he wanted to drive Allan Moffat's Falcon at Sandown but they won't let him because he doesn't have a licence and the security blokes were a bit anxious. But he is going to do a lap with Moffat driving."
It was the first we'd heard of the Prime Minister's much-publicised two 200 km/h laps around Sandown Park which were to make the front page of most newspapers around the country the next Monday.
Our conversation had turned to Lancias when the guard shouted from his hole in the white brick wall, "you're to take the car up to the front". We couldn't believe our good fortune- the story was getting better all the time.
The wrought iron gates opened and the LTD quietly slipped down the drive of the Lodge, around the small garden in the centre of the apron and parked in front of a large, white rambling home with wisteria growing along one balcony and a strange but attractive blend of native trees and shrubs and English blossoms in the garden. It seemed unpretentious, even modest, and somehow very Australian.
What wasn't Australian was the white Mercedes-Benz 450SEL parked at the side of the Lodge, but then that was what this trip was all about, wasn't it?
We decided the Benz should be in the photographs and suggested it be parked in front of the Lodge but still behind the LTD of course.
The· German limousine showed 41,146 miles on the odometer. "No, we don't want him to get rid of it," was the driver's - they are drivers in Canberra and not chauffeurs - answer to the obvious question. "It still has the smell of Gough about it you know, but in the present economic situation he won't get rid of it, it wouldn't look good.
"Yes, it is a very good car, but it needs to be taken out on to the highway every so often and given a big stick. It doesn't like too much city running."
"Has Mr Fraser driven it?" we asked. "No, but I think he would like to."
Then two security men drove up behind the Benz in a black XA Falcon and rather spoiled the photograph we had in mind so we asked if they could park the Falcon around the corner. Our request was granted without complaint. A couple of minutes later the iron front door of the Lodge opened and Australia's Prime Minister stepped outside into the spring sunlight.
John Malcolm Fraser is a very large man - taller and heavier than he appears on the small screen - with very big, strong hands that squeeze you tightly when you shake hands. There is, in his appearance, still a touch of the look of a man who has spent plenty of time under a country sun and is just a little uneasy in a suit.
Introductions over and the Prime Minister walks around the LTD. "This is the latest model" - it's more a statement than a question - and he opens the back door and asks, "Has it got more room than the old one?" as he slips inside to do his own test of the rear seat room.
We're a bit taken aback. Imagine questioning the amount of space in the huge LTD with its vast wheelbase and seemingly endless leg room.
"No, I don't think so," is the plaintive reply, "Isn't there enough room?" There is no need for an answer, the Prime Minister's head is touching the headlining.
"There isn't enough room in that either!" and he waves an accusing finger at the Benz, "It looks like a big car, even in short wheelbase form, but really hasn't got as much room as a BMW."
What follows is a discussion about the relative leg and head room in various continental and Australian cars. None of them came out particularly well, with the possible exception of the BMW.
"We're going for a drive" - it isn't a question. The keys are in the ignition and the only person to move towards the driver's seat is the Prime Minister. So, with security man behind him, photographer in the left hand back seat and the editor of WHEELS in the front passenger's seat the Prime Minister attempts to find a comfortable driving position. Without having to check the front seat back is wound down to an almost semi-reclined position. Thinking he obviously likes to get well back from the wheel and knowing how he likes Lancias, we comment that he really must like a straight-arm driving position.
"It's not that," comes the brisk reply, "I just want to give my head some room." The engine starts easily, mirrors are checked and adjusted to suit, the transmission engaged and the LTD gently moves down towards opening gates. The guard salutes and the Prime Minister waves a greeting as he winds the car around to the left and into three lanes of traffic moving west along Adelaide Avenue.
It isn't long before the Prime Minister begins fidgeting with the air conditioning controls which are located on the front edge of the central armrest between the two front bucket seats.
"Are you hot?"
The air conditioning is set to deliver a small stream of coolish air; instead it is blasting forth with air that has the occupants of the car sweating. Various combinations of the three controls are tried amid much cursing, under the breath, by the front seat passenger but nothing stops the intake of hot air.
Finally we give up and decide the only course is to turn off the fan and at least reduce the amount of hot air to a minimum and at the same time suggest that everybody open the electrically operated windows.
By this time the LTD has gone left into Hopetoun Circuit and is beginning to pull up Grawler Crescent. Our polite conversation comes to an end as the Prime Minister flattens the accelerator and the big car lunges forward. But with four adults on board and the air still going, the performance isn't exactly sparkling and he says so. We quote the LTD's acceleration times and talk about the car being so quiet that it is deceptively quick but he doesn't seem too impressed.
We swing into Melbourne Avenue and begin talking about the power steering. "It's not as light as I thought it would be but it's still an easy car to drive," and we decide the man has handled the variable ratio power steering very well and not been worried by it first time out, as most drivers are.
