HERE WE SELECT AUSTRALIA’S TOP TEN BRUISERS – PLUS A WILDCARD – AND, AFTER SOME DEBATE AND A FEW SCUFFLES, NOMINATE AUSTRALIA’S GREATEST MUSCLE CAR. JOIN US FOR THE STATS, THE HISTORY, THE EXPERT TIPS AND THE CROWNING OF THE CHAMP
This is one of those times when the harder you look at a problem – which is Australia’s greatest muscle car? – the more complex it becomes. And emotional. And tiring.
We won’t say there were temper tantrums at the palatial headquarters of Unique Cars magazine, located in sunny Melbourne, but there’s a sneaking suspicion the consumption of alcohol among at least some of our staff may have risen as the debate raged on.
Young Glenn Torrens set the basic parameters for the contest. Let’s look back to the 1960s when local race regs demanded production cars be raced, which in itself encouraged makers to develop a long and wild string of race specials. And what’s the cut-off? Around 1992 with the introduction of the V8 Supercars formula, which effectively completed the disconnect between the development of showroom and track machinery. (Whether that was a good or bad thing is a whole other debate!)
So what did that leave us with? Well, the traditional view of a muscle car from the USA is something with a dirty great V8 engine in the front. But that really didn’t cover the bases when it came to the local product.
For example, would you exclude the Ford Cortina GT500 just because it half the number of cylinders? Maybe not. In its day it was a race winner and serious performance car.
Okay, so what about a good old straight six engine which folk like Morley, our workshop guru, will argue all day is a ‘proper’ sports engine – not like those big V8 lumps. Well, there are at least a few Chryslers in the running on that score.
Then of course we move on to the inevitable American influence, perhaps best represented by the first 327 Monaro and the 289 Ford GT, both products of the rapidly-changing sixties.
What makes this motley collection unique on a world scale is just how many souped-up four-door family cars make it onto the list. It seems that, as a nation, we like nothing better than the concept of owning a vehicle that will give a Ferrari a hard time on the way to taking the kids to school.
In amongst the sedans, we’ve also seen some very pretty and capable coupes, such as Holden’s A9X Torana, Chrysler’s Charger and the exotic Bolwell Nagari.
What about some criteria? We looked long and hard at that.
Is it laps times, race track success, showroom success, the top speed divided by the average age? Maybe it’s their performance as an investment or, on the other hand, what sort of value for money they offer. Maybe it should just be a beauty contest.
In the end, it came down to being a mix of all those things, plus – perhaps most influential – that strength of that weird visceral feeling when you either see one, or better yet, get behind the wheel.
The folk we got involved included the usual suspects among our staffers, including Uncle Phil, plus race guru and car nut John Bowe, part-time drag racer and all-round adventurer Glenn Torrens, plus workshop monster and long-term road-tester Dave Morley. They own a weird and wonderful mix of machinery between them and, more importantly, would cheerfully buy several of the cars you see here – if the funds allowed.
Let’s not forget you lot. With the incentive of a Sidchrome toolkit on offer, we got bombarded with letters, emails, and competition posts. Thanks. Half of you are crazy, and the other half are under suspicion, which is a beautiful thing.
So, here it is, our countdown to Australia’s greatest-ever muscle car – enjoy!
Five years after deciding that Australia’s love affair with the performance V8 was over and ditching its GT Falcon, Ford was having second thoughts.
Far from flopping in the wake of Holden’s more compact and economical Commodore, the XD range was selling more than 5000 units a month and about 20 percent of those had V8 engines.
The first ESP (European Sports Pack) Falcon was based on the basic XD GL model and early examples came with 5.8 litres of Geelong-made V8 or the iron-head 4.1-litre six-cylinder. Automatic transmission was mandatory in the 4.1-litre cars, but the 5.8 could be specified with a four-speed manual and most came in this form.
The XE ESP range was introduced in March 1982, incorporating a significantly improved Watts linkage rear axle design.
Adding to Ford’s growing enthusiasm for the ESP, the upgrade included a 28-spline limited-slip rear end and four-wheel disc brakes as standard equipment.
Big changes inside began with a shift to full Fairmont Ghia specification: power windows, central locking, premium sound and plush carpeting almost everywhere. The seats still came from Scheel.
Most distinctive of all the XE ESP features were its wheels. In place of the XD’s Globes were 15 x 7-inch cross-spoked alloys that were immediately nicknamed ‘snowflakes’.
XE ESPs fitted with the 5.8-litre engine were only officially offered with the four-speed manual gearbox, but at least one auto is believed to have been built. The most common engine/tranny combination was a 4.9-litre V8 with three-speed auto (260 built) against 100 manuals. About 200 of the 4.1-litre cars are believed to have been made, leaving a confirmed 178 four-speed 5.8-litre units to complete a production total of about 740.
Genuine cars are hard to find, in part because they weren’t valued as highly as they should have been by many owners. A good one makes a very handy modern day cruiser – quiet and capable. Though bury the right foot and you’ll soon find they can stretch the abilities of the chassis.
Here’s what Wheels mag had to say in a 1982 road test, by Bob Murray: “Pushed very hard, the handling is almost graceful, Jaguar-style. Understeer and oversteer are slow-motion actions which, even when deliberately provoked, require minimal correction. For all its weight and bulk power, this Falcon feels tame.”
Cliff Chambers value guide: Value increases have remained below expectation with appreciation barely covering rego and insurance costs. $18,000-40,000.
