RPO 83 PLUS
One of a kind: The next best thing to a Phase IV coupe
This magnificent XA GT is the closest thing we’ve seen to a Phase IV coupe. Incredibly, it was virtually unwanted early in its life for reasons including engine behaviour that suggested, to the uninitiated, major internal woes. However, the unorthodox noises were (and are) music to the ears of those in the know and a hint to secrets within.
Skimming across the history of the muscle car – whether American or Australian – reveals that, for collectors, codes are currency. Think E49, L34 and, for Ford fans, RPO 83. The story behind Regular Production Option code 83 is the stuff of legend: A mediafuelled supercar scare creates public furore and ‘the big three’ abandon their ever-escalating racetrack war.
For Ford Australia, this meant torching its most ambitious project, the XA Falcon GT-HO Phase IV, after three racecars and one road car had been built. But what to do with the surplus homologation parts, at least 250 sets required to ensure the Phase IV’s Bathurst eligibility?
History now shows that these parts were quickly and quietly dispersed through the Ford dealership network, though it is the existence of the 250 Ford Falcon XA GT RPO 83 (120 hardtops and 130 sedans) built between April and August 1973 that tells the story best. Ostensibly a performance pack that included the 780cfm Holley carburettor, 2.25-inch HM-designed headers and associated heat shield for the clutch slave cylinder from the Phase IV parts bin, it added no cost to the standard price of an XA GT four-door ($5087) or two-door ($5203). Unpublicised, it was Ford’s way of shifting such parts through the production line
to gain homologation for the 1973 Manufacturers Championship. The factory RPO 83 hardtop racer of Allan Moffat and Ian ‘Pete’ Geoghegan would go on to win the Bathurst 1000, the first time the legendary enduro ran to 1000 kilometres.
It was with some excitement that Bill Bright lobbed on Coffey Ford’s doorstep in mid to late 1973. Earlier, he had received the call he had been waiting for: “Mr. Bright, your car is ready.”
Bill, already an XW GT owner and Ford nut, felt his excitement fade soon after arriving at the Melbourne dealership, as he was introduced to his new steed.
“All I could think was: Shit, it’s green!” Bill recalls. “I ordered a black XA GT coupe, but the dealer basically said, ‘Trust me, mate. You want this one. It’s special.’
“I took some convincing, though; green for me is a bad luck colour!”
Set before Bill was a metallic Calypso Green manual XA GT. It was optioned to the hilt, with mandatory seatbelts, power steering, windback sunroof, laminated tintband windscreen, power windows, bonnet black, dual exterior mirrors, eight-track audio, front spoiler and tinted side and rear glass. As for what lay under the bonnet, Bill admits: “I knew jack-all about what it was.” Ford moved to twin plates during the XA’s lifespan. In the case of the XA GT on these pages, owned by Les Dole (pictured right), the plates don’t tell the full story of the mechanical treasures contained within.
History now shows that Bill’s purchase was one of only four RPO 83 coupes finished in Calypso Green; incidentally the sole pre-production Phase IV road car’s colour.
Believe it or not, Bill had intended for this new purchase to be his wife’s daily transport, and it served in this purpose until 1975, when he decided to offload the recalcitrant steed in favour of a thennew automatic Fairlane.
It didn’t leave without making memories, however: “I could never get it running right… it was always rattling away, stalling and running rough. It went through a few dealerships [including Coffey, who you may have thought would understand the special requirements of such a vehicle; it was sold by them after all!] before I took it to Peter Whey, who was one of the first guys around the Dandenong area to have a chassis dyno. From that point on it went real hard.”
Despite the big green coupe’s performance, he couldn’t convince any dealer to take it as a trade-in.
“They heard the tappet noise and thought the thing was stuffed,” he rues. After rejecting an $1800 trade-in offer, Bill sold the coupe to Mike Rodhouse for $3500.
The first time
It was at this point that Les Dole first became involved with the RPO 83 he now owns.
“I had been working at Cooper Ford in Seaford, and at that point [second owner] Mike [Rodhouse] asked me to look after his XA GT on an ongoing basis,” he says.
“Of course, I noticed the extractors, the Holley and the winged sump. It was a special car, but being in the Ford network I’d heard of and seen Fairlanes and F-trucks with Phase IV parts on them, and I was aware of the company mentality at the time, which was to get rid of the surplus parts as quickly as possible, via using them in regular production vehicles.”
The late Howard Marsden, in charge of Ford’s racing department at the time, backed up this assertion when speaking to AMC’s founding editor Mark Oastler about the Phase IV program for issue #5.
“It was just a case of ‘let’s get rid of this stuff [the accumulated Phase IV parts] down the production line.’ People expected us to be terribly organised and have specific models, parts lists and documentation on where all these components ended up, but on this occasion we simply needed to play the ‘get out of jail’ card.”
This approach meant that among the 250 RPO 83s there were some that were extra special, including the August 1973-build example shown here, one of 15 RPO 83s delivered to Coffey Ford.
