Big Three in ’66
Fifty years ago, at the dawn of the muscle car era, change swept through most aspects of Australian life. Likewise, the previously conservative Big Three showed signs of gearing up for a new era of performance motoring.
Fifty years ago, at the dawn of the muscle car era, change swept through most aspects of Australian life. Likewise, the previously conservative Big Three were showing signs they gearing up for a new era of performance motoring. 1
966 was a year of change in so very many ways.
In January, Sir Robert Menzies retired as Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party after no less than 16 years in the top job, replaced by Harold Holt, who was to mysteriously disappear in the sea at Cheviot Beach near Portsea in Victoria the following year. The Liberals were in control in Canberra although cracks were appearing through inept decision-making by Holt; and Gough Whitlam had been elected leader of the Labor Party.
We found ourselves becoming more and more embroiled in the unwinnable war in Vietnam. Holt ran with the political slogan, “All the way with LBJ!” and the first National Service conscripts fl ew out from Richmond RAAF base in Sydney bound for Vietnam. Conscription sparked mass protests all over our country; but, as was the way with these things, the politicians were not listening.
The tariff system was firmly in place, protecting our industry from interlopers; Japan replaced Great Britain as Australia’s largest trading partner; there was full employment; and it was a good season agriculturally, after
long seasons of drought.
Decimal currency was introduced nationwide on the 14th of February, 1966 – after weeks of advertising to the tune of ‘Click Go the Shears’.
The Women’s Weekly couldn’t believe its luck when Prince Charles came to Australia to attend the exclusive Timbertops school near Geelong; Sydney beauty Sue Gallie was crowned Miss Australia (she was given a brand new Falcon as a prize); and everyone seemed happy with the choice of Jack Brabham as Australian of the Year for his exploits in Formula 1 racing.
Galilee ran away with the Melbourne Cup; St Kilda claimed its first and only VFL Grand Final; and the St George Dragons won the last of their 11 consecutive NSWRL premierships, defeating the Balmain Tigers.
Young Aussie women raised conservative eyebrows when they donned mini-skirts en masse; found many freedoms generally not afforded to their mothers; and the surf culture had really taken off.
Graham Kennedy, Don Lane, Gerry Gibson, John Crook and Ernie Sigley were the most popular TV personalities in their respective states; and They’re A Weird Mob hit silver screens at a time when the White Australia immigration policy was being dismantled. Meantime, Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ and The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ both spent eight weeks at number one on the top 40 charts.
It was the year the first episode of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was shot; kids still played outside after school; the shops closed at noon on Saturdays; Sunday was for attending church and eating a roast dinner before a nap and washing the family car.
That car was most likely a Holden – a small-capacity six-cylinder Standard or Special that was less than 10 years old. Yet, as Australian society cast its gaze away from Britain towards America, the US motor trends – in styling, specification, model names and performance – were starting to become apparent.
In Australia in 1966 the muscle car era was dawning...
1966: Motor Industry
The local car market was running at around 295,000 units in 1966, with Holden taking just over 40 per cent, followed by Ford at around 23 per cent and Chrysler with approximately 12 per cent. By way of contrast, 1.2 million new vehicles are expected to be sold in Australia during 2016 – four times the amount of 50 years ago, despite our nation’s population ‘only’ doubling in the same period.
So what was being produced locally in ’66? The so-called Big Three, and especially Ford, had a wide range of cars on offer. The mainstay of the Ford range was of course the new XR Falcon that was available in sedan, wagon, utility and panel van form, all with at least 95 per cent local content. The Falcon came in plain, Falcon 500 and Falcon Fairmont variants with six-cylinder or, for the first time on the XR model launched in September, V8 engine options.
There was also the English Cortina range assembled here, with the big Fairlane available from CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits
sourced from Canada. By 1966 the cute Anglia with the reverse-slope rear window had faded into the sunset and had yet to be replaced by the Escort.
Holden was highly dependent on the HR range which, like Falcon, came in sedan, wagon, utility and panel form; the sedans and wagons being available in standard, Special and Premier trim options with either a 161ci (2.6-litre) or 186ci (3.0-litre) ‘red’ six-cylinder engine.
Above the HR, Holden was assembling the huge Chevrolets and Pontiac sedans from CKD kits sourced from Canada. Below the Holden range the company was assembling the Vauxhall Viva with a percentage of local components to try and counter the encroaching small Japanese cars. A Holdenbadged small car, the Torana, was still a year away at this point.
By 1966 GM-Holden had wound down the local assembly of the popular Vauxhall Victor and Cresta ranges, a move which created barely a ripple among car buyers, although the dedicated Vauxhall dealers were far from happy. Some stayed, other signed-on with Toyota or Datsun.