FORD XD-XE ESP PRODUCTION 1980-84 XE 740 (est) BODY All-steel, integrated body/ chassis four-door sedan ENGINE 4949cc or 5750cc cast-iron V8, OHV, 16-V, single downdraft carburettor POWER & TORQUE 149kW /415Nm (5.8-litre) 0-100KM 8.8sec, 0-400m 16.1sec (XE 5.8 manual) TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual or 3-speed auto BRAKES Discs (f/r), power assisted TYRES ER60H15 radial VALUE RANGE $18,000-40,000
By 1970, Chrysler was well established locally with local manufacturing and design going back several years – so it knew what the market wanted. The big news for that year was an update of a car that had earned a lot respect, the four-door Pacer, essentially the brand’s response to the big guns from the likes of the more dominant Ford and Holden.
For the VG Valiant, the most obvious styling change was a move to rectangular headlights in a revised grille. But more importantly, a new 4.0-litre six – the Hemi 6 – replaced the ageing Slant Six.
Although not a true ‘Hemi’ engine (with hemispherical combustion chambers), it was close enough for Chrysler Australia to use the famous US brand in its marketing.
The stock Hemi 6 made 123kW (165hp) and 319Nm, but the base model Pacer with a two-barrel Hemi made 138kW (185hp).
And, no doubt spurred on by the success of the VF Pacer, Chrysler Australia offered the VG Pacer with three more Hemi 6 tuning levels. Ticking the Option E31 box gave you a hotter cam, smaller fan and windage tray in the sump to counter oil surge.
Although Chrysler Australia never released official horsepower figures, it produced 145kW.
The hot Option E34 Track Pack ramped things up with a four-barrel carburettor, high-performance cam, shot-peened crank and conrods, high-flow oil pump, better bearings, dual-plate clutch, larger radiator, torque-limiting engine-mount strut and windage tray, for an output of 175kW. The Option E35 Hemi 6 had the Street Pack version of the four-barrel carburettor. One limiting factor, though, remained the Pacer’s three-speed floor-shift manual transmission.
Chrysler Australia was committed to only using Australian-made components and did not have a four-speed available.
Regrettably, the VG was the first and last Pacer to be offered as a Hardtop. Its bold graphics, with black-out panels on the bonnet and body-length strips that wrapped around the boot lid and incorporated Pacer decals, also made it the best-looking Pacer.
Though they lacked the outright profile of the GT-HOs and XU-1s of this world, the Pacers held their own at Bathurst.
Geoghegan’s Sporty Cars had three examples well up the field by the end of the day, in fourth, fifth and seventh place. (Here’s a bit of trivia: the two lead Valiants were listed as two-barrel E31 cars, while the third was an E34 with the four-barrel). In any case, they’re an engaging drive today.
Cliff Chambers value guide: ‘Big Tank’ E34 Pacers are scarce and quicker than their conservative shape suggests. At current money they remain a collector market ‘sleeper’. $35,000-75,000.
1970 CHRYSLER VALIANT VG PACER BODY All-steel unitary construction ENGINE 4097cc inline-6, OHV, 12v POWER 138kW @ 4600rpm TORQUE 235Nm @ 2000rpm WEIGHT 1311kg GEARBOX 3-speed manual BRAKES discs/drums (f/r) TOP SPEED 225km/h VALUE RANGE $35,000-75,000
Despite the relatively tiny numbers left in existence, there is a tribal split between owners of early Monaros – some will swear by the their 327-cube pioneering HKs, while others only have eyes for the second-generation 350-cube HTs.
For Holden, it all came down to timing.
The Monaro was a dramatic entry into the local market – Holden’s first muscle car, and a killer package around Mount Panorama.
In 1968, the 327 filled out the top three places (Bruce McPhee scored the win), with an Alfa Romeo GTV 1750 sneaking into fourth and another Monaro snatching fifth.
It was one hell of a debut.
Bathurst the following year (1969) saw the HT GTS 350 entered and struggling to get the same whitewash in the face of stiff competition from Ford’s XW GT-HOs.
Nevertheless, they scored first and third, with a Ford sandwiched in between. Colin Bond and Tony Roberts steered the winning car, while a young Peter Brock, in his mountain debut, shared the third-placed machine with Des West.
Norm Beechey was the man who cemented the car’s race pedigree, by winning the 1970 Australian Touring Car title (a first for Holden). He was racing the likes of Alan Moffat in his 302 Boss Mustang and Ian Geoghegan in another ’Stang – so the c h c M m 196 o Bath s competi Neverth F competition was prettyt stiff.
Under the skin, there’s no great rocket science behind the design of the Monaro.
Essentially a Kingswood sedan with new sheet metal from the windscreen back, you could order it in all sorts of configurations, including humble sixes with drum brakes all round and a three-on-the-tree transmission.
Order the full muscle pack and you got disc brakes up front, a four-speed floor shifter, four exhaust tips to let the world know they’d just been passed by something special, plus a tacho for the driver. That lot would set you back $4000 when new – a substantial amount back then, but money well spent if you still had the car.
Get in behind the wheel and you soon discover that the car lacks nothing when it comes to grunt (about 300 horses in stock trim), but anything resembling sophistication is a foreign concept. The car rolls – not the worst of its era, but spooky to anyone who’s driven a modern one – and the brakes are, well, woeful. There’s no doubt that winning Bathurst in one of these things would have required not just balls of steel, but a big dose of mechanical sympathy.
Cliff Chambers value guide: Good HT GTS 350s are hard to find but far less expensive than in years gone by. Australia’s first sports machine, as the commercial said in the day, is ranging $65,000-125,000.