From 1975 onwards, Les made the occasional approach to Mike about purchasing the car when he was done with it, but didn’t really make progress. “Mike loved the car, and always wanted to do it up himself, one day. But he did smoke a pipe in it, if you’ll believe that,” laughs Les. “You should have seen the state of the ashtray!
“He didn’t drive it too much or too hard, which made it hard to keep in tune; you have to give
these 4V Clevos a run from time to time.
“In the late-1990s, the car hadn’t seen the road in about six years. To make matters worse, it was always stored outside [in Mike’s ownership] and uncovered. It was in a pretty sad state, with silastic in the sunroof and some paint flaws. I was finally able to convince Mike to sell it to me.”
When Les towed the XA home, his wife Lyn’s initial impression was that “It was nothing special.” She now laughs at the memory…
Like many a life’s work, the XA project took time to gather momentum. Between work and assisting with other people’s projects, the RPO languished in “the front shed, buried behind other bits and pieces” for about a decade.
When Les’s son Troy asked in 2009 if the car could be finished in time for his 2010 wedding it provided the impetus to get going, but what Les found as he started stripping the coupe back was both exasperating and exciting.
Exasperation first: “Once I started stripping back the body, I realised there was a lot of rust in the usual sections, like the plenum chamber and around the A-pillars… basically, it was at the point where, if it wasn’t what it was, it would not have been worth restoring. It needed major surgery.”
Les, by this stage a well-respected backyard (well, hoist-equipped ‘shed’) restorer within the Classic Rod and Car Club of Victoria (based in Cranbourne), built up a rotisserie specifically designed for this not-insubstantial project.
It was at around this time that he discovered this RPO 83 was something best described as a RPO 83-plus.
“All those years that Mike owned it, it never needed to have the bottom end apart. When I pulled that winged sump off as part of the engine strip down, I couldn’t believe it… there were four-bolt main bearing caps. The heads were also of the HO-style 4V closed-chamber type, and of course the solid cam.” For a Ford man (though he raced a GTR XU-1 Torana in Group N!) this was manna from heaven; a motor destined for the racing Phase IV XA GT-HOs was factory-fitted to his coupe.
While this car is fitted with a Phase IV-spec engine, it would be wrong to call Les’ pride and joy a Phase IV two-door, although the differences are relatively minor.
“The genuine Phase IVs would have had the 31-spline axles; this didn’t, it only had 28-spline,” Les explains. “It only had a 28-spline main shaft gearbox, not a 31. It only had a 7000rpm tacho, whereas the Phase IVs would have had the 8000rpm tachos.”
This car also left the factory with the standard fuel tank, rather than the 32-gallon version.
Back in 1973, Greg Duncan had just completed his mechanical apprenticeship at Coffey Ford in Dandenong. On any given day he could have been pre-delivering anything from an Escort to an LTD, but he can specifically recall delivering a mighty Calypso Green XA GT Coupe.
“I was tasked with doing the mechanical pre-delivery checks,” Greg recalls. “It was a most unusual car, with all these options but no air-conditioning. I remember thinking how pretty the colour was when I first saw it.
“Nothing on the identification tags suggested this hardtop was anything other than a nice manual XA GT.
“When I first popped the bonnet the engine looked just like a Phase III HO’s with the extractors and big Holley, but with the winged sump. I thought, ‘This is a special weapon.’”
The actual on-road component of Greg’s inspection involved a quick trip around the block, where the big camshaft made life interesting. “It had a lot of grunt when the revs came up,” he remembers.
Greg and owner Les are actually fishing buddies, so he has had the opportunity to reacquaint himself with the beast. “Les has done a great job on it.” We have to agree with him.
Legend or lore?
If Howard Marsden was happy to substantiate the Phase IV parts distribution legend, he was less willing to confirm the strong rumours of these ‘NASCAR’ four-bolt blocks being installed; let alone ordered in homologation quantity. When prompted by AMC on the subject 12 years ago, Marsden replied: “You know, we manipulated those Series Production regulations to the fullest and never got caught, but we were never silly about the way we did things and that [four-bolt mains] would have been a silly modification which never would have got past the regulators.”
This isn’t a sentiment shared by some others who were close to the project. Bruce Hodgson, who ran the ‘XA-2’ Phase IV in the Australian Rally Championship (of all things) confirmed to AMC in issue #5 that his car came with a four-bolt block, as well as spare complete HO engine and additional block, each equipped with four-bolt mains. David Bowden’s ‘XA-1’ also had a four-bolt block fitted.
Les himself refers to Colin Russell, who was the Ford Special Vehicles (FSV) engine builder of the time. “He built the RPO 83 hardtop race motors, and he remembers the four-bolt mains being used.”
Stories abound of 200 US-built four-bolt, solid-lifter motors which were dispersed in an even-more random way than the other Phase IV homologation bits, with some even turning up in F-Trucks. We’d love to hear of one.
Les Dole’s shed contains an eclectic selection of treasures, everything from an Indian motorcycle and Model T Ford to his two GTs.
The XA GT RPO 83 shares garage space with his BA GT-P and even an early model Gemini that has sentimental value to his family. Les has owned the 1923 Model T truck for over 20 years and its slowly rising to the top of his restoration ‘to do’ list. It’s approximately 15 years since he has had the flathead four cylinder-powered T running.
