13 February 2024

'We're all getting bloody old': Canberra's car clubs enact survival plan for 43rd Wheels car show

| James Coleman
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Greg Francis

Greg Francis, at the helm of his 1988 Peugeot 205 GTi. Photo: James Coleman.

If you ask Greg Francis, he “only drives legends”.

Down the back of his property, there’s a 1966 Volvo 122S – the first car to have seat belts as standard – and a Porsche 911, and out the front, a 1988 Peugeot 205 GTi and 2009 Subaru Impreza WRX hatch. Legends, for being two of history’s best ‘hot hatches’.

The ‘Wheels’ car show is returning to the Queanbeyan Showground this Sunday (18 February), and this year is all about celebrating what Greg describes as a “dying breed”.

“Hot hatches are finished; they’re going out; EVs are going to take over,” Greg says.

“Subaru no longer manufactures the WRX in hatch form. Additionally, Renault has ceased making the Clio RS while this year marks the last production run of the Renault Megane.”

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Hot hatchbacks were born in the mid-1980s when car manufacturers began wedging big engines into small bodies to create light but practical sports cars. They were basically the final nail in the coffin for light two-seater roadsters like the MGB and Triumph.

But today, the fear is EVs have caught up with them. An MG4 X-Power might be phenomenal, but it’s not quite the same experience.

Greg’s Peugeot 205 GTi hails from the glory days. It fell into his hands almost by accident when he traded a mate’s WRX back to him after discovering it had a “three-button clutch” that was “either in or out” and hopeless for everyday driving.

The 205 GTi was all original except for the racy air filter, but it was also a “money pit”.

“It needed a lot of work. Fortunately, the increase in value has covered the expense,” Greg says.

Greg is a man who uses his cars.

The WRX is “pretty battle scarred” from regular rally and hill-climb events when it’s not a “shopping trolley” or “picking up the granddaughter from school and taking her swimming”. The Peugeot, too, has tackled its share of Porsches over the hill-climb circuit at the Fairbairn Motorsport Complex.

“What turned me off, however, was the Porsche Club has three rules for when you go on the track: Have fun, don’t crash, and don’t come last. I came second last in the last one, and I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m too old for this’.”

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He recently tore a tendon in his bicep, which may or may not be down to the fact that the Peugeot also predates power steering.

“It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger to park.”

Greg says age is also the reason Canberra’s car clubs are on the verge of extinction, and it’s another reason he chose to focus on hot hatches for 2024’s Wheels show.

“Almost every meeting, we have to read a eulogy because someone in the clubs has died – we’re all getting bloody old.”

Car stickers

Greg Francis is a member of the French Car Club of Canberra, which falls under the Council of ACT Motor Clubs. Photo: James Coleman.

He says many young people are put off joining the clubs because “we don’t do motorsport; we do static car shows”. But mention an event focussed on hot hatches, and you attract interest from all corners.

“We have young blokes with Nissans and Toyotas wanting to bring along their cars who wouldn’t normally.”

Among these is his son, who owns a very rare form of 2012 Renault Clio RS, the ‘Angel and Demon’.

“This was a limited number run worldwide, with only about 20 coming to Australia and only two coming to the ACT. As far as we know, his is the only example still in the ACT.”

Wheels was held in Canberra for most of its life until it was kicked out when the ACT Government forbade car events on public land a few years ago. The cars aren’t allowed to use the town park anymore due to damage to tree roots, but Greg says Queanbeyan is always happy to see them.

This year, Wheels also coincides with the Queanbeyan Markets, which are also held at the showground, so Greg says there’s plenty to keep the whole family entertained.

Wheels 2024 will be held at the Queanbeyan Showground from 10 am to 1:30 pm on Sunday, 18 February. Entry is by gold-coin donation, with funds directed towards Respite Care for QBN.

Original Article published by James Coleman on Riotact.

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