HOLDEN HT MONARO GTS 350 PRODUCTION 1969 700 (est) ENGINE 5733cc V8, OHV, 16v, four-barrel Rochester carburettor POWER 224kW @ 4800rpm, 515Nm @ 3200rpm WEIGHT 1380kg GEARBOX 4-speed manual WHEELS 14 x 6.0-inch, 14 x 6.95 tubeless BRAKES discs (f), drums (r) 0-97KM/H 8.1sec 0-400M 15.8sec TOP SPEED 201km/h VALUE RANGE $65,000-125,000
Built in Melbourne from the 1960s, Bolwell cars were initially sold as kits for the home builder.
Complete cars were made from 1970 to 1974, with 100 coupes and 18 convertibles, designated as MkVIII. It was a big decision to become a manufacturer, albeit a small one, and the product was remarkably good given the limited resources available to produce.
During its 1973 heyday, the just sub-$10k car was selling at the rate of one a week.
Initially with a 302 Windsor in the snout (the car was modified to accept Clevelands, when the Windsor blocks ran out), a Nagari could be a quick bit of gear when set up properly and with the right driver at the wheel. There’s no doubt it qualifies as an exotic car and, to much of our audience, has a lot more appeal than the current Nagari.
Time may change that.
The Bolwell brothers, Campbell and Graeme, had big plans for the design, which ultimately fell victim to a combination of difficult financial times and new safety rules that required expensive crash-testing. In an interview with Australian Sports Car World, Campbell said, “We developed the Nagari particularly with the American market in mind because this, undoubtedly, is the big sports car market. We’d geared all our components to the Ford V8 because we expected that at some stage we would get into the American market.
“We developed a left-hand-drive version, but at the time we had all the design regs stuff coming and the picture was looking worse and worse for getting into America.
It became obvious that we needed some big backing. We tried to get backing through government and private sources, we tried the development banks and the AIDC (Australian Industries Development Corporation) and other semi-government sponsored financial institutions as well as local private institutions and private individuals. The response was negative. The government wasn’t interested. One of the comments was that sports cars were a risky product.”
The cabin is not a roomy place for big people, while entry and exit can be a little awkward. Once it’s fired up, the Nagari is an effortless and quick performer with respectable handling.
Bolwell went on working with composites in the transport industry. In more recent years it’s released an innovative caravan, plus the Nagari MkX, a two-seater running a Toyota V6. True-blue Bolwell grit earns the Nagari respect and a deserving spot at #7.
Cliff Chambers value guide: The best low-volume sports car available in its day.
Strong club support and parts availability will keep surviving Nagaris running for decades. $25,000-65.000 (302 Coupe).
BOLWELL NAGARI MKVIII PRODUCTION 1970-74 118 BODY Fibreglass, backbone chassis ENGINE 5.0 V8 POWER 180kW @ 4600rpm, 300Nm @ 2600rpm 0-100KM/H 6.4 400M 14.3 GEARBOX 4-speed manual SUSPENSION Coils, wishbones (f); live axle, coils (r) BRAKES Disc/drum VALUE RANGE $25,000-65.000 (302 Coupe)
Ford’s hardtop – famously conceived as a sketch on a serviette by Ford Australia stylist Brian Rossi – arrived in stagger several months after the XA Falcon sedan and wagon, and panel van and ute. Bigger and more brawny than Holden’s smoother, more gentle looking HQ Monaro, the hardtop was available with engines from a 200ci/3.3-litre six to the mighty 351ci/5.8-litre V8 and was updated with the remainder of the Falcon/ Fairmont range to XB and then XC specs.
The ultimate – it was definitely the last – was the Cobra. A limited edition suggested to Ford Australia by Ford marketing executive Edsel Ford II, 400 were built with only the 4.9 and 5.8-litre V8s available.
Although some Cobras had extras intended for racing, such as a bonnet scoop and an oil cooler, the Cobra wasn’t in itself an homologation special but the fitment of those extras allowed these ‘production’ components to be fitted to the track cars Moffat, Bond et al needed for racing. With two-door sales slumping – but the famous 1-2 hardtop win at Bathurst ’77 fresh in many buyers’ minds – the Cobra was a look-at-me car and a nice way to sell-off the last hardtop panel sets. The newly arriving XD Falcon for 1979 wasn’t to include a coupe/hardtop.
Like a lot of the cars that made our top 10, this model seemed to spend some time out in the market wilderness, when for years it was only die-hard fans who wanted them and reasonable examples were almost free. The rise in popularity of seventies muscle cars over recent years no doubt revived their fortunes, helped in no small way by Eric Bana’s very public love affair with the series, epitomised by his doco Love The Beast.
The Option 97 package, covering cars 00002 to 00031 is the one to have and includes: reworked rear wheel inside housings to accommodate the larger wheels, front spring tower reinforcement, modified number two suspension cross member, fibreglass front spoiler sourced from Bob McWilliams, Scheel KBA90018 front seats trimmed in black cloth, rear seats trimmed in black corduroy/cashmere cloth, transmission oil cooler, front strut braces, idler arm brace, electric radiator fan, heavy duty radiator, and hood scoop. The 5.8s were offered in manual and auto trim.
Manuals could be upgraded to include power steering, air-conditioning and power windows, while the autos (120 were built) came with all three.
Cliff Chambers value guide: Most XC Cobras did nothing for decades and only recently showed their market flair. Option 97 cars with their bonnet scoop command big money. $55,000-125,000 (5.8 manual).