His 1920 Indian Scout has a 600cc V-twin with a roller camshaft and is the same model that Burt Munro – of The World’s Fastest Indian fame – rode to victory on the salt flats at Bonneville. The Indian is still a work in progress with Les keen to finish the project in 2015.
Les was fastidious during the project’s stripdown phase, cataloguing all parts to correctly re-fit with appropriate paint marks, to ensure the XA was factory-fresh upon completion.
Although the initial deadline of son Troy’s wedding was missed, it was probably for the best; the resultant three-and-a-half year restoration has been done to exemplary standard.
“Even during the rust removal process, I was careful to replicate the original spot-welded sections,” Les explains with obvious pride as he shows us around the car, which is gleaming in its fresh Calypso Green paintwork, applied by noted GT specialist Trevor Davis (no relation to the author).
Les was able to do a mountain of the chassis and body work himself, including the unpicking of the pillars and reinstallation of the bulkhead and panel work.
He then handed the reins over to Steve Abdallah to put the finishing touches to the body. “Steve did a tremendous job,” smiles Les. Mechanically, Les noticed a scored bore on one cylinder in the Clevo: “It had popped a gudgeon pin. Given the uniqueness of the motor, I was reluctant to sleeve the cylinder. I ended up boring it 30-thou’ [0.030in] and it cleaned it up nicely.”
Moving down the driveline, Les treated the 28-spline (rather than the beefier 31-spline unit found on some Phase IIIs and destined for the Phase IV) Top Loader four-speed manual gearbox to new bearings, while the 28-spline limited-slip differential (not the ‘Detroit Locker’) was refreshed with new bearings and clutches.
Although originally delivered on 12-slot rims, the car now sports the Phase IV-style ‘Bathurst’ Globes. There’s a complete set of 12-slotters in the shed, however the original road wheels are in the hands of the previous owner’s nephew.
“It was pretty special to hear it start.”
That’s how Les summarises the completion of the XA GT in May, 2013; sadly just after April’s Falcon GT Nationals at Bathurst.
The first time it was seen on the road was on the local club run, from Cranbourne to Caldermeade Farm [in Gippsland]. “Since then, we’ve already put on 5000 miles, including a run up to Bright and back.”
That may sound like a lot of mileage, but with such a chequered past – nothing involving a flag – this special Falcon deserves to be out there making noise, rather than rotting away.
The Calypso coupe starred at its first formal event, taking the coveted ‘Car of Show’ honour at the first Garfield Show, Shine and Swap Meet in 2013 against some major competition. It also won ‘Best Engine Bay’, a testament to Les’s obsession with getting it right. “It took a month to clean it!” he beams. “I enjoy the shows, but I mostly like doing club events, driving to places where I can really exercise and enjoy the car.”
And enjoy it he does, the trademark sound of a solid valvetrain accompanied by a loping, cammy idle setting neck-hairs prickling. It’s a sound that many of us would be more familiar with had the Supercar Scare not made it necessary for Ford to turn to shadow games. In light of this, whoever managed to secrete a Phase IV-specification engine into this RPO 83 Hardtop deserves a trophy of their own. Thanks to car owner Les Dole and Australian Classic Car History Services (www.acchs.com.au). We also thank Man & Machine presenter Glenn Everitt for putting AMC in touch with Les. Visit www.manandmachinetv.com.au to see and hear Glenn putting this car through its paces. Search for Season 1, Episode 2.
Officially a work of art
Think Les Dole’s green machine is a work of art? The National Gallery of Victoria agrees! Our feature car will be part of the Shifting Gear: Design, Innovation and the Australian Car exhibition at NGV’s Federation Square site from March 6 to July 12. NGV director Tony Ellwood says “Shifting Gear will be the first major exhibition of Aussie car design,” with 23 iconic cars on display, including Holden’s Efijy and Hurricane. The exhibit presents stories behind their development through photos, models and archival material. The XA was the first Falcon designed locally and we can’t think of a better example than Les’s. FORD AUSTRALIA LTD, Geelong, Victoria (manufacturer) established 1925. XA Ford Falcon GT (RPO83) 1973 (manufactured) Front-mounted 5.8L V8 Cleveland engine, 283kW 380bhp, 4 speed manual transmission, rear wheel drive Designed and engineered by Allan Jackson, Brian Rossi and Jack Telnack Collection of Les Dole, Gippsland, Victoria
Colin Russell The legendary Lot 6 Mahoneys Road skunk works. Three GT-HO Phase IV racecars were built here, but how many engines earmarked for racing were built before the program was canned?
Top right: Les was forced to perform major surgery on the RPO 83 after discovering rust in the usual spots, like the plenum chamber and around the A-pillars. Right: How many hours do you reckon Les has spent in his workshop/garage? Time well spent, given the finished product. AMC salutes anyone with this much dedication to preserving our motoring heritage. If only we could hand out knighthoods. Bottom right: Our hero, a respected restorer within the Classic Rod and Car Club of Victoria, built up a rotisserie specifically designed for his RPO 83 and the project’s demands.