Chrysler was not nearly so well off. In 1966 it could so easily have been called the Valiant Car Company. It had its locally-styled VC range available in sedan, wagon and utility form – the panel van built off the Valiant platform was some years away – and had little else to offer apart from the big Dodge Phoenix. The Valiant range was nowhere near as broad as the Holden and Falcon ranges being available with only standard and Regal trim with the 145bhp slant-six engine or the top of the range Valiant V8. Sister brand Simca had gone by 1963-64 and the tie-up with the Rootes Group had yet to take place in Australia, although it had been signed off in the UK.
As for the rest of the local automobile industry, BMC Australia had switched from solid conventionally engineered rear-wheel drive cars to their Mini-1100-1800 front-wheel drive range and was doing well with them from a sales volume perspective, although profitability was always questionable. 1966 would, of course, delivery the Sydney-based BMC its brightest moment, with victory for the Cooper
S (see separate story starting p80) in the increasingly important Bathurst 500-mile endurance race.
Rootes had their stodgy-but-solid Minx, Super Minx and Humbers; Volkswagen was going gangbusters with its Type 1 (Beetle), Type 2 (Kombi) and Type 3 (1500 sedan, wagon) ranges; Continental and General were assembling small numbers of Renaults, Peugeots and the last of the Studebakers; and across town in Port Melbourne Australian Motor Industries was cruising along nicely with the Rambler range from America, Triumphs from England and was just starting to reap the benefit of their liaison with the giant Toyota Motor Company by assembling the shovelnosed Corona and the large Crown range with the small Corolla just around the corner. The signs were already there in 1966…
But let’s get back to the Big Three over the coming pages, because that is where most of the action was in 1966.
Holden had released its controversial HD in February 1965 and while the sycophants in the media gave it the thumbs up it was probably Holden’s worst car ever from several points of view – not the least of which was its styling. By April 1966 however, it had been replaced by the HR, which was a significant tidy up, and came with one or two mechanical improvements; the most significant of which was the slight widening of the wheel tracks and the ball-jointed front suspension.
Those dreadful ‘cheese cutter’ front fenders were squared-off, the grille now had a prominent horizontal chromed bar across the centre with the parking/indicator lights at the outer ends, next to the headlights. At the rear the taillights were now vertical and much neater in appearance. Inside was virtually unchanged.
However, these relatively minor and inexpensive changes transformed the showroom appeal of the car and the HR was a very successful model for Holden.
Of the vast range on offer the most interesting was undoubtedly the X2 which was promoted by Holden as something of a ‘sports sedan’ although that description would not wash today. The X2 was, however, an important step for GM-H towards its future.
The X2 was powered by the largest of the red six-cylinder engines of the time, the 186ci (3.0-litre) OHV six with a cast iron block and head, seven-bearing crank and hydraulic tappets. By using a slightly different camshaft developed by Wade, twin Bendix-Stromberg down-draft carburettors and a dual exhaust system it pumped out 145bhp at 4600rpm and 188lbs-ft of torque at 2200rpm.
Holden offered buyers the choice of a three-on-the-tree manual or their Powerglide two-speed automatic while the standard brakes on the front were 9-inch cast iron drums, solid rotor discs with a vacuum boost were an option.
The only visual difference when the bonnet was raised was the larger air-cleaner that sat over the two carbies. And the only clue to its identity were the various X2 badges that adorned the exterior.
Inside was a bench front seat if the X2 was a Special and dual front buckets without backrest adjustment if it was ordered in Premier trim, which a big percentage were; and over in the right-hand instrument cluster was a full range of dials – ammeter, coolant temperature, oil pressure and fuel – in place of idiot lights. No tachometer, though.
Barry Cooke tested an auto Premier X2 for
Modern Motor’s February 1967 issue, and felt the car was something of a curate’s egg – good in parts. He managed a top speed of 95.8mph with 55mph in Low range, 0-60 and 70mph times of 12.6 and 18.3 seconds, 40-60 and 50-70mph in-gear times of 5.1 and 7.5 seconds, and fuel consumption of 19.6mpg for the test. Now, Holden wanted us to believe that was pretty damn good in 1966, but it was a half-baked attempt at something sporty. Especially when put alongside the broader XR Falcon range that had been released just after HR hit the market.
1966 saw the release of the XR Ford Falcon, a car that was possibly more important to Ford in Australia than the XK had been six years earlier. The XR was the make-orbreak car following the success of the outrageous 70,000-mile run at You Yangs with the XP.
Although based loosely on the US Falcon design, the Australian XR was a much more robust car that applied lessons learned by the local engineers from the XK debacle; and it had a far nicer dashboard containing large round dials in place of the pokey strip unit of the US model.
The 170ci (2.8-litre) and 200ci (3.3-litre) sixcylinder engines opened the batting. Significantly, Ford cannily understood that Australian buyers were ready for a V8 engine – they had seen the proof with the Valiant V8 that came out in the AP6 model in 1965. What Ford cleverly did was to offer their 289ci (4.7-litre) V8 right across the whole range, not limit its availability to a select few who could afford their top-of-the-line model. And they offered it with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes.