FORD FALCON XC COBRA PRODUCTION 1978 400 WEIGHT 1563kg ENGINE 4.9, 5.8-litre V8 TRANSMISSION four-speed manual, three-speed auto POWER/TORQUE 151kW/364Nm (4.9), 162kW/429Nm (5.8)
PERFORMANCE 0-100km/h - 8.9secs (Bathurst) TOP SPEED 175km/h (est) WHEELS 15x7 alloy VALUE RANGE $55,000-125,000 (5.8 manual)
Of all the things to send out on the track to tackle the giant that was Ford’s GT-HO series, a stretched Vauxhall Viva with a hotted-up Kingswood motor might not be high on your list. But that’s what happened and, by 1972-73, a certain P Brock was trading serious blows with Ford hero Alan Moffat, and often winning. The little Torana grabbed wins in three of the last four rounds of the 1972 touring car series, plus three of the first four rounds in 1974 before being superseded by the bigger LH SL/R5000.
Let’s wind back a little. The original HB Torana series of 1967 was effectively an upgraded Vauxhall Viva. The subsequent 1969 LC platform spawned the first XU-1, based around the 186 powerplant but more grunt was clearly required, so the Holden crew, including legendary tuner Harry Firth, went back to the proverbial drawing board.
The result appeared with the LJ series cars, this time with a hotted-up 202 cubic-inch (3310cc) engine. This one boasted an altered cylinder head, wilder cam, triple carburetors (175 Strombergs on the road version). The bodywork/aero package was tweaked and the car even scored a slight lengthening of the trailing arms at the rear to aid high-speed stability. It worked brilliantly, winning a wet Bathurst in 1972, with Peter Brock at the tiller.
Despite all the effort, the XU-1 had very humble beginnings. One of our regular contributors, John Wright, tells this gem of a story: “The late John Bagshaw, former Holden Managing Director, said, “The cost of developing the racing engines of the bigger car – the (V8) engines that we had available – was going to be horrendous and we didn’t think we’d be competitive. So we had a look at the Torana, which was a great little car. Over a few cold beers, Max Wilson (managing director), Bill Steinhagen (chief engineer) and I sat down and said, ‘What the hell are we going to do?’ and ‘What if we could strap the six-cylinder engine into the Torana?’
“If we can do [the Torana] it will become a real little pocket rocket and it would cure any problem of over-capitalising a product that was not going to be competitive.””
As a road car, the XU-1 has developed a reputation for being somewhat less than entirely civilised, with a lumpy idle and not whole lot in the way of NVH engineering.
Call it the raw feeling you might expect from a quasi race car. The driving position is also a little odd, but with simple and robust mechanicals, in many respects, it’s a very easy classic to own.
Cliff Chambers value guide: The XU-1 is not yet so expensive that flogging one around a track has become unthinkable. $40,000-90,000.
LJ TORANA GTR XU-1 PRODUCTION 1972-74 1600 (est) BODY 2-door coupe ENGINE 3298cc inline-6, OHV, 12v POWER 142kW @ 5600rpm TORQUE 270Nm @ 4000rpm 0-100KM/H n/a GEARBOX 4-speed manual SUSPENSION Wishbones, coil springs (f); Live axle, coil springs (r) BRAKES Disc, drum (f/r) VALUE RANGE $40,000-90,000
It may have been a modest start, but the Group A Commodore signaled that Holden was prepared to compete under international rules, namely Group A. There really wasn’t a whole lot of choice, as the Australian Touring Car Championship adopted the formula in 1985. The same rules applied to the James Hardie 1000 Bathurst race, letting in the likes of Jaguar XJ-S (which won that year) and BMW 635 (second) dominate the results.
It was in this exclusive company that the Commodore now had to compete.
Tasked with building the required 500 homologation cars, Peter Brock’s Melbournebased HDT outfit missed the August 1 deadline, thanks to parts supply dramas.
This ensured the race versions of the ‘Blue Meanies’ didn’t see Mount Panorama until 1986.
The VK was the first of four generations of Group A cars and purists will argue it’s the best. Light by current road car standards (under 1400 kilos versus more like 1800) they offered sharp steering and handy performance.
Among the more subtle mods was a change to the faithful 308 V8 in the snout.
Under Group A rules, anything over five litres copped a significant weight penalty, so the decision was made to rework the powerplant, by shortening the stroke, to scrape in at 4987cc.
You could settle for the M21 four-speed transmission, though many upgraded to the optional T5 five-speed.
The formula clearly worked, because the car took first and second spots on the Bathurst podium, with Alan Grice and Graeme Bailey steering the #2 Chickadee VK, followed by the pairing of John Harvey and Neil Lowe in the Mobil-sponsored #3 car. Speaking of pairings, the unthinkable had happened – Alan Moffat was steering a Holden, teamed with Peter Brock. They finished fifth.
While the car may not have the string of local success enjoyed by rivals such as the GT-HO Phase III and Torana A9X, it scores very highly among our judges. Why? It’s highly-regarded as a driver, has that magic Brock association (it was a car that was famously close to his heart), and makes a significant era in local race and muscle car history.
Glenn Torrens summed up the thoughts of many on the VK: “The original HDT Commodore was a new dawn for Aussie performance motoring, with lineage to today’s HSV line-up. Was the VK era Brock at his best?” The answer to that is yes.
Cliff Chambers value guide: Relatively common with 502 of the Formula Blue Group A made. Prices haven’t fully recovered and still worth a punt. $55,000-115,000.
