Restoration of historic police vehicles is something of a trend today. However, here’s a survivor that’s still in original condition 38 years after pulling off the highway
Hidden inside a Carcoon in a nondescript storage facility in Canberra is what must be one of the rarest XB Falcons in Australia. It’s one of the highway patrol pursuit cars built especially for the ACT Police in September 1974. This one was factory-fitted with the 351 2V Cleveland V8 which gives it a top speed of 140mph (225km/h) if required.
Because they look relatively standard, these special police-issue Falcons were often described as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’ Most police forces preferred the four-door body style, mainly to provide easy access to the rear seats. Only New South Wales chose to go with two-door coupes for highway patrol duties.
Underneath the standard body they were virtual GT Falcons. Each police force could order them to their own specifications. This one has the 11:1 compression ratio, single rail four-speed manual gearbox, limited slip diff, and Kelsey Hayes ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels. The standard 351 puts out 300bhp at 5400rpm. It covers the standing quarter in 15.8 seconds and does 0 to 60 in 7.4 seconds. Even sitting on axle stands it looks mean.
These cars were beasts but the only indication that something special is under the bonnet are two aluminium hood pins, like the ones used on racecars. Badging is Falcon 500 on the boot, plus discreet 351 badges on the front side fenders. From the rear the two exhaust pipes also suggest that this is not your average four-door Falcon.
Four sirens are mounted in front of the grille on a heavy-duty bracket.
But what makes this Falcon super-rare is its time-warp quality. It has been kept exactly as it was when it was retired from official duties in 1976. As far as police Falcon experts know, this is the only one of its kind to survive in original condition, including evidence of what is described as ‘holster wear’ on the driver’s seat.
All operational equipment, including the AWA two-way radio and a second calibrated speedo in the glove box cavity, is still there.
The Polar White duco, and ACT Police insignia on each front door are also believed to be original. There are minor paint touch-ups and one barely visible dent, but apart from that the exterior is immaculate considering it was used on a daily basis for two years.
The interior is also to GT specs, except that the standard 500 dashboard is fitted, which means there is no tachometer. The most obvious modification for police work is a second speedometer, calibrated to 220km/h, fitted in the glove box cavity on the passenger side. There are flick switches for the blue light on the roof and the sirens mounted on the front bumper, and a police radio in the space where the normal radio would be. An AWA handset of the click-on,
click-off style is familiar to those who watched Homicide and Division 4 as youngsters.
Driver and passenger – known as an observer – sat in black vinyl bucket seats. A centre console glovebox is between them with rubber floor lining in place of carpet. The ashtray mounted on the back of the console is for use by rear-seat passengers. Compared to modern police cars everything looks very basic.
If this Falcon looks familiar that’s because it was on loan to the Ford Discovery Centre in Geelong. It returned to Canberra in 2012.
The ACT Police – now part of the AFP – has always had an interest in preserving its history. Although its public museum space closed some time ago the exhibits have been maintained in the hope that an alternative space can be organised.
This explains why this car, probably the prime exhibit, is currently sitting in a storage unit along with a selection of motorcycles, a Humber Super Snipe and a police van. These are described as milestone police vehicles by the AFP museum curator, Lauren Spencer.
She is well aware of the significance of the XB Falcon and, at time of writing, was having it appraised by a museum conservator to assess its mechanical state. The aim is to have the car road-registered so it can be used as a mobile museum piece, attending car shows and community events. We are certainly hoping to see it at the Muscle Car Masters in the future.
As soon as it was de-commissioned in 1976 it was designated for the museum by its two principal drivers, Sgt. John Hillier and Sgt. John Best. They realised that it was a very special car indeed, as did senior police mechanic Mario Milin, a Ford enthusiast who had always loved working on V8 Falcons.
All should be congratulated for their foresight. Most pursuit Falcons were stripped of all police identification then sold at auction.
