HO down the Hume

PETER ROBINSON’SClassic NSON’S BI O

EPIC TALES FROM M OUR ARCHIVES FIRST PUBLISHED OCTOBER 1971

HISTORY TELLS US MEL NICHOLS’ GREAT HO DOWN THE HUME STORY IS A WHEELS ORIGINAL. NOT QUITE. IN FACT, MEL’S STILL EVOCATIVE WORDS FIRST APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 1975 ISSUE OF SISTER MAGAZINE SPORTS CAR WORLD.

This is how it happened. In mid-1971, having developed a trusting relationship with Howard Marsden (Ford’s competition boss), assistant editor Nichols arranged to drive the first GT-HO Phase III. Even with hindsight, it’s hard to believe that, with the newly launched HQ Holden and VH Valiant creating headlines, an evolutionary XY Falcon seemed relatively unimportant. However, as editor of Wheels, I knew this would be an exclusive.

Nichols and photographer Uwe Kuessner were dispatched south in a Bolwell Nagari to interview Marsden and, we hoped, to test the new GT-HO. The scoop road test appeared in Wheels October 1971 with full performance figures; 14.7sec quarter-mile (400 metres), zero to 160km/h in 15.2sec, and top speed 141.5mph (228km/h) – as proven by Kuessner’s infamous photo. Neither story nor photograph carried any byline and the October cover ignored the GT-HO story.

That now iconic photograph – of Nichols’ hands, thumbs on the steering-wheel spokes at quarter-past-nine, tacho needle at the 6150rpm redline, shaker and Hume Highway visible through the screen – sat above the heading The Biggest Stick.

But what of the speedo needle?

We simply put the story and photos – including the snap with the speedo at an indicated 145mph (233km/h) – into the Murray Publishers production system. Somebody alerted management to the shot and the arguments, which went up to our managing director, began. Despite knowing there was no speed limit on the Hume, after much robust discussion the art department was ordered to retouch the photograph so that the speedo needle was just shy of 100mph, the caption reading “…almost flat in third”.

Nichols’ objective test explained the differences between Phase II and Phase III, went into detail on how the car drove and performed (exceptionally in 1971). Criticism was confined to the lack of a headlight flasher, extreme fuel consumption – around 35L/100km – and, most crucially, brake fade.

Mel wrote the story straight, but I think we both knew that at some stage in the future, under a more enlightened management, we’d find an excuse to run the ‘real’ photograph and tell the story of that drive.

Four years later, in an SCW issue devoted to Australian muscle cars, I persuaded Nichols, then living in London and editing Car magazine, to write the story as it happened.

Covering 200 miles (322km) in two hours on the road remains an astonishing feat, yet on that early Sunday morning in 1971 the mighty GT-HO made that trip from Albury to Broadmeadows utterly effortless.

“IF I KEPT MY FOOT HARD DOWN, THAT HOARY GREAT V8 JUST KEPT THUMPING AWAY” MEL NICHOLS, 1975

Next issue

We ride along with Australian motorsport legend Peter Brock as he campaigns a 350km/h Porsche 956 in the world’s toughest race, the Le Mans 24 Hour

Freeze frame

ILLEGAL copies of Kuessner’s speedo shot (untouched and doctored, right) appeared on T-shirts and as posters in the 1970s and 80s; the HO Down the Hume story is available on the internet, often without any acknowledgement.

For a time, it almost seemed as if Street Machine magazine owned the photograph. Finally, in 2011, Wheels made it into a limited edition poster (below), signed by Kuessner and Nichols. My framed copy – number 4 of 141 (after the top speed) – is on the wall behind my desk.

ALSO IN WHEELS, October 1971

THE Holden HQ Kingswood 202 manual is pitched against its rivals, the Falcon 500 250 manual and the Valiant Ranger 245 manual (the Holden wins); Australians are labelled the world’s worst drivers, with lane discipline and keeping left highlighted; British Leyland launches its new Mini Clubman; tuning the Chrysler Charger for Bathurst.

THE WAY IT WAS 7 ’ 1

Howzat!

ENGLAND and Australia play the first-ever one-day international cricket match at the MCG. Australia wins by five wickets.

Mac attack

AMERICAN fast-food chain McDonald’s arrives on Australian soil, with the first store opening in the Sydney suburb of Yagoona.

Dress code

PRIME Minister Billy McMahon’s wife Sonia is thrust into the global limelight after wearing a dress split up the thigh to a White House dinner.

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