Muscle Up

There has never been cop-bait to equal the bronze XR GT Falcon. In the week leading up to the April 1967 Calder Park launch, Ford’s PR people diligently put miles on test cars. In five days, all four were pinched for speeding. Only after testing the GT at Calder did I understand.

Breaking the speed limit was an inevitable consequence of the GT; this was easily the fastest and most powerful car I’d ever driven. At a stroke, the bronzed Aussie GT – 289ci (4.7-litre), 225bhp (168kW) V8 and four-speed manual – established a performance standard matched only by European sports cars like the E-Type Jaguar, at two-and-a-half times the GT’s $3890 pricetag.

Bill Bourke’s creation, born of a police pursuit vehicle to target Bathurst, established a local horsepower race and created a class of unique supersedans that survives to this day. Modern FPVs and HSVs are way faster – cutting more than three seconds from the GT’s 16.4sec for 0-400m – and far more sophisticated, with greater grip, brakes that don’t fade after two stops, and quick, light steering. Yet none can hope to equal the impact of that first GT.

Bourke, then Ford’s deputy MD, combined police spec with black Fairmont interior, Stewart-Warner instruments, a deep, wood-rimmed steering wheel and oversized central binnacle. Mustang GT badges and thin black stripes adorned the body sides, the 5.5in wheels wore stainless steel trims.

You can argue the Chrysler Valiant’s 3.7-litre, 108kW slant six – twice the power of its Holden rival – started the ’60s horsepower race. Ford responded with an optional 2.8-litre six and later 3.1-litre. Holden replied with the 179 ‘red motor’ and so began the automotive leap-frog.

Then the ‘Mustang-bred’ XR GT unleashed a five-year eruption of hero muscle cars: ever more powerful GTs and the mighty HOs from Ford; Holden’s Monaro 327 and 350 V8s, the hot-six Torana XU-1s; and, Chrysler’s six-cylinder Hemi Pacer and brilliant Charger RT E38 and E49.

Massive public and press reaction to the GT forced Ford to abandon plans for a limited run of 255 cars. By the time the XT GT arrived in March ’68, Broadmeadows had pumped out 684, including eight in the silver of Bathurst sponsor Gallaher cigarettes.

For the XT, the GT became a normal, more subtle Falcon model and even offered a choice of colours. The 289 V8 was replaced by the 302, the Hurst shifter disappeared and an automatic version was offered.

Maybe it’s because the XT GT was my first experience of 120mph (193km/h) on the road, but after testing all the GTs during this golden era, the XT remains my favourite, ahead even of the much faster Phase III HO. The XT achieved a performance and handling balance the heavier, extroverted XW/XY GTs never matched.

But the XT was too restrained for Bourke. He insisted the XW needed a 351ci V8 to top the Monaro’s 327. When the competitions department doubted even this would guarantee a Bathurst win, the engineers developed the so-called Handling Option (HO) – $245 over the GT’s $4250 – and another legend was born.

Visually, the only difference was a fibreglass front spoiler. But detail improvements included a rear anti-roll bar, bigger 600cfm Holley carburettor, aluminium inlet manifold and three-inch tailshaft. Officially, output climbed 8kW from the GT’s 290bhp (216kW) to 300bhp (224kW). Unofficially, closer to 330bhp (246kW). Bathurst ’69, however, was a tyre-related disaster for Ford, and the Monaro won.

For 1970, Ford switched the GT and now GT-HO Phase II from Windsor to Cleveland V8. They shared the same bore and stroke, but the Cleveland featured canted valves and a new block, plus an even bigger 780cfm carby. Ford claimed the same official outputs.

In 1970, I compared the Phase II with an XU-1 Torana and Valiant Pacer. This HO was the wild one, a race car for the road: lumpy 800rpm idle, tall first gear, heavy clutch and steering, and real power only from 3000rpm to the 6000rpm redline (up 500rpm). There were compensations: the oversteer of the first HO was gone and (for the era) performance was staggering. Its 14.9sec 400-metre time thrashed the XU-1’s 16.1sec and Pacer’s 16.4. The Phase II stormed home at Bathurst.

‘The Biggest Stick’, Mel Nichols’ drive story on the XY Phase III GT-HO contains Wheels’ most famous photo: Uwe Keussner’s over-the-shoulder shot of the HO at maximum revs in top on the Hume Highway (see page 95). Except, in the August 1971 issue, when the speedo needle was doctored to sit at 97mph, as if the car was in third gear. Management ordered the change.

A few years later we ran the real shot, speedo at 140mph-plus, and Nichols wrote his equally famous ‘HO Down the Hume’ story. This HO was, and remains, Australia’s matchless muscle car. More flexible and friendlier than the Phase II, its 14.4sec 0-400m was equalled only by a Charger E49. Driving his Phase III solo, Alan Moffat easily won the ’71 Bathurst.

The Sydney Sun-Herald’s ‘Bullets on wheels’ story killed off the 1972 Bathurst supercars, including the XA Phase IV HO (just four hand-built cars escaped) and delayed the launch of a V8 Torana. Once the furore settled, and the Bathurst regs relaxed, Ford quietly offered a Regular Production Option – the legendary RPO 83 – on the XA GT sedan and hardtop; a neat way to use up all the bits created for the Phase IV. To avoid unwelcome publicity, Ford didn’t advertise it or provide journalists with test cars. Wheels drove (and loved) racer John Goss’s personal car.

The GT continued into the XB, but when Ford announced it was withdrawing from motorsport in 1974, its days were numbered. The XC launched in 1976 without a GT and, to the chagrin of blue-blood fans, the V8 was dropped in late 1982 – to return, as a 5.0-litre Windsor V8, in 1991’s EB Falcon.

To celebrate the GT’s 25th anniversary, Ford built a run of 250 227kW EB GTs, but the car lacked the flair and muscle of the original. And a tame 30th anniversary EL GT appeared in 1997.

Ford officially returned to the performance field in 1992 with the S-XR6. Developed by Tickford, a British company established to form Ford’s high-performance arm, the S-XR6’s tweaked six produced 161kW, and the car showed promise. It was the start of a decade-long battle to build credible Falcon competition for the HSV Commodores.

In 2002, unhappy with the results achieved with Tickford, Ford set up Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV) with UK-based road/race engineering outfit, Prodrive. On sale in March 2003, the Boss 290 GT (and luxury GT-P) was finally a car worthy of the GT badge. Bathurst winner John Bowe appreciated what the name and image meant to Ford. He told Wheels, “The early GTs gave Ford performance credibility no amount of marketing money could buy. They were race cars. Not just any race cars, but ones to conquer The Mountain.

“Without wishing to denigrate the EB and EL, this is a far brawnier car. Those two cars were more in keeping with the early GTs – the XR/XT – but the ones everybody remembers are the XW and XY. They were the ones that created the mystique about the GT Falcon and this new car is of that ilk.”


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