XA FALCON GTHO PHASE IV AND THE SUPERCAR CRISIS
When Australia’s “Great Race” first began in the early 1960s, it was contested by essentially stock production sedans, which in the early days could have a list price of no more than AU£2,000 (about US$4,500). By the early seventies, however, the tremendous publicity value of the Hardie-Ferodo 500 had led to an arms race between the leading Australian automakers and an array of formidable “Bathurst specials” developed specifically for racing homologation.
Ford had launched the first Falcon GTHO in June 1969 and the hotter GTHO Phase II and Phase III had brought works team driver Allan Moffat back-to-back Bathurst victories in 1970 and 1971. By mid-1972, Ford, GM-Holden, and Chrysler Australia were preparing their ultimate weapons for a rematch that October.
Like its predecessors, the GTHO Phase IV was developed by Ford Special Vehicles, then managed by Howard Marsden. The emphasis this time around was on durability and handling, addressing the reliability problems that the Phase III cars had suffered in competition. The Phase IV engine, still the 5,765 cc 351 Cleveland, kept the Phase III’s big Holley four-barrel carburetor, but a revised intake manifold and re-ported heads provided stronger mid-range performance while a new baffled sump reduced the risk of oil foaming in hard cornering.
Taking advantage of the XA’s wider track and revised rear suspension geometry, the Phase IV dispensed with the previous car’s rear anti-roll bar, providing more neutral handling. New 15 x 7-inch (381 x 178mm) Globe alloy wheels wore fatter ER-60H tires while a Detroit Locker differential with a 3.00 axle ratio permitted a higher top speed. The previous car’s oversize fuel tank was retained, with a capacity of 36 Imperial gallons (43.3 U.S. gallons, 163.8 liters), although the Phase III’s front and rear spoilers were deleted.
Years later, Ford Special Vehicles engineer Don Dunoon, who had worked on the original XR GT, characterized the Phase IV as a straightforward evolution that was only incrementally quicker than the Phase III. At the time, however, the new GTHO’s performance was big news. Wheels editor Mel Nichols, who tried one of the first Phase IV cars to be assembled in June 1972, reported that it could top 150 mph (242 km/h) with very little difficulty. Marsden later claimed that 170 mph (273 km/h) was achievable in full racing tune.
The 1972 Hardie-Ferodo 500 promised to be an epic battle, with the GTHO Phase IV squaring off against the new Chrysler VH Valiant Charger E49 and a planned V8-powered Holden Torana. Months before the race, however, these latest Bathurst specials ignited a public controversy that would bring about the end of Australia’s hottest production cars.
The flashpoint was a feature story in the Sunday, June 25, edition of the Sydney Sun-Herald with a provocative headline announcing that Australian car makers would soon be offering 160 mph (258 km/h) cars for public sale. A description of the new homologation models was accompanied by the outraged reactions of former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies and New South Wales transport minister Milton Morris, who decried such cars as irresponsible and called upon the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS) to reconsider its homologation rules.
The newspaper article was not the work of a Ralph Nader-style safety crusader, but of new Sun-Herald motoring editor Evan Green, a well-respected rallyist who had driven a works Austin 1800 in the 1968 London-to-Sydney Marathon. According to Green’s friend Harvey Grennan, then Milton Morris’s press secretary, Green had only sought comment from Morris in hopes of pepping up an otherwise-straightforward back-pages article on the latest Bathurst specials. If that was Green’s goal, it succeeded beyond expectations. The story was a sensation, attracting widespread public attention and prompting an outcry from safety advocates and police officials.
Ford Australia’s initial reaction was to place an angry call to Morris’s office to complain about the minister’s public remarks. It was the wrong response. The controversy soon escalated into a stand-off, with the Australian government warning that it would no longer purchase fleet vehicles from any manufacturer who offered such homologation specials. This threat sat ill with auto industry executives (particularly Howard Marsden, for obvious reasons), but the prospect of losing an important chunk of the fleet market was not something automakers could afford to ignore. The GTHO Phase IV was canceled and for a time Ford dealer bulletins denied that any such model had ever existed in the first place.
Since the Phase IV was never homologated, the Ford works team fell back on the older XY GTHO Phase III at Bathurst on October 1. The results were not auspicious: Although Ford driver John French eventually managed second place, Fred Gibson’s car was disabled by a rollover, while other works drivers, including Allan Moffat, suffered a host of mechanical problems. While the Holden Dealer Team’s Torana GTR XU-1s fell short of the Falcons in outright performance, they made up the difference with greater reliability. HDT driver Peter Brock took first place by a five-lap margin; Charger E49s managed third and fourth.
THE LAST BATHURST SPECIAL: RPO83
Despite the cancellation of the Phase IV, Ford built one final XA homologation model, the 1973 GT Special. Known on the order form as RPO83, the GT Special used some but not all of the modifications developed for the Phase IV. Unlike prior GTHOs, the Special was available with either manual or automatic transmission. Some RPO83 cars also had four-wheel disc brakes, which were added to late-model XA GTs to help meet the 250-car homologation minimum. Ford ultimately built only 259 GT Specials. Production cars were split almost equally between sedans and hardtops, although works racers now favored the latter.
