Clem Smith, the man and his Charger

Even today, the thunder of top-notch Sports Sedans delights racing purists around Australia. The cars remain spectacular and significantly fast, too; at most tracks the fastest cars are anywhere between two and six seconds quicker than current-specification V8 Supercars.

Each year at Mallala one of Australia’s favourite Sports Sedans would take to the track for its one and only lap of the racing season. The car in question is the original Chrysler Charger built and raced by Clem Smith in the 1970s. It lived in a shed till recently at Mallala, and has now been completely restored to original running condition.

Clem would tip in prize and travel money each year that the National Kerrick-sponsored Sports Sedan Series traveled to Mallala, such was the close affinity the man and the class had established. In return, the series named their marquee race after him and have that special car leading them around.

“I guess it was a pretty special car for a Charger,” Clem had said. “Sports Sedans were my life for a fair while, when we stopped racing the production cars. We’d run Pacers as production cars, including the Sandown Three-Hour and things like that. When the Charger came along we ran a new one in production cars for quite a while and then I thought we should build a Sports Sedan using a Charger as a base.

Today, Sports Sedans remain the last real bastion for engineers to truly innovate within a set of remarkably open rules, given the current shift to ‘spec’ racing; with the latest cars featuring Formula 1-style suspension, space-frame chassis and fully carbon-fibre bodies.

From a similar era that would ultimately spawn famous cars like the Bob Jane Chev Monza and Bryan Thomsons VW Fastback, Clem Smith’s Charger came from humble origins.

“I bought a wreck, and built a sports sedan,” he smiles. “I used that for quite a lot of years, developed that then stroked the 340 small block Chrysler to 360 then added fuel injection and got that going pretty well. Later on, I decided to get the proper chassis made. We put the fuel injected 360 into that, and went from there. It was a pretty good thing.

“The other Chargers racing at the time, like the more prominent one built and raced by John McCormack, had a Repco V8 engine – so it wasn’t really a Charger! My car was still a Chrysler, with a space frame and it was a very high-tech car for its day. At that stage, you couldn’t use the lightweight stuff they’ve got now so it was an all steel body. It was actually built in the same place as John McCormack’s car in Adelaide, with Elfin and Chrysler engineers moonlighting on the project on the same jig. It made a pretty good car, actually.”

Clem and the Charger were staples of Sports Sedan races at Adelaide International Raceway and later Mallala, and often nipped at the heels of national competitors at the South Australian annual round.

However, it was the often-fumbled handling of Sports Sedans ‘regulations’ – for what they were – that ultimately turned Clem off the class. Changes to the series in the early 1980s saw Sports Sedan racing essentially disappear from the national landscape for several years when CAMS morphed it into the GT category. Costs rose and traditional cars became uncompetitive.

Smith was frank when it comes to his feelings of the challenges the early 1980s faced for Sports Sedan competitors.

Sports Sedan racing has always been badly handled, like when the Porsche 935s came in with Rusty French and Alan Jones in the early 1980s. To help us compete with them, they said you can put 15-inch wheels on the back and you can go 12 inches on the front because that is what the Porsches got.

So right, you can go and buy another 12 or more wheels from Germany from BBS and spend a fortune there… only two years later the Porsches got put out and they dropped Sports Sedans all together!

“If you didn’t put the big wheels on, you weren’t going to get anywhere, were you? So you went along with it but it was ridiculously expensive at the time. I have heaps of BBS rims in the workshop somewhere!”

Clem Smith

Vale Clem Smith

In a career in motorsport spanning more than 60 years, Clem Smith was a successful South Australian state competitor over many decades. More than that, though, he was the man who almost single-handedly saved the Mallala circuit from extinction.

Clem was initially a speedway driver at the legendary Rowley Park, before switching to road racing in the early 1950s. He contested the 1955 AGP at Port Wakefield in an Austin Healey 100. Later the Chrysler dealer turned to Valiants, and was a leading competitor in early slant-six powered models in the 1960s. He finished third in the single-race Australian Touring Car Championship at Mallala in 1963. Elsewhere Smith won the South Australian Touring Car Championship, after the Allan Moffat and Jim McKeown Lotus Cortinas ahead of him took one another off the circuit.

Later on Smith became involved with and championed Sports Sedans, developing a heavily modified Chrysler Charger. The recently fully restored Charger is an iconic machine in Sports Sedan history and in recent years has served as a parade car for the annual Clem Smith Cup Sports Sedan race at Mallala.

But it is Mallala will that be Smith’s lasting legacy. The World War II airfield circuit seemed lost forever after it was closed in the early 1970s, and was only saved by Smith’s courage and tenacity.

After purchasing the dormant venue in the mid-’70s, Smith had to undertake some seven years of legal battles before he could officially open the South Australian track for racing once more. With the effective closure of the Adelaide International Raceway in the late 1980s, Mallala for many years has served as the lifeblood of motorsport in South Australia as the state’s only permanent racing facility.

Clem Smith died peacefully in his sleep on February 8, 2017 aged 90.