XR was a half-a-size bigger than the HR
Holden and VC Valiant, a deliberate move by Ford. It sat on a 111-inch wheelbase compared with 105 and 106 inches respectively for the other two, although rather surprisingly it was no greater in length. However, the extra inches in the wheelbase gave it a far roomier interior.
Yet it was that 289ci V8 that made it so exciting. Local buyers had experienced it in imported Mustangs and the big Galaxie sedan. Producing 200bhp at 4400rpm and 282lbs-ft of torque at 2400rpm, it far outpowered anything Holden had on offer and that was most important to Ford. The V8 could be ordered in a stripper Falcon taxi if that was what the buyer wanted or as an option in the Falcon 500 and Fairmonts, sedans and wagons.
As expected, the Falcon V8 was a virile performer on the road. Modern Motor tested a Falcon 500 (it was supposed to be a Fairmont) against a Valiant V8 in their December 1966 issue and returned with a top speed of 103.1mph, 0-60 and 0-70mph times of 10.6 and 14.9 seconds, 40-60 and 50-70mph passing acceleration times of 5.1 and 7.0 seconds respectively and a fuel economy figure of 20.1 mpg. As you can see, the Falcon’s top speed was much faster, standing start figures were quite a bit quicker although the passing acceleration times were almost line ball.
The test team were not happy about the needlessly twirly steering and felt the Cruisomatic transmission was “clunky” and nowhere near a match for the Torqueflite in the Valiant. As for ride and handling, the longer wheelbase of the Falcon helped smooth out the ride on good roads although none of the cars were particularly good on dirt roads.
last of our triumvirate was the VC Valiant. The VC, which was released in March 1966, was a significant upgrade of the AP6, the model in which the 273ci (4.5-litre) V8 was introduced. Although trimmed as a Regal – that is, the top Chrysler model at the time – the V8-engined Valiant was never referred to by Chrysler as anything but the Valiant V8. The VC was also offered with the 225ci (3.7-litre).
For reasons never explained at the time, but we suspect had something to do with the innate conservatism that roamed the halls of power at Tonsley Park, Chrysler never saw their virile V8 engine as an ‘all-purpose’ power unit in the way that Ford did. They could so easily have offered it in a wider range of models but chose not to. Nevertheless, as with the R Series four years previously, Chrysler was again raising the bar to Holden and Ford by quietly slipping the 273ci V8 under the bonnet of a Valiant.
Styling for the VC was carried out locally and was very much ‘squared-up’ front and back compared with the AP6, especially at the back where it featured vertically placed semi-triangular tail lights with the indicator/reversing lights in the bumper. It was different from the far more modern (in appearance) Falcon and on a par with the similarly aged HR Holden.
Inside the Valiant was tricked up with nice individual front seats and a rear bench with folddown armrest all upholstered in a soft feeling expanded vinyl; between the front seats was a console that contained the excellent floor selector for the Torqueflite automatic gearbox, and naturally there were carpets on the floor and a heater/ demister was a standard fitting.
Chrysler’s 273 small block V8 developed 180bhp at 4200rpm with 260lbs-ft of torque at 1600rpm. It was the first of the LA family of V8s from Chrysler and they would be made in the millions like the Ford V8 family. Running the same 3.23 final drive as the Falcon, the Valiant would run to 103.8mph flat out, do the 0-60 and 70mph acceleration runs in 9.4 and 13.0 seconds, the 40-60 and 50-70mph passing acceleration runs in 4.4 and 5.3 seconds each with a fuel consumption figure on test of 18.9 mpg.
So, despite being down on power and weighing the same, the Valiant was clearly the performance leader of the three cars and carried on a tradition that had begun with the R Series in 1962.
The testers liked the Valiant’s more direct steering although they felt it was “rather vague”; they raved about the smoothness of the Torqueflite, the luggage space was better shaped and the interior felt much classier than the Falcon, which should have been the case anyway. They felt that the V8’s front disc/rear drum brakes required too much pedal pressure and that they were less resilient.
At the end of the test they liked the Valiant best and commented: “Both cars are exceptional in that they provide a degree of performance unheard of a couple of years ago in family sedans.”
The VC Val was the performance leader of the Big Three, raising the bar for family sedans of that era. Left: Two examples finished best of the rest (10th and 11th behind the Minis) in the 1966 Gallaher 500.
X2 badges on this beautiful HR signify something just a little bit special under the bonnet. Left: No HR X2 ever raced in the Bathurst 500, however a HD X2 ran with little success.
Ford’s new Falcon XR proved that size does matter – with longer wheelbase, more room inside and V8 motors available across the range.