VK COMMODORE SS GROUP A PRODUCTION 1985-86 502 ENGINE 4987cc V8, OHV, 16v POWER 196kW @ 5200rpm TORQUE 418Nm @ 3600rpm 0-100KM/H 7.0sec (claimed) 400M 15.0sec (claimed) GEARBOX 4-manual/5-manual SUSPENSION MacPherson struts (f); Live axle, coil springs (r) BRAKES Discs VALUE RANGE $55,000-115,000
Is this the best-looking car of the group? Several in our panel think so. You need to look back to what else was available at the time to fully appreciate what a breath of fresh air the Charger represented to the local market.
On launch in 1971 the Charger won Wheels Car of the Year, while Australian Motoring News described it, glowingly, as “the most handsome car Chrysler has ever produced, and probably the best-looking car ever produced by an Australian manufacturer.”
Talk to living race legends such as Jim Richards and John Bowe and they’ll quickly tell you the Charger R/T (Road/Track) series was probably the best never to win Bathurst.
What makes it unusual in muscle car company is that such a big machine is running a straight six rather than a V8 powerplant. The 265ci (4.3L) engine with its distinctive row of triple Weber carbs was good for 302hp, but the 340ci (5.6lt) V8 from the same range had the potential for more. However, track testing at Mallala in the hands of Leo Geoghegan soon suggested that whatever the V8 might gain in the straights, the six covered with less weight up front and better handling. (At 1372kg, an E49 was good for a 14.1sec standing quarter – quicker than a Falcon GT-HO Phase III.)
Nevertheless it was a close thing. A batch of 340 V8s with transmissions had been imported to build a run of R/T cars but a last-moment decision by management – in part caused by a 1972 newspaperdriven performance car scare – saw the idea shelved. It was a time that saw Ford drop the GT-HO Phase IV, and Holden the Torana XU-1 V8. Chrysler Australia meanwhile cancelled its race involvement.
Putting the V8s aside for a moment, it’s worth remembering the E49 Six-Pack Charger with its four-speed ’box had very little local development. The E49 was the second-generation performance car of the series – following on from the E38.
Its powerplant featured a special crankshaft, conrods, pistons, rings, cam and valve springs. There was a baffled sump to protect against oil surge and a set of tuned headers for performance. As for the famous carb bank, it was originally developed by sending a prototype car to Weber in Italy.
As with many of the cars at the pointy end of this vote, the E49 has become a seriously valuable piece of equipment with prices well into six-figure territory. Rarity is one of the issues, as just 149 were made.
What a shame… Cliff Chambers value guide: Anyone who thinks muscle must come with a V8 rumble hasn’t been near an E49. Undervalued in a market that prefers Holden and Ford alternatives. $75,000-165,000.
VH VALIANT CHARGER R/T E49 PRODUCTION 1971 149 ENGINE 4340cc 6cyl, OHV, 12v, triple Weber POWER 225kW @ 5600rpm TORQUE 441Nm @ 4100rpm WEIGHT 1365kg GEARBOX 4-speed manual WHEELS 14 x 7.0-inch, ER70H14 BRAKES discs (f), drums (r) 0-100KM/H 6.1sec 0-400M 14.4sec TOP SPEED 211km/h VALUE RANGE $75,000-165,000
Brutish good looks, a sexy if brief race history, seriously good performance and a recent sales record that makes the stock market look stable pretty much sums up Australia’s best-recognised muscle car.
The cynics will say the Phase III, which was essentially an homologation special put together specifically to win Bathurst in 1971, ain’t a whole lot more than a souped-up taxi. On the face of it, that’s true.
But the reviewers of the day gave it a whole lot more credibility, with many rating it highly as a true GT car.
It also does a dis-service to the gradual development of the beast, which can be traced directly back to the original XR GT of 1967.
With the annual Bathurst endurance race gaining serious TV coverage and enormous publicity, Ford was one of several makers to re-assess the performance cars in their showrooms. The rules said the race was for production cars, with a modest minimum build or import number required.
That left the door open for a company like Ford to make a limited number of race specials, which in turn led to the first of the GT-HO (Handling Option) series.
The 1969 XW Phase I sported stiffer than standard springs, shocks and roll bars, a 351 Windsor V8 rated at 300 horses thanks to a more performance-oriented carburettor.
In 1970, Phase II, another XW, came along but this time running a Clevelend 351 in the snout.
Move up to 1971 and the XY makes its presence felt, as the GT-HO Phase III, again with a Cleveland up front. Power output is still claimed to be ‘just’ 300 horses, but no-one believes it. A figure of around 370hp is nearer the mark, resulting in a 14.4 sec standing quarter and a top speed of 142mph (228km/h). In fact, it laid claim to being the fastest four-door sedan in the world. Oh, and it took the top three places at Bathurst with Ford hero Alan Moffat leading.
“It was a great car on the open road,” Moffat told Unique Cars some time ago.
“It was one of the fastest, if not the fastest, mass-produced touring cars in the world.
And for $5200 off the showroom floor!
Why didn’t we buy 10 of them?”
Good question. With only 300 ever made, and plenty of cashed-up petrolheads wanting one, the prices famously rose to around $700-880k. The cold water of the most recent global financial crisis quickly brought those numbers down to more realistic figures.
Cliff Chambers value guide: One of Australia’s most important performance cars, but prices have been soft since 2009.