The “Great Race” of October 1973 was renamed Hardie-Ferodo 1000 and extended from 500 to 621 miles (805 to 1,000 km), reflecting Australia’s transition to the metric system. The additional laps put a greater strain on both drivers and cars, but this time the Falcon GT Specials had the edge in reliability. Both Fred Gibson and John Goss were DNF, but Allan Moffat and co-driver Ian (Pete) Geoghegan took first place, Moffat’s third Bathurst victory.
It would be the last hurrah for the Ford works team. A few weeks after the event, the Yom Kippur War led to the first OPEC oil embargo and a worldwide energy crisis. In the U.S., Ford Motor Company had already withdrawn from racing to focus on emission controls; Ford Australia followed suit in late January 1974. The works team was dissolved, although its drivers continued to race with other sponsorship.
By then, the XA Falcon was already out of production, replaced by the facelifted XB. The XA had been quite successful, selling more than 152,000 units in 16 months. The related ZF Fairlane accounted for an additional 17,000-odd cars. The XA still fell short of the popular HQ Holden, but it sold better than any of its predecessors.
While the XA undoubtedly owed some of its success to the work of Jack Telnack and his team, the car’s good fortunes also reflected the continuing growth of the Australian market. According to the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, total new car registrations in Australia had risen from around 267,000 for the 1962 fiscal year to more than 400,000 for 1973. More significantly, the ratio of motor vehicles to population had risen from 285 vehicles per 1,000 people in 1962 to nearly 440 per 1,000 at the end of 1973. That still fell short of the U.S., which topped 525 vehicles per 1,000 people in 1970, but Australia was catching up fast.
XB FALCON: THE LAST GT
The restyled XB Falcon debuted in September 1973, retaining the XA’s body shell, but sporting a new front-end treatment that added 3 inches (76 mm) to its overall length. Mechanical changes were minor; the two-barrel 250 cu. in. (4,102 cc) six was dropped and the optional V8 engines were both made in Geelong rather than imported from the U.S. An all-synchro three-speed gearbox and front disc brakes finally became standard on low-end models. The additional equipment was some consolation for buyers suffering sticker shock. A base Falcon sedan now started at AU$3,236 (about US$4,600), up almost AU$500 from a comparable XA, while the XB Fairmont ran to more than AU$4,000 (nearly US$5,400).
The XB GT, now equipped with standard four-wheel disc brakes and the locally made (H-block) version of the 4V 351 Cleveland (5,765 cc) V8, looked thoroughly aggressive, although performance was not quite as muscular as the GT’s appearance suggested. Moreover, the GT was now the hottest factory XB; thanks to the previous year’s scandal (and changes to the CAMS touring car regulations), there would be no more GTHOs or GT Specials. In the late sixties, there had briefly been discussion of offering Ford’s big block engines in the Falcon, but it was no longer a serious production possibility. Nonetheless, in 1975, Ford designers Wayne Draper and Peter Arcadipane installed a pair of borrowed 427 cu. in. (6,981 cc) crate motors in their personal XB hardtops.
A Falcon was once again victorious at Bathurst in October 1974, but it was a year-old XA GT, driven by John Goss and sponsored by McLeod Ford, a local dealer. Second, third, and fourth places went to the new Holden Torana L34, powered by a locally made 308 cu. in. (5,044 cc) V8. The Toranas would dominate Bathurst for the next three years; privately run Falcon XB GTs failed to even finish the race in 1975.
Fortunately for Ford, the XB’s showroom performance was considerably more heartening. Despite the energy crisis, which sent many buyers scurrying to smaller cars, the Falcon did quite well throughout 1974, actually outselling the big Holden for the first time. The XB still couldn’t match the total production of the outgoing HQ Holden, but it made a good showing against the subsequent HJ. The final tally for the XB’s 33-month production run was around 220,000 units.
The XB’s popularity was not reflected in increased GT sales. XB GT production totaled only 2,899 cars, of which only 949 were hardtops. The main reason for the sluggish sales was cost. Australian muscle cars were falling victim to the same dilemma that had undone their American counterparts: The young buyers for whom they held the strongest appeal were hard pressed to afford the cars, the petrol, or the insurance premiums. A Falcon 500 with the GS Rally Pack and one of the lesser engines was a more realistic proposition for many customers. While we have no production figures for the GS pack, we suspect that take-up was fairly high, mirroring the new breed of tape-and-decal pseudo-Supercars that were becoming common in the States in the same period.
Again paralleling the U.S. market, Australia in the mid-seventies saw a new vogue for customized vans and utes like the HJ Holden Sandman wagon or Ford’s similar Surfsider and Surferoo packages. Ostensibly aimed at surfers and campers, they quickly acquired the same dubious connotations as American custom vans, but they suited the tenor of the times and they were easier to insure than muscle cars.