RPO 83 PLUS

One of a kind: The next best thing to a Phase IV coupe

Australian Muscle Car - - Front Page -

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.

Phased in

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.

Spe­cial de­liv­ery

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…

Worn down

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.

Spe­cial de­liv­ery

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.

Trea­sure Trove

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.

Re­born

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.

Honk­ing

“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.

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