Now looking at steady recovery. $240,000- 500,000 (road cars)
FORD FALCON GT-HO PHASE III PRODUCTION 1971-1972 300 BODY Unitary ENGINE 5.8 V8 POWER 224kW @ 5400rpm TORQUE 515Nm @ 3400rpm 0-100KM/H 6.8 0-400M 14.4 GEARBOX 4-manual SUSPENSION Wishbones, coils (f); live axle, leaves (r) BRAKES Disc/drum VALUE RANGE $240,000-500,000 (road cars)
THE BATHURST LEGEND WITH CLASSIC STYLING AND GENUINE RARITY VALUE. WHERE ELSE WOULD THE A9X FINISH?
This is a ranking that, once upon a time, would have started pub fights around the country. Even now, there’s no guarantee we haven’t caused a scuffle or two at the odd barbecue.
To pick the A9X hatchback over the much-loved Ford Phase III is a big call.
For a number of the judges, the decision came down to the combination of looks (a two-door coupe will nearly always win that contest over a four-door family car silhouette) and the fact it was so dominant on the race track. The tragedy is that only 100 real ones were made. A hundred.
So where did this very special car come from? Its story starts with the folk at Holden looking for a replacement for the highly successful but increasingly out-gunned LJ series – itself effectively a stretched and reworked Vauxhall. That whole LC/LJ series had been a major success in the showrooms and on the track, but the competition was catching up with and overtaking them by the early seventies.
It was to remain a relatively short wheelbase car, but needed to be wider (for more interior room) and capable of hosting anything from a four through to a six and even a V8 powerplant. A couple of international GM compact cars were looked at as potential host platforms, but in the end the decision was made to start with a nice clean sheet.
March 1974 saw the launch of the LH, followed by the LX – at first with minor updates – in 1976. The hero cars were the SL/R5000s, which for years left something to be desired on the handling front, thanks largely to underpinnings such as suspension, bushes and tyres that were selected on price rather than performance.
It was a weird story on the track, too. In 1974 a well-sorted six-pot LJ XU-1 Torana was quicker than the freshly-released and unsorted LH V8s, something that Peter Brock was happily proving at the time. But, sponsors loved the headlines being generated by the new V8 cars, and teams, including Brock’s, soon found themselves having to run the bigger and less reliable machines.
Among the problems with the race cars was severe oil surge under high cornering loads, that could literally starve a big-end of oil, rear diffs and axles that weren’t really up to the job, plus a severe overheating problem with the modest brake spec. Many of those dramas were overcome to some extent, but this wasn’t a golden period for Holden fans.
The appearance of the L34 homologation version of the SL/R5000, in August 1974, helped to balance the scales and prepare the car for Sandown’s endurance round
and then the all-important Bathurst assault in October. Its 308 engine had received a massive rework by Repco, with altered block, crankshaft, rods and pistons, along with heads, valves, rockers, camshaft, carburetor, fuel pump and ignition! A bit more than your average warm-up job… Underneath, braking issues were dealt with by the use of 11-inch ventilated discs up front and a set of drums from the HQ sedan – still spectacularly pathetic by modern standards. The driveline had also been beefed up with a heavy-duty version of the M21 transmission and stronger rear axles.
For the innocent bystander, the big visual difference were the bold flared guards, allowing the race teams to fit bigger rubber.
Just 263 of them were made.
The formula worked, and the L34 won eight Australian Touring Car Championship races on the trot – all 7 rounds in 1975 and the opener for 1976. It also dominated the second half of the 1976 season, taking the final 5 rounds.
Move in to 1977 and things are far less rosy for GMH. A resurgent Alan Moffat has declared war in a big way, steering his XB Falcon Hardtop to five straight wins.
August again becomes a key month for the series, this time with the relatively quiet announcement of the A9X. In fact it was so quiet you could be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of secret. The LX road cars were current by now, and had introduced Radial Tuned Suspension to the range. However the big visual change was the option of a hatchback coupe. This had taken considerable time to engineer into the car and is said to have come about when GMH boss John Bagshaw saw a similar configuration in a Chevrolet Vega and figured we should try it here.
In engineering terms, there was a bit of a pea and thimble trick going on here. While the A9X in four-door form looked much like its predecessors, it (and the hatchback) was a different car underneath. The whole rear floorpan had been changed into what was to become the basis of the UC Torana platform, allowing the use of disc brakes all round (a first in a production Holden), plus a heavy-duty Salisbury diff. In one go this killed off two nagging worries for race teams.
In fact what you ended up with was two quite different cars on the track and on the road. Tightening emission laws meant showroom customers could no longer get the L34 power pack, with T10 gearbox, instead having to settle for a more standard L31 five-litre V8 driveline. However the new A9X race cars could have the best of both worlds: the much better underpinnings mated to the L34 engine, which was already homologated.
Their success was staggering. Peter Brock managed to get a win in the Sandown 500, while he, Allan Grice and Ian Geoghegan took the last five rounds of the 1977 Touring Car Championship. It was also the year Moffatt and Bond took their famous 1-2 win at Mount Panorama, so the Holden crew didn’t get it all their own way.
It was 1978-79 they really hit form.
Fourteen of 16 Touring Car rounds fell to them, with Brock taking the 1978 title and Bob Morris in ’79. Brock also won Bathurst twice in a row with co-pilot Jim Richards, the second time by leading from start to finish and setting the fastest lap on the final circuit. Oh, and that was six laps up on Larry Perkins and Peter Janson, and lightyears ahead of the first Ford, John Mann’s XC, in miserable 14th. It was a staggering record and not equalled since.
The combination of good looks, a spectacular local race pedigree and rarity means an A9X is now worth very serious money. For many, the fact it happens to be a decent drive is a bonus. As a locally-developed muscle car hero, it can’t be beaten.
