Big Three in ’66

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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 HR

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.

Fal­con XR


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.

Valiant VC


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.

Ford’s new Fal­con XR proved that size does mat­ter – with longer wheel­base, more room in­side and V8 mo­tors avail­able across the range.

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.

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