A woman in a Corona pokes its nose out of Empire Circuit on our right and the PM waves her through with a flourish as he brakes gently. From that point on the LTD is to be forgotten till the very end of our drive.
We ask about his Lancias. His enthusiasm is obvious and immediate. We learn that the Flaminia, at present under restoration at Nareen, is a 1966 2.8 litre sedan and that he also has a 2000 Flavia sedan in Canberra. Why does he like Lancias. For their performance, steering 'and above all their roadholding. No, the 2000 doesn't have fuel injection because the carburettor engine is easier to service but, yes, it does have the five-speed gearbox.
And yes, the gearchange does take some getting used to with its very narrow gate but it is, we are told by the PM, much freer after 15,000 miles. A small green Lancia sedan speeds past and a dispute begins as to whether or not it was a Flavia or a Fulvia. WHEELS is proved right and the Prime Minister wrong when we pull up alongside it at the lights.
We talk about Bugattis and he asks about the Type 101. "That was the post-war sedan that was made until the mid-'50s," we reply, as we desperately tried to remember our Bugatti history.
'"53 or '54," he corrects us.
"I know where there is one," he quietly admits as if he doesn't really want to let the secret out.
"Why don't you buy it?" we ask.
"They want lots of money," is his simple reply, and it strikes home that even Prime Ministers don't have limitless amounts of money.
The initial, understandable reserve, indeed shyness, is on the wane.
"I also know where I can get a new Flaminia engine. There's a stock pile in Italy and Lance Milne is going to get me one. The trouble is if I’ve got three engines I'll have to get another car. He has also found a Zagato-bodied Flaminia and wants to bring it back, but can't because of the quotas."
It seems the factory has sold off all its Flaminia spares to various dealers around Turin and Milne has located the one with the complete engines. He asks if we know if Stewart Murdoch has finished the restoration of his 1914 Delage Grand Prix car. We don't and admit we should. He tells us it once belonged to Lex Davison and was the first car to have desmodronic valve gear. It is the only one left in the world.
Somehow the conversation switches to modern cars, perhaps because we hadn't displayed the knowledge we should have about the oldies, although we did mention the Issota E'ranschini 1.5 Grand Prix designed by Bugatti that belongs to Lynden Duckett in Melbourne. It turns out the man looks after the Prime Minister's mother's car.
"Have you driven the new Gamma?" he asks.
Not yet, not yet, but we hope to early next year and an appointment is made for the Prime Minister to spend a couple of hours in the Gamma outside suburban Canberra.
It soon becomes obvious that he also has an intimate knowledge of the present European car scene. We talk about the new Peugeot 604. "Will they sell any Volvos when it comes on to the market?" It's a question that is answered with a smile.
We compare the Peugeot with the Renault 30, which uses the same engine, and he is surprised that Renault won't be importing the 30TS because of the quotas and that it has a very different and more sporting character than the 604.
We mention that a V6 Alfa is also on the way and he appears very interested. The Prime Minister has never owned an Alfa but respects them and says, "Tony Street has a Sud ti and loves it".
By now we've been driving around Canberra without really going anywhere and without spending much time thinking about the LTD, Lancias and Bugattis being far more interesting.
He asks what the time is and we give him a read out from the digital clock in front of the passenger. He heads the LTD back towards Parliament House. We talk about having a Prime Minister who is also an enthusiast and he says, "Well, at least we got the import duty removed on cars over 30 years old. Now I'll have to buy a car that's under 30 years old, I suppose ..." He smiles and the reserve falls away even further.
We don't get the chance to show him that the LTD is a quiet car at 140 km/h and doesn't have the wind noise that seems to plague most XC Falcons and that (or all its size it can be hustled along country roads at a fair rate or knots, only bouncing sideways on the worst of bumps in the apex of a corner and can be stopped with astonishing ease.
The LTD slides into his spot at one side of Parliament House. The Benz is there waiting for him, along with a smattering of press photographers and journalists.
"It's quieter than the old car. It's rather a nice car," he decides as we come to a stop but we know his heart isn't in the comment. He says it feel tight but wonders how it will be after 20,000 miles because the LTD he is driven around in when in Melbourne has become loose in the suspension and rattles a bit. We suggest he wouldn't have the same problem in the Benz and he says not now, but they did with the early ones. Somehow we get the impression he doesn't think the Benz is the ultimate car either.
We say goodbye and confirm a date for the Gamma drive and he says it's one car he will take out and drive properly.
It's 8.51 am and we've finished our job and got what we came for. We fiddle with the air conditioning controls and finally get the temperature lever to work, go off and have some breakfast and head back to Sydney convinced that Australia has a Prime Minister who has very good taste in cars and equally convinced that the LTD is not John Malcolm Fraser's kind of car.
I'm sorry Ford, but he won't be spending his money- as opposed to the tax-payer's money - on an LTD. Not while there are still Lancias in this world.
LTD: Prime Ministerial material? was first published in Wheels in December, 1976