Cliff Chambers value guide: Road-spec A9X Hatchbacks rank among the most desi rable Aussie performance cars; sedans are more common and remain more affordable. $105,000-300,000 (Hatch) $45,000- 135,000 (Sedan).
Recommended reading: Heart of the Lion by John Wright, Torana Tough by Norm Darwin. A9X Club at a9xclub.org.au.
TORANA LX A9X PRODUCTION 1977-78 405 BODY 2-door hatchback ENGINE 5044cc V8, OHV, 16v, 176kW @ 4800rpm TORQUE 434Nm @ 3400rpm 0-100KM/H 7.2sec 0-400M 15.4sec GEARBOX 4-speed manual SUSPENSION Coils, wishbones (f); Live axle, coils, trailing arms (r) BRAKES Discs VALUE RANGE $105,000-300,000 (Hatch) $45,000-135,000 (sedan)
We bought this car in 1978, about the same time as we bought a house in Beechworth (Vic) and they cost about the same – around $14,000.
Before that we owned an SL/R5000 in the same colour, and before that a Mini Clubman GT.
The kids were brought up in this and we even brought them home from hospital in it. It even got used as an ambulance when one of the kids needed to be brought home with his leg in plaster from a skateboard accident.
It’s a really, really, well-used car. At the time I owned a nursery, so the back was often loaded up with plants and I’d head off to the markets. It got driven on dirt, snow, through sleet – you name it.
My husband and I started doing it up, but he got ill and we packed it away in a shed in about 1993. Some years later, one of my sons – who reads Unique Cars – asked, “Do you have any idea what that thing’s worth? Why don’t we do it up?”
So we dragged it out of the shed and across the snow and into a shipping container and started work.
It wasn’t too bad. There were a few scratches, like the ones from the sheet of corrugated iron that got caught up in a mini cyclone. Eventually we built a new shed and put in a hoist so we could work on it in there.
Lots of the work was done in Melbourne. We were lucky to find a trimmer who still had the remnants of a roll of original seat material.
What I love about it is that it’s a real car. When you drive cars these days, there’s no soul. With this, you can feel what’s going on. I much prefer to drive something like this than get in something that does it all for you.
It’s not perfect, but you can see it’s got a bit of history. It was never going to be sold, and never will be. It will be cremated with me!
Back in 1967, when the XR Falcon GT made its first appearance at Mount Panorama, production car racing really was just that. The modified Group C Improved Production Touring Cars that were battling for the Australian Touring Car Championship at the time had no place on the Bathurst grid.
Bathurst cars ran under the much more tightly-controlled Group E Series Production regulations. Modifications were extremely limited and homologation requirements for 1967 required 5000 cars to have been produced internationally or 500 to have been produced locally.
Ford’s new XR Falcon GT cleared that hurdle and seven examples of Australia’s first hero car lined up on the grid. Leading the charge were the three cars entered by Ford Australia, driven by Leo and Ian ‘Pete’ Geoghegan, Harry Firth/Fred Gibson and Bob Jane/Spencer Martin.
“I didn’t meet Harry until the Friday night before Bathurst,” recalls Gibson.
“I met him at his hotel room and we discussed what we were going to do. One of the things I said was, ‘Harry, how are we going to go? Will we be competitive?’
He said, ‘We’ll win the race’ and I thought, ‘Hmmm, that’s pretty confident!’”
“Harry had done a lot of brake pad development,” recalls Gibson. “I think the m Pr we re 50 hu fir th IaG ni di H H de brake pads and shoes were pretty special.
Even though the shock absorbers had to look stock, I’m sure Harry got shocks made by Monroe-Wylie at a lot heavier rate than anyone else would’ve had and I think the engines were blueprinted. They were very well prepared.”
Firth/Gibson were the winners from the Geoghegans, with the Alfa GTV of Chivas/Stewart completing the podium.
So began a new era in Australian motoring. The XR GT’s success created a template for Australian performance cars that continues to the present day.
It also had a big effect on a young John Bowe. “The XR GT really moved the goal posts,” opines JB, “No longer would four-cylinder Minis and Cortinas be in contention because then Holden built the 327 Monaro and it started that whole bigger-engines-and-more-power thing.”
A four-cylinder car would win Bathurst again, but we’ll come back to that in a couple of decades.
While the GT, with its Mustang derived engine, didn’t set the race track on fire, its real significance is as the ‘grandfather’ of all the GTs and HOs that came after.
Cliff Chambers value guide: The GT that started it all should attract greater collector interest and better money. Maybe for its 50th Anniversary, due soon, it will. $40,000-95,000.
FORD FALCON XR GT PRODUCTION 1967 596 ENGINE 4.7-litre small-block Windsor V8, OHV, single four-bbl downdraft carburettor GEARBOX four-speed manual SUSPENSION coils/leafs (f/r) POWER 168kW @ 4800RPM TORQUE 412Nm @ 3200RPM 0-100KM/H 9.9secs; 0-400m: 16.2secs BRAKES Discs/drums (f/r), powered WHEELS 14x6.9-inches VALUE RANGE $40,000-95,000
In the market for a muscle car of your own? Okay, the values of some of the gems on these pages can look pretty scary, but you can still come across the odd bargain out there. The payoff is, while the purchase and/or restoration might cost, there’s a good chance you’ll get a decent return on your investment. That’s particularly true at the moment, when the market is not as overheated as it became just before the last global financial crisis.
