The life of Brian’s XE Falcon
Brian Callaghan was the first to put a XE Falcon touring car onto a racetrack, a car that started and finished three Bathurst 1000s. That same one-owner Ford is about to return to the track for the first time in decades.
Speedway star Brian Callaghan had made his Bathurst debut in 1981 in an XD Falcon, finishing a creditable 14th, codriven by journalist Peter McKay. A year later, Callaghan updated to the new XE, so new in fact that he couldn’t just buy an ex-taxi or police car, but had to buy a new body from Ford.
“We bought a brand-new shell and a box of bits from Ford in about May 1982. There were some bits we pulled off the old car, too. We acid- dipped the shell at Galvanising Services. We had to do it on weekends – leave it in the acid bath on Saturday night, but then pull it out before Monday or all the stuff they’d dump in there would have crushed it!
“I don’t know that we got that much weight out of it by acid-dipping it, but we sure made it weaker! The car flexed so much we had to keep replacing windscreens. Most years at Bathurst we’d use at least two.
“It didn’t take that long to build – it took longer to acid-dip it. We log-booked the car on the Friday at the CAMS office and raced it on the Sunday at Amaroo Park – August 5 it was log booked and August 7 is the first entry in the log book.”
That was qualifying day for the CRC 300, the 155-lap enduro held at the Sydney circuit throughout the 1980s and described by Dick Johnson as like running a marathon around your Hills Hoist. Callaghan and co-driver Bob
night. Next thing there’s a roster pinned to the tent pole, for which team wants to use it next!”
“The XE used to roll-steer like buggery. The rear springs were too short [Brian holds his hands about 100mm apart], you couldn’t get any rate into them without them binding. The problem with the XE was that you’d have heaps of understeer into a corner, then when you tried to flick the back of the car around on the throttle it would oversteer like buggery. The short spring (and the small space it had to fit in) meant that you couldn’t increase the number of coils or the thickness of the wire without the springs binding up. So the rear of the car, at least in the early days, was very soft and floaty.
“I passed Alan Browne (Re-Car Commodore) on Conrod, near the first hump. He came up to me afterwards and said he thought something might be broken on my car – he’d never seen any car shake around like that.”
Callaghan was chuffed to greet the flag inside the top 10 in just his second Bathurst attempt. However, celebrations were short-lived, with the maroon and yellow #47 Ford – and Dick Above: Callaghan says fellow speedway guru Barry Graham called himself “a works driver”, as in ‘if he didn’t work, he couldn’t drive’. Bottom: Seventh at Bathurst ’84 and first Falcon home was a fine result for a couple of ‘skid kids’. Johnson’s example – disqualified from the 1982 James Hardie 1000 for a cylinder head irregularity.
After a quiet first half of the 1983 season, the XE appeared a couple of times at Amaroo, before posting a fine seventh in the Oran Park 250, the car’s final hit out before the biggie.
“In 1983 we bent a lower control arm in the race at Bathurst and lost a lot of time replacing it,” Brian says of their 20th place.
The car made a longish stop to replace the arm and then at least one more for further adjustment to the wheel alignment. At the time, and to this day, Callaghan reckons he didn’t hit anything. One wonders if the load put on the arm by the hard springs might have been too much.
“People like Johnson – he knew all the tricks, how to get good horsepower and a chassis sorted.” But Johnson struggled too, enlisting ex-Williams Formula One man Wayne Eckersley, who reckoned he’d fixed the back by starting at the front. It took Johnson’s team 18 months to solve the problem.
“He was certainly using some really hard springs. I remember Johnson chasing some 2000 pound front springs.”
The idea of such a hard front spring is to load up the back of the car, to trick it into thinking it had some grip. That way you could use a harder rear spring and live with the binding. But it made the car tricky to drive.
It was reported in The Great Race book that other Ford teams had recommended Callaghan and Graham explore the ‘grey’ areas of the Group C rules, as their car was too close to standard. Certainly by late 1983, the XE’s handling was vastly improved, with better axle location (courtesy of some extra arms and mounting changes to the Watt’s link). The 1984 Bathurst book comments that by that time the car had gone back to softer springs.
“We used a NASCAR block. It was a thicker casting, especially between the banks of cylinders – it could take the heat better,” Callaghan recalls. “With good Carillo rods and a good crank, and with the dry sump, you could make the engines live. It always used to run hot – 210-220 degrees in the water. You had to keep the oil cool.”
Callaghan had always built his own engines and gearboxes and they rarely gave trouble. The driveline, of course, was that well-tested mix of a 351, a top-loader and a nine-inch diff. When you’re on a good thing, stick to it.
Barry Graham was the bloke that brought refinement to the team, working hard on the handling of the big, heavy car.
“Barry used to say he was a ‘works driver’,” says Callaghan. “If he didn’t work, he couldn’t drive. Barry brought the finesse; I was as rough as guts!”
Bathurst 1984 was their finest moment, seventh outright and first Ford home. They had a trouble-free run for a change and they duly reaped the reward.
Fond memories of ’84 aren’t confined to the on-track result, with the family atmosphere in the paddock – five caravans and several tents – all part of the lure of racing in that era for father-offive Callaghan.
It was a fitting way to end the Group C-era. With no viable and competitive Blue Oval option for privateers under the new Group A rules, the pair switched to a VK Commodore that would record a trio of Bathurst DNFs. A switch to the VL Walkinshaw model for the ’88 race saw the duo come home sixth and first of the Commodores.
After Bathurst 1984, at Barry Graham’s insistence, the XE Falcon’s engine and gearbox were rebuilt. “Barry said ‘if we don’t do it now, we never will’.”
Since then the car’s been in the family’s shed. They live on acreage outside Penrith and the ‘shed’ is a mini-museum, with a recreation of Brian’s supercharged Torana XU-1 speedway car, an old ex-Bob Blacklaw Sprintcar, a former Liverpool speedway push car (a shortened, roofless Mini) and Jeff Freeman’s Offy Speedcar from the sixties. And heaps of memorabilia. Right: Brian tries to coax the old girl to life, as grandson David Baker (left) looks on. The car is effectively a Group C-era time-capsule.
The car raced once as a GT car, in the abortive Australian GT Championship at Oran Park in 1985. Then once more in 1995 at Winton, as a Sports Sedan in the hands of Brian Jnr, who described it as either a bit of fun or torture. Since then it’s been in the shed, turned over once in a while, kept dust-free and waiting.
Now the wait might nearly be over. Daughter Michelle Callaghan is going through the process of getting the car’s Certificate of Description for racing in Heritage Touring Cars.
The car didn’t want to start when we visited – a flat battery the culprit. And it probably needs more than just new tyres – after 30 years of sitting, plastic and rubber gaskets, seals, hoses and the like will be brittle. And as Brian Callaghan says, “you never ever want to leak oil on the track, otherwise you go home with every bastard hating you.”
It’s not as pretty as most of the Heritage Touring Cars, but such is the price of preserving a Group C time-capsule. It’s clearly a working Group C touring car and very representative of the class’s privateer ranks. It’s not super-shiny and we really wouldn’t recommend eating off the engine, but that’s how things were. Even modern racing cars are like this – rough bits here and there, small nicks and scratches that don’t show on television.
The hope at this stage is to have the car at the 2016 Muscle Car Masters over October 29 and 30, at least on display.
1983 Amaroo Park