Video: Howard Bell’s LITRE8 Torana track day

We caught up with Howard Bell when he dusted off his iconic SLR8000 Torana for a heart-pounding track day at Winton Raceway back in 2019

Photographers: Shaun Tanner

You only have to read the comments below any online Street Machine piece on Howard Bell’s iconic LX Torana to get a taste of the impact it had on a generation of enthusiasts: “Still got the poster!”; “Best Torana ever built”; “This would have been one of the tuffest cars on the road once upon a time”; and countless shared links between mates with, “Remember this?” What makes this car so legendary?

First published in the September 2019 issue of Street Machine

Howard Bell paid $6981 for a brand-new Mandarin Red LX SL/R 5000 at Dustings Holden in Burwood, Victoria, in April 1976. It was a 21st birthday present to himself. The dealership no longer exists, though its sticker remains on the Torana’s rear windscreen.

Street Machine was still years away from its first issue. Malcolm Fraser was Aussie PM. Significantly, though, Peter Brock had claimed his second Bathurst victory six months earlier, this time in a privateer L34 Torana as a two-fingered salute to his former employer, the Holden Dealer Team, who’d dumped him after 1974.

It’s this “I’ll show ’em” attitude that inspired young Howard and would shine through every step of his now-famed LX Torana’s four-decade development from a tough streeter to an unregistrable leviathan.

This is why we’re at Winton Raceway in rural Victoria. The alpine wind skims the picturesque mountaintops in the distance for a cold start to the day, yet the Torana isn’t here. We’ve been lolling about the pits waiting to clap eyes on a car that most of us have only ever seen in the pages of Street Machine. Maybe we gave Howard a different time? Is it the wrong day? “We’ll give him a few more minutes before we start worrying,” says JP, videographer for the day. Surely everything’s okay…

The first session goes by before the red LX finally trundles in behind Howard’s black VF ClubSport tow car. “We had to change a flat!” he says, pointing out a sorry-looking spare fitted to the trailer that his priceless SL/R sits on. It’s amazing the set-up made it this far.

We ponder what could’ve been a significant disaster as Howard unloads the car. It’s immediately clear that he doesn’t treat the Torana like a pampered trailer queen. Wear and tear, minor scratches and tiny imperfections remain as signs of a life well lived.

It’s refreshing how modest Howard’s set-up is, too. It’s like Floyd Mayweather showing up to a title fight without an entourage. We watch awkwardly, not sure whether to give Howard a hand or not, as he brims with enthusiasm. The man cannot stop talking about the car, and we can’t stop asking questions. When did the ’cage go in? “1982.” When were the Scheel seats fitted? “1991.” The brakes? “They were top of the pops back in the day; you can probably buy them at Woolworths now.”

Once the 10-inch-wide slicks touch ground, we hover like seagulls awaiting start-up. Crank. Crank. Brrrr. Cra-womble-warble-warble. The gasps and sounds stirring up beneath this famous Torana body are otherworldly. Its ominous, deep cackle sounds more like a Top Fuel dragster as it rumbles into the pit garage. This is what we came for.

You may have read that this car is no longer an 8.0-litre. Since an incident at Winton in 2017, Howard took the opportunity to spike the proverbial punch and add some more grunt. “It sort of melted the tops around the exhaust valve on four pistons, so at least I’ve got eight nice paperweights now,” he explains with a laugh.

In their place is a fresh, larger set on a new crank nestling into the 30thou-overbore block, with CNC-ported AFR 335 heads combining for a grand total of 564 cubes.

As several former Supercars lap Winton, Howard’s monster of a Torana is like the mothership they were spawned from. Its engine is almost literally twice the size of their 5.0-litre V8s. What’s more, it looks awesome, as if the chromed 9.2-litre is bulging to get out of the engine bay.

Today is the Torana’s first time on track with the new upgrades. “Are you nervous?” I ask Howard. “No, not really,” he says calmly as he puts on his helmet. “The car’s limits are obviously well beyond mine, but yeah, I’ll enjoy spirited driving, but we’re not racing for a ranch.”