Here are a few tips… 1. Do your research: We really can’t over-emphasise this. A little patience will bring great rewards. See if you can get to chat with owners of the cars you’re homing in on, buy the books, have a look at what info is available online. Just be aware that forums in particular are a mixed blessing – sometimes they have sage advice, other times they’re just plain wrong and filled with opinionated gibberish.
Print and online info from professional publishers – while not always perfect – at least goes through a checking process. 2. Join a club before you buy: If you’ve settled on a particular model, a specialist club can be invaluable.
They’ll welcome a fellow sufferer and often hear about cars coming on the market long before they’re advertised.
Plus you’ll have access to people who can check your purchase. 3. Buying a restored one is cheaper: If you want the thrill of restoring a car yourself, go nuts as it can be immensely satisfying. Just be mindful that’s it’s usually a bigger task than most people realise and will almost certainly blow the budget. If bang for your buck is the priority, buying one that’s already had the work done is nearly always better value for money, even at a premium price. 4. Beware replicas: The difference in value between a real GT-HO and a tribute car can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. As Dave Morley cynically suggested about the Phase III GT-HO last issue, “While Ford made 300 of them, there are probably only about 700 of them left.” Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a replica – it will be just as much fun to drive – so long as you pay a replica’s lower price. 5. Bodywork can be the killer: All the cars in this story tend to have big, relatively simple, and robust engines.
So if you’re assessing a tired car to buy and restore, the mechanicals are likely to be least of your problems.
We built a GT-HO tribute car a few years ago and, while the engine build took a couple of days and was pretty straight-forward, something like 300 hours went into the body. If in doubt, get someone in who can assess what you’re looking at.
V8 Supercar Legend and Unique Cars road tester
UC project manager and the world’s fussiest man
UC Associate Editor
UC Art Director
UC workshop guru
JOHN BOWE JOHN BOWE GT-HO The biggest bad-ass car ever produced in this country – just tough and fast.
XC COBRA The end of the line for the two-door coupe and the best one ever.
Conceived to win Bathurst, like the Phase III, but more developed and less raw. I like the motorsport connection and can’t wait for some Cobras to turn up at the Touring Car Masters next year.
A9X Arguably the best-looking muscle car in Aussie history.
A9X You only need to know two things. Six laps ahead, lap record on lap 161.
CHARGER Should have one Bathurst. Best-looking Aussie car, ever.
XU-1 Proved that Harry Firth was a genius and that balance is under-rated.
A9X Great investment, drives well and looks great.
VK HDT This is the best drive of the group and still looks great.
GT-HO At the moment this is the best investment of the group. They’re a bit raw to drive but are an involving car.
A9X A true muscle car; factory developed to be the best of its breed on the racetrack – engine, chassis, brakes. How many races did this not win? Bathurst ’79 was incredible. In the hands of God: Pole, led the whole race, won by six laps and a lap record on the last lap.
GT-HO It’s hard to not be impressed by the dedication to success that Ford Australia (and Howard Marsden et al) put into the XW-XY Falcons and the Phase III was the pinnacle. Imagine how good the XA Phase IV would have been if the supercar scare hadn’t happened?
XU-1 Light, nimble, quick.
Many people forget these elements are essential for true motorsport success; more important, in many cases, than big cubes and grunt.
A9X I’m from Europe and over there a ‘muscle car’ is a euphemism for a vehicle developed by a company with no talent in the chassis engineering department. The Torana A9X showed that Australian muscle cars really could walk the walk, being small, wieldy and backed up by an impressive competition history.
BOLWELL The Nagari deserves its moment in the sun because this was when an Australian manufacturer dared to dream. Modest ambition has been one of the big nails in the coffin of domestic manufacturing and Bolwell proved that for its low riders, the sky was the limit.
GT-HO Nobody could read Mel Nichols’ classic yarn HO Down the Hume and not fall in love with the big Ford.
Even if you don’t give a stuff for its exploits at Bathurst, the GT-HO strong-arms its way into my top three through sheer force of personality.
A huge thanks to the many hundreds of you who took the trouble to vote and give us your thoughts via our website tradeuniquecars. com.au and via email. Also, thanks to the good folk at Sidchrome for putting up a very tasty toolkit as a prize.
I have owned a HK Monaro and my current car for fun is a SL/R5000. Even though it’s a mock-up it’s probably better than original. Both cars are and were great fun, but the car that I can never forget was the XW GT-HO Phase I that I owned some 30-odd years ago. I can still remember the smell when you first got in, the noise it made when you started it up. I drove it from Adelaide to Newcastle to Cairns several times, never missed a beat, you could be a hoon when you wanted to be or you could cruise. It was so comfortable to drive and you didn’t have to go ridiculously fast to feel like you were in a race car. Whenever I drove it, I felt good. It was diamond white and I lowered it about an inch at the front.
For me the XW-XY GTs were Ford at its peak. They were the best overall cars of the time and my choice as the best muscle car ever made in/for Australia. (Don’t tell my Torana I said this!)
Nev Busch GT-HO Read about it in Wheels mag early seventies - Last of the Supercars. I had to have one. Loved the look, handling, raw power, balance, and the glorious sound.
Lyndsay Paff CHARGER It should be obvious!
Emma Gleeson XU-1 Because it was my dad’s car, the car I learned to drive in and the car I got my first root in.
David P AND THE WINNER OF THE TOOLKIT WAS THIS COMMENT… The XU-1 is the greatest Australian muscle car because it won Bathurst, Australian Touring Car Championship and the Australian Rally Championship four times. No other muscle car was able to achieve that.
John Smallacombe (Congratulations, Mr S - Ed.)