This one avoided that fate because it was in exceptional condition and had never been crashed; although there is some indication that the right rear door was damaged and repaired. It had only 25,155km on the clock, but that was its second time around, Lauren explained.
It’s currently not road-registered but it was a goer back in 1989 when it featured in Sports and Classic Car magazine. Writer Malcolm Robertson met up with Sgt. John Hillier, still a serving officer but no longer with the Traffic Branch.
This had been his favourite vehicle and when he took it for a nostalgic tour of Canberra, with Robertson in the passenger seat, he noticed how many drivers slowed down as soon as they saw him, even if it was obvious to all that this car was no longer in service.
First surprise for Robertson was when Hillier drove it around the streets in third gear, a normal practice designed to give the driver maximum control over braking and, especially, acceleration.
At one stage Hillier demonstrated that thirdgear acceleration… “the punch in your back was something that most drivers would have difficulty imagining,” wrote Robertson.
Twenty-five years later and I also spoke with John Hillier, now retired but still enthusiastic about his time in the Traffic Branch. Over a long career he drove a series of pursuit Falcons starting with the XW… “all V8s, all manuals,” he says.
There were only two or three drivers qualified for pursuit duty in Canberra so they tended to have a close affinity with their cars, usually driving the same one every day. The XB remains his favourite ride however. “I remember getting it brand new,” he says. “If you got the keys to one of these you had great pride in how you presented it.”
At the beginning of the watch (or shift) the drivers would attend a parade in full uniform before going to a briefing, then heading to the garage to inspect their cars. They would personally check the fluids and they expected the previous crew to have cleaned the interior and filled the tank the night before, even if they had finished at 11pm.
Like all ACT Police pursuit car drivers, John Hillier trained and worked on a pursuit motorcycle before doing the pursuit car course.
In those days, drivers were expected to be of the highest standard and were subject to constant scrutiny. “A couple of strikes and you were out,” he says. “Even if you went on an extended holiday for a few months you were recalled to do a re-test when you came back. “We were ordinary people undergoing extraordinary training.” The emphasis was on defensive driving and what he calls “vehicle sympathy” – another reason for this car’s exceptional condition.
While most speeding motorists pulled over as soon as they saw the flashing lights in the rear-vision mirror there were times when a highspeed chase continued. If there were two officers in the car, the driver would move up alongside the offender and the officer in the passenger seat would hold up an illuminated police sign. This usually had the desired result. There were very few occasions when someone would attempt to outrun a pursuit Falcon. Hillier can confirm that the 220km/h limit on the speedometer was achievable.
Some motorists must have thought that they would escape the police when they reached the territory border [ED: obviously people who watched too many American TV shows!]. Not so. ACT pursuit drivers were also Special Constables in NSW, a qualification that is retained to this day.
The XB had some minor drawbacks, notably the disc brakes which had a tendency to crack, usually after a high-speed chase was followed by a hard stop then 15 minutes on the side of the road while the officer was filling in a ticket. Under normal use the brakes were more than adequate.
There was no air-con but Hillier says the cars were comfortable except in mid-summer when the heat generated by the big twin mufflers, placed directly underneath the front seats, would end up inside when the windows were wound down. The 351 engine was not affected, idling at normal temperature, summer or winter.
The V8 Falcons were a favourite with Traffic Branch officers and they were understandably sorry to see them go. They developed an emotional attachment to them because of the policy of officers being allocated the same car whenever possible. This was partly for safety reasons, so that drivers could work in familiar environments.
That all changed when the force grew in size and a larger pool of cars had to be employed.
It’s easy to understand why the likes of Hillier had such an affinity with this XB survivor.
Main: Let’s do the time-warp! This ACT Police Falcon is still in the same untouched condition as when its career ended 38 years ago. Below: A sister car to the survivor, complete with a constable in jodhpurs and riding boots.
Above: The XB’s interior is untouched with, incredibly, even the AWA two-way radio still intact.