Just after 11am, the red Holden belatedly warbles down pit lane, clearly the loudest machine here, and by some margin. That deep rumble and laziness of such a large powertrain is obvious, even when the car is moving at a clip.

Howard’s on it. Changes between the five-speed’s straight-cut gears sound like salvo bursts amid machine-gun fire. It’s as raw and brutal as it gets. “You never question whether it’s in gear,” Howard jokes later.

We watch from the pit wall, smartphones grabbing images and footage as we savour the sight and sound of this monster, pushing walls of air past us like a sonic wave as it blasts by.

After a handful of laps, Howard returns to the pits. It’s all gone wrong. “The brakes were dodgy, but you can drive around that, but then the clutch just went to the floor,” he laments. There’s fluid underneath the driver’s side of the engine bay. It’s brake or clutch, we think. The source of the leak isn’t easy to find. We trace the braided lines around the engine bay and think, but aren’t totally sure, that it’s coming from the clutch. It’s game over. Crestfallen, the fact that we won’t see it on track again only makes that one-and-done run even more special.

Ever humble, Howard apologises to us. Are you kidding? He has pushed everything uphill – even changing a tyre in the dark at 6:30am – to be here, and he’s apologising to us? It’s a mark of the man. He allows us to push the car around the garage to grab some more images, trustfully leaving us alone with this icon.

I slide into the driver’s seat and imagine for a moment the feeling this car would’ve brought a Holden-loving 21-year-old in 1976. It’s the first and only genuine SL/R 5000 I’ve ever sat in, and what a debut. I cannot believe I’ve touched such a legendary, enduring car.

Despite being cut short, Howard was a delighted mess after the sole run. “It just has the grunt from everywhere because of the whole reconfigure, the engine size and camshaft and stuff,” he says. “I mean, the other one went hard, but it didn’t have that super low-down grunt this thing’s got.” That’s an understatement when you look at the latest dyno figures: 886hp at the flywheel at 6560rpm, and 864ft-lb of torque at 4370rpm, all motor. “I was using about half-throttle where I used to be flat before. The one time I did give it a bit more of a sniff on the back straight, the whole thing snapped sideways on me!”

Was the short run enough to rate the latest upgrades? “Oh, undoubtedly a success, yep,” Howard says resoundingly. “Just the way it felt, the low-down poke, the speed at which you were rowing through the gears even with a limited rev range. It’s leaps and bounds. Plus, this time we got it done on a chassis dyno at Melbourne Performance Centre, the gurus with MoTeC down there.”

What’s obvious is that for Howard, his 21st party has never stopped. Having owned this truly unique Torana from new for an amazing 45 years, it’s not only a Street Machine legend, but a part of him. “If you’d told me then that we’d still be talking about this car in 2021, there’s no way I’d have believed you,” Howard says.

It’s the spirit of always tinkering, tuning and loving the car that’s seen it capture a special place in history – and it’s still going strong and making the pages of Street Machine, such is the pull of this timeless streeter.

Perhaps in 2040 we’ll be reading about LITRE8 and its new synthetic-fuelled, 24-litre V16 packing 2500hp. Whatever it will be, there will only ever be one Howard Bell, and only one SL/R 8000.


Howard’s SL/R 8000 first rocked the pages of Street Machine in December 1991 in our Summernats 5 coverage, with a full-blown cover feature in the April-May 1992 issue.

Yet its first appearance was actually in our July-August 1986 issue, wearing ILE890 plates. Under the bonnet back then was a Normalair-Garrett Strata VI-turbocharged 202 that screamed to 8000rpm and made 500hp on 22psi.

After emerging as LITRE8, Howard’s LX has been a repeat guest of SM, including making our 20th anniversary issue in 2001, when it was named one of Australia’s Top 20 Most Influential Street Machines.


How influential is the SL/R 8000? While at Winton to test the new 9.2L upgrade for the first time – MkIII, Howard calls it – curious onlookers and thrilled fans came down for a closer look.

Some knew the car, like Pat. “I saw it on track and as soon as I saw the wheels, I knew it was SL/R 8000,” he said.

Punters doing double-takes is common. “How long have you had it?” asked another onlooker as he wandered up. Howard casually replied, “Oh, about 45 years.”